A Nation of Storytellers

February 28, 2021

by Steve Stofka

In our national narrative, the sheriff comes to town and the virtuous town folk walk without fear. Four years ago, President Trump promised to be that sheriff, routing out the miscreants that lived in the Washington swamp. When he was the unlikely winner of the 2016 election, religious romantics attributed his victory to God, not the arcane rules of the Electoral College. When he lost the 2020 election, God was nowhere to be found. He had been chased off by cheaters who had stolen the election from their candidate. Hollywood could only have been invented in America. We are storytellers.

On January 6th, a group of self-dubbed patriots attacked the Capitol building in Washington. In their eyes, the lawmakers in that building were illegitimate, and the vigilantes assumed their Constitutional duty to unseat those lawmakers. They were the Tea Party attacking the British in Boston Harbor more than two hundred years ago. Through social media they had amplified their role in the American myth, taking center stage in a fight for freedom.

America is a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, the game theory scenario where two prisoners, each in a separate interrogation room, must decide whether to confess to a crime. If neither confesses (they cooperate), they get off with a light sentence. If one confesses and the other doesn’t, one goes scot free and the other is given a harsh sentence. If they both confess, they are both given a medium-term sentence. The players have a choice to cooperate (neither confesses) or defect (confess). If the game is played once, it is better for each prisoner to defect. If the game is played multiple times and there is a memory between games, the prisoners should cooperate.

American politics is not a cooperative game. Within a decade after the ratification of the Constitution, the founders realized, to their dismay, that they had created a vicious party system. In 1800, the founders themselves were engaged in an electoral battle, ready to smear each other’s reputations and the honor of their families to gain the power of the Presidency.

In the halls of Congress, the prisoners meet in committee rooms. They confess to the crime of representing their constituents. They confess to the sin of defending their principles. They handcuff themselves together with rules of order, then come out fighting. They play this game every day, each party unable to cooperate with each other, but telling themselves a story that they are cooperating with the rules. Outside the halls of Congress, their constituents are fighting without rules. The breach of the Capitol building brought the fight inside.

We are storytellers. After World War 2, many Americans lost their jobs and careers on suspicion that they were Communist sympathizers. Today a common phrase is “if you see something, say something.” The campaign began as a response to the 9-11 attack but has been extended to mean any suspicious activity. The “see something, say something” campaign means to promote predator awareness – those who would victimize children and women. Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery were two men who looked suspicious and were gunned down by white vigilantes who interpreted the Constitution to give them the right to defend their community against suspicious people.

Hong Kong is an island off mainland China that was formerly under British rule and prized its independence from Communist rule on the mainland. They are telling a different kind of story – turning on each other. As part of a campaign by the mainland Communist Party to repress street protests in Hong Kong, the government set up a hotline to report suspected violators of new security laws aimed to restrict criticism of the government in the media. 40,000 virtuous and vigilant residents have squealed on their neighbors.

Myths connect people but our stories are tearing us apart. Our media is saturated with a mixtape of opinion, lies and carefully filtered facts to present some Americans as the “other.” The Chinese government encourages Hong Kong residents to turn on each other. In our country, the media does the same job. We are proud of those freedoms even if they destroy our civility and our cohesiveness as a society.


Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

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