Tales of Woe and Intrigue

by | Apr 8, 2005

I’m frequently surprised by the number of intelligent and seemingly self-aware people who not only fall for but also promulgate sob stories. I’m talking about culturally mediated and validated sob stories, choruses of “ain’t it awful’’ sung in settings ranging from resigned to righteous, ironic to frantic (my fingers typed “fanatic,” but I caught it in time). It appears that parroting one or another catastrophic forecast about the state of the world, the unlikelihood of happiness, the fate of the whales – whatever – is the contemporary substitute for confronting the ambiguous and the unknown.
I suppose this is understandable. The idea of acknowledging the enormousness of what we do not know, yet must consider, is more than disconcerting. If, as individuals, we quail at the prospect of stepping ever nearer to what could as easily be the edge of a cliff as the gates to prosperity, it should come as no surprise that publicly entertaining the difficult questions that face us and stepping out without guarantee of success is just too appallingly risky to consider A nation trained by cereal ads and sitcoms, we are ill equipped to engage in explorations that require us to abandon our preconceptions and boldly risk being wrong in the service of finding out what works when our choices entail consequences more chilling than what tie to wear or whether to opt for paper or plastic.
As far as I can see, the meme that produces this lily-livered response to complex situations is egalitarian. It can be found among conservative and liberal academics, cops, bartenders, attorneys, soccer moms, fashion models, not to mention talk radio hosts. Libertarians, Communists, Greens, etal are not by any means immune. To be sure, the content of the story varies from conservative to liberal, from environmental hawk to corporate vulture, from soccer mom to cattle rancher, however the structure is remarkably consistent. (In brief: invocation of a higher principle or authority; finding in the opposition’s idiosyncrasies (clothing, gestures, grooming, idiom) evidence of malice, ignorance, or vice; citation of a revered document (The Bill of Rights, The Bible) without context or exegesis; prediction of disaster; and the presence of a cloying tone of self-satisfied kinship when speaking with those who agree or hectoring correction with those who don’t. It is the family resemblance among the declarations and manifestos of disparate interest groups that first drew my attention to the fact that while the words may change, the tune is the same. Ever since, I’ve wondered if anybody else has noticed.
Perhaps this is simply an attempt to justify my own position on the issues of our time, that is: none of us knows how to even talk about this mess, let alone arrive at strategies for turning dung into compost into orchards, and the sooner we agree on that, the sooner we can pour our different perspectives into a pot and cook up a new soup. Having stood solidly for more years than I care to admit in the center of “I don’t know” would not appear to distinguish me as a leading light. Still, I’ve yet to find another stance from which learning can occur. And learning, my friends, is what we all need to survive.