I‘ve been saying for a long time that the way in which our environment is particularly abnormal, compared to most of the history of the human race, is that we’re saturated with story.
Humans like stories. We seek them out. It is entirely possible that is the difference between us and the various human breeds that existed before us. Of course, we can’t know unless someone invents a machine to observe the past. Pre-history by definition left no records of stories, unless, of course, cave paintings are that. It is possible they are.
But ever since humans have been humans we’ve had stories. Personal stories, family stories, tribe stories, sometimes all of them blending together, melding together.
Story is useful in a way, as an invention, hence my saying that might have been what gave us an edge. I mean we’re fairly sure the difference between us and the other primates is that we can pass knowledge better through the generations, so it accumulates. So, language, sure, is an edge. But sometime probably at the dawn of unimaginably early pre-history, some genius realized that story was the teaspoon full of sugar that made the medicine go down easier.
And we crave story. Even people who are not aware of craving it, or who think they don’t like fiction (my mom is one of those) crave story. It might manifest as an interest in history or mythology, or something, but it is story.
Now, we’ve always been pretty good, clever apes that we are, at getting what we need. Grandmothers told stories to their grandkids, kids made up stories for each other, some of us roll our own, and then there were tribal stories. They wouldn’t be transmitted orally, memorized with great trouble, at a time when people lived very close to the bone, and told retold and embellished, unless they were a need, a craving of our kind.
Sure they “explained things” or at least a lot of them did. But that was the superficial utility. Just like mom who listens to history and mythology compulsively, because “they’re real” that ignores the fact that the explanations or the injunctions were wrapped up in story. A far more elaborate story than needed.
There are linguists that think that the indo-european culture was a culture and a common-wealth, not necessarily a race or a tribe, and that the major drive for their conquering of Europe was in fact the big banquets they gave and the sagas told at those banquets. There is some indication that each new tribe, coming in contact with these, western-civ’s ur-ancestors, invented a story to add to the tribal sagas, one that explained they always belonged, etc.
And civilization moved on.
It’s just that our craving for story has since the twentieth century become more easy to gratify. There are stories everywhere you look. Songs are stories, and are delivered whether you want to hear them or not in most public spaces. Newspapers shaped “narrative” into stories, for easier interest and delivery. Books are… trivially cheap. (And now in audible, you can consume them while you clean. Honestly, without audio books my house would be knee deep in trash. I bore easily. I’d never clean.) TV and movies might actually be able to implant false memories.
My name is Sarah A. Hoyt and I’m a story junkie. We didn’t have a TV till I was 8, so that is probably why I’m more immune to that form of story telling than to others. But I listen, read, and make up stuff ALL THE TIME.
My morning used to start with three newspapers read back to back: the Colorado Springs paper, the Denver paper, and the Wall Street Journal.
Now it often starts with a skim of the usual blogs, to make sure no one destroyed the world while I was asleep (you know I can’t trust you.)
I find audio stories particularly enthralling, because as a sick little kid I lived for when my brother would read me stories. When I re-read Enid Blyton (don’t judge me) or other early tales, I hear them in my brother’s voice.
This is of course all well and good. The problem is that narrative — stories if you will — can be weaponized.
I don’t know how long ago that started. I know that in one of China’s (many) fits of book burning, someone outlawed grannies telling stories. I know that the Tudors got hold of probably the greatest story telling genius the world has ever seen and used him to burnish their image to a shine. (I’m not one of the people obsessed with rehabilitating Richard III, which by itself is almost a shock, since I have such a need to rehabilitate so many historical figures, from Kit Marlowe to Kathryn Howard. Because I’m not right in the head, that’s why, but the truth is that on the bare facts of it, we have no indication he was any worse than most of the people involved in the bloody mess of the time, and he might have been better. Yeah, we do know that the princes in the tower did die, but it’s a very cold case, and again, unless we develop a way to look back at the past, we’ll never be able to tell how or who actually killed them. Even if it was someone in Richard’s service, it might well have been one of those “will no one rid me…” However, we all use Richard III as a byword for evil and a forerunner of Hitler. Meanwhile the Tudors who sent the same proportion of their subjects to the block as the great tyrants of the 20th century killed of theirs, are made out to be the “good” guys.) And we know now that poor, doomed Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake.” And that the idea the populace had of the royal couple complete with orgies and all out sexual perversions (which weirdly would have applied to the grandfather of Louis XVI) was a tissue of lies made up by the press. Scurrilous stories. Fake news, if you will.
But the 20th century, coming at the apex of the industrial revolution, which tended to the centralization and industrialization of everything, including communication, made it possible to tell a unified story.
Needless to say the party of big, unified and centralized government, got there first. Those that thought the state needed to change humanity took full advantage of it.
