October 2010

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The Decay of the American Narrative

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The sleep of reason creates monsters--Goya

"That's my story, and I'm sticking to it." The humorous saying illustrates that we are at least half aware that we manufacture narratives all day long, even as we purport to believe them. These narratives serve many important psychological purposes: they block out darkness, danger and uncertainty, make the world safe and allow us to be proud of ourselves and our origins.

Ernst Renan, in his simple, clear and short essay, "What is a Nation?", posited that nations are based on what they remember and forget together. A modern book which uses Renan as a starting point, and analyzes the narratives we adopt, is Anderson's "Imagined Communities".

I had forgotten, until I searched for occurrences of "Renan" in the Spectacle, my essay Are We a Nation? from January 1997. Rereading it just now, I can trace my own arc from optimism to cynicism and despair.

Mud and blood

Humans start in the mud and the blood. This fall and a possible subsequent elevation are recapitulated in every generation, and in the heart of every individual.

Humans are the most violent and vicious species ever to exist on earth. Early human communities routinely murdered the men in the next valley, and raped the women. There is no species of lion, eagle or lizard that kills and molests members of its own species so indiscriminately.

When I read about the discovery of the ice man, found in the Alps, I was enthralled by the narrative the scientists proposed, that he froze to death on his way to carve himself a new bow. When more sensitive scans found an arrow head in his ribs, the narrative became that of just one more dreary murder.

The creation of every day national narratives has two categories of purpose: to justify the status quo or to assist us in raising ourselves to a higher level. Most, in fact, do both. Nazi narratives excused murder; American narratives forgot murder, in pursuit of a goal of committing less murder, possibly even ceasing to murder one day, as a far off ideal.

I said in 1997:

No French citizen, [Renan] points out, can tell you if he is Burgundian, Alain, Visigoth in origin; every French citizen is required to have forgotten the massacre of Protestants in the Middle Ages. Similarly, in the U.S. our nationhood--when we had it-- required us to forget that our nation was built on war crimes and genocide.

The purpose of the American narrative was to put murder away from us, not to justify and continue it. This effort was exemplified by the wonderful rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson, who promoted a vision of equality, justice and compassion even as he implemented policies which harmed and killed black people and Indians. In the privacy of his own mind (as he went to visit Sally Hemings late at night), Jefferson probably believed two contradictory ideas simultaneously: both the truth and beauty of his vision of the democratic future, and the present necessity of cruel but practical actions. This reminds me of something Yasir Arafat told the Palestinians: let me deliver you a nation; you decide how to run it. Nations are founded on murder, like that of the Protestants, the native Americans, the reciprocal murder of Indians and Pakistanis in 1947, the reciprocal murder of Israelis and Palestinians in the last sixty years. The nations we recognize as "civilized", the First World countries, like France and ourselves, fashion narratives which forget murder, and promote our elevation from the mud and the blood. "Third" and "Fourth" world countries, like Pakistan, Palestine and Rwanda, fashion narratives which justify and glorify murder, and promote its continuation. Al Qaeda, which is not a nation but shares some of the characteristics identified by Renan (it is simply not fixed to real property), has found the perfect mix of justifications for murder, torture, and theft in the glorification of God.

Narratives change

There is no doubt that national narratives change radically over time. The Roman narrative morphed from that of a nation of citizen-soldiers whose primacy was based on personal strength, to that of a nation of citizen-sybarites whose power was projected through the people they employed. In modern times, the evolution of narratives has been speeded up immeasurably by the technologies through which they are communicated. Change that would have taken a thousand years two millenia ago, or two hundred years starting in the eighteenth century, happens rapidly enough to track in real time today. Look at the evolution of the Russian narrative from 1989 on, the South African narrative in the 1990's and after, the Yugoslavian narrative after the Russians left.

The last one is particularly interesting. In 1978, when I lived in Paris and studied French at the Alliance Francaise, a Yugoslavian girl in my class represented the flower of a sophisticated culture, a nation of some relative independence in the Soviet orbit. She was intelligent, beautiful, well educated and well-dressed, like a New Yorker with a frisson of intriguing strangeness. It was unimaginable that her nation would descend into the madness and mass murder which came later. One lesson has been that the fall of dictatorships, in places like Iraq and Yugoslavia, may not be an absolute good, if it turns out in retrospect that they suppressed worse violence than they performed. Another more optimistic way of saying this: don't remove dictatorships until you have some idea of the values of the thing which will replace them.

