Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part III: What Is the (Narrative) Matrix?

Turn on any news channel, listen to the radio, or browse any mainstream news website, and you will encounter stories.  Attend school or college, and you will encounter a worldview:  a narrative of history and an interpretation of the present moment.  Most of these stories are based on truth.  Most of the opinions are coherent and well thought out.  Most of the people are well-meaning.  And at the same time, nearly all of these stories will support Power.  This is true not because the people telling the stories are evil or part of some giant conspiracy, but simply because they almost universally are beneficiaries of Power, and those who benefit from Power will not question Power. 

The narrative matrix is a collection of stories and worldviews that have been carefully sanitized of any effective opposition to Power.  It is based in reality, but twisted and incomplete.  And the more that the effects of Power become obvious in our everyday lives, the more stories which must be carefully avoided, the more the narrative matrix must distort truth and generate distraction to avoid confronting Power. 

When there is a conflict – and there seem to be many these days – the narrative matrix ensures that neither opposing viewpoint is a threat to Power.  If the debate is about healthcare, the two acceptable positions are that we should either continue the status quo of unaffordable and ever-increasing insurance premiums, or we should transfer the bill to the government as Medicare for All.  The question of exactly why we spend more than twice as much as other similar nations for comparable care is not allowed to be asked or addressed.  To address that would be to confront Power, to say that some humans are shamelessly extracting wealth in exchange for providing an essential public good.

Inside the narrative matrix it is only criminal and newsworthy when a company raises the price of a lifesaving medication by a factor of 50.

Outside the narrative matrix it is criminal and newsworthy whenever any institution or corporation with a mission of providing care and saving lives prioritizes profit over providing care and saving lives.  Outside the narrative matrix it should not be possible to amass a fortune by providing essential care or medicine.

Inside the narrative matrix we embrace identity politics, in pursuit of a more equal society, or else we rebel against them in pursuit of “traditional values.”  We focus on persistent bias that remains from the time when Power utilized race and gender as important distinctions, and on the identity-based inequalities that are still with us.  We note with chagrin that for every dollar a woman makes on average, a man makes $1.23.  For every dollar a Black person takes home, a white person takes home $1.43.  We seek to stomp out remaining racist attitudes and to provide preferential opportunities to marginalized populations to reduce these inequalities, and we note with some pride that we have been making progress in terms of reducing inequalities along these lines over time.

Outside the narrative matrix this is still important, but it too often serves as a distraction from the inequalities that are rapidly expanding in our current moment.  For every dollar a grocery store cashier makes, an accountant makes $3, a doctor makes $8, a typical CEO makes $32, and Jeff Bezos sees his wealth increase by 2.5 million dollars.  So long as we need cashiers, shelf stockers, meat packers, apple pickers, and janitors for a functioning society, the people performing these roles deserve to be paid enough to survive and thrive.

Inside the narrative matrix any attempt to address this excessive and ever-growing income inequality is met with howls of SOCIALISM!

Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that in 1950, working class jobs paid a living wage and a factory worker could easily afford to buy a home and see a doctor, and the US was most definitely not a socialist county in 1950.  We could take steps to return to that more reasonable level of wealth inequality while preserving a market economy.

Inside the narrative matrix we are told that racism is our nation’s original sin, that we must all acknowledge our biases, and that by stomping out racism and other forms of oppression we will achieve a better world for all.

Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that a world in which billionaires are proportionally Black, Latino, and LGBTQ while half of Americans – with all identities proportionally represented – still barely scrape by is not the victory we are seeking.  It is equally apparent that preferentially offering winning lottery tickets (e.g. scholarships, college admissions, hiring decisions) to impoverished people of marginalized identities is a great way to stoke anger among impoverished people who do not have marginalized identities, and that fueling this anger is a great way to prevent confrontation with Power.

Inside the narrative matrix the best way to help marginalized people is to fight discrimination.

Outside the narrative matrix the best way to help marginalized people is to eliminate poverty.  That’s not to say fighting discrimination isn’t important, but it is small solace to hear fewer racial slurs if you still can’t afford rent.

Inside the narrative matrix it is very important to believe that race and other identities are the primary basis of human oppression.  To suggest otherwise is to fail to “center” marginalized identities.

Outside the narrative matrix it is becoming clear that Power no longer depends on racism or other identity-based oppressions.  Neoliberal economics alone now ensures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and those who have Power would much rather throw down some ladders for a select few marginalized people to climb than face the collapse of their towers.

Inside the narrative matrix neoliberal economics is carefully defined as natural law, like gravity or magnetism.  A free market determines prices and wages, and those prices and wages are by definition fair and good, and any attempt to manipulate those prices and wages is TERRIBLE SOCIALISM.

Outside the narrative matrix it is eminently clear that neoliberal economics is entirely a product of human decisions and that the humans making those decisions are the ones with Power.  It is equally clear that making different decisions could greatly improve quality of life for a majority of people.  And making different decisions does not require embracing socialism or communism with their associated failings.  This “slippery slope” argument is a complete logical fallacy.

Inside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a plague of unprecedented severity which must dominate the news cycle, disrupt society, and inflame preexisting fault lines to the greatest possible degree for an indefinite and ever-extending period of time.

