Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

What’s Left of America?

by Jeff Polet

Like an atom, a polity consists of different elements, one of which is that there has to be some underlying principle of unity. Unless citizens share a reality that is in place before politics, their politics will always be fractured. The underlying fissures, like a faultline, with the slightest shift can cause chaos in the world above. We believe that our politics emerge from rational deliberation, but in this, as in most things, logos always follows mythos.

This is why current debates about the American story – is it a tale of freedom? Of slavery? Of the American Dream? Of oppression? – rock our politics so thoroughly. If we can’t agree on who we are, we certainly can’t agree on what we might become. For that reason, how we teach our history and what we emphasize will determine what America looks like for the foreseeable future. At the core of the argument, I think, are ideas of human agency. Are we merely unwitting pawns, ants on the wheel of destiny, and thus primarily victims of time, circumstance, and others; or are we capable of shaping history, and thus ourselves? Most modern thinking predicates itself on the former claim, but our system of government emerges firmly from the latter.

I remember going to a job interview (at an academic institution) right as I was getting out of graduate school. During the course of my research presentation, I mentioned that the ideas of a particular thinker were important reminders that, as human beings, we are responsible for our actions. The faculty in attendance objected strongly to this claim, although I couldn’t help but notice that they were perfectly willing to hold racists and misogynists responsible for their actions. In my thirty years of teaching, perhaps the hardest lesson to get through to students was the idea that history is not simply a tale of impersonal forces at work. I suspect that part of the reason why David McCulloch’s biography of John Adams succeeded the way it did was because it reminded people that the decisions individual human beings make matter.

A couple of years ago I was asked to participate in an online forum on whether America had lost its story. The lead author, the historian Wilfred McClay, argued that:

If the greatest danger to the future of our nation is coming not from the threat of external enemies or plagues or rising oceans, but from the loss of morale that comes with the collapse of national ideals, then the proliferation of such assaults, coming from many of our most prestigious institutions—the institutions that, more than ever before, serve as gatekeepers for our governing elites—shows that we are in big trouble. We cannot afford to draw our leaders of the future from such poisoned wells.

In this essay he makes the shrewd observation that even the critics of the American experiment offer their criticism in terms borrowed from the experiment itself, thus undoing their central claims.

In other words, the moral critique offered by the 1619 Project is entirely dependent upon the moral heritage carried forward by the American story. No moral heritage, no cause for outrage. What was unfortunate about the Project, and what has made it such a costly missed opportunity for America, was its stubborn and spiteful unwillingness to connect the nation’s moral failings with a full account of its aspirations—the aspirations against which the gravity of those moral failings can be properly assessed.

He continues:

Whenever any nation is faced with a deadly challenge to its institutions and its well-being, as we are today, it must find a way to draw upon its deepest sense of itself. That is the task before us now. In order to answer the question, “Why do we fight?” we must also answer the questions “Who are we? What binds us together? Why does our way of life deserve to persist?” Such questions might have seemed academic in the past. But they are far from being academic now. They are especially unavoidable for a great democracy, which depends for its unity and morale upon a foundation of shared convictions, broadly diffused through the population.

It is, as one would expect from McClay, a sharp essay that I highly recommend you go read. In response to McClay’s essay, I suggested the problem is even deeper than he indicates, not simply because we are telling different stories, but because we have lost the idea of story itself. Everything these days is “narrative.” The teller of a story peddles in ancient types, tropes, myths, the human condition, deep realities. The story tells us something about the world and about ourselves that we otherwise would not have known.  A narrative is flat and self-referential in comparison.

Post-modern writers wanted to rid us of “meta-narratives,” or what we might think of as stories. Regarding such meta-narratives as authoritarian and oppressive, they believed the destruction of these meta-narratives would allow for “new voices” to be heard. This led to two undesired outcomes. The first is that when every voice gets heard, no voice can be heard. Think of trying to hear someone in a crowded and noisy room. In trying to elevate different voices it diminished them all. The second effect was to destroy the standards by which competing stories might be evaluated. My narrative is, well, my narrative. Historians can now simply claim what they’re writing is a “narrative” and this will free them from standards of historical investigation. I write:

Narratives, thus understood, have no capacity to unite people except along the terms dictated by the narratives themselves, and since they’re idiosyncratic in nature, social life degenerates into a war between our narratives. They are incapable of rising to mythos, the stories we tell that reveal the fundamental truths about who we are and who we want to be and not simply who am. … The myth is not revealed. It is carved out of the hard rock of events, the triumphs and tragedies that mark not only our individual existence but our collective one as well. Most people know that who they are is composed as much of error as it is success, of sin and grace, of achievement and failure, of faith and folly. Where mythos triumphs and narrative fails is in the myth’s ability to combine all those in a coherent and compelling manner. Narrative tends to be one-dimensional, and because one-dimensional, ultimately uninteresting. Worse, narratives have no real moral authority because they are ultimately idiosyncratic.

One way of expressing unity is by making sure people have a shared set of symbols and these symbols have a shared meaning. Take, for example, the cross in the Christian churches. It is a shared symbol and it binds believers together so long as they share in the symbol’s meaning. But if one group of Christians see the symbol as signifying Christ’s atoning for our sins, and another group sees it as symbolizing imperial power and social resistance – well, you’ll have a deep fracture in the community. Likewise in political communities, which is why Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem was so controversial, because he revealed to us the uncomfortable truth that the flag does not have a univocal meaning. We could get along so long as we didn’t realize that our symbols had lost their binding value, but once revealed it made us realize that our political differences went much deeper than politics. Kaepernick helped us see that we were not, properly speaking, a people.

I suspect this is why our current political differences feel different than ones we had in the past. Whatever our differences in the past, there were always a shared set of stories our great leaders could draw upon to remind us of who we are. Even if a Lincoln were to come along, what “mystic chords of memory” could he strike that would remind us that “we are not enemies, but friends”? Lincoln could still count on the authority of two stories: what he believed to be the story of America, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence; and his assumption that most citizens were familiar with the Christian Scripture.

It’s bad enough that no one seems to be able to step into our cultural moment and speak the words of unity we desperately need; what’s worse is that even if we could imagine such a figure, we can’t imagine what that speech might sound like. Lincoln could draw on the symbols of both church and civil religion, on knowledge of the Bible and classical writings, on reverence for the Constitution and the Declaration, but those accounts have been spent and no deposits have been made, and that too has allowed for the proliferation of narratives. We have no shared stories because we have no shared culture.

So not only the illiteracy and fragmentation of our leadership class is a problem, but even more fundamentally the illiteracy of our population – by which I mean that there are no books of substance that we can count on everyone having read or a shared history we all know. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this are Disney films, and in my teaching career I could take the most heterodox positions on the most serious things the reader can imagine, all without any objection from students; but if I would say one negative word about Disney I would have an all-out riot on my hands. Disney’s main message being a combination of “I should be allowed to do whatever I want to do” and “never not feeling happy is not an option,” we are now in the presence of a storyteller who insures we will have no shared meanings, only the endless proliferation of self-referential and, let’s be frank, tiny meanings that will neither quicken the heart nor elevate the spirit.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think people have become more interested in talking about narratives than talking about stories?
  2. Can you think of any stories we can tell that would resonate with broad audiences? Even when using phrases such as “that’s not who we are,” are any efforts made to articulate what, exactly, we are?
  3. What stories do you remember from your childhood (Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, for example) that are now considered passé? What do you think a lot of those childhood stories told us about our country?
  4. What price do we pay for “deconstructing” stories, such as George Washington and the cherry tree? What takes their place?

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