Friday, May 26, 2017

The four plus or minus two or three American narratives

Josh Kirby, Discworld.
Former New York Times columnist David Brooks writes ("The Four American Narratives"):
In spite of our many differences and the sheer size of the country, Americans have always been connected by a vast network of narrativium fibers, a single unifying story, or as I have called it "The Unifying American Story", also known as Passover without Jews, in which we told each other that all of us had reenacted the Exodus, escaping out of the oppressions of one Pharoah or another and into the wilderness, except instead of going to a land of milk and honey and killing all its people we stayed in the wilderness and killed all the people there and wrested the milk and honey into it with imported cows and bees and African guest workers, thus creating the last best hope on earth, so that when people around the world, similarly oppressed, were tempted to despair, they could always tell themselves, "At least there's America." 
Not that everybody could be allowed to come here, but they could still be glad to know it existed. We were so unified that even when we had a Civil War we were all on the same side, though this was not obvious to everyone at the time.
And we were all amazingly self-confident, because this was an entirely Judeo-Christian and not Muslim story, based on a certain view of God's providential plan. No sinners in the hands of an angry God for us: we won the lottery.
But now we live in a secular culture, and our confidence is in tatters, and our beloved story doesn't work any more. Different people tell themselves different stories and nobody knows what nation they live in. In fact there are four stories, as I learned from a secret speech given to the New America Foundation by George Packer, New Yorker staff writer and one of the Foundation's 2017 Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellows. It was so secret, like Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, that ordinary folk like you wouldn't even be able to find out that it happened, let alone when or who was invited, but I got a text, so that in what follows you won't be able to tell whether I lifted it or not.
So there's a libertarian story for Republicans, a globalist story for Stanford graduates, a multicultural story for people who are getting educated and are aware that they live in a world that has more than one culture, and the story of America First, which is for backward people for whom I feel great compassion because they can't get coal mining jobs and experience despair, but I already took the tour last year. None of these stories will work as a unifying story, I guess because they're not biblical.
Moreover Michael Lind ("The New Class War") has proposed two more narratives, related to the previous four, the mercantilist story in which we are just another country trying to compete in a dog-eat-dog world and protecting our tribe against the alien other, which is different from the America First story because I don't have time to remember, but it is, and the spectacular brand new and unprecedented talented community story which welcomes diversity, meritocracy, immigration, and open trade and invests massively in human capital, which certainly sounds like a winner, though maybe not quite as biblical as what I had in mind. 
Only oops it also sounds just like the liberalism that has been with us since George Washington planned for a huge federal commitment to education and the Whigs of the 1820s and the Republicans of 1856-76 and the Square Deal and the New Deal and the Great Society and isn't that fascinating but I'm out of space and have to go give somebody a lecture on how terrible Democrats are, with their tired old policy prescriptions and indifference to religion.
The L-space web. From (but strangely not in) "Subverting the Genre: Terry Pratchett's Discworld as a Critique of Heroic Fantasy" by Andreas Kristiansen (2003).

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