Tell Us No Stories, Tell Us No Lies

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They've done it again, the Americans, with their unique combination of politics and pop culture. I mean, two weeks ago, had you heard of Jim Jeffords, Vermont senator? Now, after Jeffords Week in the media, do you know anyone who hasn't? His snub by the President, his courtship by the Democrats, the would-or-wouldn't-he period. We're not talking about a Kennedy here. They can do it with Jim Jeffords! They can do it with anybody, just rev up the machine. This is the sole genius of U.S. politics: the ability to generate drama at high speed from a standing start.

They grip everybody with this stuff, including Canadians, though not all our media reach the National Post level of sounding as if they actually are a U.S. paper. "Renegade imperils Bush agenda," quailed a headline, with no sense it wasn't our peril, too. Their acerbic columnist, Mark Steyn, always misplaces his detachment when the core values of the Republic are imperilled. "God help America," he prayed.

Yet what was at stake politically? Get this: the chairmanships of committees in the U.S. Senate. That's it. Who recognizes who on a point of order. That's why I call it genius. You could formulate a general rule from this: The high drama of a political event is in inverse proportion to its real importance.

I want to publicly confess that, Before Jeffords, I actually thought the leadership woes of the Canadian Alliance were high political drama. Now, by comparison, I see them for what they are: parliamentary bedroom farce. They are repetitive, overlong and lack plot development. They should be edited. Perhaps they suffer as well in light of the general rule: Drama is inverse to real issues. We have in Canada, for instance, a precious health-care system that's at risk; there's no such jeopardy in the U.S.

I should also confess an antipathy to storytelling that I've whinged on about before. As in "telling our stories" (culture minister Sheila Copps) or CBC's fufilment of her vision quest in its history series, or the common notion that journalism is really just telling stories. Someone who attended the Hot Docs festival in Toronto last month said almost all the documentaries were private tales of "Me and My Disease/Disability etc."; what they had in common was, nobody in them was likely to sue the filmmaker, which you can't say for films on drug companies, police forces or public officials. But I don't even like storytellers at street festivals. Most of all, I don't like them in political journalism.

So what's the alternative, as the most annoying candidates say on the porch? Well, take a reference to the current U.K. election in the London Review of Books. In a review of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, about global food enterprises, James Meek notes "the true ideological split cutting through Labour, Conservatives and the [other parties]: whether to be dictated to by corporate gigantism, or to challenge it." That isn't a story waiting to be told. It is, if you think literally, not a story at all but a graph: the parties laid out on one axis with the forces for and against corporate power on the other. I know, I know, it's a graph that tells a story, but that's different. Or take the fact that, with George W. Bush's recent tax cut, the richest one per cent of U.S. taxpayers, with incomes over $375,000, get a third of the benefits, while the bottom 60 per cent get only 15 per cent. That's not a story, either, it's a stat. You could make it into a story ("Mary Berry is a hairdresser in Houston . . .") but there's no need to.

In fact, it's the absence of stats, charts, numbers, facts and other elements of social and political reality that often vitiates the American genius for storytelling -- so that what starts as drama ends as melodrama, rather than epic or tragedy. Take Big Apple, a CBS show that ran briefly this spring, with Ed O'Neill, the boob from Married . . . With Children, cast as a slobby, rough and (rarest trait on TV) obnoxious New York cop. In the first episode, he feels so dicked around by the FBI and so unable to articulate that he slugs an FBI agent. I've never seen it before, but it rang true to the bizarre, corrupt mood we've learned exists in many urban police forces. Yet by episode three, he sits sobbing beside his terminally ill sister in the Hayden Planetarium who's been transported there by Ed's pals in Parking Control. Begins as drama, ends as melodrama. Even Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, who started on an O'Neill level, descended quickly toward bathos, salvaged only by Dennis Franz's acting.

Or take Oscar-winning Traffic, about the Mexico-U.S. drug trade. What crap and evasion. The violent druggies are all Hispanic, the Americans are naive truth-seekers, and there's no hint about crucial and well-documented U.S. support to set up the crack trade in American cities in the 1980s in order to fund the Nicaraguan contras. Yet the film is rife with "realistic" storytelling: documentary-like shooting, subtitles, even members of Congress saying lines -- though not Jim Jeffords. But that was when he was still nobody.

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