Friday, September 4, 2009

Trompe l'oueil

First off, I have a warm spot in my hearts for the Mormons. In all seriousness, I do. I love a religion that consciously provides a sense of our continent as sacred space. I really like Orson Scott Card's writing, though I find his expressed political views a little disconcerting. LDS folks I've worked with or run into are generally intensely focused on whatever they are doing, have secure family lives (assuming they are not closeted), and generally nice people. Take it as snide if you will, but I really like a religion that takes wildly tall tales as seriously as they do.

We toured Temple Square this afternoon, on the last full day of visiting my in-laws, who moved here last fall. And I had a revelation of sorts sitting in the Assembly Hall while the tour-guide missionary from Canada blithely went on about the deep love of God that led the early settlers to painstakingly paint the white pine columns as faux marble and the white pine pews as oak...

I suddenly realized I was listening to someone telling me about the movie business. The dream factory.

We Americans have a cultural sense of being realists, hard-headed, plain-speaking, no-nonsense pioneers. And in some ways we are—I'm a big fan of John Kouwenhoven's work, in which he makes a pretty good case for independent, practical thought as a basis for American cultural identity. But we are also a nation that loves to be given a rosier view of things than they really are. More than that, we are a nation that reinvents itself over and over out of whole cloth, then persuades ourselves that we have always been what we have reinvented ourselves as.

Thus we can straight-facedly talk about "traditional family values" while sending wives out to earn a substantial part of family income in the marketplace. We can talk about "traditional marriage" as if women have always enjoyed equal status in our marriages. We can talk about "American health care" as if our network of hospitals and labs and insurance had been with us since the dawn of the Republic, instead of slightly over half a century.

We are a nation of scriptwriters and set decorators.

I was struck by how this observation resonated with Paul Krugman's recent post on horse-race reporting. He blames bad reporting, but I think the public audience for news reporting is also to blame. We want the story, not the analysis and discussion. We want a plot, a narrative.

I observe this, not to say, "Hey, America, get your act and your brain in gear and stop living in Fantasyland!" Though that may be tempting, it misses the point. We're not going to change America's habit of making things up as it goes along, just by wishing it to be so. But we need to be aware of the dream-making, if we are to be good scriptwriters ourselves, and we need to be good scriptwriters if we are going to be part of any real American debate.

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