National Narratives

The US has got a doozy of a narrative shift in store for it. I think we’re either going to change our national narratives, or we’re going to find all the ways that our previous narratives don’t match our new reality well. Or both. We could definitely do both.

And that process is going to involve a lot of pain.

These aren’t unique or special thoughts. Most folks I’ve talked with recently have had similar ones. I know I’ve read things like them in other places. I think both John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig have been writing about things related to this, as has Graydon Saunders.

But I’m thinking about all of it from a particularly narrative-based focus.

The New Yorker article Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders is particularly relevant here.

So, I suppose, is my post last week about finding hope in books.

Let’s talk specifically about narrative.

The New York Times has a piece on the surge in unemployment which includes some good words from Professor Alice Fothergill at UVM: “A lot of people in the United States are very proud of feeling self-sufficient and independent… This is something that is definitely going to be very, very difficult.” She also noted that those who feel ashamed about seeking help are often the ones who need it most.

That same article also had this marvelous quote:

“In its unsparing breadth, the crisis is pitting two American ideals against each other—the e pluribus unum credo of solidarity and its near-religious devotion to the idea that hard work brings rewards. Those notions coexist peacefully in prosperous times. Today, both are being put to the test, forcing the newly unemployed to re-evaluate beliefs about themselves and their country.”

Those ideals are two stories that we tell about what it means to be American. They’re our national narratives. They’re institutions and ideologies, if you want to get into the weeds. These narratives are not always well-rooted in or supported by reality, but being well-supported by reality isn’t a narrative’s job. The narrative, the ideology, isn’t here to accurately reflect our world; its role is to tell us where we fit in, and what we should do. These narratives are often more aspirational than descriptive.

Follow me as I wander through a few more articles:

Some businesses are pledging not to fire their employees. Some are going further to take better care of their employees. I don’t know that I believe the article’s supposition that there will be any reputation-based reckoning for the companies that callously fire their employees. I’ll wait and see. Personally, I’d *like* there to be something, but… yeah, I’ll wait and see.

The Economist has data from the Spanish Flu about how social distancing preserved economic function in the 1918 epidemic, which is both neat and reassuring.

And it’s sensible in light of FiveThirtyEight’s piece on the cost of life which basically agrees that human lives are individually expensive, or at least that we’re willing to put a large number of resources towards preventing human deaths. But I think another profound acknowledgement is buried in a side comment: large scale losses of life also strip society of other things which are entirely in excess of the value of an individual life (arts, culture, education, etc). While we can tally up what we’re willing to pay to prevent a death, we can’t actually account for the full cost of a life… and the loss of many lives creates a loss greater than the sum of its parts.

Wandering back…

That “e pluribus unum credo of solidarity” is the narrative bedrock on which phrases like “united we stand” are built. From many, one. It’s how we come together as a country, as a unified community. It’s no mistake that “e pluribus unum” is on so many official seals of our government. It was adopted as an official motto in 1782 by an Act of Congress. Even when people don’t know what e pluribus unum means, you can see this in the devotion and considerate care people give each other during and after natural disasters (here for article, here for meta-study).

That belief that “hard work brings rewards” moves hand in hand with Professor Fothergill’s point that many people in the US “are very proud of feeling self-sufficient and independent.” Those elements are stories that’ve been part of our national narrative for ages, often referred to as the Protestant work ethic. They fed the romanticized vision of the Western, among other things, and when taken to the extreme encourage focusing on work to the exclusion of most other aspects of life.

They’re also foundational to other more toxic narratives, as people reason out from these ideals as though they were unquestionable truths.

For the past decades, we’ve prioritized the narrative of hard work and independence over the narrative of from many, one. We’ve taken apart our social safety net. We’ve told ourselves that we wouldn’t be the ones needing help. We’d be the ones who were smart, who worked hard, who reaped the rewards of our own work unlike those shirkers over there—because if hard work brings rewards and someone isn’t rewarded, they must not be working hard enough. We were Aesop’s ant, not the grasshopper.

Except, maybe, we as a country were wrong. Maybe sometimes people suffer regardless of whether they deserve it. Maybe people saw the success of mid-century white America and forgot what it was built on, what made it possible. Maybe we saw the later continued growth of corporate America and told ourselves that everything was okay as long as the big numbers went up—because eventually that would help everyone, even the little people. Someday.

It turns out that removing the things that help others around us also weakens us. Avoiding human deaths is good. Not avoiding them—even stripped of ethical or moral judgment—is still expensive.

Look.

It’s fine to take pride in supporting yourself and doing well. That’s healthy. But I don’t think it’s healthy for that to be the only place we find pride in our lives.

It’s important for us to take pride in supporting each other, and others around us. And to remember that we don’t *only* support our fellow humans by giving them money (though money matters, especially given the society we live in). It’s high time we remember that E Pluribus Unum is as much a part of our national narrative as any other ideas are. And with that in mind, and as we take care of each other by not getting each other sick, let’s find ways to make our country a little better at being kind and supportive instead of embracing something as callous as “live and let die.”