This is the ninth in a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse. (Read the series from the beginning here.)
By Stanley Baran
9. The Stories We Tell (About) Ourselves
In April, 2007, without explicit reference to any well established psychological theories, novelist and social critic E.L. Doctorow addressed the issue of Americans’ penchant for protecting themselves from the onus of fully engaging their world and others in it. Speaking to a joint meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society on the theme of “The Public Good: Knowledge as the Foundation for a Democratic Society,” he entitled his keynote speech, “The White Whale.” Rather than make rumor the starting point for his analysis of how we reshape reality to render it more manageable, as Allport and Postman had done six decades earlier, Doctorow chose literature. “Melville in Moby-Dick,” he said, “speaks of reality outracing apprehension. Apprehension in the sense not of fear or disquiet but of understanding. . . reality is too much for us to take in, as, for example, the white whale is too much for the Pequod and its captain. It may be that our new century is an awesomely complex white whale. . .What is more natural than to rely on the saving powers of simplism? Perhaps with our dismal public conduct, so shot through with piety, we are actually engaged in a genetic engineering venture that will make a slower, dumber, more sluggish whale, one that can be harpooned and flensed, tried and boiled to light our candles. A kind of water wonderworld whale made of racism, nativism, cultural illiteracy, fundamentalist fantasy and the righteous priorities of wealth.”
What is more natural, in other words, than relying on heuristics? What is more natural than selectively perceiving the world and others occupying it in ways that reduce discomfort, even if in doing so we ourselves are reduced? What is more natural than attributing our successes to our fundamental goodness and the shortcomings of others to their fundamental failings? What is more natural than refusing to dignify any reality that requires us to consider the world and others occupying it as anything more than an It threatening our I?
They hate us for our freedoms. The new Hitler. Socialized medicine. Support the troops. Welfare queens. These colors don’t run. East Coast elites. The invisible hand of the market. The kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with. The ticking bomb and the mushroom cloud. All are heuristics designed to short-circuit elaborated analysis and to attribute any failing, any unpleasantness, any selfishness to things and events outside our control; all are part and parcel of a people unwilling to do the critical thinking that is the hallmark of both dignity and its political manifestation, democracy. As Allport and Postman’s post-World War II research suggests, this isn’t a new phenomenon, but it seems to have fully matured in the Bush years. Recall Ron Suskind’s 2004 New York Times Magazine piece entitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” Arguably, its most quoted passage is this exchange with an unnamed White House staffer. “The aide,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner, “said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ … ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore.’”
Suskind’s unnamed aide continued to explain that as the world’s lone superpower, “we create our own reality.” Of course, all nations and cultures create their own realities. They exist in the stories a people tell of themselves. As philosopher Richard Rorty explains, “Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.” They are narratives designed to express a people’s highest hopes, greatest goodness, deepest honor, and commitment to dignity. The stories a people tell to themselves are the stories they tell about themselves. When we think of England’s mythology, we see Knights of the Round Table and King Richard, not its colonization and enslavement of the people of India. We remember the French Resistance in World War II, not the collaborating Vichy government, turning helpless Jews over to their Nazi killers. We teach our children the wonderful story of the Founders and their struggle against the tyrant King George as they gave birth to the world’s greatest democracy. But when we get to the stories about our Civil War that emancipated the slaves living here in the freest country in the world, we omit the fact that slavery had been outlawed in England 30 years before, during the reign of the tyrant’s son, William.
What happens when a country’s defining stories are used not to embody its honor and dignity, but to justify a “reality” that conflicts with the reality those stories purport to hold? Vietnam veteran and international relations expert, retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich, calls our national mythology “stories created to paper over incongruities and contradictions that pervade the American way of life,” and James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, offered this example of how “white Americans” during the Civil Rights era papered over the incongruities and contradictions inherent in their treatment of their fellow citizens of different skin color. They told themselves that “their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.” Even today we celebrate “The Greatest Generation” for its World War II defeat of global fascism while failing to question the greatness of a generation that racially segregated the armed forces that secured that victory, while at home German POWs could enter Southern diners that were off limits to American Blacks, and more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 60% American citizens, were herded into internment camps.
In Myths America Lives By, Pepperdine University religion professor Richard T. Hughes argues the existence of “five foundational myths” that produce a dominant narrative of American exceptionalism: America is the chosen nation, the Christian nation, nature’s nation, the millennial nation, and the innocent nation. Speaking to a 2004 conference, Hughes explained how this narrative protected Americans’ cognitive consistency after the 9/11 attacks: “Americans have by and large refused to face the question of ‘why they hate us’ head-on. Instead. . .they have taken refuge in the venerable myth of American innocence. To claim our enemies hate us because they hate liberty is simple a way of asserting American innocence without coming to grips with the awful truth that our enemies hate us for many clear and definable reasons.” No need to debate why many of our most trusted allies did not support the invasion and destruction of an entire Muslim society; we are chosen, we are righteously Christian, this is our century. No need to dredge up our decades of dealing with Saddam Hussein, the arming and training of the Taliban, the overthrow of disfavored democratically elected political leaders, and our unwanted presence in the Middle East; we are innocent.
As accounts of the killing in Iraq, images of torture at Abu Ghraib, and tales of institutional incompetence and personal viciousness in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath filled the world’s newspapers and television screens, Dermot Purgavie, veteran U. S. correspondent for London’s Daily Mirror, wrote of the nation he covered, “Americans are the planet’s biggest flag wavers. They are reared on the conceit that theirs is the world’s best and most enviable country, born only the day before yesterday but a model society with freedom, opportunity and prosperity not found, they think, in older cultures.”
Indeed, we do think ourselves exceptional, but it is impossible to reconcile exceptionalism with dignity. If exceptional means special or superior, such self-aggrandizement is itself undignified. If exceptional means that we are the exception (the rules we apply to others do not apply to us), we are operating not in a dignified I-Thou manner, but in a state of undignified I-It.
Stanley Baran is Professor of Communication at Bryant University. A Fulbright Scholar, he is the author of Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture and Mass Communication Theories: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. He writes frequently on the media, popular culture, and our understanding of ourselves and our world. He will happily provide citations for this series’ quotations and statistics. Simply e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran