Has America Lost Its Story?

There is no denying that we live in disturbingly anxious and contentious times. Apocalyptic assertions, profanity-laden tirades, public shaming tactics, and crude weapons of moral accusation have increasingly taken the place of rational discourse and the steadfast rule of law. There is something ominous in the air, a faint but unmistakable scent of dissolution. Even before the shamefulness of the Afghanistan debacle, still unfolding as I write, there has been a growing and justifiable disgust with the self-serving incompetence of our leadership classes, and a sense of resignation to a future of ever-growing polarization and irreversible diminution of our national self-understanding. Hard times give rise to troubled thoughts; and when the hardness of the times is in large part a product of our own folly and improvidence, the thoughts are likely to turn inward, like knives in the brain.

Hyperbole aside, though, this is far from being the worst such moment in our history. It is important to get a grip and remember that. We have experienced times like this before, even as recently as the 1970s. We can come back from this orgy of mutual recrimination, but only if we wish to do so. But this time around feels exceptionally perilous, if only because we are living through it rather than remembering it. And of course, that is not the only reason. In the Sixties and Seventies, the most radical and destructive influences in the culture were on the outside of the establishment, looking in. Now they are on the inside looking out, enthroned in university presidents’ offices and corporate executive suites and other centers of political and cultural influence, and able to use the awesome leverage of the law to do far more than just look.

It is hard to calculate the influence on the public mind of initiatives like the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which argued that the American experiment was founded upon slavery, and purported to find racism encoded in the nation’s DNA. The Project has been thoroughly discredited by a group of distinguished historians, has even been demonstrated to be a fraud by the intrepid investigations of Philip Magness, and yet it seems to march on largely unimpeded. It’s as if evidence no longer matters, and legacy institutions like the New York Times are confident that their line of cultural credit will turn out, as in the magic of Modern Monetary Theory, to be inexhaustible, no matter what they say or do. It’s nice to be part of the nomenklatura, and those who get there do what it takes to stay. But 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.

To speak of the loss of America’s story, then, is a fanciful but powerful way to get at this. The change is not a result of accumulation and dispassionate weighing of evidence. It proceeds from something almost a priori, the abandonment of a fundamental vision of the nation’s aspirational character, of its mythos, of the wind that has lifted our wings for two and a half centuries, and replaced it with….what?

Maybe by nothing at all. Why (it may be asked) do we need a story, after all? Maybe the need for an animating story was, like the need for fairy tales, a part of our national childhood, something we have now outgrown, just as we have learned to outgrow the need for heroes and exemplars, since we now know that no one in the past has ever deserved a statue in his honor. Presumably, we’ll get used to it.

Perhaps we have similarly outgrown the need for transcendence, since we have become so savvy, so clued into the way that human beings invent the transcendent in the image of imminent needs and desire, and then go on to exploit it as an instrument of power. So perhaps we should throw transcendence out the door too. Maybe the momentum of institutions and economics, or maybe the power of spontaneous organization, will be enough to carry us forward, and give us the staying power to raise the generations that will succeed us. Who knows? The only thing that’s clear is the imperative need to resist the very idea of the national mythos.

Yet there is something interesting, if obvious, about the 1619 Project that tends to be overlooked. Although the Project’s principal author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, famously declared that the national ideals were “lies” when they were stated, she made no effort to separate her Project from the truth of those ideals, let alone put forward an alternative set of ideals. It is one thing to say that the national story needs to be told in a different way—that is what the forever-revising work of historians is all about—but quite another to say that the story was a complete and utter lie that should be dispensed with tout court. The difference is enormous. 

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.

Yes, we know: resistance to the mythos is all important to the postmodern intellectual’s self-image, the equivalent of a white-collar union card. But the problem is that without the enduring normative presence of those aspirations, the moral critique loses its sting. Why bother to speak of justice, if justice is merely the interest of the stronger? No, one speaks of justice where there are kindred consciences in the room to be appealed to. There is a reason why the tactics of nonviolent resistance that worked so well against the British in India, and later in the American South, were not employed against the Nazis.

