What’s Our Story?

How do we defend Western values if we no longer believe the story that used to justify them?

I’m not usually a David Brooks fan. Too often his columns remind me of the “big thinks” of Dr. Moreau‘s upgraded ape-man; he seems far too impressed with his own ability to take on such deep subjects, and has far too little of substance to say about them. His column this Friday “The Crisis of Western Civ” raises a typically Brooksian big-think topic, and as usual provides few useful hints of where to go with it. But this time, he has at least spotlighted a question the rest of us would do well to think about: If Western society no longer feels comfortable telling the Greece-to-Rome-to-Europe story (in which progress’ forward march leads to democracy, science, and human rights), what story should we be telling?

Societies, like individuals, motivate themselves with stories. Individuals often have life crises when the stories they’ve been telling stop working: When the save-the-world or rule-the-world ambitions that got you through school become untenable in middle age, you have a mid-life crisis. The death of a child can leave a parent facing not just grief, but also a who-am-I-now question. Hitting retirement can be a crisis for someone whose story has been all about career and organizational success.

Countries and civilizations do the same thing. Soviet Communism, for example, fell for a lot of reasons, but one important one was that its idealistic story (about leading the world’s oppressed masses in a revolution that would achieve the perfect society) stopped being credible. If you couldn’t believe that any more, then the Party was just another ladder to climb to get more privileges. So who would sacrifice for it or stick by it when times got tough?

Brooks points out that western societies, and America in particular, used to have an equally compelling story: Progress. A representative democracy that respects individual rights, a wide-ranging public debate that allows people of many views to speak their minds without violence, the march of science towards an ever-broader objective truth, and a corresponding march of technology that creates an ever-expanding abundance — this was presented as more than just a trend. It was the “end of history“, the goal that humanity had been consciously or unconsciously advancing towards since it split off from the apes.

And we were the vanguard of that capital-P Progress. It was our job, in Europe and the United States, to perfect Progress and teach it to the rest of the world, much of which was still in some primitive state of ignorance.

Like all stories, Progress was true only up to a point, and got pushed well past that point. Our role as the vanguard of Progress turned into the white man’s burden, and justified the abuses of colonialism and slavery. In practice, the story often turned out to mean little more than freedom and abundance for us at the expense of everyone else. The view of the material world as something to master in our quest for abundance, and a corresponding disrespect for the complexity of the natural systems that regulated life on Earth prior to our ascendancy, has led to mass extinctions of non-human species and the looming crisis of climate change.

So the story of Progress’ triumph has, particularly in academia, gotten replaced — or at least supplemented — by the story of Progress’ tragedy. And that has resulted in a generation of well-educated potential leaders who don’t really believe in the root story of the West. Or maybe they just believe in it half-heartedly.

That’s what worries Brooks: Representative democracy, the rule of law, human rights, science, objective truth, and so on — those are still good things, they are under attack, and they need more than a half-hearted defense. As Putin-style nationalist autocracy starts spreading across the world, as fundamentalist Islam abroad and fundamentalist Christianity at home threaten to turn back the clock to less enlightened eras, defenses of Western values are disturbingly tepid. [2]

Now let me push beyond what Brooks says, into my own big-think territory. Simplifying greatly, so far societies have come up with only three basic types of motivating stories:

  • tribalism. Those of us united by blood and soil are in a zero-sum competition with everybody else. Either we dominate them or they’ll dominate us. [1]
  • transcendent religion. We worship the universal God who has told us exactly how he wants human beings to live. By adopting our ways and worshiping our God, anyone can join us.
  • humanism. We stand for universal values that apply to everyone whether they believe in them or not. Truth is objective and can be found by rational methods available to all. But our understanding of Truth is always open to improvement through exploration and the development of new ideas.

The Progress story always had elements of tribalism and religion, but at its core was a humanistic vision. As that vision loses strength, rival stories based in tribalism and religion gain.

Trump’s message, at its core, is tribalist — America first; zero-sum relationships with other nations in which we either win or lose; non-white or non-Christian immigrants may try to join us, but they’ll never be “real Americans”; and so on. Trump’s ongoing flirtation with white supremacists is not a coincidence or a marriage of political convenience; they make sense to each other because they’re both telling a tribalist story.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart recently made a related claim about religion: As it loses its transcendent quality, it also reverts to tribalism. The evangelical embrace of Trump — he carried white evangelical Christians by a wider margin than either Romney or McCain — may seem mysterious, given the pasted-on quality of his own Christianity and the total divergence between his agenda and the Sermon on the Mount. But Beinart digs deeper into the numbers: Trump’s earliest and most fervent supporters are evangelicals who don’t go to church.

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

… Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.

