Our collective stories about who we are and where we’re headed are potent elements of our culture, especially during election season, as you may have seen in my recent Scientific American essay and my earlier posts in this blog. My usual way of classifying these stories is by their “emotional genres,” like Progress, Restoration, and Looming Catastrophe, which refer to the directions of the changes we’re experiencing and the way these changes make us feel. I described a dozen or so of these genres a few weeks ago, and I used them in my SciAm article.
But here’s another way of classifying the stories about who-we-are-collectively, and that comes from what we think about our status. Check out this recent blog post by Brian L. Steed. He’s part of the think-and-do tank Narrative Strategies, working with my friend Ajit Maan, an expert in how narratives affect our national security.
In his article, Steed classifies three prevailing American meta-narratives on what we might call an “axis of awesomeness.” He describes three groups – those convinced that “America is Awesome,” those convinced that America has failed at awesomeness (“1619”), and those who see problems but also a potential for becoming more awesome than we currently are (“I Have a Dream”). We can think of these groups as two with a “fixed state” mentality and one with a “process” mentality.
Mentally, fixed states are easiest for us to handle, because once we’ve classified something, we know what there is to know about it and we’re done. Processes are more complex because we keep having to pay attention, making sure the good things are happening that can support the desired changes and watching out for indicators that things may be going wrong. It’s just like on the personal level: Someone might think they’re the greatest thing ever, or they might think there’s some shameful reason that they’re essentially flawed – in either case, they can give up trying to do well (either because whatever they do is by definition fine, or because there’s no point). Many of us would recognize that people are always works in progress, with good traits and less-good traits, and that what counts is our actions. It’s the same for countries.
The United States clearly cares deeply about this “axis of awesomeness,” because it was founded on ideals, rather than originating naturally from people living in a certain land for centuries. This “axis of awesomeness” is another way to think about American “exceptionalism” – that somehow, America is a special case, different from the rest of the world, and not to be held to the same standards because we’re beyond them.
When other people think about their countries, do they also have an “axis of awesomeness”? Maybe, but for many, their “axis of vulnerability” may be more important, especially if they’re concerned about external threats. In my post about the Spanish Armada, I talked about how England parlayed its “plucky island nation” story into parallel narratives of awesomeness and vulnerability, with both starting under Elizabeth I.
One of the most challenging things about the current polarization of the United States is that it’s our very sense of awesomeness that’s become one of our biggest vulnerabilities. People who are really invested in believing that America is and has always been the Very Best can feel that any criticism of the way we do things (and especially the way our ancestors did things) is taking something precious away from us.
It can be hard to let go of our Triumph narrative and admit that, just like every other country on the face of this earth, America is a work in progress. Nevertheless, we are.