The spoken and unspoken contracts within any society are driven by a common narrative, a kind of “mission statement” that steers us in the right direction and keeps us on the road we’ve laid out. In the United States, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are that road. If we understand them and know them, we are equipped to recognize when we’ve veered off course or got stuck in a ditch.
Yet as we know, the glorious words didn’t match the reality for so many of the people living in this land at the time of their drafting— Native Americans, blacks and women, for starters. That fact doesn’t wholly cancel the immense value of the documents. Indeed, it elevates us by understanding it, as Dr. King did, as promissory notes that is long overdue. It is the North star by which we might navigate, but unlike that fixed point, it is subject to amendment as our consciousness evolves (or doesn’t) with the times.
We are the products of both known and hidden narratives and even with such a document, there were a host of other stories at work, stories that made it seem just fine for Jefferson to write the exalted words he did while still keeping slaves and having an affair with a woman he owned, an enslaved Sally Hemings. It is easy for us (though not all of us!) to see the contradiction from the vantage point of our times, but there are thousands of stories that don’t make sense to us now that were unquestioned in their time. And there are stories driving us in our own time that our descendants might look back on in disbelief. (Really? No change in rules around assault rifles in the U.S. after an epidemic of mass shootings of innocent children and adults?!!!)
These narratives of the "true" God, the Master race, the superior gender, the omnipotence of money, drive society and culture, but most of us are driven by them without ever seeing their face. And that makes them more dangerous. As long as they remains masked, there is little hope of being freed from it. Once we know the backstories, everything falls into place as perfectly logical within their constructs. Then we can decide whether to accept them or refuse them, to continue them or replace them.
The one narrative that drives so much of the world, but particularly the United States, can be summarized in three words. “FOLLOW THE MONEY.” So many of the horrors of the history of the “New World” came from unchecked greed for gold and land (and later, spices, tobacco, coffee, sugar and cotton) given permission by a wrathful mono-theistic Supreme Being hell-bent on eradicating (or converting) the heathens. Enslavement of Africans and Genocide of Native Americans did not come from a simple preference of skin color, but an economic need for free labor and greed for free land that justified itself with purposefully manufactured theories of racial superiority so the conquerors could sleep easily at night. Once in place, all the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” could be limited to the chosen few (white male landowners) without apology because the human-created Doctrine of White Supremacy, endorsed by God and Science, decreed it the norm.
Three examples to highlight the point. The first from Pope Nicholas in a Papal Bull published in 1452 called Dum Diversas:
We grant you, King Alfonso of Portugal, by these present documents, with our Apostolic authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery (boldface mine)and to apply…the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his own use and profit.”
Note: Free permission to enslave these “enemies of Christ” and take everything they have for profit. (Don’t think that was Jesus’s narrative!). Follow the money.
Then this excerpt from Christopher Columbus’s journal in Howard Zinn’s A People‘s History of the United States. When Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, the Arawak people greeted him with food, water and gifts. He wrote:
They… brought us parrots and balls of toon and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willing traded everything they owned. They were well-build, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms and do not know them.…They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
And that’s precisely what he did. And what was the “whatever we want?” Was it to show Columbus and his men how they hunted or fished or farmed, share their music and dance, teach them the value of generosity? Of course not! It was to find gold. And so he ordered all males fourteen years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. If they did, they were given a copper token to hang around their necks. Any Indians found without the token had their hands cut off and bled to death. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Follow the money.
Finally, here is Charles Dickens giving his impression of America in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit, written after he visited the United States in the 1840’s:
"Martin was anxious to hear the conversation of the busy gentlemen...It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contribution that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honor, and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Do anything for dollars!”
Do anything for dollars. The seed in Dickens time that grew to the creed of the corporate world, environment/ fair wages/ safe working conditions be damned! Follow the money and never mind if it leads you to genocide, slavery, war after war, the innocent slaughter of children in schools. In this story, kindness and generosity are perceived as weakness, justice as foolish, fairness for suckers. Screw the common good, you gotta look out for Number One! So some good politicians may get elected and a few laws might change, but without a radical shift in narrative, none of it will matter much. What needs to change is the story itself.
Consider: The astronomical rise of the 1% that spends its extreme wealth on super yachts and trips to space could have been radically different with a different narrative in place. As Reich notes:
“As the corporate raiders gained more wealth and power they could have made a different choice. They could have used their political and economic clout to get better schools for all, comprehensive job re-training, wage insurance, better public transportation and expanded unemployment insurance. They could have pushed for universal health care. They could have paid for all of this by accepting, even lobbying for, higher taxes on themselves. They could have strengthened rather than fought off unions and pushed for laws giving workers more rather than less voice. They could have demanded limits on campaign spending.
“They did the reverse. They spent more and more of their ever-expanding wealth to alter the rules of the game to their own advantage. We are now living with the consequences.”
Indeed we are. Had they been immersed in a different back story— for example, the actual tales of Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, caring for the poor and the meek, advocating love of neighbor— these so-called Christians might have done all of the above. But no surprise that they didn’t.
And at the other end of the spectrum, the poor whites driven by the get-rich dream are duped into believing that people like Trump care about them, dream of winning lottery tickets, believe the lies of the White Supremacy narrative that it’s people of color and immigrants who are taking their jobs away—and again, we are living with the consequences of people who vote against their own interests while the rich cats laugh at them from their yachts while pretending to be their friend.
At the end of Dicken’s “dollars” passage, he writes:
"I was a-thinking, sir," returned Mark, "that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?"
"Paint it as like an Eagle as you could, I suppose."
"No," said Mark. "That wouldn't do for me, sir. I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its dishonesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it..."
"And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!" said Martin. "Well, Mark. Let us hope so."
Dickens, ever the optimist! Me, too, but that Phoenix needs to thoroughly understand the ash from which it springs. If we are to escape the clutches of “follow the money” and rise to the new narrative of sustainability, common good, justice, kindness and beauty, we have to be clear about the stories living through us. Enacting laws limiting big money in politics, redistributing wealth, demanding taxes are absolutely necessary, are not alone enough without a change in narrative.
And let us start with the children. Show them that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are sub-standard human beings not to be emulated. Stop stuffing ourselves with things to fill the holes in our Soul and live simply and lightly on this earth. Be clear that Number 1 is nothing without Numbers 2, 3, 4 and beyond. Show them the strength in vulnerability, the winning virtue of kindness. Teach them the things that really matter. Bring above ground the underground narratives of the real Jesus, Buddha, Kwannon, Rumi, the poets and dancers and musicians, your loving grandmother and the kind stranger who helped you yesterday. Teach them the stories that will move us away from greed and hatred and toward love and belonging. Then, and only then, might we get out of the ditch we have dug and back on the right road.
But there’s more.