Retaking the Culture: Finding The Right Stories
See also: Time For Once Upon A Time In AmericaAt first glance it's not all that easy for Conservatives to recognize the stories they should be telling themselves, others, and their children, because Left-Wing Liberal fairy-tales clutter up the American cultural landscape like tacky modern view litter. You know there's a once scenic highway out there somewhere but all you can see is sagging power lines, fast food restaurants and cardboard cut-out strip malls. So there has to be some trick.
See also: Time For Once Upon A Time In America
At first glance it's not all that easy for Conservatives to recognize the stories they should be telling themselves, others, and their children, because Left-Wing Liberal fairy-tales clutter up the American cultural landscape like tacky modern view litter. You know there's a once scenic highway out there somewhere but all you can see is sagging power lines, fast food restaurants and cardboard cut-out strip malls.
So there has to be some trick.
Here's a hint. The really significant stories rarely have anything to do with the doings of Presidents, Congressman, Governors or the like. Politicians are in the main but a reflection of our culture, they don't determine it. They're its followers not its leaders.
Compare the occupations of the men who founded this republic by signing the Declaration of Independence and fighting the war which followed to the calling of the men who wrote the Constitution. In the former case they were preponderantly men of concrete real world pursuits and in the latter, lawyers. Lawyers have kept the podium ever since and so of course we've been told over and over again how brilliant and important those early lawyers were, which I'm not saying is not the case; what I am saying is that they followed, they didn't lead. That they wouldn't have had a nation to write a constitution for if that first group's culture hadn't required independence. Would they?
Of course the constitutional convention was chaired by Washington, a soldier, planter, distiller, surveyor and land speculator. But he didn't talk. Instead, he simply tried to keep the lawyerly blathering to a minimum by cultivating what has been described as the "authority of silence."
And it's also true that every now and again a non-lawyer politico will come along, like Ronald Reagan or even a lawyer like Lincoln, and do something to lead the culture in some direction or another. But in keeping with the general point I'm trying to make you'll recall that their device for doing so wasn't political at all. Instead it was in both cases an endless series of apt stories.
Yet having said all that, Presidents and Congressmen and state government officeholders can and often do, a lot of damage to the culture. Just look at public assistance does to destroy the morals of masses of people. So in general significance they're analogous to a sixteen year old you just lent your new BMW to in order to run an errand. He or she might accomplish the mission and be due a lot of credit, but there's always the danger of music blasting, a puffed up sense of self-importance and then, a tree waiting by the side of the road.
Bearing all this in mind let's send our thoughts down a timeline to a few points where we might find things were a bit clearer and from the distance of our day, see if some stories stand out.
Nineteen Sixty Eight
A major American corporation began experimenting with controlling factory operations using their main-frame computer system to dispatch work on the manufacturing floor. Several men become experts in the technique and happened upon the concept of exploding requirements through a computerized planning matrix. A refinement which had the potential of not only controlling most industrial processes but conceptually refashioning them so that huge investments in inventory could be reduced to the vanishing point. Thus freeing up billions, possibly trillions, of dollars worldwide for investment elsewhere.
However their employer didn't share the same vision and the men went out on their own writing books, giving talks and founding schools to teach what they had learned. Eventually proving in practice that there were those enormous sums to be released and so for the same investment one can manufacture twice, three times, even four times as much product.
But they also made an even more exciting discovery. That the same computer systems they were using to better plan also allowed a much more flexible and immensely more profitable decentralized manufacturing environment. One which in essence would plan and control itself in very small units distributed across the countryside. And the so the old idea that the most effective and cheapest way to manufacture something was to stick to standard products in huge centrally planned factories, while not completely antique, no longer made a whole of sense .
A stunning revolution in management philosophy which although still unfolding has already brought the prices of countless once expensive custom items within reach of more and more people. To the point where the concept (just like the man in the next story) has done more, and will do more, to improve the human condition than all the money ever spent on social welfare programs.
Eighteen Eighty Five
An immigrant to the United States decides he could make a lot more money by selling steel for less than his competitors. How much less? Well eventually at a tenth the price. However he didn't know how to do this himself. So he developed a formula for encouraging other men he thought might know. In this successful effort stretching over several decades both he and the men he selected became much richer than before. So rich in his case that he was frequently called a robber.
But by then the price of steel had been driven so low that any number of both new and old things were being made out of it. Railway rails weren't iron any longer, they were the much superior steel and suddenly trains weren't falling off broken tracks, simple items like the old wooden bucket that always leaked and took hours to make was replaced by a steel bucket that cost pennies. Plows didn't break apart and all sorts of new labor saving machinery was developed from the now inexpensive steel. In fact the more he lowered the price the more every citizen's life improved and became richer too. Much richer. But until the day he died some people were still calling him a robber.
Although they could never quite tell us just who he was robbing from.
The Mohawk and St. Lawrence river valleys offered early Americans the only two water routes through the Appalachian Mountains. So since the still to be born United States would never control the St. Lawrence it had to have the Mohawk Valley if it was to grow.
