Thursday, August 18, 2016

We need a good story

While I negotiate my freedom of speech and mentality with Arthur the Time Artist (see "A peek at Infinity" below) I'll be posting essays I wrote in recent years that may be relevant today.  This piece was written shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Harry the Human

What do people demand from government?  Jobs?  Prosperity?  Those come to mind, but during the early post World War II years there were jobs and prosperity and discontent was rampant.  Did people want something else then?  When the Boomers came of age in the 60’s, the country’s prosperity seemed to heighten their discontent.  What were so many Boomers mad about?   I believe we were mad because there was no strong national story that pertained to our generation.

In addition to clamoring today for jobs and a return to prosperity, the Boomers and succeeding generations have continued to yearn for a good national story.  Now we have the makings of the sort of compelling story we lacked before, though stories can be too satisfying for our own good.

For purposes here I'm revising our concept that a story is either fiction or nonfiction.  The words “history” and “story” share the same root.  This is not to say that stories and history are equally non-fictional- they may be equally fictional.  Their truth or falsity is beside the point.  We eagerly adopt stories of either kind to underwrite our lives.

Hitler is relevant to this discussion as he was the most strident and successful storyteller of the generations just before the Boomers.  He told different stories to different people, and everyone believed him.  He told Germans that Jews and much of the rest of the world had conspired to thwart the destiny of the German people.  This story was a bestseller, so to speak.  Great swaths of German society devoured it as precious mental nourishment, because it made them feel good, made them feel part of something important and justified, the way a good story should.  Then he told the rest of the world that he was a ferocious megalomaniac, poised to take over and punish all states and societies that were not in his thrall.  That story too was a great hit, in the sense that people followed it and adopted it as their story.  The story told by Roosevelt and Churchill was predicated on Hitler’s story: We were the defenders against Hitler, the homicidal maniac.  Of course Hitler was a homicidal maniac, but as I say my use of “story” connotes neither fiction nor non-fiction.   It was Hitler’s storytelling capability that put him on the map.  

Mental wards are full of crazed megalomaniacs whose stories are listened to by no one but bored staff.  Hitler might well have been one of these isolated souls, but as a powerful storyteller who landed in the appropriate crack of time, his story was adopted and became "real."

Then what was wrong with post-war America’s story?  First, the triumphal war story that our parents lived was not available for Boomers to identify with because the war had not happened on our soil, and because the '50's and '60's were so prosperous and definitively post-war.   Nor could we derive self-esteem from the earlier Depression, with its tales of injustice and endurance, awash as we were in surplus.  For our coming of age rituals we had, not challenge and heroism, but endless exhortations conveyed via the new wonder, TV, to spend our parents' money on keys to popularity like Brylcream (A little dab'll do ya!).   In our story we were consumers of the accoutrements of life.  Nothing more.  I think I sensed even then the potential for Tom Brokaw to slander my entire generation as the Not Greatest.

When we entered the hormone driven mania of adolescence we had no state-sanctioned relief, no righteous cause leading to carnal fulfillment and medals of honor.  Marijuana, which had been confined to marginalized Hispanic and Black cultures, was suddenly accepted by middle-class whites to assuage their stifled impulses, and the government, though it benefited from youth's distracted state, kept marijuana illegal to engender in us a feeling of revolution, of a sort of war which we could think we were part of, and this became, on the government's side, the fantasy “War on Drugs.”

The government detected, as governments do, the people’s unsettled need for actual struggle, and it had a military establishment to keep busy, so it (along with other governments facing the same problem) gave us a series of wars.  The Korean War was the first, but the Boomers were not old enough to understand it.  Too bad, because since it involved a Chinese invasion of Korea there was at least a credible foe. 

Not so the Vietnam War.  The Chinese, conniving to wreck our story (playing chess to our poker), cleverly did not invade Vietnam, leaving us with a highly questionable story in which we attack a peasant nation that has not attacked us and poses no obvious threat, and that ends up beating us.  I marched carrying signs proclaiming lofty ideals, but looking back my sign should simply have read, “Give us a good story!”

As the Vietnam War was developing we also had the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  No one will claim the Bay of Pigs was a good story.  One could make an exception for the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had enough substance for a decent movie, but it was over quickly with no real action.

Our interventions in the Gulf might have provided fulfilling stories had they been better told, particularly the only potentially effective one, involving Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, with its promise of a heroic U.S. response to the plight of dispossessed Kuwaitis taking refuge in European nightclubs, but, as with most of our Mideast adventures, we ruined the narrative with our inability to acknowledge the importance of oil.  Because the American creation myth involves so much human virtue, we feel everything we do must shine with righteousness (the British in building their empire had no such problem), but leaving out so obvious a motivator as oil sends all our Mideast war stories into hopeless spirals of cognitive dissonance.

Things changed with 9/11, a compelling and defining story- the first since World War II.  So timely (coming at the end of the Cold War) was this story that its appearance spawned a world of conspiracy theories.  I’m going to stay away from these, however, as they do not pertain to my thesis, that people need stories.  Whether those stories are essentially true or concocted in a shadowland where truth and fiction intertwine will not be determined until a hypothetical future when the public has access to the relevant information (don't hold your breath).

What we do know is that since 2001 we have been run by the story of 9/11.  It is now our central myth, re-confirming our belief in the military as the essential element of the American character and uniting us as a coherent nation. 

Stories need reinforcement and updating, and even 9/11 can flag, its memory submerged in the daily aggravations of modern life.  Just imagine, only a few short weeks ago people in airports were complaining about having to stand in line, take off their shoes and present facsimiles of their naked torsos to federal agents.  More ominous still, much attention was being paid to the fact that the American public school system is collapsing in insolvency, along with the dream of owning a home. 

All that kvetching has faded now, however, because we’ve killed Osama bin Laden!  Who could have guessed that the next chapter of the story would be so compelling?  I’ve quite forgotten that the high school from which my youngest son is graduating in June is laying off a third of its teachers.   Really, who cares?  Bin Laden is dead!

I hasten to emphasize that I’m not knocking the role of stories in human society.  We need stories, whether personal or communal, because we need to be part of a meaningful narrative, with cause and effect and a plot, so we can be more than mere metabolizing blobs of protoplasm.   

But we should keep in mind that certain types of stories tend to have certain types of outcomes.  Hitler’s story not only destroyed countless lives around the world, it destroyed his own society and him as well.  

Maybe we should take a second look at the latest chapter in our story, the killing of bin Laden, in which we are victorious and morally great heroes, like Perseus striking down Medusa with one mighty blow of his divine sword.  It’s an enthralling image, but that’s the problem.  Our breast-beating and moralistic crowing will stimulate more story writing by the losers, so that when bin Laden is replaced, which is a certainty, his war will continue.  When Hitler was dead, he was really dead; we had won.  Bin Laden's summary execution is not the end of a war, but the beginning, and the narrow scope of the world-view we’re fed makes it more like the disingenuous War on Drugs- designed to drag on forever- than the more real War on Hitler.  The only obvious contribution of bin Laden's assassination is a momentary blip in the President's ratings.

Speaking of which, and to end on a sober note, there is over a year until the next presidential election, and the warm glow of Osama bin Laden’s death will not last that long.

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