Special to the Star
Aug 19 2011
Stories capture more votes than policies, and the strongest metaphor wins the election.
Humans are story-tropic creatures, we like suspense and we’re drawn to tales of heroes, quests, and courage, even in politics.
The right understands this better than the left these days. We saw, south of the border, how the positive rallying cry of “yes we can!” lasted about two years before the “tea party” — a perennially evocative trope in American politics — kicked its metaphoric butt. President Obama, a master storyteller before his election, lost his narrative mojo as the Republicans found a vocabulary that, true or not, was more emotionally vivid. George Lakoff, author of Moral Politics, rather wistfully pointed out in a blog last winter, it would be good to “loosen the conservative grip on public discourse.”
The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, a great believer in the power of stories, wrote that, “Storytellers threaten all the champions of control.” Stories enrich our expressive vocabulary, and give us new ways to imagine and talk about social and political change.
Aesop knew this well. In one of his more subversive fables, Lion, Fox, and Donkey go hunting. Lion asks Donkey to divide the meat, and Donkey divides it into three equal parts. Then Lion kills him, tosses the carcass on the pile, and asks Fox to try. Fox pushes everything over to Lion except for one dead crow. “How did you learn to divide things so equally?” Lion asks. “I studied with the dead donkey,” replies the fox. A useful, if chilling, story to remember in the age of Enron, Lehman Brothers, and the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us.
Stories, of course, can work their persuasive magic for all sides of a debate, and we saw this phenomenon at work last fall in two municipal elections in Canada.
Progressive Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi told his election-winning story through a multimedia series of twelve Better Ideas, where he described Calgary as a great city that can and will be even greater: Calgary will be a city where its citizens are enriched by outstanding libraries, recreation amenities, and a vibrant cultural scene; Calgary will be a city where every neighbourhood is a safe neighbourhood; Calgary will be a city that reduces the number of people living in poverty and ensures opportunity for all. Nenshi’s telling of what Calgary will be was an effective way to make his listeners not only want to know what happens next, but assure them they have the power to make this visionary story come true.
While Nenshi was telling his stirring narrative in Calgary, we were hearing a very different kind of story here in Toronto, from a very different — though equally compelling — yarnspinner.
I’m a professional storyteller, and when Rob Ford ran for mayor last fall I felt a secret, collegial pride that he used the art of storytelling to beat his narratively-challenged opponents. Although I didn’t like his story much, I had to agree that Ford told the strongest tale, and was duly rewarded by winning the election.
There are, of course, differences between Ford’s storytelling practice and mine. When I tell folk tales, I don’t have to persuade my listeners to do anything but enjoy and remember the stories. My stories don’t have to ridicule opposing opinions, or convince my audience that I know how to eradicate their deficits, or win me power over anything except boredom.
One day I was telling once-upon-a-time stories to a group of Grade 2 kids. When I said the show was almost over, one little boy piped up: “Never finish!” I took it as a compliment because boring stories, like, for example, your neighbours’ home videos, make us want to shout: “Finish now!” With good stories, you enjoy the suspense as you wait to hear what happens next.
After that same show, another child asked me, with a 7-year-old’s unabashable honesty: “Sir, are all storytellers professional liars, or just some of them?” I don’t remember what I told him, but what I wish I’d said was: storytellers use fiction to tell the truth, and the more stories you know, the more ways you have to tell the truth. And the more truth you know, the more courage you have to make a difference in the world.
I wish I’d also warned my little boy about storytellers you shouldn’t trust, the ones who use fiction not to lead you towards the truth, but away from it. As the Jewish saying goes, “He’s such a liar that not only what he says isn’t true, even the opposite of what he says isn’t true.” Which brings me to His Worship Mayor Rob Ford.
Whether or not you agreed with his political views last fall, it’s true that Ford told us a classic and compelling story; we’ve watched versions of it in countless westerns, and it works every time. An outsider rides into town to bring justice to its oppressed citizens. In his version, Ford (and what a great name for a maverick lawman!) comes riding in from the suburbs in a badly-fitting suit (storytelling rule: the more awkward the outsider looks, the better for the narrative) to free the town from the unjust rule of a powerful clique.
