A mythology is a culture’s device for interpreting its reality and acting on it. But what if the reality changes and the mythology does not? — Robert Reich, Tales of a New America
Someone once said—it may have been Joseph Campbell—that there are only six stories in human experience and we keep retelling them with infinite variations. To follow the trail of these stories back to their primal plot lines is like retracing our DNA back through the millenia to what geneticist Bryan Sykes has called the first mothers, the Seven Daughters of Eve.
We’re constantly looking for patterns in the restless flow of time. We tell stories to make order out of chaos, to build meaning where there are simply isolated facts and events untethered to a cultural context. Robert Reich says every culture has its definitive parables and the ones America has lived by are four: they are The Mob at the Gates, The Triumphant Individual, The Benevolent Community, and The Rot at the Top. While they are situated in different histories and facts, they interpret and explain reality, they give us a place to stand as individuals and as a people, and they bring coherence to our experience.
Our political rhetoric, says Reich, is not so much pragmatic as prophetic. Our politicians, aided and abetted by the press—which is simultaneously fawning and recalcitrant—speak in tones both messianic and evangelical. We are the land of destiny, the hope of the world, the shining city set on a hill. In the parlance of Christianity, America is the kingdom that is and is yet to come. In its cruder forms all that destiny is reduced to a bumper sticker we used to see in the 60s: America—Love it or Leave it.
One story that has transfixed the press on both sides of the Atlantic is that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (aka DSK), the former head of the International Monetary Fund, forced to resign because of his brutal sexual assault upon a hotel housekeeper in his penthouse suite at the Sofitel New York. Headlines screamed his guilt, the Manhattan District Attorney confidently locked up the case, and a flood of photos showed the accused, grim-faced and dispirited, headed for Rikers Island for a sleepover. It was a classic story of Rot at the Top in which a wealthy, powerful, and arrogant man runs amok and expects to get away with it. The trajectory was predictable, having been played out numerous times in recent years, with resulting profits and losses calculated not only in dollars but in morality lessons. The rich and powerful overstep the bounds, as is their nature, and get caught. They are brought low (remember Martha Stewart and Michael Milken?), suffer the shame and loss they so richly deserve, and later are returned to grace and wealth in a triumphant second act. Well, not every time, but often enough that we were not surprised when they did their time and reemerged on Larry King or Oprah. We loathed them and admired them, despising their crassness and greed while assuming they couldn’t be all bad, seeing as how they had worked hard and prospered against the odds. That feral drive to succeed, corrupted though it was, could also be seen as Just the Way Things Are.
In a stunning reversal of fortune, prosecutors in the DSK case announced that the prime witness, the victim, the maid who had been forced into unspeakable sexual acts by this French predator, was a woman of no virtue, a liar and a cheat who had conned her way into the camp with a baseless story of gang rape in a far-off country and with suspicious connections to genuine low-lifes and criminals. Now the tide surges the other direction and we see the Mob at the Gates, desperate, dangerous foreigners of no breeding or class, who will do anything to get into this country and enjoy the benefits reserved for the hard-working American people. DSK, released from house arrest, gets his electronic ball-and-chain removed, gets his $1 million bail money back, and permits himself the barest hint of a smile as he steps outside for the first time in weeks. Will he be restored to his former glory? Ah, but someone else has taken his job, a woman all parties agree will restore the tarnished image of the IMF. And thus DSK is free to pursue his destiny and to quite possibly become the head of France, Inc. someday soon. The balance is restored, the mighty are back on top, and the lowly get what they deserve.
But the story is most assuredly not over, though media attention will no doubt turn its restless gaze elsewhere very soon. In a binary world of black and white, rich and poor, powerful and weak, DSK’s circle will see class and power vindicated while others will smell a conspiracy of the first rank. How could it be otherwise when our cultural drug of choice seems to be the “us and them” dichotomy? That perspective turns issues of justice into entertainment. The struggle for truth gets lost in the call-’em-as-we-see-’em political posturing and the only ones who win are the lawyers and the media moguls. Such a story seems to define America at its basest level these days.
On this 4th of July at countless parades, barbecues, and political rallies, America and “what it stands for” will be invoked. Speakers will vilify the opposition and deify their own. There will be vague but inspiring references to the Founding Fathers and the dust bunnies of popular history will be yanked out from under the bed. Lines will be drawn, ultimatums delivered, much air will be heated, and the bands will play. The comforting illusion of a world in which we “win” and current enemies, domestic and foreign, “lose,” will play out as the sun sets and the fireworks begin.
And yet, the wonderful thing about America, the characteristic that offers us the best hope in these sharply divisive times, is the willingness to try something new. The new for us would be the finding of stories which enlarge the boundaries of “us” and which quietly dissolve the brittle ramparts of our fearful individualism. The challenge, says Reich, “is to create settings in which obligation and trust can take root, supported by stories that focus our attention on discovering possibilities for joint gain and avoiding the likelihood of mutual loss.” So perhaps we could rediscover an old story—E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one)—and add to it something new: “We’re one, but we’re not the same.”