Every morning I wake up to news reports that remind me that Walt Whitman was right: America is large enough “to contain contradictions.” I am not surprised to find that a recently elected Teapublican candidate Andy Harris who campaigned against healthcare reform now demands that it be supplied to him ahead of schedule, or that those newbies who said maintaining a strong national defense was a priority have suddenly fallen in line behind Mitch “our priority is to defeat Obama” McConnell and John Kyl in opposing the START treaty, which every expert from Colin Powell to Henry Kissinger to Robert Gates says is key to our future national security.
We all need a story to live by. We need a narrative to center our lives, provide reasons and justifications and even excuses for what we believe, what we value, and what we do. We need to be part of a grander scheme of things, adding our voice and our actions to a commonweal that makes what we do seem to matter. Or at least to matter more than it would otherwise. As the philosopher Alistair MacIntyre once put it, “if you want to know who I am, ask me what stories I am part of.”
In America we have two competing national narratives. They are deeply political, which is as it must be for a people and a nation born in a people’s revolution against a King and hardened by years of democratic debates, where, for four years at a time, those out of office tolerate but argue strenuously against the other side of the story, if only in the hope of defeating it next time around. In America, we and the politicians who represent us perform a battle of narratives that simultaneously unites and divides us. On a daily basis, we are not only such stuff as these stories are made of, but we endure their consequences.
So it is that as we bring 2010 to a close I am fully prepared to declare the obvious: The Republicans/Teapublicans narrative is this year triumphant. Their simple story of an America defined by individual liberty, low taxes, limited government, and deregulation of industry aimed at producing an American Dream that John Boehner could cry over beat out our more complicated and less compelling story of an American defined by the public good, taxes that promote it, a government that does good things for all of us, and re-regulation of industries that recent evidence has taught us require a stern disciplinary task master to ensure they don’t do stupid, greedy things and as a result destroy us and the ecosystem.
This week we have been besieged by two assaults on our intelligence that coalesce on the question of language. The first assault was brought by New South Publishers, who, in bringing out a “PC” version of Mark Twain’s classic American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replaced the “n-word” with the word “slave.” This edit, they felt, would somehow prevent a new generation of potential readers from feeling awkward.
The second assault was from the newly convened Republican Congress, who, in their infinite quest for purity of actions aligned with the literal truth contained in the U.S. Constitution, decided to read the founding document aloud in the House on opening day. Not a bad practice, but it would have been more in keeping with their righteous literalist claims if they had actually read the whole document, instead of editing out the three-fifths clause and other sections that are contained in it.
Both of these language issues are important for the same reason: they assume that by changing the words in the present they can change the culture of the past that produced them.
“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’
if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
--Alastair MacIntyre, On Virtue
For those of us who study narratives there is no easy agreement about what, in fact, a “narrative” is. Academics disagree, so do practitioners. Academics disagree because humanistic and social science scholars use separate sets of theoretical and historical references to define the term and because our diverse definitions are contextually employed differently to define a particular event or inform a particular research purpose. Hence, it matters a lot to the individual researcher whether “narrative” refers to data drawn from someone’s account of something that they claim happened, or whether it refers to an historical text disconnected from the present that may be interpreted by readers in any number of ways.
Disagreements about definitions duly noted, the word “narrative” is very popular these days. It was, according to one study, the most popular buzzword in politics for 2010. Certainly it was one of the most overused, given that “narrative,” in all of its rhetorical splendor made to mean all kinds of things, was attached to such a wide array of imperatives—from campaign slogans to speeches to takes on American history and culture. In practice outside academic culture, it would seem to be the case it isn’t so much important what narratives “are”—meaning how they are defined—as it is what narratives “do.” It’s their influence that matters.
So I am listening to NPR on the way home from the office and I hear the announcement about the Republicans in the House voting to repeal the Obama health care reform bill. My first response was “so what?” After all, it won’t make it past the Senate and Obama said even if it did, he’d veto it. So the Congressional Republicans are just wasting time, holding a symbolic vote that has no substance, and meanwhile the country awaits serious attention to serious problems that will require something other than inflexibility and old campaign promises to resolve.
The NPR report used data from Factcheck.Org to refute, point by point, all of the charges the Republicans made. Here are some relevant questions: If I make under $15K a year, do I have to purchase health insurance (as the Republicans claim, saying this is socialistic). The answer is NO. In fact, under the new plan, a person making less than 133% of the poverty rate will be covered, for free, under Medicaid.
How about if I am a small business owner and have only 24 employees – do I have to buy health insurance for all of them? Because, as the Republicans would have us believe, you have no choice. This is socialism! But the facts are that any small business owner with less than 25 employees gets a major tax incentive to cover them, thus nullifying the cost of the coverage.
But how about those 600,000 jobs that the Republicans say will be “killed” by this reform? Huh? Turns out the majority of these “lost” jobs will be due to people voluntarily retiring early because their health insurance is no longer tied to the job they have. Under the reform plan, they can purchase their own insurance and do something else with their lives.
And so on. No death panels. No new IRS agents to harass us.