Competing Narratives

The narrative of Mars is that it may have held life in the past, and maybe it still does even now. There is no conclusive evidence to support this theory, but there are numerous hints that have been building up as we have explored the planet more thoroughly which suggest that this very well could be so. The first NASA probe landed in the sixties, revealing not an alien world of canals and envious civilisations, but a barren, desolate world. Just an empty rock. And that was mightily disappointing. But further investigation indicated that the planet was once rich in oceans and water, and even today there is evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars at certain times of the year. A Martian meteorite discovered in 1995 appeared to contain the fossilised remains of cellular life; but the sample could have been contaminated on earth (but it could not have been). Organic compounds and molecules have been discovered in the soil by the various NASA rovers. And even methane – a bi-product of organic processes – has been detected in the atmosphere from time to time. All this evidence, without being conclusive, points to there being, or once being, life on Mars. And crucially, at every step of the scientific investigation, at every possible juncture when one discovery could rule out the prospect of life having existed on Mars in one fell swoop, it never happens. Sure life may exist on Mars, but conversely, if life didn’t exist on Mars, we probably would have found the discounting piece of evidence by now – the evidence stacks up in both directions. Perhaps. But the case of Mars only has one narrative. There are many issues around the world today which have multiple competing narratives purporting to explain what is happening. One narrative that is hard to give credence to because it would seem preposterous even in a Tom Clancy novel is that the American president is somehow clandestinely beholden or under the sway of the Russian president.

A narrative generally starts with some concrete facts, but then entails some suppositions to explain those facts, while ignoring other facts. A good examples is the genesis of ISIS. A basis fact is that it mutated from Al Qaeda in the chaos of Syria, and capitalised on the chaos of Iraq to expand. The chaos of Iraq was directly attributable to the Bush administration’s decision to invade. So one narrative is that the U.S. inadvertently created ISIS, another narrative is that it did it intentionally; to use as a tool to topple Bashar Al-Assad and stymie growing Iranian influence in the region. The Russians claim that they are in Syria to fight ISIS and defeat terrorism. The counter narrative is that they use terrorism as an all-encompassing catch word to provide cover to any aggressive or expansionist foreign policy goal, and in reality they are just seeking to prop up their ally and thus maintain and further their influence and footprint in the Middle East. Turkey has been buying oil from ISIS and allowing jihadis to cross the border and strengthen ISIS as a tool against Syrian Kurds? Naturally Turkey’s narrative is that it is combating ISIS as a destabilising and barbaric threat to the Middle East. The Gulf countries are funding ISIS while being part of the coalition against ISIS?

It’s all a big mess really; so many competing narratives. There are similar competing narratives over Ukraine; was Euromaidan a rebellion of the people against a corrupt president in the Kremlin’s pocket operating against the interests of his own country? Or a coup d’etat orchestrated by nefarious Western agencies to pluck Ukraine into the Western orbit? Was George Soros paying the protesters to sit in the square for days on end? Were the protesters fascist sympathisers?

When trying to make sense of it all, you probably can’t believe all the competing narratives. They are generally contradictory. Is there a middle ground between narratives? Does that even provide a logically satisfactory understanding of events? Perhaps one option is to hold all the competing narratives in your mind at once, and assign them probabilities; each one occupying a sort of quantum superposition, and then waiting for the facts of events to rule components of each narrative in or out. In 2002 there were a few competing narratives over the threat Saddam Hussein posed; and most heavenly for all, the facts bore out one narrative over the rest (ie. no WMDS).

And so to the charge that Donald Trump is somehow a stooge of Vladimir Putin. That the U.S. president, the most powerful man on the planet, is in thrall to the Kremlin, and is bending U.S. policy to serve the specific interests of Russia. Absolutely incredible, in the literal sense of the word. But then the Donald Trump presidency is fairly incredible. A narcissistic television personality is now the U.S. president? What? And he has broken from decades of U.S. establishment orthodoxy in praising the Russian president – a man almost antithetical to American values and interests – and minimising and avoiding friction with Russia at all costs, whilst berating and antagonising a variety of U.S. allies and partners (and competitors). It is even the case that Trump has expressed views that almost exactly mirror Russian revanchist foreign policy goals: undermining the two institutions that have maintained liberal peace and stability for the last seventy years, in the shape of NATO and the European Union. The two bastions of democracy and rule of law that assure stability and prosperity for the western world, and check the ambitions to expand the influence of a corrupt and autocratic Russia. Should these two institutions fail, suddenly Russia’s power and influence would grow vis-a-vis the former member states.

This narrative asserts that Trump has business interests in Russia, that he personally owes money to Russia, that the FSB has compromising material over him, and that the Kremlin uses this leverage to lever in their very own trojan horse to the heart of the American establishment. And, like Mars refusing to disprove the hypothesis that life exists there, at every opportunity that Trump has had to disprove this narrative, he has not. Why doesn’t he release his tax returns? He’s consistently supported and defended Russia whilst having no compunction in excoriating friends and allies alike. Not one negative word to say about a country that – according to the narrative of his own American establishment – invades its neighbours and bombs schools and hospitals. As farcical as it sounds, the narrative that Trump is a Putin stooge could possibly be true, looking at the facts and making a number of suppositions.

And then there is the counter narrative, deliciously served up on the platter of ‘alternative facts’. Trump isn’t a Putin stooge; he’s an anti-establishment rebel with his own ideas, independent of the Washington swamp, and he rejects the established notions of international institutions, global alliances and foreign commitments. International relations is just another sphere of business, and Trump is a businessman. Foreign countries are competitors and they must compete fairly and pay for any service that the U.S. provides (ie. defence). The fate of countries like Ukraine and Syria is not a business consideration for Trump. Russian interests do not infringe too much on U.S. interests because the two countries have few economic links. What is a threat to the U.S. is ‘Islamic terrorists’ killing Americans, and Chinese mercantilism stealing American jobs. America first. Everyone else a distant whatever number. And to be fair to Trump, he has made these views quite clear. This narrative also explains his stance on NATO and the European Union, and it’s just coincidence that it is music to Putin’s ears. The strings attached to his fingers are not that long. It’s worth noting that while Trump has expounded these opinions, his administration officials have assured allies like Britain and Japan that their military commitment is still one hundred percent.

Perhaps there is no objective truth. Each narrative is presented by a self-interested power; each narrative serves the interests of that power. To really stand any chance of getting to the truth, you would need to start with some axiomatic principles and go from there. But even there people will disagree – are freedom and equality axiomatic principles? Or just Western principles? Perhaps stability and security are axiomatic principles above freedom and equality. And perhaps the entire debate, from top to bottom, is deliberately muddied and confused and corrupted by venal, corrupt powers whose baseline axiom is preserving their own power, wealth and status indefinitely.

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