In Ford’s story, our municipal leaders were, through malice and/or sheer incompetence, frivolously wasting our hard-earned taxes. City Council presided over a veritable Niagara Falls of misspent money, or worse: a backroomers’ paradise where insiders got rewarded with juicy, taxpayer-funded benefits. (During the election, for example, he suggested that a certain restaurant by the lake secured a city lease through political contacts, a potentially libelous allegation currently before the courts.) However questionable the details, Ford told his story convincingly and well. It had a plausible outsider hero, a quest, a dash of suspense, and, most importantly, a memorable punchline. Near the end of the campaign, he didn’t even have to tell the whole thing. With two code words — “gravy train” — he could conjure the whole, irresistible story, and it made him the most powerful mayor in Canada. Stories truly do win elections.
But as a Caribbean friend of mine likes to say, “The leaky roof can fool the sun but it can’t fool the rain.” Our mayor’s original tale, about being a renegade hero come to rescue us from self-serving and inept politicians, has sprung many leaks. It has morphed into a narrative we didn’t vote for. The inscription on Eldon Garnet’s sculpture on the Queen St. bridge states: this river I step in is not the river I stand in. In our mayor’s case, the story we stepped in is definitely not the story we’re standing in nine months later. We storytellers may be “professional liars,” as my Grade 2 friend said, but we do have our principles, and one of them is that you can’t switch stories midstream.
There were early signs of narrative trouble in his mayoral reign. One of his first acts in office was cancelling the Vehicle Registration Tax, then complaining that the city didn’t have enough revenue to cover its costs. The Irish call this “putting on the poor mouth,” i.e., pretending to be poorer than you really are. Then the mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, began talking about how anything that “wasn’t nailed down” would be sold off, privatized, or just plain axed in the name of running a cheaper ship of state. Nailed down? That was a new metaphor indeed, and it became the recurrent motif of Ford’s new story, where elements of a hard-earned and long-established common good — libraries, parks, arts programs, police, firefighters, support for our youth — weren’t “nailed down” sufficiently to be safe from the impending cuts.
Writing about how conservatives in the USA have hijacked the vocabulary that describes a government’s duty of care for its citizens, George Lakoff writes, “Services … start where necessities end. … It is time to stop speaking of government ‘services’ and speak instead of government providing necessities.” (Untellable Truths, Dec. 10, 2010) And how the mayor’s recent decision not to accept provincially-funded public health nurses fits into any kind of meaningful, city-building story is anybody’s guess.
By the time KPMG’s due diligence found no evidence of a “gravy train” at City Hall, Ford had already, with the help of his brother and friends on Council, begun telling us his new story about Toronto becoming the Incredible Shrinking City, where the government will provide fewer and fewer services — or necessities — to its citizens. First we listened to a story about “cutting the waste,” then we found out that we are the waste. Things that many generations of Torontonians had agreed were important and valuable parts of civic life were now being spoken of as disposable assets.
When did our big-hearted maverick hero start shooting up the place, not saving it?
Mayor Ford’s first story has stuttered to a stop, and his new Toronto story is still missing something: the moment of collective revelation, when we learn something new and wonderful about what it means to live here at the crossroads of the world. His current tale about dismantling what isn’t “nailed down” is hardly a story at all, for all we’re waiting to hear about is what we’re going to lose next, and where’s the suspense in that?
I once heard a 10-year-old storyteller at Wilkinson Public School begin her family history by saying, “This is a true and a strong story.”
With due respect, storyteller to storyteller, I’d like to suggest to Ford that he try telling us a true and a strong story about what our city can be, not what it can’t.
Dan Yashinsky received, in 1999, the first Jane Jacobs Prize for his work with storytelling in the community. He founded the Toronto Festival of Storytelling and co-founded the Storytellers School of Toronto