A Support for Civic Virtue

So a great and powerful story is not so easily “lost.” It is likely to linger on, even if in semi-hibernation, persisting in vital if unacknowledged form in the calculations of even the harshest critics. (Much the same thing is true for what tries to pass for neopaganism, which is insensible to the Christian moral inheritance upon which it still draws.) Yet in the end, a shared conscience presumes a conscious knowledge of the American story, which is something we can no longer assume. I’m particularly aware of the problem as a teacher of American history, at a time when the general knowledge of our past is abysmally low and sinking. It’s profoundly important, as important as any issue before us as a country, for us to resist and reverse this tendency. For we can’t really appreciate the statuary of our country—our political and social and economic institutions—or know the value of American liberty and prosperity, unless we pay the price of learning the story. Otherwise, we are like children handling delicate artifacts, unaware of how precious and fragile they are, until we have broken them.

Such issues would have been consequential at any time in the nation’s history. But they’ve been given a whole new level of urgency by the demands of the moment. Never in recent memory has a knowledge of the American past been more imperative, and more useful. The novelist John Dos Passos expressed the reasons very well: “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.” Such words constitute the most powerful endorsement I can imagine for the usefulness of the humanities, which when rightly pursued is one of the chief ways our civilization retains its sense of connection to generations gone before, through the long-shared traditions of thinking, reading, listening, speaking, observing, and experiencing that they preserve. Which makes it doubly tragic that the humanities are not rightly pursued today, and are dying on the vine as a result.

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 helps a great deal to know, and remember, that other Americans in the past have faced great challenges and prevailed. Sometimes, with nations as with individuals, the very act of rising to the occasion—and seeing how others have done so in the past—can reawaken strengths in us that might otherwise have lain dormant, or never emerged at all.

The Necessity of Storymaking

The central importance of story—a far better word than the colorless and suspect “narrative”—to the way we think is revealed in common speech. “What’s his story?” we ask when seeking insight into a stranger’s actions. (Or, if we’re exasperated, “What’s his story?”) This common usage amounts to a request that we be provided with an explanation of a person’s character or the motivating forces behind his actions, conveyed through a rendering in time of things or events that have shaped him. It can be a very short story: “He came from a working-class community in provincial Yorkshire, and arrived at Cambridge with distinct social disadvantages, which he would have to work assiduously to overcome.” That very short story tells you a great deal in a very short space about the historian Herbert Butterfield.

Not that we need to be told that stories are important. We would tell them in any event. The impulse to write history and tell stories is intrinsic to us as human beings. We are, at our very core, remembering and storymaking creatures. It’s how we find meaning in the flow of events. What we call “history” or “literature” or “biography” are merely highly refined versions of that basic human impulse. Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity. Stories are the way we remember things. Without memory, and the stories within which our memories are suspended, we cannot say who, or what, we are. Without them, all of life and thought is a meaningless, unrelated succession of events. And for human beings, meaning is not just a luxury. It is a necessity.

The stakes are nicely expressed in the words of the Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts, only for the day. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”

We are nothing more than flotsam and jetsam without the stories, the mythoi, in which and through which we find our life’s meaning. Ultimately that is what each of the world’s great religions provides. A story that organizes the world, and that stores all the things worth remembering, and those worth aspiring to. A story to live by—and to die by. Small wonder that the chorus of one of the most beloved of Christian hymns, “Blessed Assurance,” repeats the celebratory words, “This is my story, this is my song/ Praising my Savior all the day long.” One could say the same thing at a Passover Seder, which retells the same old story, of Exodus and salvation, of a night that was, and is, and will remain, different from every other night, as a way of affirming, “This is who I am—this is who we are.”

To use the word “story” in these ways is to gesture toward something far deeper and more aspirational than the mere laying out of a sequence of events. It is to draw water from a well to which one has gone before, and to which one will go again. And it is to acknowledge, implicitly, that just as a picture is worth a thousand words, so a story is worth much more than a thousand propositional statements. A great and powerful story is a seaborne vessel carrying many meanings in its holds, and able to acquire others in the course of its journey. Which is to say that it will be subject to varying interpretations. Ultimately its meaning will not be reducible to any of them, or to anything but itself. But it will endure because some of those meanings will endure with it, and in it.

