When public narratives fail, can literature guide America?

Leave it to Joan Didion. In her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” published in 1967, she identified a sort of shift in our culture, the collapse of collective narrative. “The center didn’t hold up,” she begins, before going into detail: “the occasional murder, wandering children, abandoned houses, and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scribbled “. It’s a set of images that I find myself returning to here in the summer of 2022, when the Supreme Court voted to strike down Roe vs. Wade; the findings of a House Select Committee, set up to investigate the attack on the Capitol, are considered by a considerable percentage of the population as “fake news”; and a series of mass shootings, culminating in the July 4th ambush of an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, turned our communities and schools, once again, into halls of killing.

What we see is not a matter of disagreement or debate. Rather, it is an expression of the collapse of society’s public narrative: the fragmentation of the commons, if such a term can still be said to apply. How to find oneself in a landscape where fiction is now considered as fact and the fact is dismissed as mere opinion?

At one point, we relied – or imagined we did – on public narratives to defend the center. America’s goal, its measure (so to speak), has been to be progressive: to include more people, to extend more rights. I believed in it as firmly as anything I have ever believed about this tragic country.

I now believe we are lost.

What Didion foresaw – “we could no longer ignore the void”, she writes, “no longer pretending that the atomization of society could be reversed” – became our way of life, manipulated by information that does not are steps and flows that amplify ignorance. It took barely 60 years to go from “We will overcome” to “You will not replace us”. This is how our story unfolded. This is how we got lost.

I’m pointing here, yes I am, anti-vaxxers, homophobes and anti-trans haters, election deniers, traitors who stormed the Capitol. Great people on both sides; all lives matter– I for one cannot imagine finding common ground with replacement theory supremacists, or, for that matter, proponents of the big lie, that the 2020 election was stolen, propagated by the former president and his supporters. But I also wonder about the future of the country, if there is even one, if it is an objective that we continue to share?

America’s goal, its measure (so to speak), has been to be progressive: to include more people, to extend more rights. I believed in it as firmly as anything I have ever believed about this tragic country. I now believe we are lost.

There’s a meme I keep coming across, quoting Hitler’s head of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it, eventually people will believe it.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t seem like something Goebbels ever said. However, let’s stay there for a moment because it is also instructive. Certainly, Goebbels could having made such a statement; it pretty much matches everything he thought. This meme, should I say, is meant as a fix, a critique of those who have been duped. At the same time, it also highlights a wider danger: the fact that all of us, under the right circumstances, can be fooled. .

The same was true in Didion’s time as well, when many mainstream public narratives were authoritarian and divisive. I am thinking of the quotas imposed on Jewish students, among others, in American universities, which lasted until the 1960s; the housing covenants and covenants that have prevailed across the country; the restriction or outright non-existence of the rights of women and LGBTQIA+.

Yet, in the age of social media – which is now presented as a discourse in its own right – the progress of the past decades seems illusory, if not downright theoretical. “Given that Twitter serves as a de facto public square, failure to uphold the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines democracy,” Elon Musk tweeted on March 26, shortly before bidding 41.4 billion dollars to buy the company. (He’s now heading to court to step down from the case.) Musk is exaggerating, of course; less than a quarter of American adults use the platform, roughly the number who voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

On my feeds, I see the algorithm working: the trends are adapted to my research and my predilections, intended to magnify, and encourage, my opinions and my convictions. In other words, the public narrative has become a private, self-selected narrative. Nothing is considered or reflected. Rather, it is a collection of self-fulfilling echoes, less conversation than monologue in overlapping snippets of text or images, sound and fury meaning nothing.

Faced with this, I turn away from the public narrative. I seek solidarity or consolation in the private narratives of others – literature primarily. Why? Because in the books and the essays, I find a more basic humanity (which is not the same thing as a feeling of peace). So many writers have been through what we’re up against, and worse. Some survived and some did not. But looking directly at their situation, with grace and clarity, they offer a model of how I want to think and behave.

And so I look at George Orwell, who warns in his essay “Inside the Whale” that for people brought up like us in a country based on the rule of law, “things like purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial, etc., etc., are too remote to be terrifying. They can swallow totalitarianism because they only have experience with liberalism. It is a reminder of the dangers we face, a reminder that we must remain aware. Or I consider Anne Frank, writing from the Achterhuis: “I see the world gradually turning into a desert, I hear the thunder which is always approaching, which will destroy us too, I I can feel the suffering of millions of people, and yet if I look up into the heavens, I believe that everything will be fine, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return.

When my children were young, I liked to imagine – as did the artist Wallace Berman before me – that we could make a revolution one household at a time. Although I continue to believe that change starts at home, that too goes both ways. The ecstatic social revolution that Didion criticized, what has it taught us? That utopia and dystopia are intertwined.

Several days now, I don’t know what to do with it. Several days, it makes me want to retire. Retreat, however, is just another word for surrender, and surrender comes at far too high a cost. “[W]That was the goal,” asks James Baldwin in fire next time“the goal of my hi if he did not allow me to behave with love towards others, no matter how they behaved towards me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the trumpet of judgment answered. But what I did was my responsibility, and I should also respond.

I don’t believe in the trumpet of judgment. It is not an emblem of my faith. But what I believe in is the question that Baldwin raises: how to live responsibly, not only for your own future but also for that of everyone else. I’m not an altruist and I’m filled with anger, but what else can I do?

We cannot choose the times in which we live, only how we react.

About Adam Gray

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