Here’s a story for you. For years I devoted much of my journalism—op-eds, blogs, even a book about cultural politics—to lamenting the rootlessness of American life and prescribing solutions for it from within the conservative intellectual tradition. Yet I never quite found the wherewithal to live as I preached. It’s as if I didn’t find my own arguments convincing.
Then, from my home in faraway Philadelphia, I watched my sister Ruthie die slowly from cancer, cared for by family and community in our south Louisiana hometown. The doctrines and ideals I professed as true unexpectedly took concrete form in the heartbreaking story unfolding there.
When we arrived from Philadelphia for the funeral, my wife and I were overwhelmed by what we saw. At the little Methodist church where my family has been baptized, married, and given funeral rites for generations, over a thousand townspeople stood outside in the heat and amid mosquitoes to pass by Ruthie’s body and pay their respects. Many of them were my schoolteacher sister’s friends, colleagues, and former students. Nearly all had, in some way, helped support Ruthie and her family throughout her 19-month ordeal.
In that church, on that night, I had an epiphany. This is what community means. This is the way my sister lived: rooted in and faithful to the community that nurtured her, and that she in turn helped to nurture.
My wife and I experienced a conversion. Standing under a live oak tree in front of the church, we grasped that what the people in St. Francisville, Louisiana, had, we needed. The poetry of Ruthie’s passion and the drama of the characters that played their parts did for my wife and me what syllogisms and abstractions could not—change our hearts and, in turn, our lives. Days later, we went back to Philadelphia, told our friends goodbye, and soon thereafter moved to my Louisiana hometown.
What happened brings to mind Pope Benedict XVI’s observation that the most convincing arguments for Christianity aren’t propositional arguments at all but rather the art and the saints that the faith produces—that is, the stories Christians tell and live. Similarly, the ideals I held to be true did not speak to me with authority—at least, not authority sufficient to command me to pack up my U-Haul and drive—until I saw them lived out in my sister’s narrative.
Such is the power of story.
Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling—is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind whose own longtime residence in his Michigan hometown earned him the epithet “Sage of Mecosta,” considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”
Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities.
Stories, as carriers of ideas, have consequences. Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, supposedly remarked, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?”
Kirk understood that the world might be won or lost on front porches, in bedrooms at night, around family hearths, in movie theaters and anywhere young people hear, see, or read the stories that fill and illuminate their moral imaginations. If you do not give them good stories, they will seek out bad ones.
“And the consequences will be felt not merely in their failure of taste,” Kirk said, “but in their misapprehension of human nature, lifelong; and eventually, in the whole tone of a nation.”
True story: in 2003, I watched a segment of ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” in which Diane Sawyer profiled the quest of a gay male couple to adopt a baby from an unwed teen mother. The couple was plainly unprepared to raise a child, and though their fatherhood experiment failed, Sawyer concluded her charming piece with unambiguous sympathy for them and for the cause of gay adoption.
I knew that night that we were going to have gay marriage in this country. The news media were only going to tell one kind of story about marriage, family, and homosexuality—and eventually this narrative, repeated often enough, would determine politics and policy. Ten years later, with the false, distorted, and simplistic anti-gay narratives of the past having been wholly replaced by false, distorted, and simplistic pro-gay narratives, a cultural revolution has substantially been achieved. Stories have consequences.
Societies governed strongly by tradition keep their collective wisdom alive through storytelling, says Baylor University literature professor Alan Jacobs. So why are contemporary conservatives so lousy at telling stories?
In Jacobs’s view, conservatives have “done what other Americans have done: they’ve off-loaded the responsibility for storytelling to the mass media.
“And as, thanks to the upheavals of the Sixties, the mass media shifted further and further Left, conservatives found themselves stuck with stories told by people who didn’t share their beliefs,” he continues. “By the time they began to realize that this was a problem, they had lost the habit of making their own culture, and had no cultural institutions they could draw upon to train up their young people in really thoughtful and culturally serious ways.”
What’s more, says Jacobs, having gone through two or three generations in which serious storytelling, across all media, has been associated with cultural liberalism, the right faces a situation in which its creative children are offered a choice: serious culture or conservatism.
I get this. As a bookish kid struggling to find a place in a world of hunting, fishing, and athletics, I was offered refuge in art, literature, and music by my ninth-grade English teacher. She was quite liberal, but she was the only person I knew who shared the passion for creativity awakening inside me. I came to believe that all people who were serious about art were naturally liberal—and I became liberal too, for years. Over the years, I’ve seen that most of my conservative friends who are artistically inclined became so in spite of their conservatism—that is, despite the fact that the right-wingers they knew disdained the arts as effete and impractical. A love for art and literature was not part of the conservative story, as they received it.