You could probably say there were two Yugoslavian narratives in 1978: the official one, already threadbare, of worker-heroes and dialectical materialism and all that; and the private one of resignation, of going along to get along, of working within and around the edges of an oppressive system. When the first withered away, the second evaporated, and what emerged instead was a narrative of killing the other, the most toxic blend of nationalism (Serbian exceptionalism) and murder. This is the narrative which has dominated human life since the first shaman explained the necessity of murdering the people of the next village, and which leads to the "nits breed lice" justification of mass murder which has been uttered by so many generals and politicians in so many different contexts.

The thing which all murder-justifying narratives, Nazi, Yugoslavian, Al Qaeda, Rwandan or American right wing, have in common, is this. Things are bad, but we are not responsible for our own problems. They are caused by somebody else, an evil "other" (Jews, Tutsis, liberals). If we can just put those people away from us (as text or subtext, by killing them), everything will be fine. This seems to be the human race's default narrative, maybe wired into our genes, which various civilizations have struggled to overcome. (Moral philosophers and scientists seem to agree, by the way, that genetics doesn't let us off the hook: a behavioral gene creates only a predisposition, which can be resisted.)

The last thirteen years

In my essay thirteen years ago, I established a sort of baseline for the American narrative, quoting the Federalist papers in their love of American unity and their horror of "faction". I believed back then that the evils of faction were already beginning to dominate the United States, but (it seems quaint to me now) the best example I could find was a National Review article calling for the Supreme Court's powers to be curtailed, and the fact that the fringe right, to whom the Republicans were increasingly truckling, had a newsletter called "Christian Nation."

It is instructive to use that 1997 essay itself as a baseline, and see how the American narrative has changed since then. Like the Yugoslavian narrative, it is increasingly based on an identification of the evil "other", who is responsible for all the evils of society, and without whom we would be able to live like kings.

A stunning example, fresh this week, is Newt Gingrich's statement that to understand the President, we should study the "Kenyan anti-colonial" mentality. The President never lived in Kenya, and was born too late to have experienced the days of Kenyan resistance to British rule. Gingrich feels entitled to say this because the President's father, whom he barely knew, was Kenyan. Gingrich is really endorsing a whole piece of the hateful right wing fringe conversation, which says that Mr. Obama was not born here, and is in fact Moslem.

Run through the neuro-linguistic translator, Gingrich is calling the President a Mau Mau, painting him as a primitive, murderous ideologue. Of course, it is the cornerstone of Hate 101: to justify killing someone, you accuse him of being a killer.

What is so remarkable about this is that Mr. Gingrich is not a self appointed bloviator like Glenn Beck, whom you can analyze as a modern day rerun of Father Coughlin, the demagogue populist radio priest, with 45 million listeners, who ended up accusing the Jews and justifying Hitler. ("Somebody must be blamed, of course," said Coughlin.) Newt Gingrich was once the speaker of the house. The trend I foreshadowed, based on mild and modest evidence, of mainstream people, establishment people, adopting hateful fringe rhetoric, is now widespread.

The narrative which ambitious, "honorable" men like Newt Gingrich and even John McCain are adopting, and which is spread to so many hundreds of millions by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, is that a coup took place in this country the day President Obama was elected. That he is an outsider, not entitled to be the President, who believes in dangerously foreign and anti-American ideologies (Islam, "anti-colonialism", anti-gun) who somehow tricked and manipulated his way to power. That the majority of Americans who elected him are therefore themselves not to be trusted, and must be separated from the lever of power for the public good and even their own protection.

Not long after the election, I saw the first bumper sticker on a pick up truck in conservative Lee County, Florida, which said, "the American Republic Began July 4, 1776 and Ended January 20, 2009", the date of Obama's inauguration. I was quite shocked at the time by the portrayal of a very moderate Democrat as a dangerous radical; but it is the fruit of the rhetoric which Gingrich taught his fellow Republican Congressfolk in the 1990's. In training materials distributed by his political action committee, GOPAC, Gingrich established himself as a master of narrative-making:

Often we search hard for words to help us define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

decay... failure (fail)... collapse(ing)... deeper... crisis... urgent(cy)... destructive... destroy... sick... pathetic... lie... liberal... they/them... unionized bureaucracy... "compassion" is not enough... betray... consequences... limit(s)... shallow... traitors... sensationalists...(quoted in a February 1995 FAIR newsletter, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1276

The constant use of the word "socialist" to describe centrist Democratic initiatives is just one mild element of the new narrative. There is some indication Gingrich is preparing a run for President, trying to clamber back on the shoulders of the monster he made. At the same time, there has been the enjoyable yet disturbing spectacle of quite radical Tea Party candidates coming out of obscurity to defeat mainstream Republicans in primaries in places like Alaska and Delaware. This smacks of waves of revolution, of Stalin killing the original Bolsheviks or Robespierre destroying the revolutionaries who preceeded him, only to be swept away himself. It suggests that the hatred of which Gingrich was the architect fifteen years ago has escaped the mainstream (elected) Republicans willing to make use of it.