Reconsidering Our Beginnings

So the question with which we began does matter. The American story can and should have many disparate parts, including its shameful and disappointing elements. All of it needs to be there. But we need to regain a sense of perspective. We can do without the current disposition toward the past, at once guilt-obsessed and self-congratulatory in its relentless moralism and chronological snobbery. Perhaps such a disposition is inevitable, given that we have come to inhabit a post-Christian public world in which judgment is plentiful but forgiveness all but nonexistent. We used to know that the measure you give is the measure you receive, and that the judgments we aim at others, including those in our past, are arrows that can be turned back upon us as well. We need to recover that knowledge, and the humility toward the past that comes with it.

Regaining perspective also involves the recovery of a meaningful connection with the past. Knowledge is something different from meaning, and there are certain meanings that shine through in our story, and deserve to be considered independently. Let me conclude by drawing out two of them. Both are aspirational in character, as befits the aspirational character of the American nation.

First of all, what America began in 1776 has been and remains the world’s greatest experiment in large-scale self-governance. To say that we have not always been perfectly successful is obvious but also, in a sense, beside the point. The worthiness of the objective to which we have aspired remains undiminished. We do not abandon the aspiration to a more perfect realization of self-rule simply because the historical record is mixed in that regard. We do not erase the memory of imperfect men and women in the past, out of the delusion that we are so far superior to them, and would have lived differently and better had we been in their shoes. The American story contains too much richness to be reached back to, too much of a lifeline for the present, for it to be dispensed with, especially if done in response to the current binge of bizarre moral panic.

Second, there is the fact that America still represents, better than any place on earth, the conviction that no one’s life prospects should be held captive to the conditions of their birth. For millions upon millions, America has been a land of second chances, a land of hope. It offers a freedom that releases us from the unquestioned tutelage of our past, and the sometimes-crushing weight of our ascriptive status—race, sex, ethnicity, whatever it may be—and provides us with an Archimedean point from which we can scrutinize each and every one of the world’s givens, and consult our own consciences as a guide for living. Our current mania for racialism and identity politics works, perversely, against that conviction, and against that freedom. Identity politics narrows the complexity of the human person to a single imprisoning factor, a self-diminishment that may have political uses but comes at the expense of the rich and various interior life of the free individual. A similar loss has come out of the corruption and degradation of the once-noble ideal of public education, whose current deplorable condition in so many of our cities does so much to crush the life prospects of the disadvantaged young and deny them the freedom of the second chance. 

The American story can accommodate instances of abject failure. The notion that all foundational stories are fairy tales is itself a fairy tale. What about the great Biblical stories of the Pentateuch, replete with the disreputable deeds of their imperfect and dissembling patriarchs, who pawn off their wives as sisters, deceive their fathers, cheat their brothers, murder, and commit incest—all while showing remarkable forgetfulness about God’s favor shown them? Or the Roman founding myth, the gruesome story of Romulus and Remus, full of deception, fratricide, and rape?

The American story does not have to carry such toxic baggage. Say what you will about the American Founders, even the occasional rogue like Aaron Burr did not sink to that level. But what the American story cannot survive is a loss of aspirational faith, the faith that is at the center of the story itself. It is not at all fanciful, even if it cannot be proven, to guess that there is a connection between the loss of the American story’s aspirational aspects and the alarming rise of “diseases of despair.” The health of the soul and the health of the polity are not entirely independent of one another; they rise and fall together. And when we see suicides among Americans aged 10 to 24 increased by nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018—which is to say, during years well before the current pandemic—then we can know that we are in the presence of something that is much larger than mere economics.

The morale of a nation is ultimately a question of spirit rather than matter. The great Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, himself a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, observed that humans can bear almost any kind of deprivation—except for the deprivation of meaning. Those with a reason to live, a task or a goal toward which their strivings can be directed, a “why” that animates their lives—they can bear up under almost any hardship. But without that “why,” almost any “how” can defeat us.

Which is why we must not allow the American story to be lost. Such matters go far deeper than civics. A robust civic education, which seeks to impart that “sense of continuity with generations gone before” of which Dos Passos spoke and begins the process of locating one’s life in a meaning larger than oneself, is an important step back from the precipice.

Reprinted from Law & Liberty

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