Polling data suggests that the Democratic Party will sweep the election. Joe Biden will become the 46th American president, the U.S. Senate will tilt Blue by a couple of seats, and the U.S. House of Representatives will remain solidly Democratic, though it’ll take time for all votes to be counted and legal skirmishes resolved.
Even with Donald Trump’s hoped-for retirement, and possible arrest for racketeering or other criminal activities, his ascendance laid bare ugly aspects of our nation’s soul. It’s become unmistakably apparent that many of us (still) don’t like Black or Brown people, believe that our techno-consumerist-capitalistic socio-economy reflects the apex of human achievement, are good with massive species extinction if it increases the easy comfort of daily living, and aren’t all that troubled by inequality, which, under this mindset, simply reflects the proper fruits of meritocracy. Most of us adhere to some of these judgements, as exhibited by our daily behavior.
None of these beliefs are based on empirical knowledge, or science-based insights into how one thing is superior to another. While some of us are certain that humans possess inalienable rights – including freedom from hate, equality in all its forms, and access to high quality education, housing, and health care – none of these have been fully secured or protected, in America or anywhere. Instead, we continue to fight over what we believe is right, value judgements that’re influenced by life experiences, and, more powerfully, individual and collective “master stories.”
Master stories serve to frame our world views, creating a home base for opinions from which it’s difficult to stray. One may fiercely believe, for example, that socks should be put on before shoes, rather than sock shoe, sock shoe; that dishes must be washed before going to bed each day; or that America is and will always be the greatest country on Earth.
These things aren’t true or untrue, bad or good, though following them might lead to better or worse consequences (clean dishes!). Beliefs are transmitted to us by family, friends, social media, television, formal education, even casual encounters. I was shunned for sobbing after being hit by a kickball in grade school, thereby learning that boys don’t cry. Instagram and Tik Tok tell me that being too skinny is morally superior to being too fat. San Francisco is way better than Los Angeles; well, it just is.
Once solidified, we don’t often dig beneath the surface of our master stories. Doing so is hard, potentially disruptive, and anyways things are fine. Like our attitudes about the weather, our understanding of what’s normal can become petrified. It always rained in November growing up, making it weird when it doesn’t, despite the fact that, and setting aside human influences, climate patterns fluctuate over centuries. In middle and high schools, I learned that the founding fathers were flawless; don’t be telling me that they were slaveholding misogynists.
It’s not that we can’t change; we can and do. But it takes effort, both to shed embedded principles and forgive others for continuing to hold on to theirs. A natural outcome of altering a master story is for those transformed to urgently want to, metaphorically and sometimes politically, kill what they’ve left behind, while those still happy with newly-determined stale or harmful beliefs feel hurt and angry at being attacked.
Generation gaps, culture wars, “cancel cultures,” social and political movements emerge when a significant slice of the population has let go of one story to embrace another. These are wrought moments, deeply threatening to those holding tight to an aging master story, bewildering to those who feel freshly liberated, superior, in their knowledge that their newly discovered truth is right, just, and obvious. It’s akin to when one five-year-old smugly devastates another by announcing that Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, aren’t real; or worse yet, that their parents are getting divorced. It’s a shattering moment; a world has been destroyed its replacement more conceptual than real.
America has twisted its way through numerous narratives, fitfully and unevenly changing its beliefs, never universally. Amidst the conflicting stories, equally contradictory truths have unfolded, facts that are not, and should not, be consigned to being opinions.
In the moment America was born it allowed Blacks to be enslaved. It took a gruesome Civil War to unshackle these prisoners. To this day their descendants remain subject to numerous forms of oppression, including substandard schools, lower wages, and an unjust criminal system. Native tribes were systematically slaughtered, the survivors herded into the least productive lands, given false promises, and then largely ignored. Behind closed doors but caught on tape, President Richard Nixon made seriously racist statements, including speculating that it might be salutatory to kill a few Black activists as a way to smother the civil rights movement. The Iraq War was based on lies, mostly promulgated by the Vice President of the United States. Children have been chronically separated from their parents at the southern border, families jailed because they illegally crossed a border in search of a better life, believing in America’s original master story, unaware that the tale only really applied to White people.
True too is that the United States is home to roughly 45 million immigrants, more than any other nation. We’re generous people, oft ready to help a stranger, donate to charity, or volunteer. The U.S. is the center of global invention, where the light bulb, airplanes, computers, and cellphones were created. We’re leaders in aerospace, the only people to have walked on the moon. Americans have won more Olympic medals than any other country. Much of the music the world listens to – jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, country, folk, rhythm and blues, soul, and gospel – comes from the U.S., melodies made possible by making room for those millions of immigrants.
We’re a great, flawed nation, intermittently grappling with, and occasionally rewriting, our master story. We’ve demonstrated repeatedly that change doesn’t come easily, that to develop in ways that first a few, then many of us want – related to civil, ecological, gender, and sexual rights – requires a fierce, sometimes long, occasionally bloody, fight. We forget that transformation is rarely easy, which is what enables us to engage in the next battle.
Sometimes the contest takes place in clean, well-lit rooms, with careful listening and respectful applause. Other times we struggle and slip in the mud, wrestling one another to exhaustion in a dirty, smelly, pit, nothing resolved. Still, our ultimate ability to alter the narrative, to accommodate someone else’s story, is one of our greatest strengths. It’s a big part of what makes us Americans.
The View is sponsoring a once-monthly, year-long, small group series examining master stories. Tuition is $1,000. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.