As we prepare for the election and a torrent of stories — good and bad — in the coming week, I thought it helpful to turn back to a book that reminds us of the importance of stories, how we tell them, and how we process them.* In doing so, I also want to bring in the work of another writer — a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative — who speaks to the information crisis we face in America because of the deliberate and extensive efforts of political actors and media giants like Fox to poison the citizenry’s understanding of public affairs.
Let’s begin with Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. Steve Almond’s impressive yet troubling book was written about the American psyche in 2018 by the New York Times best-selling author and co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast (with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed). In it, Almond looks at the many reasons we came to be where we are today as a nation. The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”
Almond writes, “I’ve placed my faith in stories because I believe them to be the basic unit of human consciousness. The stories we tell, and the ones we absorb, are what allow us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience.” He quotes the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who insists that our species came to dominate the world in part because of “our unique cognitive ability to believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend beyond our bonds beyond clan loyalties.”
“For most of our history, humans relied upon folklore and religious parable to conceptualize the common good. But much of our progress as a species, Harari insists, is a function of cultures shifting from superstitious stories to verifiable ones, as happened during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. Our embrace of reason and empiricism has saved a lot of people from dying of illness and starvation. It has led to a standard of living within many precincts of the world that would have been unimaginable in previous epochs. It has not, however, changed the fact that we still choose the stories by which we construct reality (emphasis added).
What happens, then, when some of the stories we tell ourselves are bad, meaning fraudulent either by design or negligence? What happens when the stories we tell ourselves are frivolous? Or when we ignore stories that are too frightening to confront? What happens when we fall under the sway of stories intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance? The principle argument of this book is that bad stories lead to bad outcomes (emphasis added).
Almond asserts that we are unwilling to take reality seriously, so we turn to bad stories as some sort of salve for our bruised psyche. He adds, however, that if “bad stories become pervasive enough they create a new and darker reality.” I believe we can already see this new reality in several areas of American life today.
“The crisis we face isn’t only political. It isn’t just economic. It isn’t about public health alone. It’s also an information crisis. Too many people in too many places in this country believe fantastical lies as if they were true.“
It isn’t just manufactured scandal — such as I wrote about recently — that is the problem. It is “lying at scale with the intent to injure.” Stoehr notes that these bad stories are designed “to poison the citizenry’s understanding of public affairs” and create “conditions in which the truth itself is partisan.” As Almond notes, these types of stories are designed to sow discord. And Stoehr insists that while these bad stories may be constructed by conservative media, we really need to be aware of when the mainstream media “play along…enabling the above. They are, in a very real sense, complicit in our betrayal.”
Stoehr’s full piece is worth the read because he elaborates on five lies, five bad stories if you will, “that members of the Washington press corps accept as true or habitually repeat uncritically in their reporting. In the process, they launder these lies, give them credibility and legitimacy, and mask their illicit and injurious origins.”
What are those Big Five lies? I’m going to preview three, and encourage you to read Stoehr’s article to see the other two.
- Originalism, which is “the idea that US Supreme Court justices should interpret federal law and the US Constitution ‘as written,’ not as they might wish they were written. It’s a lie.” Historian Joseph Ellis has a great deal to say about this lie in his book American Dialogue, where he quotes Justice William Brennan’s description of originalism as “arrogance cloaked as humility.”
- Pro-gun. “The Republicans are not “pro-gun,” writes Stoehr. “They are pro-intimidation. They are pro-anarchy. They are pro-vigilante justice.” Look at all the so-called militia groups inspired by Donald Trump’s language to arm themselves to the teeth, march on state capitols to complain about public health regulations, and plot to kidnap duly-elected governors if you want to see the truth behind this bad story.
- The sanctity of life. Anyone who has heard me on this topic in recent years knows where I stand…which is alongside Stoehr calling this out for the hypocrisy it is. The idea that “life” is so precious “abortion must be outlawed” is conditional. What about the sanctity of life when it comes to capital punishment; taking away support for the sick, hungry and poor; or mistreating the 550 immigrant orphans seized at the border?
As a lover of history, I believe in the power of stories. Like each of you, I’ve heard them my entire life. As I have written in the past, people I love told stories that were wrong — bad stories — which perpetuated a false reality that was focused on keeping one race of people under the control of another and to “warp our fears into loathing.”
It has also led me to think about the personal stories I tell myself and others. When I get a (minor) fact wrong I’m fond of saying, “this story may not be factually accurate, but it is true,” meaning that it points us in the right direction. Almond, in a response to a question from his seven-year-old son about the truth of a set of stories, says something similar when he notes that the truth of certain stories isn’t really the point. “A story didn’t have to be true (which I interpret as factual) to produce a good outcome, to help people behave a little more kindly.” Sometimes the intent of the storyteller to either build up or tear down is the determining factor of a story’s value. Stoehr argues that we have too many people with too much power who are working overtime to tell stories to tear down people they hate. They are doing this to sow discord and maintain minority power over the majority.
There is much that has to be done, and we will need work at the national level to begin to reclaim the public’s airways for truth telling. That will require long, hard, tedious, never-ending work. On the personal level, if we can recognize the value of others as well as our role in listening to, understanding, and honoring their stories, I believe we’ll be on the right path to taking reality seriously. And we’ll be helping, each in our own ways, in the work to correct bad stories.
More to come…
*Earlier versions of my review of Bad Stories first appeared in 2018, shortly after it was published.