Challenging the toxic myths behind our age of discontent

We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent
By Nesrine Malik
Orion, 2019
288 pages

As a writer and editor on race, gender and state violence, I am no stranger to infestations of right-wing trolls in my social media mentions. Consequently, it was not without a little hesitation that I approached a new book exploring, among other issues, "political correctness", "free speech" and "identity politics".

In 2019, these are phrases I typically associate with the screaming headlines of tabloid rags, or the frothing chops of bigoted soundbite-chasers like Piers Morgan, who spews barely-chewed garbage on breakfast TV. Nobody who is actually invested in social justice or liberation really deals in these currencies, but this is the exact contradiction that Nesrine Malik’s brilliant new book lays bare.

The author provides readers who are grappling with these topics with clear and effective rebuttals to be leveled against the use of ‘free speech’ arguments as a plinth for oppression. Malik’s text would be obligatory reading on a fantasy critical literacy curriculum — equipping people of all ages with the tools to discern red herrings, attempts to paper over the gory details of history and finger-pointing at marginalised groups as a distraction from structural and economic inequality.

Unpicking myths

We Need New Stories carefully, thoroughly and systematically unpicks the myths that are propagated, to the detriment of progress, in order to preserve the status quo. It becomes clear that all great myths are comprised of two key fairytale components: clear heroes and villains, and big, bold ‘state of the nation’ themes such as courage, truth, freedom, and the (largely imagined) threat of invasion.

Malik’s book, which identifies journalists and politicians as the key narrative-weavers, shows how stories that deal in these chunky, universally understood ideas are much more enticing for consumers. These stories are also much easier yarns for politicians to deploy to explain the dire socio-economic conditions that, in fact, their own governments and political allies (present, and historical) are responsible for creating.

Malik’s book largely pulls examples of myth-making from the recent political histories of Britain and the US, citing the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as classic examples of the seductive nature of the ‘left behind’ analysis.

Of course, as Malik reveals, this narrative — that votes against membership of the EU and for a fascistic president were ‘protest votes’ of the voiceless — is simply a smokescreen for the more deeply‐rooted issues of racism, misogyny and xenophobia, the seeds of which were sown centuries ago through transatlantic slavery and colonialism.

Malik’s lines of argument are clear and well-evidenced. She deftly demonstrates that the mythology around Trump as a "truth-teller" was seductive in reframing his racist outpourings (in the eyes of those who voted for him – including 53% of white women voters, lest we forget) as "courageous".

Trump presented himself, as Malik evidences, as someone willing to ‘stick their neck out’ and articulate the anxieties of the self-styled dispossessed. In reality, churning out racist, anti-immigrant headline‐fodder is not remotely a deviation from social norms. Rather, it is business as usual for a country founded on genocide.

Imperial blood-lust

There is little to criticise in the robustness of Malik’s research, but considering how much of her analyses focus on the racism of North America, it is surprising that reference is not made to the original targets of imperial blood-lust in the ‘land of the free’.

A centuries-long campaign of persecution, suppression, forced removal, cultural erasure and land grabs from indigenous North American communities maintains a legacy in the present day, as surviving populations live in disproportionate poverty and experience the highest unemployment rates of any racial or ethnic groups in the country.

The author’s repeated metaphorical use of the phrase ‘totem pole’ to imply a sense of hierarchy (a phrase commonly incorrectly deployed, as the figures represented in totem poles do not represent a vertical hierarchy) is jarring in an otherwise nuanced text.

The author appropriately acknowledges that, as with any book, there are demographics and topics she, of course, does not have space to represent. However, there are moments when Malik could have broadened her set of references without deviating from her main points.

For example, the chapter on "The Myth of Gender Equality" would pack a harder punch if it included acknowledgement of the current urgent struggle for trans justice on both sides of the Atlantic.

Similarly, a slightly clumsy, albeit succinct, metaphor about patriarchy ("To be a woman is akin to being a prisoner") skips over a crucial detail that many women are actually prisoners, in prisons and detention centres across Britain and the US. Aptly, for the book’s focus, these institutions are key bastions of two popular fictions used to subjugate communities of colour: those of "crime" and "borders", on which I would have been keen to read Malik’s consistently insightful analysis.

The author’s chronicling of myth-making journalists and commentators in the latter part of the book is a comprehensive, albeit bleak, resource, making evident the crucial importance of people from marginalised groups who are climbing the snowy-white cisgender cliff-faces of British news media and commentary. We Need New Stories is a well-paced, digestible exploration of the contemporary macro-narratives which impact our everyday lives.

Malik writes that it is "not a 'resistance' book". However, effective resistance emerges from collective knowing and strategising, for which Malik’s work is a great resource. This text spring-cleans the cupboard of old myths, finding them dusty and obsolete; the reader is left with bare shelves, ready and waiting for new narratives in pursuit of justice and liberation.

[Reprinted from Red Pepper.]