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America Must Not Succumb To Divisive Stories

Yolanda Renee King, grand daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., left, speaks as Jaclyn Corin, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and one of the organizers of the rally, holds hands with her during the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Yolanda Renee King, grand daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., left, speaks as Jaclyn Corin, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and one of the organizers of the rally, holds hands with her during the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

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Like a lot of Americans, I’ve spent the months since the 2016 election in a state of anguish and exhaustion. It’s exhausting to absorb the venality of the president and his unctuous band of plutocrats, to witness the obvious pleasure he takes in targeting the weak and vulnerable, in flaunting his cruelty and incompetence. Dipping into the news cycle these days often feels like sticking your hand in a blender.

I coped by writing a book in which I tried to step back from history and understand how America had reached such a dark and divided place. My essential argument is that bad stories always lead to bad outcomes.

Whatever else he might be, Donald Trump is, in the end, nothing more than a bad outcome. To understand how and why he was elected, we have to understand the bad stories that presaged his rise.

I should emphasize that these bad stories are often bipartisan. Americans of all stripes have a nasty tendency to exalt our grievances and ignore our vulnerabilities. We also love to turn everything into entertainment, to slough the duties of citizenship for the pleasures of passive consumption.

People hold their hands up with messages written on them during the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
People hold their hands up with messages written on them during the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

It’s certainly true that folks on the right have become emboldened to express their racism and misogyny, and to blame people of color for their own sense of declining utility. But those of us on the left have our own delusions. Too often, we respond to civic dysfunction by turning to comedians who convert our distress into disposable laughs.

The most dangerous story of all — the one that demagogues love to peddle for profit — is that Americans are simply too divided to find any common ground.

What an absurd story.

Practically every person in America wants the same basic things: a livable wage, decent shelter, a safe place to live, an education for their children, affordable health care, the opportunity to prosper by his or her labors.

Just as fraudulent, divisive, naive stories led us to this point in history, wise and merciful stories can redeem us.

We face a raft of barriers, including an army of special interests and mega-donors ravenous to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. But there are no problems we can’t solve if enough of us decide to participate in our democracy.

Just as fraudulent, divisive, naive stories led us to this point in history, wise and merciful stories can redeem us.

Because at every point in our history — from abolition to suffrage to civil rights and gay rights — when Americans rose up to demand moral progress, we were able to make those stories come true.

This is never easy. It requires us to become subjects of history, not just objects, to get up from our couches and turn away from our screens, to campaign for causes and candidates who seek solutions, rather than sowing discord.

The high school kids who led the massive March for Our Lives rallies this past weekend should inspire us all. They refuse to accept the bad stories of gun lobbyists and cowardly politicians. Instead, they are telling a new and better story — about a future in which our citizens live in a gentler and safer America.

It’s easy to be cynical in a country where men of low character hold so much power. But cynicism is nothing more than the ultimate bad story. It costs nothing and leads nowhere.

Now more than ever, we have to be able to turn away from the power of bad stories, those seductive myths that tap into our primal negative emotions, that nourish our rage while starving our common sense. Only by telling more humane and hopeful stories can America be made great again — for all its citizens.

Steve Almond will be reading from his new book, “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," Monday, April 2, at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books. The event, “Bad Stories, Good Songs,” will feature the music of songwriter Alastair Moock.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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