This article, which I wrote five years ago, is as timely now as it was then—and was inspired not by the current examples it cites but by the wisdom of Albert Camus, the subject of a Liberty Fund conference I’d recently attended.
One of the rare feel-good stories of our current political moment is also terribly sad. On a train in Portland, Oregon, three very different men tried to protect two young women, one wearing a hijab, from a ranting white supremacist who turned out to be carrying a knife. The action cost two their lives, while the third is still in the hospital.
“America is about a Republican, a Democrat, and an autistic poet putting their lives on the line to protect young women from a different faith and culture simply because it is the right thing to do. You want diversity and tolerance? We just saw it,” writes Michael Cannon in an especially good appreciation, concluding “America is already great —and so long as we continue to produce men such as Rick Best, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and Micah Fletcher, it always will be.”
Cultures are held together by stories. We define who we are — as individuals, families, organizations, and nations — by the stories we tell about ourselves. These stories express hopes, fears, and values. They create coherence out of complexity by emphasizing some things and ignoring others. Their moral worth lies not in their absolute truth or falsehood — all narratives simplify reality — but in the aspirations they express and the cultural character they shape.
So, as I’ve recently written, the Chinese government’s Silk Road story provides a positive counterweight to colonial and Maoist narratives that disdained China’s imperial past. It offers a national heritage of enlightenment, progress, and peaceful trading relations. Because of the values it represents, that story, despite its propaganda purposes and distortions of history, is largely admirable.
By contrast, consider the story New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu eloquently repudiated in his May speech about taking down Confederate statues. “The Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause,” he said. “This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity….These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
The story of the Lost Cause told white southerners that their black fellow citizens were rightly subordinate and less than fully human. It also told them that the South’s best days were behind it and that it had been deprived of a glorious civilization by an occupying force. It was both morally pernicious and culturally dispiriting.
The sad irony is that Landrieu’s speech was necessary in the 21st century. In the 1880s, an alternative story, of “the New South” had already emerged, heralded most prominently by Henry Grady, the managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution. “We understand that when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, your victory was assured,” he told a New York audience in 1886. “For he then committed you to the cause of human liberty, against which the arms of man cannot prevail.” Freed from its plantation past, the New South would rise as an industrial region in everyone, not just a “splendid and chivalric oligarchy” shared in prosperity. The New South narrative told only partial truths, but it pointed in a positive direction.
America is now awash in stories. “We tell each other more stories — and as a result have more opportunities to view the world through eyes other than our own — than any other culture in history,” wrote an astute observer in 1995. Since then, technology has amplified those numbers exponentially. The stories have become so numerous and contradictory — and so often demoralizing — that they’re eroding empathy and shattering social trust.
Sadly, the big stories competing for dominance today are demoralizing ones. They have more in common with the Lost Cause than with the New South or the Silk Road. One, told by the president of the United States, is that the country used to be great but allowed its greatness to be eroded by foreigners and cosmopolitan elites. It is that story, more than any specific policy agenda, that connects Donald Trump to authoritarian rulers — because it is with versions of that story that so many authoritarian regimes begin. The story of diabolical foreigners and perfidious fellow citizens is, at its core, a fable attacking liberal values. It misleadingly divides the nation into patriots and traitors, the latter defined as anyone who bucks the party line.
The competing left-wing story, against which many Trump voters reacted, isn’t much better. It portrays the American story as nothing more than a series of injustices in which every seeming accomplishment hides some terrible wrong and the country’s very existence is a crime against humanity. What begins as a valid historical corrective, like Landrieu’s speech, evolves into a corrosive nihilism. A culture cannot long survive self-hatred.
“It is good for a nation to find in its tradition and its sense of honor enough strength to find the courage to denounce its own errors,” cautioned Albert Camus in the wake of France’s decolonization. “But it should not forget the reasons it may have for continued self-esteem. It is, in any case, dangerous to ask it to confess that it alone is guilty and to dedicate to perpetual penitence.” It was a wise and prescient observation. The era of colonialism was over, he wrote, but “it is is vain to condemn several centuries of European expansion, absurd to include in the same curse Christopher Columbus and [French colonial administrator Hubert] Lyautey.”
Landrieu’s speech was intended for a local audience. It went viral because it did something remarkable and much-needed. It embraced the messiness of history. It made a place for everyone (even George W. Bush). And it acknowledged the importance of stories. “If presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces, would these monuments be what we want the world to see?” asked Landrieu. “Is this really our story?” We choose the stories that define us. And right now America is in great need of new ones.