How Humans Live by Stories, and Myths

  • A NYT essay that wonders if, given how political persuasions are aligned with community, we actually ever think for ourselves;
  • An example from the fringe about a Republican who wants to outlaw “chemtrails”;
  • A review of a book about the idea of finding a new mythology for the United States;
  • And mention of a forthcoming book by Fareed Zakaria about progress and backlash.


The point here is valid, sorta, but I think he over-simplifies.

NY Times, guest essay by Neil Gross, 24 Mar 2024: When It Comes to Politics, Are Any of Us Really Thinking for Ourselves?

If you’re trying to guess whether people are Republicans or Democrats, knowing a few basic facts about them will take you a long way. What’s their race and gender? How far did they get in school? What part of the country do they live in and is their community urban, suburban or rural?

Between 2016 and 2020, for example, white Americans without college degrees favored the Republican Party by nearly 24 percentage points. Strike up a conversation about politics with such a person in rural central Maine, near where I live, and chances are that his or her sympathies will lie with the G.O.P.

His point comes quickly:

But this raises an important question. If our political views and behavior can be so easily predicted by characteristics like race (over which we have no control) or by factors like education (where our choices may be highly constrained by other things such as the social class of our parents), then when it comes to politics, are any of us really thinking for ourselves?

Both sides have cliche beliefs about the other? Perhaps.

The accusation that people on the other side of the political divide have abandoned critical thinking and moral reasoning is now commonplace in American political discourse. Many on the left interpret the political tendencies of white voters without college educations as evidence that the Republican Party’s core constituency is ill informed or even unintelligent. Who else could fall for the lies of Donald Trump? Republicans, for their part, regularly invoke the idea of “liberal groupthink,” using it to make sense of how some of America’s ostensibly brightest minds could champion simplistic, unworkable policies like defunding the police.

Well — on that particular point, that’s because Republicans misunderstand what was meant by “defund the police.” Originally at least, it was an effort to reign in massive spending on local police departments that allowed them to buy surplus military equipment, turning them into de facto military operations. Maybe Republicans were fine with that, but many others thought that was extreme, and invited police abuse. But reigning that in doesn’t mean firing all the police, or anything like that. (Yet again, this an issue that requires some nuance, not black or white thinking.)

Anyway, I agree with the writer’s central point that most people go with the flow, so to speak, accepting local morals, political beliefs, even religious beliefs. But no area is monolithic. Even in red states, there are blue cities; even in red towns, there are bound to be a few outlier, eccentric, independent thinkers.

At the same time, the writer acknowledges,

There are many situations, of course, in which it is permissible, even beneficial, for people not to think for themselves. Whatever cognitive losses accrue when we let our phones navigate for us in unfamiliar cities are probably offset by the gains in driving safety and efficiency. When we fall ill and trust a doctor to give us a diagnosis and tell us how to regain our health, we’re letting that doctor (and the broader medical system) think for us, to some extent. Our outcomes will be far better on average than if we acted from our lay knowledge, as higher death rates among Covid vaccine deniers attest.

A repeated theme here in this blog is the idea that our complex society is built up of many specialties, that one one can know enough to hold firm opinions about most things, that inevitably we rely on experts, from medical doctors to the people who design our iPhones. This reality has come into conflict with the American idea of rugged individualism, with consequences we see in increasing conspiracy theories and denial of reality, by conservatives.


Like this one: QAnon Mastriano Proposes Bill To Outlaw “Chemtrails”. I’ll be fascinated to see what he proposes to outlaw something that doesn’t exist. (They’re just contrails. Water vapor.) And how his law will be enforced. And how he’ll tell if his law is working.


This item is a thematic bookend to the first item above. Perhaps.

NY Times, Nicole Hemmer, 4 Mar 2024: Could a New Mythology Save the United States?, subtitled “After a career of framing the country’s past through the myths that inspire Americans to fight, kill and make money, Richard Slotkin wants to find a gentler story.”

This is a review of A GREAT DISORDER: National Myth and the Battle for America, by Richard Slotkin, which was published March 5th. The review was posted on the 4th, though it just appeared in today’s print issue of the New York Times.

Given that this is a book review, it’s a mix of characterizations of the book’s content, and the reviewer’s opinions on the success of the author’s argument.

I’ve discussed many times how people live by stories, by narratives, by cultural myths that support the reputation of their tribe, community, nation. That’s human nature. Do Americans have a particular problem with this? I discussed this a bit three days ago, in this post.

The reviewer characterizes the author’s previous three books:

Slotkin argued that Americans repeatedly turned to what he called the “myth of the frontier,” a notion that reinvention could be achieved only through the white supremacist violence of Indigenous displacement and fatal shootouts. The results were environmental degradation and capitalist exploitation.

An American iconography developed. The idea of the cowboy, the wilderness explorer and the fertile but deadly frontier landscape consumed the white American imagination, inspiring late-19th-century prospectors who hunted for coal and oil in Texas and Oklahoma as well as John F. Kennedy, who invoked the “opportunities and perils” of a “new frontier” to call for bold economic and civil reforms at home while waging brutal Cold War battles abroad.

While in this book, the author turns his attention to the 21st century.

The present polarization, Slotkin argues, is rooted in competing national mythologies, “a different understanding of who counts as American, a different reading of American history and a different vision of what our future ought to be.” Only by understanding how those competing myths fell into place, then forging a new, unifying myth, can the country emerge from its current political crisis.

To underscore the centrality of myth to U.S. history, Slotkin adds to his myth of the frontier a number of others: the myth of the founding, the myths of the Civil War, the myth of the good war, the myth of the movement. It’s an enormous pileup that shows just how challenging his project is.

My interest here is not trying to sort out the various American myths. They’re all pretty obvious, as captured in that book Myth America. (Which I discussed here but haven’t thoroughly read.) All countries tell myths about their glorious pasts and their unique identities among a world full of other nations. Human nature again.

My interest is in the acknowledgement that these myths exist, that humans live by stories and don’t need to understand reality.


One more. On this morning’s CBS Sunday Morning, there was an interview with Fareed Zakaria, partly about his new book Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present, to be published next Tuesday. I’ve pre-ordered it. I really liked his 2020 book Ten Lessons for a Pot-Pandemic World.

CBS News: Fareed Zakaria on “Age of Revolutions”

This, too, is related to the above.

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