The moral subtext

Since Republicans cannot come out and use the N word, or say the President is dangerous because black, they turn to a more subtle rhetoric like Gingrich's talk of "Kenyan anticolonialism." This leaves a level of deniability, which will become increasingly unnecessary later. Already the rhetoric in every day use by mainstream people is unimaginably insulting and hateful by the standards of 1995.

My question for Limbaugh, Palin and Beck: if you believe the President is a dangerous, foreign, anti-American socialist who seized power illegitimately, are you not advocating his armed overthrow? Given that you also believe that "the Second Amendment is the reset switch of the American revolution", why wouldn't you applaud if Americans marched on Washington with their AK 47's and TEC-9's?

Given that even formerly middle of the road Republicans are (through ambition if not belief) catering to the right by adopting the rhetoric of "otherness", with even the formerly independent and moderate Mr. McCain, and Michael Steele of the Republican National Commitee, refusing to renounce the accusations of "socialism", is this not the very "faction" that the Founders so feared in the Federalist?

We live in a very deeply divided country, in which one group of voters can elect a black Democrat while another group, of apparently equal size, can demonize him as a revolutionary.


It is interesting to note that entropy, which dictates that in the physical world systems run down as energy is lost, seems to rule metaphorically in the "imaginary" worlds of human affairs ("imaginary " in Benedict Anderson's sense of imagined communities). One rule of thumb seems to be that democracies thrive about two hundred years before running out of steam, for example. In five minutes of consideration, you can find hundreds of other examples of entropy in human affairs: the fact that we haven't returned to the moon since the 1970's; our inability to replace the crumbling infrastructure of highways and bridges; the falling off in American science and math education; the long descent from "The Mass in C Minor" to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun".

I originally was planning to call this essay "The Decline and Fall of the American Narrative", but that seemed like a very sterile way to describe what is happening. I chose "Decay" instead because what is happening is grotesque, ugly and smelly.

Robert Frost said, "Nothing gold can stay." The best American narrative of the past three centuries, even though never fully attained in this country, spoke of diversity and tolerance. We have slid a along way from that ideal to a narrative dominated by scapegoating the "other" and identification of that other as a Mau Mau.

Do narratives ever come back?

The use of entropy as the guiding metaphor somewhat answers this question. Stephen Hawking explains in "A Brief History of Time" that there will come a day when the universe can no longer sustain life, as it cools, and its parts collapse back onto one another. When the universe ends, so will time. In the long run, the American narrative will be long forgotten, because there will be no brains to remember it. Dystopian novels such as "A Canticle for Leibowitz" long ago introduced the idea of a human future in which American democracy is barely remembered.

That said, humans are in the business of fighting entropy. The long evolution of cells into higher forms of life constituted a successful battle against entropy. Every time we eat a meal or build a house, we are fighting entropy. The organization of humans into larger political entities such as the Roman empire or the United States is a battle against entropy.

Do narratives, once grossly degraded, ever improve again? The German narrative of racial superiority and justified murder has been transformed into a democratic and somewhat inclusive narrative again--through foreign military intervention. The South African and Soviet narratives of brutality were briefly replaced by democratic narratives, which both seem to be decaying into brutal narratives again.

I could argue that the simplistic and rather hateful narrative of the Bush years was upgraded into the optimistic and diverse Obama narrative--but it doesn't seem to have taken hold. The forces of degradation and hatred simply shout louder, and are more violent, than their opponents. This is why, at some time or another in almost all countries, violent minorities have taken control.

This leads to the question of why Mr. Obama and the Democratic party are doing so little to counter the hateful Republican narrative. I think the reasons are very complex. The President seems a little too cerebral, too moral, to get down into the mud and blood and fight his adversaries. And I have thought for twenty years that the spirit of the Democratic party, so used to being in opposition, is completely broken. The fact that the Democrats have allowed the Republicans to define the terms of public dialog--to turn "liberal" into a darkly negative tag, for example-- is symptomatic that the Democrats aren't fighting entropy.

Where is the Democratic counter-Limbaugh? Why isn't someone like Al Franken touring the country, cheerfully and sarcastically highlighting the extremities of Republican and Tea Party rhetoric? When someone as mainstream as Newt Gingrich utters a comment like the "Kenyan" one, why is no-one in power talking about what this really means? The President's policy of ignoring the radicals is not working.