We know that FDR was made into what people thought him to be by the stories. The idea he saved us from the great depression (instead of causing it, and only letting go of the economy enough it recovered when WWII distracted him) is a media creation. And many people still believe it.
Camelot appears to have been a photogenic man and woman lashed together in a semblance of marriage which hid a whole lot of #metoo and sex for money, but hey, the media, the books, the movies even made a rather flawed man into a king of legend.
And a millenial friend going through his comic book collection, reminded me recently that one of the superhero comics had a cameo by Clinton (I don’t really remember it) and that the opening for a cartoon of the time had Billy boy playing his saxophone. I don’t remember either cartoon or comic, but when friend said their names (which have vacated my head) I recognized them as influential in the nineties.
The train wreck of Obama appearing in various comics as a superhero is a given. Story. Just story used as a weapon of control.
And yes, we know that the story is fracturing. I don’t think Obama got as much mileage out of it as Clinton did.
But stories as a political weapon would be relatively (very relatively) harmless if all they did was burnish this or that historical figure, or give them an undeserved glow of success. Because people can look at those things and go “oh, propaganda.” That has developed, too, as a way to counter the pervasiveness of centralized story.
Slightly more effective are the stories about pet causes of the left. I find Europe, where there are no dissenting blogs, and contrary facts don’t get reported, everyone thinks we’re losing glaciers and might never see snow again, or whatever. (Glaciers are changing, not so much vanishing.) They are therefore far more amenable to draconian measures to stop this doom of which there is no objective sign.
Then there are the people who are still convinced we’re on track for explosive over population, though the danger in western countries (and probably all over the world, if we could trust those statistics) is rather the other way. Because there were so many stories, books, movies, made about over population. And even though if we were on that track it would already have shown, they read these stories as kids and it became part of their unexamined idea of how the world will work.
This causes second order effects, like “plant based diets” which were supposed to counter the inevitable coming famine, and were therefore “sold” (in story including in scientific publications) as the healthiest thing ever, and which might be single-handedly responsible for various health crisis.
But there is more than that. When Reagan took the presidency, the boomer generation was just starting to write, edit and consume vast quantities of story.
And suddenly stories, particularly those dealing with the future, went to grimdark, we’re all living under the bridge and eating garbage. I called this “the rusty future” and it drove me insane, but it invaded everything. It invaded everything, because most of the writers, and most of the publishers believed this was what would happen since Reagan had deviated from the policies (socialized everything, centralized everything, and nanny state) which, despite their not working, every story had told them was the way to go. So publishers and writers panicked and foresaw a grim, dark future. (Ginjer Buchanan, sometime shortly after Bush was elected, said that now horror would become ascendant, because under republicans “all we can do is scream and die.” I don’t think she’s particularly unique for her generation or her profession. At least not from the reaction to this comment, and other things I overheard at conventions.)
So what is the problem with that?
The problem is that humans attach to the narrative they heard when very young. They fixate on it like it’s a true foretelling of the future.
To some extent, western civ has been telling itself bad things about itself since World War One. This was partly the shock of finding they weren’t nearly as civilized as they thought they were and partly well… frankly communist propaganda. If you read books written at that time they’re a bizarre stew of both.
But for a while it was all going to be redeemed by communism, or at least “socialism” which was really like communism but said that way so as not to scare the rubes, which was going to give us a shiny future, where everyone was taken care of and there was no need and no illness.
And then Reagan happened and the wall fell. And even getting Clinton in wasn’t enough to change the tenor of the stories, because at the back of their heads they knew that people resisted this shiny future and that the Soviet Union had proven to be hell on Earth.
So they lost faith, again, just as they had after WWI, and since then their writing has been oh… alternate history, rejection of science, “problematic” (rusty, really, but they want to sound smart) futures and everything bad sad and going to hell in a handbasket.
The problem is the people who grew up on these tales are now adults, and that adults have a way of internalizing the fables of their childhood unexamined. There are any number of people out there waiting for — and frankly wanting — doomsday any day.
I’ve heard them. Doomsday, like the boomers “come the revolution” gives them a chance to settle scores and even up circumstances with all those people they feel should NOT have done well. And it will prove once and for all that our way is wrong and their way is right.
These are sane and even nice people. Consciously they don’t want things to fall apart. Subconsciously, though…
So what to do about it?
Western civ is poisoned with stories against itself, choked full of the idea it must die that the world must live. And these stories have corrupted many, maybe most people. Yes, on all political sides. Our last president was definitely an agent of these stories.
Like Puppet Masters, these stories sit in the subconscious and direct people against reality, against their own observation, against their (or anyone’s) best interest.
We are the cure.
We can’t stop the world being full of story. But we must change the story. We must change the movie in people’s heads. We must give people a future of hope and life.
Go write, read, watch, create.
The future is ours. Claim it.