After my last post, a friend texted, “Are your serotonin levels running low?” I know him well enough to understand his meaning: why was I being all gloomy and focusing so much on bad news — after all, isn’t that the job of the New York Times? I get it. Now is no time for gloom! Doom is in the rear view mirror, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon are set to play in Central Park to celebrate the reopening of New York, and President Joe “America’s Back” Biden is hosting a July 4th cookout for 1,000 people on the South Lawn of the White House. The DNC tried (a little lamely) to capture this comeback nirvana in a short video, which you can see here. I’m not sure why it comes off as a little creepy.
Just the other day, when President Biden held a news conference to tout the new jobs report, he was asked about Afghanistan. He scowled at the reporter and said, “I want to talk about happy things, man.”
So to be clear, I am happy. I’m happy Covid appears to be on the run. I’m happy that half of America has been vaccinated. I’m happy about the resurgence of the American economy. I’m happy Phish is launching a fall tour. I’m happy the Supreme Court has set up camp in the Radical Center. I’m happy that my family is safe and secure. And I’m happy that Willie Nelson is still alive and kicking.
My intent in writing about our “American farrago” was not to be dour, despite my Scottish DNA. It was to be a realist; or, as I like to call myself now, an optimalist — someone who hopes for the best but doesn’t whitewash things that are standing in the way. Which, when I think about it, is the fundamental philosophy behind the title of my blog. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir used to beg the audience’s forgiveness when the band suffered one of its innumerable technical glitches by saying (with tongue firmly in cheek) that the crew was working quickly to make things “just exactly perfect.” Bobby was embracing imperfection as a necessary step towards perfection.
So, on the eve of America’s 245th celebration of Independence Day, that seems to be the best way to describe the state of the country — we’re still striving for a more perfect union, but there’s a hell of a lot of technical glitches to fix in the meantime.
The pandemic, of course, has been one of the most profound tests of the American character in our lifetime. Our national response was marred by numerous technical glitches (which Lawrence Wright’s new book, “The Plague Year,” catalogs in painful detail), but in the end we seem to have prevailed, in some respects heroically. Yet it does seem like there’s something different this time. Looking over the past 100 years, when we’ve come out of crises before, WWII or 9/11 for example, we’ve done so with a measure of unity and mutual resolve. We looked around and said to each other, “We did this together; let’s move forward together.” We’re so far from that now.
America has always been a work in progress but we’ve always had a prevailing narrative rooted in shared beliefs like freedom, equality, independence, and problem-solving. That narrative was severely tested during the Civil War, but the good guys won that one. The narrative began to blur at the edges during the 60s and then reconstituted itself through moments of national leadership, resolve and innovation like the Gulf War, 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama. Today, that common narrative is unraveling at an alarming rate.
I think that is the unique nature of this moment in time; nothing feels solid. We don’t have a national narrative anymore; we have multiple competing narratives. Here are some: America wasn’t born in 1776, but in 1619, when the first slave arrived on our shores (which, for the record, would make this our 402nd anniversary); America is more racist now than it’s ever been, despite eradicating slavery and electing a Black man, twice; America is ruled by secret cabals of ultra-wealthy kleptocrats; we are a declining superpower, not the “city upon a hill” revered by the rest of the world; we are a nation that will be judged, most of all, by how we treat the “unborn”; or we are a country that considers the private sector, the source of all material wealth, as inherently evil.
These, and many more narratives, are amplified and shared across the vast echo chambers of the Media/Political Complex. The worst outcome of this narrative free-for-all is to just pick a story and stick with it. After all, life has become so complex that adopting a pre-fab narrative can quickly simplify an otherwise chaotic world. This must be the basic appeal of MAGA or Q or “critical race theory” — they create a story that makes sense of the world to its believers. Life is so much easier when we don’t have to deal with ambiguity and complexity!
The danger, of course, is that this multiverse of national narratives devolves into tribalism and, ultimately, sectarianism. If it continues, we’ll have to change the national motto from E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”) to E Pluribus Magis (“Out of Many, More”). The YouTube video above, a collection of intercept interviews with young people in Georgetown, is a disturbing example of where these divisive narratives can lead.
On this Fourth of July, let’s resolve to do a couple of things.
Let’s not accept these alternative narratives at face value. Let’s question them with data and logic. Does it make sense, for instance, to declare 1619 the birth date of America when only 4 percent of the Transatlantic slave trade landed in America? Does it make sense to believe the 2020 election was “stolen” when there is not an iota of evidence to support it? I know that a recent poll found that 15 percent of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles — a core belief of Q Anon — but they also used to burn witches at the stake in Salem back in the 17th century.
And let’s ask ourselves, does this narrative divide or unify? Is it an “us” narrative or a “them” narrative? This is especially important in America, where our national identity is built on a confluence of multiple cultures, traditions and histories, unlike, say, a monoculture such as Finland or Norway. For America to work not just as an idea, but as an ideal, we need a vibrant, compelling, inclusive narrative about us as Americans, not a collection of individuals. We have plenty of blueprints for this, starting with the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
To be sure, many of our prevailing American narratives are hagiographies, glossing over some of the brutal realities of our country’s history. America’s dark side must be included as context in an overarching narrative, but not the object, as it is in the 1619 Project. This is the work of all of us as Americans at this point in our history — accepting our imperfections, our farragoes, our sins, and rising above them, unified as Americans, to make things just exactly perfect.