It’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.
Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.
That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.
I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”
And here we are, marking the passing of one era into another. I want to be optimistic, but I can’t. I can see how some people are, because for them, this was the last chance. They’ve been watching their jobs and communities withering away, and they blame regulation and government and outsiders. For them, this seems like a hopeful moment, when maybe something will change and the days will return when all you needed to get a good job was a high school degree and determination.
Those days will not return. It wasn’t government that took them, nor regulation, nor outsiders: the world has just changed, and it changed as a direct consequence of those days. America, as much as any nation, has insisted on a global role, and yet being an economic “leader” in the world doesn’t mean good jobs anymore—it means cheap jobs, and money concentrated in the hands of the powerful, and the rest of us are just grist.
Trump can’t fix this world any more than Obama could. Obama said “yes we can,” but his best wasn’t good enough. Trump says a bunch of vague things about how he will, and people believe him. They believe him because they want to. As a consequence of that deep and understandable yearning, an entire section of the country is embracing a great fiction. Here is the fiction:
People lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.
“How are you today?”
“Fine, how are you?”
I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.
That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.
Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.
Horror is all too common of late. It indicts us, and our inaction, and our self-righteousness. It leaves us searching blindly for narrative, for meaning, for sense. It drives us to a place of confusion and darkness because we already have a story, and the story is about being a beacon of the free world and a bastion of hope and a place where anyone can be great, and this is not that story.
Instead, this is a story about how our division and our fear and our posturing makes us weak. This is a story about a nation where horror is disclaimed, but nothing is done to prevent it. This is a story about championing liberty and justice, but refusing to ensure it for all. This is a story about the apotheosis of freedom through empty rituals, while the real freedoms we need are marked daily and ignored.
The people who died in Orlando this past weekend are our common responsibility, and the direct result of our paralysis and division. This is not the first time. It is not the second, or the tenth, or the hundredth, or the thousandth. If we continue as we have, this will not be the last time, because every other time we have done nothing.
So this is a story about us, and our monumental failure to be who we say we are.
Perhaps I am too much a student of Tim O’Brien, but I believe that the purpose of stories, literal or otherwise, is to contain truth. In his magnificent opus, The Things They Carried, O’Brien gave us the truth of being a soldier during the Vietnam War. It did not much matter that many of the things in his book were not literal events, because they contained the rich truth of that experience. Stories shine when they convey a truth of experience too big for simple events.
Which is not to say events do not matter. There is another, related role for stories: to provide context for the world in which we live. They are foils for everything we see and experience, catalogues of sensation and emotion, especially and personally constructed to anchor us on deep, shifting sands. So we would like our stories to feel true, in Tim O’Brien’s sense, and also be true, in a more literal sense. And yet, we also conflate those two.
We all tell ourselves stories about the world—stories to help us reduce the component parts into things we can understand. Sometimes those stories describe the world, and sometimes they describe what we wish the world could be. Usually, I think, they are a little of both.
The edges are always fuzzy, and the connections can be tenuous, and sometimes there are gaps in the stories we want to tell ourselves. Sometimes we just leave those gaps there, unanswered and honest. But sometimes we flail in the fuzzy gaps, and sometimes we try to fill them in.
It’s almost a meme, outside of scientific circles, to use quantum physics for this; after all, quantum physics is pretty cool, pretty attention-grabbing, and pretty unintuitive. Can’t quantum effects be that little bit of magic we secretly hope for?