But the British were determined to control that too, and as the year 1781 opened, had all but won by the driving the line of American settlement almost all the way back to the end of the Mohawk River at Cohoes. But then one still defiant man assumed leadership of the one hundred odd men who would still fight. Instead of using them to defend what ground was left, the man used them to advance further up the valley and attack a far superior force of the enemy. Through sheer effrontery he defeated them, then another force and another until hundreds more patriots were encouraged to flock back to the cause. Finally the British and Tories had enough of this jumped up backwoods general who wouldn't stop attacking them and began to run north. And on October30, 1781 the struggle came down to two long columns of savagely exhausted men. The British and Tories jogging in single file through the gathering snow on a line which led them across Canada Creek on a straight line through the wilderness towards the safety of British fort at Oswego New York a hundred miles away, and a second column of Americans yipping like wolves behind them .
And when the day ended, America could move west.
Three amazing American stories which in the current state of affairs American school children don't learn, American college professors never teach, and American people never draw a lesson from because society has been distracted from them in the most fundamental fashion, by three of the most pervasive Left-Wing Liberal fairy-tales.
1. That achieving the greatest economy in the production of goods means that society will inevitably progress ( as in the word Progressive) from centrally planned factories to the mega-factories then finally into enormous super-factories centrally planned by the state, even by some future world government.
2. The Left-Wing Liberal fairy-tale that wealth is never created but always stolen or gained by exploiting other people.
3. And finally the especially curious Left-Wing Liberal myth that freedom and democracy are the simply product of good luck coupled with irresistible historical forces.
An appropriate time to point out, if you haven't already guessed, that I'm a storyteller not an academic. That I'm not for example, Dr. Thomas Sowell writing under a pseudonym . He and I were both raised in New York City where we attended very good elementary schools, worked in machine shops before moving on to become somewhat starchy but irreverent U.S. Marine Corps corporals, but that's about where any commonality ends. Fifty years on, Dr. Sowell and a few others are what sunlight there is in the culture changing businessand me? I'm just a little fire burning under the trees.
But it doesn't take much light to see that these three American stories, and many, many others of course, are cultural game-changers in their very clear moral about the necessity, indeed the blessing, of individual character. In We The Living, Ayn Rand has a scene where the lover of the protagonist asking for his life is sneered at by a Communist Commissar. "What is one man in the face of the Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics?" he asks. "What is the Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics in the face of one man" she defiantly answers. Which is the whole point.
A hundred fifty years of childish pondering by Left-Wing Liberals of Marx's supposed proof that more and more centralized control is necessary to advance the human condition is shredded by a handful of individual men playing with computers. One man turns a certain notion on its head, something no government, no committee or commission would ever attempt ns and not only does he accumulate more wealth, so does everybody else and the Left-Wing Liberals are completely flummoxed. And finally what greater testament to the power of individual character is there than a man would fight an Empire against all odds and reason and win. Even if he was down to a hundred men against thousands, even if he had to run a hundred miles through the snow.
So in the end it's the American moral of individual triumph which makes these stories appealing. And so effective. Just as great novel is made great is by its reader identifying with the hero.
And that's another hint about how to pick these stories out, because looking for the American moral not only allows you to find the right stories, it makes you a better storyteller. It works and it shifts the debate. Sometimes in a big way. An example from recent public events would be the debate over health care. There was an immense amount of opposition from taxpayers who didn't want their doctor/hospital relationships soiled. Yet the Left-Wing Liberal preached a higher morality with a lot of made-up stories, including the absolute fiction by Barack Obama that his mother spent her dying days in cancer treatment arguing over coverage with her evil private insurance company. But then this illusion of moral superiority was attacked by one simple story and simple American moral which, like her or not, came from Sarah Palin, the "Death Panels" story. A FaceBook (I believe) post which referred to her son Trig's condition and the fact that the government, if it took over the health care system, would inevitably have to ration care and therefore, decide who lived and who died. And she, wasn't going to allow that to happen.
ObamaCare passed into law after all. But not before it had been beaten bloody and Senators openly bribed to vote for it because the dynamic had shifted and the opposition gathered behind that clear moral. Just as the opposition to slavery coalesced with the moral of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Just as the moral of the Virginia Resolves demolished the Stamp Act. Just as a single man shouting "would you let them burn the town?" on a long ago April day on a hill above Concord precipitated the first American strike of the Revolution. Just as Rick Santelli's rant triggered the TEA party movement.
Yet another way to recognize these stories is that they all, each and every one run along an axis of moral light right back to something we can call the idea of America. Not capitalism and free enterprise, the freedom to bear arms, democracy or the liberty to speak out. Instead something much simpler and ever so much more individual in it point or view. So here's my final hint. It's an idea first articulated in America, at the very beginning of America, by an American who was once, a Moslem slave.
Let's visit him sometime.
Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most, BDD, Random House. He writes in Stone Ridge New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.