The story of the Naked Emperor is one of the most powerful stories we have because it is about the nakedness of our fictions, it is a story about the stories we tell, stories so widely accepted that they make the most naked lies possible.
That is something Stephanie Eisner, a cartoonist at the Daily Texan, a student newspaper at the University of Texas discovered, when she drew a little cartoon which depicted the Trayvon Martin case as a simplistic story being told by a maternal tabloid media to a gullible child. Accuse the storytellers of telling stories and they fight back with a story aimed at you. The story was that Eisner was a racist or as one student protest sign said, "The Daily Texan, Racist Since 1900". And how do you argue with that?
Racism is a very powerful story. Short of accusing someone of being a pedophile or a religious fanatic, it is the worst possible story that can be told about them. And unlike pedophilia or religion there is no defense against it. There is no way to disprove such a charge and therefore no exoneration from it. The suspense was brief, the ending was as predictable as any a hack writer could have written. Apologies were made all around, heads bowed to the floor, Eisner was purged, officially because she had used the word "colored" in a cartoon, a word that happens to appear in the name of the largest black organization in America, unofficially because she had called the whole thing a story.
Another word for storyteller is liar, but it's an inadequate word. A liar lies about a thing. A storyteller creates an entire narrative, a world that the listeners inhabit. He adds details to it, creates villains and heroes and convinces us to live in that world for a brief time or forever.
The Trayvon Martin tale is another story in the Big Book of American Racism. There are many stories in that book, some linger for decades, others vanish after a few weeks, but all share a common idea. That idea is that we are not all one country, nor are we northerners, southerners and westerners, or farmers and city folk-- we are black and white. Some of us are black and oppressed and some of us are white and oppressors. This is the other thing that stories do-- they make us see ourselves in a new way.
The story of racism says that all our other stories don't matter, the ones about Bunker Hill or the Fourth of July, Omaha Beach or the Tet Offensive. The only story that matters is the story of the slave ship, the plantation, the lunch counter and the hoodie. It says that we are no more than the sum of our skin, that our destiny is to be black and white, the well meaning oppressor and the angry slave, and that any society we create will forever be hobbled by that legacy. It says that we are forever damned by racism.
It is not a very good story, but it has a power of its own. If you are a black man looking for ways to understand the world, it is a compelling story. If you are an angry hipster, hoodie clad, drinking and listening to things ironically, but still fuming over more injustices than you can name, this story reinforces your view of the world. It says that the world of your parents of the men in suits, of the builders and breakers of the world, cannot be redeemed. It is damned to fall and out of it will arise a glorious cooperative of locally grown food, universal health care and brotherhood for all.
The Racism story is not a very good story for most Americans. Unlike Manifest Destiny or even that old one about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, it does nothing for them. That is why it must be reinforced, told over and over again, until everyone is immersed in the tale from the moment they arrive at work to their sensitivity training session to the moment they get home and turn on the television to discover another report on racism.
The tale of Trayvon Martin is a catechism, it teaches the faithful to recite what they already know and urges the less devout to remember the tenets of this warped faith in the depravity of white men. Everyone knows the story. The details don't properly matter. Zimmerman's race, who hit who first, these are minor elements. What matters is that we remember the moral of the story. That we are bad.
The response to those who have challenged the story has been furious, because the story cannot be considered apart from its moral. To challenge the specifics of Trayvon Martin's lamb-like innocence or George Zimmerman's black, or white hispanic, racist heart, is an attack on the moral of the story. The storytelling moralists have responded to this heresy with all the subtlety and vengefulness of inquisitioners rooting out Daily Texan cartoonists and flashing new bulletins every hour that aim to prove some new element of the story.
In between commercial breaks for dog collars, allergy medication and cold cereal, experts are constantly appearing to analyze the 9-11 tape, Zimmerman's bruises or some other detail of the case, and pronounce that the Church of Racism is correct, that its priests have been accurate in every detail so that only sinners and fools would question its sovereign faith in Universal White Racism. But all the furious activity is accompanied by the barely suppressed anger and fear of con artists who worry that the sheep no longer believe a rocketship is coming to take them up to the post-racial comet.
They are right to be afraid because their story is not very good and it isn't well-liked. The only reason it has this much power is that a better one hasn't come along and all the old stories have been tucked away, stomped on and tossed in the trash. Each month the story must be renewed again, the racial passion play dipped in the blood of some designated victim, and then held up to the television cameras, as we cry, that his blood is on our hands.
That is what Obama meant when he said that we must search our souls, what he really meant was that he wanted to search our pockets. Once a mark has accepted his guilt, it is easier to pluck him. That is also the power of the story, it can make us focus on the story, rather than the reality around us. The story says that we are a racist country. The reality says that we are a bankrupt nation. Which are we to believe, our lying eyes or their bleeding hearts?
The story is constantly being told to insure that we never escape from its confines, that we never stop thinking outside the boundaries of the story, debating how racist we really are, rather than looking at the shambles that the storytellers have made of our economy. The threat of guilt and the promise of redemption at the heart of the story has lured us into a trap made of words and the story is retold to add more words, more bars, more weights and chains of letters to our hands and feet. The story has us trapped while the ruin continues around us.
They cannot give up on the story, because they know no other world but the one that they created with the story. It is an ugly world, but it is all they have, and in that hell they rule, rather than serve. Even if the tale of Trayvon Martin joins the legend of Tawana Brawley and the ballad of the Duke lacrosse team, there will be other stories. We are a large nation and the raw material of stories is out there. And they will be told as long as the words hold power over us.
This is the essence of the story. Its purpose, its beginning and ending, and its soul. It is their most powerful story, but not their only story. Each day they tell us more tales, the same stories with a few details changed. The foods that yesterday might have saved us, now doom us. A thousand dangers loom around us despite our every precaution. Everyone is bad, but the people reading us the stories. All the stories they tell us have one common element, they are meant to weaken us. They teach us to be afraid and to see no enduring truth or abiding point of safety except the storytellers.
The stories they tell shape our world. Some are more successful than others. But none of the stories can change reality. They cannot create jobs, restore wealth or make anything work. They are not magic stories. The stories are lies, their only power is the hold that they have over us. To fix the world, we have to step out of the story, leaving behind the narrative, disdaining its conceptual framework and its assumptions, and then confront the naked truth of the world before us. Only then will we be able to make a new story worth telling.