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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

20 May

Orson Scott Card, who is a very capable science fiction author, feels that one of the major problems with America is the stories we tell about it –

A Strong Culture must have powerful stories explaining why it is a Good Culture — or it will die. Even the best culture can destroy itself if those who hate the culture are successful in getting its members to believe stories that discourage them from having enough allegiance to make sacrifices for it, like:

1. Paying taxes and other costs in property or service.

2. Obeying laws even when they don’t fit in with your desires of the moment.

3. Letting the culture educate your children in its values.

4. Sending your children off to fight in wars to defend the culture from its rivals, or going yourself to fight and risk death and injury.

5. Tolerating people and events that the culture insists its members have to tolerate — including such obnoxious groups as the rich and powerful, the poor and untidy, the foreign and odd, and all others who deviate from the norm in ways that the culture has determined to allow.

6. Confining your sexual and reproductive actions to the boundaries set by the culture.

7. Making the effort to become educated enough in the culture to participate in its propagation.

8. Conforming with the outward values of the culture even when you disagree with them, in order to help maintain the illusion of unity.

These sacrifices are hard, every one of them. That’s why it’s essential, for the survival of a Good Culture, that it constantly propagate stories that support the willingness to sacrifice. (Propagate shares its root with propaganda —propaganda is only evil when it promotes an evil culture; it is essential to promoting a good culture as well.)

That’s why there is no such thing as a thriving culture that does not have the story “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori”: “Sweet and proper it is to die for your country.” A culture that no one is willing to die for will soon cease to exist, having been supplanted by a culture that does have members willing to die for it. …

To my mind – Card seems to be rolling out the old adage “if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all” and applying it to America.  The Bible tells the story of a city whose patriotic inhabitants supported its cultural mores and ignored their critics, it was called Sodom, and the story didn’t end well.  The 19th century history of Mormonism is that of a counter culture, that was seen as antagonistic to America in morality and loyalty – that opposed the prominent culture and its laws, and were ferocious critics of the empire that sought to assimilate them.

A commentary on Card’s speech at Mormon Worker critiques his arguments better than I could:

Mr. Card presents a number of good points about preserving the good in our culture but then mixes in an ideology that is, in my view, more dangerous than the very ones he decries. I refer to his idea that America should be dominant among the world economically, militarily, and culturally. Certainly we should strive to be culturally the best we can, have a thriving economy, and even I would concede some form of national defense but what concerns me here is the imperialist mindset that Card seems to endorse here and perhaps more overtly in his other political writings.

Rather than worrying that “[a] Strong Culture must have powerful stories explaining why it is a Good Culture” perhaps we should consider that a good culture must have actions that explain or demonstrate why it is a good culture. Stories that explain why something is good should matter only if they are true. To sacrifice anything to a false narrative or a false story is a form of idolatry.

Mr. Card is certainly correct in his assertion that stories or narratives can be destructive. Indeed, to a large extent the destruction and death we imposed in Iraq was based on stories and narratives that explained why we were good and the other evil. Mr. Card decries the scapegoat phenomenon in others but in mimetic fashion quickly descends into his very own scapegoating. As Rene Girard taught, scapegoating is rooted in the creation of the other or as Derrida calls it, différance. Certainly, stories, true ones, should be guarded jealously, but there is even a greater danger in creating and defending stories that are false. I believe that certain myths and narratives need to be deconstructed, need to be destroyed, in order to unbury the truth covered with myths.

The word myth comes from Greek muthos meaning to close or keep secret. This is what we do when we engage in telling stories about why we are good while conveniently ignoring the truth. We engage in selective storytelling. We tell stories about “good” violence that binds our community (see Mr. Card’s first point no. 4). These myths speak of our violence as being against people or ideologies labeled evil. Those we fight are infidels, evil, or any other pejorative. In essence, they are different, not like us. …

Mr. Card suggests that it is wrong to suggest:

“We mistreat other countries. We mistreat the poor. When we’re in conflict with other countries it’s our fault. Of course they hate us — we deserve their hatred. Their cultures are just as good as our culture — in fact, they’re better. Anybody who wants to be a soldier to fight for Amerika is a crypto-fascist, a violent dangerous person. Good people don’t want to be soldiers because soldiers are just killers with permission.”

However, we must be willing to ask the hard questions and not cover up any more murders with stories, with myths, with cairns. We must be willing to give up scapegoating, give up myth telling, and not forget, not cover up. This is the painful truth telling required of Christians. To seek truth wherever it leads. If we mistreat other countries we are not in need of better stories but repentance. If we mistreat the poor we do not tell more myths but begin the painful process of changing our minds (metanoia). If we share a burden of the blame for conflict we do not need to close or keep secret our part but proclaim our guilt from the rooftops and ask for forgiveness. If our modern military does foster a spirit of hating one’s enemies and not turning the other cheek, then we do not need selective narratives but to try and hear the voice of the Samuel’s crying at our national borders and beyond.

If in Mr. Card’s zeal to defend the sacrificing of lives and reluctance to kill pro patria, the truth about our own sins is closed and kept secret, then are we simply engaging in a form of patriotism that is a

“thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us.” War is a Force That Gives US Meaning, 10

… One would hope that after witnessing one of the bloodiest centuries in human history that Mr. Card would realize there is nothing “sweet” or “proper” about nationalism or dying pro patria. Isn’t this the very platitude that history’s worst tyrants have exploited with stories and narratives about their cultural goodness? The proper decorum when we are asked to kill and die for national myths is to cry repentance. …

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Posted by on May 20, 2010 in History

 

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