By now I’ve been in school long enough that very little of my education sticks out in my memory. Specific classes, lectures, discussions—they tend, for better but mostly for worse, to bleed together. Often it takes some effort on my part to remember anything concrete.
The following scene, however, I have no trouble recalling.
It happened in the spring semester of 2016, during my first year of graduate school. I was in a film course, and the professor, a former Californian, was describing a debate he’d once had with a friend about one of the state’s many ballot propositions. Support for this proposition, he said, had fallen along familiar ideological lines, and he and his friend stood on opposite sides of the partisan divide. But my professor was a scholar, dammit, and a teacher; he wasn’t about to cede moral authority to empty soundbites or talking heads. So, turning to his friend, he did what any good scholar would do: he crafted a carefully researched argument. He pointed to established facts. He cited peer-reviewed studies that demonstrated the reasonableness of the proposition. He provided and contextualized a mountain of statistics.
“And wouldn’t you know it?” my professor said, grinning from the front of the classroom. “My friend actually agreed with me! They told me I was right. They acknowledged that there wasn’t a good reason for rejecting the proposition.”
Then his grin soured.
“Of course,” he went on, “right after that, they looked me in the eyes and announced, in no uncertain terms, that they would vote against the ballot measure anyway.”
I don’t think that my professor intended this story to be a parable. Nevertheless, I certainly took it that way, which is why, I think, it’s stuck with me all these years. On the one hand, the story—an object lesson, it seemed, in the pointlessness of research—doused me like a cold shower. Just one semester out of college, I found in the parable a direct challenge to all my innate confidence in the value of rational inquiry. What’s the point of a “life of the mind,” the parable asked—what’s the point of learning and sharing with other people what you’ve learned—when those same people are just going to believe what they want to believe anyway?
A personal crisis, then. And then on top of that personal crisis, on top of my scholarly dark night of the soul, was the more general commentary that my professor’s story seemed to make about the state of US political discourse. Partisan allegiance mattered, it suggested. Tribalism mattered. Facts, however, did not matter, or at least they did not matter as much—and the US, at the time, amply supported that diagnosis. After all, in the spring of 2016, the country was staring down the barrel of a wild presidential election. In less than a year, Kellyanne Conway would take to national news networks to declare the present an era of “alternative facts,” an era that in many parts of the country was already well underway.
2021 has given me fresh reason to revisit this memory, or parable, though I do so now, I hope, with a more mature perspective. Four years ago, the frank acknowledgement that people are not inherently rational—a view I’m sure I consciously held but clearly did not appreciate in any meaningful sense—managed to put me into a tailspin. These days, however, it doesn’t. It couldn’t. These days, consensus reality is so thoroughly contested across vast swaths of American political life that it would be hard to dispute the fact that people are more often moved by desire and by fantasy than by fact. People are storied, first, before they are instructed. And some stories, as we’ve lately seen in the storming by US “patriots” of the US Capitol to overthrow an election, are sometimes spectacularly, murderously toxic.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the events of January 6, it ought to be abundantly clear that the old stories—those myths to which white, middle-class America in particular has unthinkingly cleaved—will no longer cut it. That, in fact, those myths never could cut it. The US is not and never was exceptional. It is not and never was a “city upon a hill.” It is not and never was the land of the free. “Is this the end of America?” as Klaas Walhout asked in a recent post. And the answer, of course, is no—but only because the US as it wishes to imagine itself never existed in the first place.
We will not argue our way out of the present crisis. No amount of facts or figures, no amount of “carefully researched arguments,” will allow the US to debate its way to a more perfect union. What is needed now is far more difficult. What is needed now—indeed, what has always been needed—are different stories, new stories and perhaps even very old stories. Stories that can surround us, capture us, suffuse us. Stories that can help us imagine robustly and collectively, with creativity and with courage, not an alternative relation to some arbitrarily defined landmass but our relation to those communities that seem to us best equipped to bring about shalom.
Be warned: these are the kinds of stories that the old myths, the weeds of American exception and election, would just as soon choke out. But they haven’t yet, though they have tried, and many of those seeds, in spite of all, have found root and flourished. (See, in the months ahead, Comfort Sampong’s series on Afrofuturism, for instance.) Our job, now more than ever, is to seek those seeds out and to help them continue to grow.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.