Sports, Politics, and the Power of Narrative

By John Aloysius Farrell

Tom Boswell is always tucking gems like this into his sports columns. It’s a reason to always read to the end. He’s been around a while, and added wisdom to his arsenal of talents as he gets old.

In this case he is talking about a hockey team. But this is fine advice for writers, voters, scholars, journalists—or anyone who runs into an haranguing polemicist on the radio, or at your neighborhood cookout, or friendly tavern.

“Humans are a species that can’t resist narrative. We’re fascinated by the `story’ of anything. And, given a decent amount of data, we’ll darn well impose that narrative on the facts, if it actually exists or not. Once in place, that narrative builds on itself, attracting all reinforcing evidence like barnacles. Anything that contradicts the larger, longer story barely seems to have happened…

“Few things are harder to accomplish than changing a long entrenched narrative especially if it is one of failure, whether in an individual or, in sport, in a team.”

(And then, one day, Dave Roberts steals second base.)

(Or, Caps fans hope, Evgeny Kuznetsov glides from one side of the rink to the other, and beats Jaroslav Halak.)

As Boswell puts it: “Someday, the contagion of victory, so long delayed, will start again.”

He’s a sentimentalist, of course, writing his own pretty narrative that makes us feel good as we start the day. Sports works on a faster clock than life or politics. Kids like Kuznetsov are always arriving, not shackled, having never heard the narrative.

Politics is different. Writing about Richard Nixon (the Cold War, Vietnam, race, Watergate) I have found that the polarizing narratives of left and right in this country are sunk in especially deep concrete. Some of it poured 65 years ago.

It will take a new generation, tired of our cliches, to change those particular narratives.
Having published biographies of Tip O’Neill and Clarence Darrow, Farrell is in the final stages of writing a single-volume biography of Richard Nixon for Doubleday, to be published next year. It has its own facebook page called Richard Nixon: An American Tragedy.

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