'Sheherazade at the white house'

Le Monde Diplomatique is a great read every month. But it is available only through subscription. Here is an excerpt from one of January's 2008 issue articles:

The image becomes the story

For Bush's speech on the first anniversary of 9/11, in which he prepared US public opinion for the Iraq invasion by glorifying the "great struggle that tests our strength and even more our resolve", Sforza rented three barges to take
the team to the foot of the Statue of Liberty, which he had lit from below. He chose the camera angles so that the statue appeared in the background during the speech. Frank Rich, commenting on this, quoted Michael Deaver, who stage-managed Ronald Reagan's declaration of candidacy speech in 1980 with
the Statue of Liberty in the background. According to Deaver, people understood that what was around the speaker's head was
as important as the head itself (5).

What is around the head turns an image into a legend: "Mission accomplished", the Founding Fathers, the Statue of Liberty - over time the image becomes the story. But the event must resonate with the viewer, must make two moments interact: what is represented in the image and the actual moment it is seen. This resonance produces the desired emotion. For Americans in 2002 nothing could have had a greater emotional impact than a speech on war on the first anniversary of 9/11. The country had just come back from summer holidays and was ready to concentrate on important matters.

According to Ira Chernus, professor at the University of Colorado, Karl Rove applied the "Scheherazade strategy": "When policy dooms you, start telling stories - stories so fabulous, so gripping, so spellbinding that the king (or, in this case, the American citizen who theoretically rules our country) forgets all about a lethal policy. It plays on the insecurity of Americans who feel that their lives are out of
control" (6). Rove did this with much success in 2004 when Bush was re-elected, diverting voters' attention away from the state of the war by evoking the great collective myths of the US imagination.

As Chernus explains, Rove was "betting that the voters will be mesmerised by John Wayne-style tales of real men fighting evil on the frontier - at least enough Americans to avoid the death sentence that the voters might otherwise pronounce on the party that brought us the disaster in Iraq." Chernus believed that Rove invented simplistic good-against-evil stories for his candidates to tell and tried to turn every election into a moral drama, a contest of Republican moral clarity versus Democratic moral confusion. "The Scheherazade strategy is a great scam, built on the illusion that moralistic tales can make us feel secure, no matter what's
actually going on out there in the world. Rove wants every vote for a Republican to be a symbolic statement" (7). This August Rove was forced to resign by Democrat members of Congress. He announced his decision with an admission which could have applied to all his work: "I feel like I'm Moby Dick... they're after me."

Christian Salmon wrote Storytelling, la machine à fabriquer
des histoires, La Découverte, Paris, 2007

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