Micah Mattix, who teaches literature at Houston Baptist University, also gets this. That’s one reason he’s launched Prufrock, a daily e-mail newsletter compiling links to worthwhile writing on art, literature, and ideas, hoping to awaken fellow conservatives to the good within contemporary art and storytelling. It is, one imagines, a hard sell, given the prejudices today’s conservatives inherit from historical experience. Mattix explains that as long as anyone today has been alive, artists have often associated their project with the goals of progressivism and radicalism.
“Other than Futurism, most art movements in the 20th century have been sympathetic to the Left,” Mattix says. “There’s this idea that you see in Picasso, and a number of poets, of using art as a ‘weapon’ against tyranny and war—these things being embodied by Franco, Hitler, Mussolini. Though his poems weren’t very political, Frank O’Hara used to refer to some of them as ‘bullets’ in this sense.”
The point is not that art and narrative are designed to manipulate, but rather that stories are unavoidably bearers of worldview. This fact leads some on the right to conclude, crudely, that the solution is to raise up a generation to create art infused with conservative ideology—as if culture-making, of which storytelling is key, could be reduced to ideological utility.
In a 1995 Heritage Foundation lecture, historian Wilfred M. McClay told a wonderful parable illustrating the problem with viewing story as merely a means to an end. A tourist wandering through the back alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown finds his way into an antique store. A bronze statue of a rat catches his eye, and he asks for its price.
“The rat costs twelve dollars,” the shopkeeper says, “and it will be a thousand dollars more for the story behind it.”
The tourist, being a shrewd American, pays for the rat, telling the old man he can keep his costly story.
Walking away from the shop, the tourist sees rats emerge from the sewer drain and begin to follow him. As he strides faster, a mass of rats swarm behind him. Running for the harbor pursued by thousands of rodents, the terrified tourist climbs a lamppost and hurls the statue into the Bay. The rat horde follows its idol into the water, and drowns.
The tourist runs back to the antique shop, and confronts the smiling shopkeeper. “So now you’ve seen what the statue can do, and you’ve come back to find out the story?” asks the Chinese man.
“No, no, no,” says the tourist. “Now I want to buy a bronze statue of a lawyer!”
The tale means more than the punch line indicates, McClay told his audience. It reveals, he said, “a characteristic American attitude toward the past”: that if the statue can achieve intended results, the story that accompanies it doesn’t matter.
McClay’s point is relevant to the way many latter-day American conservatives regard storytelling. To recognize that worldviews inhere in stories is not the same as believing that they simply determine anyone’s worldview. This is because stories work by indirection: not by telling us what to believe but by helping us to experience emotionally and imaginatively what it is like to embody particular ideas.
If story is true to human experience, there will be an element of ambiguity in the telling, and this is something ideologues of all stripes—from postmodernists in English departments to Christians of the sort who chastised Flannery O’Connor for not telling “nice” stories—cannot abide.
This is why Mattix, who trained in economics before studying literature in graduate school, believes that a properly understood conservatism—one thinks of Kirk’s observation that conservatism is “the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order”—has far more in common with literary art than many people think.
“At its root, conservatism acknowledges that humans are selfish with an aptitude for evil,” he says. “This, in my view, is more accurate than progressivism’s belief in the inherent goodness of mankind.” Yet with the culture war having turned so decisively against conservatives, perhaps it’s not surprising if a besieged minority fears it cannot afford the luxury of ambiguity.
“Could it be that if you’re in a position of power, you can risk ambiguity in telling your story,” asks Mattix, “But if you’re fighting against that story, as conservatives have been doing, the tendency might be to feel that we can’t risk people not getting it the first time around, so we have to be crystal-clear and say everything in black and white?”
Still, it’s a dead end—creatively, philosophically, and politically—for conservatives to mimic left-wing storytellers.
For one thing, conservatives today lack the artistic skill to tell stories as well as the left does. More philosophically, the business of a conservatism with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature.
Today, movement conservatism has made this task more difficult because the stories conservatives tell themselves about themselves are exhausted and have taken on the characteristics of brittle dogma. The great challenges facing conservatism today are not those of the postwar era and cannot be meaningfully addressed by Reaganesque narratives. The things we cherish are not primarily under threat by statism in either its Soviet or social democratic versions. The more relevant problem is how to preserve authoritative lessons about the good life in an era characterized by triumphant global capitalism and autonomous individualism.
Conservatism has within it the capacity to answer these challenges, but not if conservatives cling to stories that have lost their salience. We don’t need stories that offer prepackaged ideological answers to questions few people are asking. We need stories like the one told in the comments section of my blog on the American Conservative website by a Texas reader.
The reader, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled how his West Texas hometown disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s, its native population dispersed. It had to do with the collapse of government support for farm programs, which occasioned a localized depression. Yet those same New Deal-inspired government programs, which had been meant to support those communities, incentivized bad agricultural and financial practices. Government, having lured farmers out onto the limb of dependence, sawed off the branch behind them, at the same time the oil-price collapse devastated the Texas economy.
