There we were, the four of us: my husband and I and our new friends Stan and Barb, sitting around our kitchen table, eating and getting to know one another. In many ways, Stan’s was a quintessential American story. Blue-collar kid, a short enlisted stint in the Navy (hilarious stories), a tech in a major company until the industry shifted and a buyout left him with a little money, but too early to retire. So Stan put his efforts into building a small business upgrading school buses with modern radio systems. In their mid-70s Stan and Barb were still driving to repeat clients across multiple states. When Stan and Barb took on a job, it was done well.
One day Stan collapsed in their motel room hours from home.
At his memorial service, longtime friends paid tribute to Stan’s dry wit, his precise work, his low profile community service. Then three men in old uniforms appeared. One of them was quite elderly, his hands shaking as they carefully folded an American flag and presented it to Barb. Of all that happened that day, she told me later, that moment touched her heart deeply.
I understood why.
Which brings me to Kevin Williamson’s recent article, “The Nationalism Show.” Williamson clearly values orderly thought, so I’ll turn for a moment to some science before getting to Donald Trump and his love for big military parades.
We humans are, as biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon notes, a symbolic species. Before we had logic, we had stories, ritual, and symbols. Nor have we somehow left them behind.
Those grand concepts like freedom and justice? Their meanings to you and to me are grounded in our individual experiences, in the memories and associations they invoke—often fleetingly and without our dwelling on them. Recent discoveries in neuroscience and other evidence suggest that our wonderfully complex brains actually simulate past (or imagined) sensory experiences as they process the words we hear or read. More abstract ideas activate wider areas of the brain, from the oldest brainstem to the uniquely human frontal cortex.
Our thinking, however unaware of it we might be at any moment, is shaped by our past experiences. And experiences are reinforced in our brains and bodies through the stories that interpret them. Big stories about our history. Amusing stories about an encounter at work.
But what happens to a society when there is no common story? When no symbols touch us in a shared way?
Istvan Kecskes has spent his career studying how we communicate across cultures. You can pick up important clues as people learn a new language. Over time, people who become fluent shift the internal context of meaning through which they interpret words and sentences. They acquire associations in common with native speakers, and thereby come to understand the subtle, beneath-the-surface implications of what is said.
One Facebook friend of mine namedrops “Big Bang Theory” characters. His readers pick up the meaning.
When there are no shared stories—when the very idea of shared stories across a diverse society is vehemently denied, as is the case in the postmodernist world of academia and its graduates—there can be no common understanding.
Where there is no common understanding, there is no basis for the kind of principles-based, negotiated policy compromise upon which our Constitution is built.
My friend Stan had us laughing out loud as he recounted the friendships and quirkiness of living aboard a ship, tales of common humanity and deep cultural differences encountered in foreign ports. Stories the echoes of which I could hear in his later life.
Donald Trump tells stories, too. Stories about the worth and dignity of those who work with their hands, who raise families. About pushing back against the hollowing out of livelihoods and communities that is the result, in good part, of the priority some have placed on abstract policy rather than on the individual human lives and communities those policies have impacted.
Trump invokes the story of an America that, for all its imperfections, has brought more freedom, dignity, and opportunity to more people than any other country in the long, fractious history of humanity. My family has personal stories of what it is like to live where the prudent measures of our Constitution never took hold.
If one wants to communicate that the people of this country will defend what has been built here so painstakingly, a military parade would be one way to do it. A parade would be particularly effective if it’s followed, as this administration has done, with a policy of coordinated use of the means of national power—economic, military, diplomatic—to advance the interests of U.S. citizens in principled, fair ways.
Kevin Williamson is articulate and fierce. But he has lost the storyline.
Trump is less articulate. He’s transactional. But evidence suggests he understands story and symbol at an intuitive level.
It is the story he invokes that has earned Trump support, a story that informs his judicial nominations, calls for infrastructure investment as well as prison reform, and multifaceted negotiations here and abroad.
If Williamson and others do not like the story Trump advances, it would behoove them to craft one of their own. To be effective it must be compelling, symbolic in resonance, and offer a narrative that many across this diverse country can live through and join in the retelling.
For a good story ultimately offers hope. At the end of the long journey the protagonist achieves the victory, finds the treasure, risks all for an important cause that finds its expression in day to day lives of ordinary people.
Our common story as Americans has been eroded, intentionally on the part of the Left and through neglect, complacency, and self-interest by leaders on the Right. It is time to renew and extend it.
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