In just a few weeks, I’ll be facing a cohort of new students who will be tasked to learn “writing the essay” from me. Here’s an early lesson for them: Tell me, future students, what’s wrong with the following statement: “And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” If you guessed that this Paul Ryan quote, which appears in two of yesterday’s opinion articles in the Times, is a meaningless and therefore useless binary, then you’ve got a step up on most of your fellow students. You also appear to have a step up on many of your fellow Americans—and, disturbingly, on one of our candidates for Vice President.
One of the problems with binaries is that words have a tendency not to stay put. (“They shuffle, they change,” says Virginia Woolf.) What do you mean by individualism? The Marlboro Man? Lady Gaga? Charles Lindbergh? Mussolini? Each a fair prototype of a different kind of individualism. By collectivism do you have in mind the Politburo? Or Chinese re-education camps? Or the public garden on Avenue B? Or the evangelical church on Avenue A? Or maybe, since individualism is often yoked to the pioneer spirit, the wagon train? Mormons? Here’s the good news: you don’t have to choose. You can (and probably should) mean all these things. But the fact that you don’t have to choose means you have to complicate your thinking.
You, future student, will try to slip this responsibility. When faced with complicating the individualism/collectivism binary you will say, “It’s both.” Or you will say, “You need to strike a balance.” And I will try to force you to describe what that balance might look like or, in the words of one of my colleagues, “what makes striking that balance hard.”
One of the things that can make Obama seem at times ill-suited to his job is that his mind seems instinctively to work that way. He’s interested in complexity. For this he gets accused of being professorial by those who, let’s say, prefer to keep it simple. In particular, he often gets himself in trouble when he tries to describe what the individual/collective balance might look like. In 2008 Joe the Plumber became fleetingly famous objecting to something Obama said about “spreading the wealth around,” though this was not an unreasonable way of addressing the fact that, for the last few decades, the upper percentiles of earners have been claiming a larger and larger share of the nation’s wealth. This year the “I built that” signs at Romney rallies are responding to Obama’s grammatically maladroit but factually correct assertion that no small business owner creates that business entirely on his or her own, without help from the collective. (The fact that Obama gave one of his more eloquent descriptions of the individual/collective dynamic while Paul Ryan sat in the audience looking bitch-slapped is adding some dramatic backstory to the race.)
Now, future student, you will bring your essay into conference with me, feeling very proud of it. And I’ll start raising objections: “You’ve said that this binary is meaningless and useless. But doesn’t that depend on what you mean by meaning and use?” Because of course Ryan’s statement is not actually meaningless. It may not have much meaning for policy prescription, but it has meaning as narrative. The very way it’s phrased, the sense of an epic battle fought for the highest of stakes, reveals its essentially narrative intent.
We’re all cynical handicappers of the horse race these days, and we think we know that word “narrative.” We know the importance of seizing the narrative, creating it, running it. But narratives are important for more than that. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously said. Stories create meaning, and that mysterious phrase—to create meaning—is the opposite of cynicism. It even hints at the basis of an ethical system, the task of creating meaning.
This is the reason, I think, that Ryan is often described as, and indeed appears to be, sincere, honorable, likeable, smart. It sets him apart from the Gingriches and the Bachmanns whose narratives ride (and often jump) the shark of opportunism. They don’t create meaning; they trash it. Ryan is, or appears to be, a true believer, and most of our narratives are in some way about belief.
I have a close relative who’s something of a star of the Pentecostal preaching circuit, and if you want to study the relationship between narrative and belief, you could do worse than bone up on Pentecostalism. I believe my relative to be a good man, with a good heart, but he’s also a dangerous man, at least to the extent that any man becomes dangerous at the moment his narrative stops being adequate to the world he encounters.
There’s been a great deal of cynicism and opportunism in the opposition to Obama, of the Mitch McConnell “our goal is to make him a one-term president” stripe. There’s been a lot of what may or may not be racism, but is certainly terror of the difference and change that a black man in the White House represents. But a large part of the problem is that we’re a nation of true believers. If the true believers at times seem to live in a zone that’s not so much information-free as information-impermeable, that has to do with the power of narrative, its oilskin toughness. In 2010, many of those true believers ended up in Congress, where they’ve spent two years failing to recognize that the world they’re encountering renders their narratives inadequate, with disastrous results.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Paul Ryan’s narrative. There are already signs that it’s being reshaped to meet either the reality of the world he’s encountering or the reality of a national campaign. But he actually doesn’t interest me all that much. I’m more interested in you, future student, and maybe I’m more interested in you as future citizen. If you take nothing else away from your four years at college, learn to recognize the moment when your narratives are no longer adequate to the world.