Families lost their farms. The town bled out of all the people the reader grew up with. They were in time displaced by Mexican migrants getting by on seasonal work and welfare. Liquor stores now play a central role in Main Street commerce. “I miss the hometown where I grew up,” wrote the man, now in Dallas. “It doesn’t exist anymore.”
This Texas story is politically ambiguous, in that it tells a story about how federal policies—some authored by the New Dealers, others by Reaganites—doomed his town. The facts fail to conform to ideology: it’s possible to read the story and come away with different political and policy conclusions. Yet the story incarnates policy debates in the lives of real people. Enter into a story like that and ideological abstractions seem both incapable of describing the world as it is and telling us how to act in it.
We need stories like the one told by Sam MacDonald, a libertarian journalist who helps administer a small-town hospital near Pittsburgh. He’s neck-deep in the healthcare policy debate and is struck by how little most people care about its details. He’s also struck, as an industry insider, by how massively complex the system is and how difficult it is for ordinary people to understand.
This is where stories come in. MacDonald’s experiences show that ordinary people understand policy through storytelling.
“Our way of discussing these issues doesn’t take that into account,” MacDonald says. “We try to round off the edges with spreadsheets and best practices. We try to build policies or align incentives. That’s great. I am all for efficiency.
“But that stuff misses what actually happens. Using spreadsheets to talk about healthcare is like trying to understand a strip club by analyzing its annual tax return.”
Sam has this story about the neighborhood he grew up in and how the people there received health care back in the day. In the story, Dolly, a little girl in the 1940s, learned to take care of her sick neighbor and saw how much nurses did to help the suffering and rally the community. It made Dolly want to be a nurse when she grew up. So that’s what Dolly became—and she was a good one. At 73, she still is.
Her son grew up admiring her, and eventually becoming what we call a “health care provider” himself. Now he’s the sort of man whose job it is to make sure there are no more Nurse Dollys—that is, no more women like Dolly MacDonald, his own mother. This tale is about the demoralization of a community through the bureaucratization of health care. You can learn as much, and maybe more, about what’s happening in American health care by contemplating the story of Sam, his mother, and their community than by reading studies, position papers, and op-eds.
MacDonald came from a working-class western Pennsylvania family, graduated from Yale, and worked in Washington journalism at Reason before returning home to raise his kids. His experience has taught him how hapless the right is at understanding the power of storytelling.
“The smart people on the Right are working in the conservative infrastructure,” he says. “You want a conservative view on healthcare? It comes from Heritage, or maybe the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Except most people don’t care. It’s too confusing.”
It would make a much greater difference, MacDonald believes, if creative conservatives were bringing their insights to bear writing for the network medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” But that is hard to imagine, he says.
To become a truly creative minority, Micah Mattix advises, creative conservatives need to throw off the chains of ideology and teach themselves to recognize beauty in art and talents in artists that don’t easily fit our moral and political assumptions. The skill with which creative people tell their stories, in word, sound, and picture, should inspire conservatives to mastery of craft.
Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change.
“We need to learn to tell stories—‘To bend the ear of the outer world,’ in O’Hara’s line—to change culture not today, but in a hundred years,” says Mattix.
For his part, Sam MacDonald, an ideology-resistant conservative who has taught writing at the University of Pittsburgh, hopes to start a literary movement dedicated to telling the stories of working-class people of the Rust Belt. Recalling the Southern Agrarian literary movement of the 1930s, MacDonald wants to do the same for the postindustrial culture of his native region.
“The Agrarians lamented that factory and town living destroyed community and family life. But the experience of Pittsburgh and, on a smaller scale, my hometown, proved that wrong,” he says. “Someone who is teaching can be the Allen Tate or John Crowe Ransom of this movement. Someone who’s working a factory floor can be the Wendell Berry. I’m not comparing myself to these guys, but someone needs to write about these things in a sustained way.”
My own disaffection with standard right-wing polemics, and the experience of writing about my sister’s experience and my return home, leads me to a similar conclusion. I first lived the story, then I wrote it down in a memoir titled The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming.
An interesting thing happened after that. Brian and Julie Swindell, a pair of Louisiana expatriates living in Florida, read my story this spring and discovered that their longings for home and intuitions about the importance of family had finally found expression. They decided to return home to raise their three children around their extended families. Julie’s mother wrote to thank me for my book, which she said gave her the thing she had been longing for: a life with her children and grandchildren close to hand.
Like my wife and I, the Swindells weren’t persuaded to change their lives by argument; they were converted by the power of story—the story of how my politically unaware sister lived and died according to customs and traditions that can only be called conservative. I contributed Ruthie’s story, and in turn my own, to the moral imagination of my book’s readers, some of whom may, like the Swindells, use it to change their own narratives and tell new stories.
This is not necessarily how a political party wins elections. But it is how a culture is reborn.
Reprinted with the gracious permission of The American Conservative.
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