Outside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a pandemic with an expected severity recurrence interval of 50-ish years that has the potential to kill one to perhaps three out of every thousand people.  A healthy society would choose to either suppress it effectively if possible (a la New Zealand) or else allow it to spread with protections for the most vulnerable (a la Sweden).  The US response has combined the worst of societal disruptions with very little effective control of disease spread, thereby generating a double-whammy that generates continual fear and suffering and distracts people from confronting Power.  It’s worth noting that a much worse pandemic in 1918 was officially ignored (never mentioned by then-President Wilson) at a time when the Power narrative was focused on proving the US as a world power in WWI and the virus was an unwelcome distraction.

Inside the narrative matrix we debate how to handle illegal immigration.  One side prefers compassion and amnesty while the other fears job competition and cultural change.

Outside the narrative matrix it seems strange that these human beings only become worthy of our attention or compassion when they succeed against harrowing odds in crossing our border.  It becomes equally clear that US foreign policy and imperialism are in many ways responsible for grinding poverty and political instability across the global south, and that perhaps the best solution is to confront that Power and invest our resources in helping these nations to thrive, so that their citizens do not arrive penniless at our borders begging for menial work.

Inside the narrative matrix we support drone strikes and geostrategic pre-emptive wars in the name of “national security” and the “war on terror,” and we praise the politicians and pundits who promote them.

Outside the narrative matrix the reality of these wars entails around 30,000 bombs dropped every year, leading to thousands upon thousands of civilian deaths and lifelong injuries, and thousands of newly-aggrieved families lending support and donations to terrorist organizations.

Inside the narrative matrix Yemen is never mentioned and might as well be on another planet.

Outside the narrative matrix Yemen is probably the single worst humanitarian disaster on Earth at the moment, with 24 million people facing starvation or a lack of basic needs, and the US has the power to end it by confronting our “ally” Saudi Arabia.  But we don’t because allying with Saudi Arabia serves Power.

Inside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard is a discredited and forgotten also-ran who is friendly with brutal dictators, has made homophobic remarks, embraces a  strange cult-like religion, and might even have been groomed by Russian agents to run as a third party spoiler.

Outside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard was a rising star in the Democratic Party until she dared to confront Power, returning from her military tours with a dubious assessment of our eternal “regime change wars” and promising “a government of, for, and by the people, not a government of, for, and by the rich and powerful.”   Rather than giving airtime to her views on government and foreign policy, the narrative matrix published a series of distortions and hit pieces and effectively silenced her.  This is how Power eliminates dissent, and no one is immune to these sorts of half-truth, out-of-context, discrediting attacks that sidestep the important issues to render the messenger persona non grata.

Inside the narrative matrix we are in the midst of a fight for the soul of our nation between “liberal” Democrats and “conservative” Republicans.  We are divided so bitterly along these ideological lines that we can no longer feel empathy for the other side, and we dread sullen Thanksgiving dinners with not-quite-disowned family.

Outside the narrative matrix it is apparent that both Democrats and Republicans serve Power and that the policies offered by both sides have been carefully scrubbed of any real threat to Power.  At the same time, it is oppression by Power –corporatizing, offshoring, union-busting, labor devaluing, money-grabbing, rent raising, debt creating Power– that is directly generating the suffering and anger which must be funneled into the culture wars – wars that can have no victor because the blame is misplaced and the suffering will continue no matter which party wins.

Inside the narrative matrix we just had a Very Important Election, and depending on your perspective we either rejected racism and fascism while evicting a narcissistic bully or else sold out Main Street and rural America to government bureaucracy and morally bankrupt urban values. 

Outside the narrative matrix we just had an election between two Agent Smiths.  One represented comfort, status quo, stability, pretense that everything will be OK if we just make a few minor tweaks.  The other was a talented narrative manipulator who reached out to those harmed by Power and offered them not actual empowerment but association with an image of wealth and a myth of national greatness; who offered his supporters a collection of scapegoats, of disempowered people somehow responsible for their misery.  The latter might be more dangerous to the fabric of society, but neither will confront Power and both will bluster about improving quality of life while supporting policies that actively decrease quality of life for a majority of people.

Inside the narrative matrix we fear the Other Party, COVID-19, and those few rogue nations which have not capitulated to the US-centered world order:  Russia, China, Iran, North Korea.

Outside the narrative matrix those concerns appear small alongside the specters of nuclear war, resource limits, climate change, mass extinction, US-sponsored military violence, ignored humanitarian crises, and the ongoing immoral extraction of wealth from the vast majority of humanity in service of Power.

This is the narrative matrix.  The reality we are offered.  The lenses we are given to interpret that reality.  The stories we are told and not told.  The statistics that are gathered and not gathered, cited and not cited.  The ways in which we are sold a world where most of us see the fruits of our labor accrue to others, to Power, and yet remain indifferent.  The changes we believe are possible and the changes we do not even consider.  The ideas we are taught about what it means to succeed, to be a good person. 

The narrative matrix serves Power.  It does not serve us.  It does not serve humanity.  It most certainly does not serve the biosphere or planet Earth. 

It is time to step out of these stories.

It is time to escape from the narrative matrix.

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