Stories, Good and Bad

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Steve Almond’s latest book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, is the author’s attempt to sort through America’s flaws, as he perceives them, in order to explain the ascendency of President Donald Trump. The rock that gave credibility to his account — the Trump-Putin collusion — has now eroded to mere talus, and Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Almond is enough of a socialist to recommend the nationalization of the football industry (and that’s going pretty far). In an interview in The Sun (September 2015) he was questioned about his recently published book, Against Football. At one point, the interviewer, David Cook, asks: “Is there anything that would make football worth watching again for you?” In his reply, Almond describes his “dream” of public ownership of the “football industry.” Thus: “The football industry could benefit our communities rather than billionaire owners and sponsors. What would it be like if the teams were publicly owned and the profits were funneled into the public coffers?” And he asks, “Is that such a crazy idea: that this game might help the people who need help the most?”

Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Bad Stories is premised on the determinist idea that individual minds develop according to the stories to which they’re exposed. Furthermore, bad stories, the ones he sees as flawed or distorted, function to keep the good stories out of circulation. All this comes very close to the traditional socialist preference for a deterministic theory of human character and conduct. As Robert Owen put it, “A man’s character is created for him.” Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

The Great Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its discovery that man, through reason and experiment, could identify chemical elements and synthesize molecules, led some thinkers to believe that they could, through reason, design an ideal society. Breathing this atmosphere, Owen concluded that the social order was all wrong, as did Fourier and such other extremists as Marx and Sorel. The main obstacle between them and the realization of their collectivist dreams was human experience, which included 35,000 years of trial and error. One product of the centuries of ebb and flow was the rise of Western civilization and its slow and costly march toward personal and economic freedom. And thus emerged free-market capitalism with its built-in pricing system, a wondrous instrument that adjusts production and distribution, according to demand. Under socialism, the free-moving pricing system is replaced by a governing bureaucracy — a nonaccountable realm, as James Q. Wilson described it. However much the socialist may rant about a just distribution of wealth, the pricing system carries with it a justice that sensible humans can truly understand — rewards based on the satisfaction of consumer demand.

It’s this form of justice that the socialist cannot abide, for he cannot control it — cannot channel its rewards to those that he, by heaven, believes are the most deserving. Hayek has warned us that personal freedom has never existed without economic freedom. “Fear not,” the socialist might say, “human nature is malleable. People will adjust to the imposed system.” But have they ever done so? And one might ask — if people are all that malleable, how did the socialists dream up socialism?

Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

But here we have Steve Almond, feeling impelled to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He reveals the many reasons he divines, foremost among them being those “bad stories” that “distort our belief system.” Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues? Are individual Americans mere bots, driven now here, now there, by media prompts? The reasons he deduces for victorious Trumpism often involve a mass response to external influences, and these often trace back to capitalism. Consider this partial list: voter suppression, elections held on Tuesday, a disaffected electorate, hostile feelings for the other party, passions of a small minority, white privilege and the petty bourgeoisie, dehumanization, conservative paranoia, lying Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, thirst for entertainment, the sports brain, racism, opposition to social change, Trump’s unbridled aggression, television, the internet, Russian bots, lack of a Fairness Doctrine, the media’s right-wing conspiracy (a laugher), Vladimir Putin, Albanian hackers, and, of course, the Electoral College.

Almond criticizes the right and the alt-right for their paranoia, never showing, through example, how they demonstrate that quality. But his own apocalyptic predictions evince the paranoia he attributes to Trump supporters. One of his preferred literary works when seeking an analogy for Trumpism is Moby-Dick. The novel reeks with Significance. So great is the reek that I’ve wondered whether Melville was only kidding. One of my teachers in college, Professor E.H. Rosenberry, had similar thoughts — consider his book, Melville and the Comic Spirit.

But to Almond, Captain Ahab is “a parable about our national destiny in which the only bulwark against self-inflicted tyranny is the telling of a story.” (A bulwark? — how about the Constitution?) But Trump is more than an inchoate Ahab — he also resembles Kurtz, the antihero in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad himself was a conservative, loyal to his adopted country, and, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyer, congenitally pessimistic. In Kurtz, we discover a smooth-talking reformer, who seeks to civilize a primitive African tribe. He dreams of a heroic reputation, but is drawn into the very culture he hopes to uplift. “The horror! The horror!” are his last words. Is it Almond, not Trump, who resembles Kurtz? But Almond ventures onward — Trump is also the golden calf prayed to by the Israelites. Indeed, he sees Trump as a packhorse for all the tyrannical vices — a bully, a bullshitter, a hollow entertainer who avoids the issues.

Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues?

What issues? Almond hardly mentions intellectual issues. He never details those Russian-hacker smears he complains of, though he spends a great deal of space on Hillary’s emails. When he does address policy issues, he bases his judgments on the immediate interests of his close acquaintances and a woman he found on Vox.com. He mentions the benefits they derived from Obamacare, for example, or from the Obama “stimulus package.” He overlooks the long-term effects of these “benefits” on the country. He believes the voters should worry more about their personal vulnerabilities than about their grievances. Were this a sound principle, the Pilgrims might have stayed home, along with others who sailed the seas to America. Aggrieved by oppression, they risked a long period of vulnerability at sea — for the promise of freedom.

As Almond sees it, Vladimir Putin is still fighting the Cold War. That we won that war is, to Almond, a bad story, even though the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire is an established fact, and America can rightly claim to have carried the day. The author disparages Ronald Reagan as “the star of Bedtime for Bonzo napping in the Oval Office.” And yet, crucial steps toward Cold War victory were taken during the Reagan presidency. The Reagan-inspired arms race, Reagan’s frankly anti-Soviet stance, and his close alliance with the Thatcher government, all contributed to the economic failure of the Soviets and the eventual decision by Gorbachev to release the captive nations. At the time, George Kennan and his containment policy got much of the credit, though the policy had led to the squandering of blood and treasure in winless wars. But Reagan’s contribution was enormous. What was his approach to the Cold War? “We win, they lose,” he said — and we won.

Will Trump initiate a period of American decline? Putin hopes so, according to Almond. So far, Trump’s tax cuts have brought a period of prosperity to America and provided a clear lesson: as an economic stimulus, a tax-cut beats the federal printing press every time. Creating inflation to stimulate the economy is the equivalent of a lie — an economic falsehood. But Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.” And consider this claim by the author: “When our president fumes about NFL player protests, or Confederate monuments, or gun rights, he isn’t just ‘shoring up his base.’ He’s doing Putin’s bidding.” This is fanciful nonsense.

Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.”

Donald Trump is proving of little danger to America. And he will likely alert our people to a true danger — the swing among Democrats toward socialism, a system that has created a procession of disasters, especially during the 20th century. Its popularity on campuses is a monument to the corruption bred by left-academics, and the ignorance they cultivate. An extensive literature of liberty exists in the archives of America and the Western world. But one would hardly suspect its existence, if judged by the state of knowledge of the average college student of today. When colleges and universities accept an enormous tuition, yet keep students in ignorance to preserve their leftist sympathies, they perpetrate a fraud.

Almond’s political ideas are accompanied by a fashionable anti-patriotism. That America is a representative democracy is, to him, a “bad story.” But members of both houses of Congress are elected by the populations of entire states, or of districts within each state — hence we have representative democracy in the legislative branch. The president of the United States is, at present, chosen by electors in each state, the number of each state’s electors being the same as the number of members in its Congressional delegation. The Constitution doesn’t require a direct popular vote for these electors. The system was meant to protect the interests of the less populated states and to produce a careful choice for an office of great potential power. George Washington recognized this power and, after his second term in office, established a precedent by bidding it farewell.

There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling.

And yet, Almond views America as “borne [sic] of high ideals and low behaviors, the land of all men are created equal and slave labor. We’ve been engaged in a pitched battle ever since, between greed and generosity, between the comforts of ignorance and the burden of moral knowledge.” This quotation is taken from the final chapter of Bad Stories, one that particularly reveals Almond’s affliction with Trump Derangement. Here, anti-Trumpism reaches the brink of hysteria — environmental protection, civil rights, free trade, public education, health care, are “all heading for bankruptcy.” On the other hand, “the markets for white supremacy, mass shootings, corporate profiteering, and nuclear cataclysm are booming.” And worse, “[Trump’s] aides and allies are mortified by his cognitive deterioration, his inability to read, or concentrate. It becomes more and more obvious that he’s unfit for the office. And yet, the office belongs to him.”

Do Almond’s own words represent a bad story as he defines it — one flawed and distorted? There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling. He subjects the man who is now president to an incompetent psychological evaluation. Trump, it seems, “never experienced a sense of being unconditionally loved, what psychologists call attachment. The best he could hope for within his family of origin was to please his domineering father through aggression. Because he never developed an intrinsic sense of self-worth, he can’t protect himself from feelings of inadequacy.” Thus Trump “proved especially captivating to disaffected Americans.” Does this last follow? Or was his appeal simply his departure from the Republican nice-guy-loser pattern — the one pioneered by Tom Dewey and emulated by Messrs. Goldwater, Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney?

Experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Chapter 15 in Bad Stories is entitled “Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses.” This fragment Almond sees as a “bad story.” It’s taken from a sonnet, “The New Colossus,” by the poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a gifted woman. Her poem has been used and abused in debates over immigration, in particular those involving the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Mencken wrote that the poet doesn’t deal in truth, but rather “conjures up entrancing impossibilities.” Perhaps the Lazarus poem conjures up a beautiful dream, the kind that guides and inspires the living. It bears a touch of early feminism, which ought to fascinate the present-day advocates. But it also contains, not only an invitation to our shores, but the inspiration to seek freedom wherever it’s dreamed of.

Alas, Almond is an apostle of equal outcomes, rather than freedom. I’m amazed that socialism ended up, not as one of Almond’s bad stories, but as a resuscitated grand scheme, or better, a secular faith. The fall of the Soviets after decades of blood and slave labor — despite the cheerleading from Western intellectuals — the rejection of British socialism with its Control of Engagements Order, the move of Scandinavian countries toward a free-market economy, and, much earlier, the failure of virtually all socialist communities in America, all taken together, suggest that maybe socialism isn’t such a good idea. The mass murders in Cuba, the desperate exits of its citizens, and the impoverishment of Venezuela offer more evidence of its futility.

Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence?

Still, Almond sees capitalism, personified by Donald Trump, as the great evil. It stands in the way of our solving “crises that are beyond empirical doubt.” In his view, these include “climate change, resource depletion, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all of which are triggering mass immigrations, political unrest, and violent extremism.” It follows — to him — that we must reject bad stories (which ones?) and place our faith in “reason and empiricism.” Empiricism? But empiricism is the doctrine that the source of all knowledge is experience. And experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Resistance to Almond’s collectivist agenda is reflected not only in “a ruthless free market theology” but also in other reactionary attitudes — a “make believe retreat from globalism, a nostalgia for white hegemony.” Worse yet, “our culture lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction, yet lacks the moral imagination to change its moral destiny.” Still worse, “our style of capitalism has acted as a financial centrifuge, perhaps the most brutal aggregator of wealth in human history, built on a foundation of slave labor and fortified by plunder, imperial warfare, the decimation of the labor movement, the predation of Wall Street, [and] the steady subjugation of oversight to private gain.” Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence? Or one requiring more determined efforts to trace empirical facts about the world’s greatest multiethnic middle-class society back to its supposed causes in plunder and brutality?All this “resistance,” Almond conjures up with little regard for the reason and empiricism he urges on the rest of us.

It seems fair to remind Almond and his admirers that in its two-and-a-half centuries of existence, the United States of America has freed more people from slavery than any country in history. It has taken in tens of millions of immigrants seeking a better life and, through trade and the simple giving of gifts, has spread its bounty around the world. It has lost hundreds of thousands of its bravest sons in battles against the forces of tyranny — and often restored the war-damaged lands.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed.

Perhaps a touch of the sportsmanship in a “sports-brain” would make Almond a better, more reflective writer, as would a closer look at that “ruthless free-market theology.” A “brutal aggregator of wealth” must operate in a system of voluntary exchange. He doesn’t hide his money in the bathtub. He adds it to the river of capital that flows into financing and investments — creating new businesses, new products, new homes, more jobs, and more opportunities for improving the human condition. Is everyone happy in a free-market economy? No, of course not. Would there be greater happiness under any other economic regime? No again. A system that rewards the takers by plundering the producers will only spread misery in the long term. Frédéric Bastiat understood this, and his plain words might well be put in the hands of college students everywhere. He spoke of the “instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty.” Yes, and the struggle reflects those heroic qualities, which, taken together, represent a wonder of this earth — it’s called the human spirit.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed. But will their spirit roam free, or will it suffocate under a system that forces them to abide by a bureaucratic plan? An enforced equality can only be achieved at the expense of the best — the most creative, the most productive, the most in need of liberty. I see nothing in this that shows “moral imagination,” or that will lead to an improved “moral destiny.” And it may place all of us nearer to extinction.

With the exception of Almond’s personal experiences, which might make a decent book, Bad Stories is of little value as a source of truth. But as an example of the fashionable nonsense that passes for truth among the academic Left, it may be very useful indeed — it may lead some heroic individuals to educate young minds properly.

Useful Reading


Editor's Note: Review of "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," by Steve Almond. Red Hen Press, 2018, 257 pages.



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