An article in the September 20 Times suggests that Congressional Democrats don't want the president or a national attack dog such as Al Franken campaigning for them for fear they will be dragged down further. They would rather campaign exclusively on local ties and history, and not mention the president, or even remain free to attack him. But this merely illustrates how badly broken the Democratic party is. A party that shies away from maintaining a national message, and from countering attacks upon itself, can barely call itself a party.

If I were the president, I would respond by beginning the counterattack campaign regardless of what the locals want. If it gained traction, as I think, they would be back on board in no time. If it failed, the party would go down gloriously, with a coherent message, and be ready to be an aggressive opposition. (The Republicans are by no means ready to be a majority and be responsible for actually solving problems.) Instead,the strategy (if it can even be called one), is "perhaps we can remain in majority, if no-one notices us." That is like an army saying, "We can continue holding this territory, if no-one attacks us."

The role of the Internet

In tracing my own arc from 1990's optimism to near-despair (tempered by philosophical resignation and a sense of humor), one of the principal changes I see in my own thought and writing is my attitude towards the Internet. In the '90's, I saw it as a broadly democratizing force. Today, like all technologies, I understand it to be morally neutral, a force for good or evil. Because the forces of entropy are louder, more insistent, more determined and daring, than their opponents, I believe with great sadness that the Internet is doing terrible harm to democracy.

This is a recognition of reality, and in no way a call for censorship. I would not change a thing about the technology; the antidote to bad speech has always been more speech. Part of the purpose of democracy is to let chips fall where they may, counter-intuitive as that may sound. Justice Holmes recognized this when he wrote in his dissent in Gitlow v. U.S.: "If in the long run, the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way."

In the 1960's, gross falsehoods like that about Mr. Obama's birth could not have taken the foothold they have today. The mainstream press would have given such lies little or no consideration; they would have been "broadcast" instead in crude, mimeographed newsletters reaching at best a few thousand readers. Today, the "blogosphere" has become, like an agar plate, a medium in which toxic lies grow unrestricted. Mainstream media like Fox, and politicians like Gingrich, then support the lies with coded references like the one to "Kenyan anticolonialism."

Radio was the Internet of the 1920's, the democratizing medium that would bring more information to the masses and allow them to make better-informed choices. But it also turned into an extremely effective tool of lies, hatred, and even murder: for Father Coughlin with his 45 million listeners, Herr Goebbels who understood radio as a primary tool of fascism, and as recently as Rwanda's Radio Mille Collines, which motivated the Hutu to rise up and murder their Tutsi neighbors.

The old saying that "A lie is halfway around the world while the truth is getting its boots on", was never so true as it is today.


I am still naive in so many ways. I should not be astonished that the United States contains people without any moral governor, no mechanism to restrain them from any dishonesty they view as necessary to attain or keep power. Newt Gingrich may not be racist in his deepest heart, but is happy to use racism as a tool. I wonder what has gone wrong in America, that we so easily produce people like Limbaugh or Beck who ignore or justify their own resemblance to Father Coughlin.

In a perfect world, our system of education would include a real moral component that would minimize the production of such people; and then we would decline to elect or give unelected power to people missing a moral governor. In reality, there have always been such people; I believe Thomas Jefferson was one, and his own campaign to end his friend John Adam's presidency, which included surreptitiously paying scurrilous journalistic hacks to spread lies, forecast Republican tactics of today. We seem to be in a period of our history where our own education, independence, ability to judge are at a low, while panic, self righteousness and failure to take responsibility, make us extraordinarily vulnerable (just like the German middle class in 1933) to someone telling us the fault is not in ourselves, but in the "Mau Mau".


In "Heart of Darkness", Conrad has his narrator, Marlow, find an idealistic early paper by Mr. Kurtz, presenting a series of ways to uplift the black race. Across the bottom, the mature Kurtz had scrawled, "exterminate all the brutes!" I was as much of an optimist in 1997 as the early Kurtz; I hope I never become as much of a cynic.

At the end of my 1997 essay, I wrote:

The American story--if I am correct that it is a tale of humility, tolerance, and optimism-- is a beautiful one. It is being destroyed but can still be saved. The solution to saving it is, of course, to practice humility, tolerance and optimism. We must want to be a nation in order to be. We must search for the common ground, the overlapping thread in our stories. We must believe it is there in order to find it. A leap of faith is needed.

It is impossible for me to compose this kind of music today. I believe that a new dark age--not just for America, but the world-- is almost inevitable. I am not wholly passive about it, if writing for the Spectacle is action against entropy. Which I hope it is, though I know in a very small way. But small actions are all that most people are capable of, against entropy.