So is the alt-right. … Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. [3]

What both Brooks and Beinart are pointing to are the limits of deconstruction. When you critique someone’s worldview — show him that the God of his childhood is too simple to be real, or that his “rational” and “universal” values are hypocritical and self-serving — you hope that he’ll progress towards a more advanced vision, towards a more complex and nuanced religion or a more truly universal humanism. But it’s also possible, perhaps even probable, that the opposite will happen: The failure of his story may lead him to fall back to a more primitive one. And the most primitive story of all — me and mine need to protect ourselves against a rapacious “them” — is incredibly resilient. If all other stories fail you, that one never will.

What Brooks seems to want, by the end of his column, is for critics to let up on the West, its dead-white-men literary tradition, and its unfortunate history of oppression. Beinart doesn’t make such a plea, but it’s easy to come out of his article with a feeling that maybe critics should leave churches alone: If we break them by demoralizing their members, what comes after will probably be worse.

But returning to either the Mother Church or the dead-white-male curriculum seems unlikely to solve the problem. No doubt many voices in the Soviet Union similarly called for a return to true Marxist-Leninist idealism, with less attention to the culture of corruption that was growing as revolutionary fervor faded. It didn’t work for them and a similar relaxation of criticism won’t work for us.

The recent devolutionary trends, though, should at the very least put pressure on those of us who believe in Western values to pay more attention to the positive sources of our faith. One of the many things the 2016 election proved is that our most basic assumptions can’t be taken for granted any more. The virtue of universal human rights and the evil of bigotry is no longer an of course. A belief in objective truth and the scientific method does not go without saying. Neither does democracy and the rule of law.

In the Age of Trump, returning criticism for criticism is not enough. We need to understand why we believe what we believe, why our values are worth defending, and why anybody else should agree with us. OK, the West isn’t the vanguard of History, and there is a lot to regret about our past actions. We have never fully lived by the values we profess. But they continue to be great values, and they deserve a story that explains why.

[1] Note the difference between tribal and tribalist. A tribal story is whatever story a tribe tells, and might be based on a worldview as morally sophisticated as any. A tribalist story is one saying that my tribe is the best and deserves to dominate all the others.

[2] A related problem, which Brooks doesn’t touch, is corruption from within. We tolerate unlimited money in our politics, gerrymandering of our legislatures, presidents taking office after losing the popular vote, a justice system that applies the law differently to whites and non-whites, and many other practices that would outrage us if we truly believed in Western democratic values and saw ourselves as the vanguard of Progress.

[3] American Catholic leaders, for example, understand that they represent not just the white ethnic groups Trump is appealing to, but also a large number of Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

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  • joeirvin  On April 24, 2017 at 10:03 am

    I’m reminded of the “myths men live by” as discussed by Joseph Campbell.

  • Tina Martin  On April 24, 2017 at 10:10 am

    Interesting if you have some time


    • Jeff Rosenberg  On April 24, 2017 at 10:54 am

      What has happened to the “value” of pluralism? This seemed to be a relatively prominent term in describing the United States and its values at least back in the 50s-70s. I think the embrace of tribalism inherently devalues pluralism, for we then need an “other” to demonize. Perhaps we had that other, Communism, outside to unite us within the country.

  • Kcampbell  On April 24, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Quick fix needed. The failure of a his story may lead him to fall back to a more primitive one

  • Anonymous  On April 24, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Both you and David Brooks also have some commonality here in that you seem to long for a capital T Truth, an objective reality that is true whether or not we believe in it. But I suppose you are right in that human beings have always worked from a guiding narrative. The oral histories of the ancients, our education of western civ, religions, all have the same mindset, that we can orient our lives with a guiding compass.

    What if tribalism, religion, and humanism are all just perspectives? Can we finally decide to operate from relativism and the epistomology of a lower case t truth where we come up with an individualized understanding of what matters to us?

    What also, if the 4th option is collapse as a story? What if civilization is doomed to collapse from a lack of resources?

    • weeklysift  On April 24, 2017 at 11:44 am

      The question is: Is there a story about relativism and epistemology that would get people out of bed in the morning?

      • Anonymous  On April 24, 2017 at 12:33 pm

        Yes. The story is to practice listening with compassion and empathy. I suppose that your definition of humanism contains this notion. The other readersr’s comment embracing pluralism seems to be in this same vein. Let’s embrace each other and continue giving all of us the power of connections with other humans

      • weeklysift  On April 24, 2017 at 1:21 pm

        I think you’re pointing to the germ of a motivating story, but as you’re stating it, it will only work for people with a particular character type. For the opposite type, the idea of spending a day listening and empathizing evokes a shoot-me-now reaction.

        For that segment of humanity, the emphasis needs to be on the power of connections with other humans. The story would need to show how including more people within our circle of concern is a gain rather than a concession.

