Speech and Consequences

Today’s is a tale of four stories.

The first is s story about Muslims: in this story, followers of Islam are violent, hate-filled zealots. The central figure of their faith is a charlatan and a womanizer; the modern expression of their belief, misogyny and bloodshed. This is the story told by a handful of American fringe clerics, anti-Muslim activists, and reactionaries. By telling this story, they hoped to get a reaction out of the Muslim world. Terrorists in their own right, they got what they wanted.

The competing story in this binary is the story told by a similar fringe of Muslim teachers and faction leaders, one which places a seething hatred of Islam at the center of American political life. In this story, the major American news outlets conspire to broadcast any piece of anti-Islam media that they can get their hands on, including a badly-dubbed amateur film portraying the Prophet as a pervert and con man. The story here configures all American politicians into a constellation of anti-Muslim violence, derision, and cruelty. By telling this story, they hoped to make common Muslims throughout the Islamic world feel like Western patsies, with an intent to inflame in these everyday people a desire to take back their lives and their destinies. They also got what they wanted.

Fast forward a few days: Mother Jones posts a video of Romney washing his hands of half of the American electorate, reasoning that if they won’t take responsibility for themselves, then he can’t take responsibility for them either. Today he is standing by those remarks, implying that already half of the United States is lost to a mind-decaying spiral of government dependency and leftist indoctrination. It’s an apocalyptic vision – it’s the story that Romney is telling America about itself.

But his remarks fall into the fourth story in today’s parable: President Obama’s story about Romney, in which the presidential contender is an out-of-touch elite who doesn’t even realize that most of the people who don’t pay income taxes are white, retired Republicans. Obama’s story describes Romney as a shameless, shifting creature of politics, someone who will rip out the tax code of the United States in order to replace it with something better benefitting those at the top of that code. Obama’s story, so far, is not about America, but about his opponent.

Stories have consequences. A handful of people – no one of consequence, really – told competing stories about the role of the West and Islam, mutually suspicious stories mocking the values that one another hold dear. Those stories, in their conflict, have claimed the lives of multiple people so far, including the United States’ ambassador to Libya. Halfway across the world, we listen to speeches and video clips hoping to divine the story that America believes about itself – are we our own fifth column, the enemy within, or are we something else, something as yet more nebulous and unformed?

That’s a story that, no doubt, will change in the telling.

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