      • Marty  On April 24, 2017 at 3:45 pm

        Economics does a decent job of that; by refusing to expand the circle of concern we squander the production, ideas and breakthroughs that those outside the circle would have provided. So many potential Einsteins whose poverty and hunger robbed them of the opportunity to ever investigate a worthwhile endeavor; so many worthwhile endeavors untouched because the genius who might have solved it was born in the wrong country.

  • Josh Rehman  On April 24, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    What we need is a series of political allegories acted out as wordless dramas of prehistorical hunter-gather tribes. For example: Bob indicates that a place is a poor place to forage, so Alice goes elsewhere. Later, she notices Bob foraging in the place he warned her about. Bob brings back an unusual abundance, drawing praise from the tribe. Bob winks at Alice, acknowledging that he deceived her, got away with it, and was now enjoying the fruits of his deception. Alice now has a decision: she can suck it up (fool me once, etc), she can confront Bob, or she can go to the village Elder, and lodge a complaint against Bob. Let us say she does the latter. Now, the Elder understands that Bob is deceitful but also a valuable member of the tribe – so he punishes Alice for attacking Bob unfairly, “without proof”. The Elder and Bob share a wink after the “trial” – maybe Alice notices, maybe she doesn’t. Later, Bob fabricates an accusation against Alice, and despite an absence of proof, the Elder punishes Alice, and harshly.

    The “right wing” today, which you accurately call tribalists, would side with the Elder. He made the right call because Bob is too valuable to lose, and you do whatever you have to to keep your top producers happy. (Of course, this totally ignores the caustic effect Bob is having on the rest of the tribe, which might very well outweigh his usefulness.)

    The “left” would side with Alice, and “denounce” the Elder. Then they’d accuse both the Elder and Bob of being sexist, racist, part of a patriarchy, and so forth. That would probably make the Elder mad and cause him to punish the left, which (perversely) makes them happy because then this would prove to the rest of the tribe how unfair and evil the Elder really is. But surprise! The Elder punishes the left severely, but the rest of the tribe does nothing! In fact many of them cheer on the Elder, Bob and the enforcers of this “justice”. This cheering endears them to the Elder and Bob, but its also an expression of the simplest possible morality: do what your told by your betters. If you comply, then life is easy! If you make trouble, then you get what you deserve!

    And so on.

  • reverendsax  On April 24, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    I agree entirely (as I usually do). I think you have added something important to the humanist alternative when you say that universal values “apply to everyone whether they believe in them or not.” I recognize this as similar to the science slogan that says “science is true whether you believe it or not.” I see more and more writings about values, perhaps only because I am looking for them, but they are the “baby” that remains when you throw out the “bathwater” of the churches. Unfortunately, there are few places to go where one can learn and celebrate universal values. The schools once did, but that is mostly gone. Is there a way that social media can somehow inundate everyone with the value of humanist values?

  • Nancy  On April 25, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    For all it’s good points the West has never particularly valued stability. We cycle through dystopian dark ages and periods of enlightenment, because people don’t value the infrastructure that supports them, and they destroy it. Like adolescents with no life experience suddenly becoming relationship experts because they’ve read a few articles and lost their virginity. I think this lack of respect for stability keeps our societies juvenile and hobbled when we try to take a long view.
    The value of stability is a story we need to add to our values column.

    “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

  • millennialamerican  On May 14, 2017 at 9:57 am

    First, this was a fantastic post. I very much enjoyed reading it. However, I can’t help but point out that the “story” you think we are losing is exactly the story that has caused the knee jerk reaction of Trump by his “evangelical” adherents.

    The universalism and humanism that you refer to as our story was never a part of our story until Wilson. Our story was always a Christian one. The tales we told ourselves from Thanksgiving to the 4th of July were always ones of providence and thanks. Our story became a combination of a near universal Christianity combined with the rational realization that it must be structurally separated from the state. Everyone from our leaders to our shopkeepers used the language of Christianity in combination with the egalitarian and secular terms of governance that Tocqueville found so unique.

    Over time, as the influence of religion dwindled, its moral universalism was replaced with a language of universal humanism. That language was easily reconciled by the masses who were still very Christian because the values were very much parallel.

    What has happened though is that the adherents to that humanism have moved so far from its roots to the point where they have become absolutists. In their absolute terms, they approach the world the same as a religious person would and believe that what they see as rights not enforced now must now be enforced. These new “rights” and “universal” values have come into conflict with the traditional “universal” values of those who still believe in the old Christian-based story of our past.

    So now it has become a zero sum game on both sides. Whose “universalism” will win the day? The new or the old? In the end, we’ve found ourselves not with a tribalism vs. a universalism, but two tribes warring over what they each see as universal.


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