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America Looks Ahead to the Past, In Search of a Story Line


There was an odd convergence in Baltimore last month that, quite improbably, speaks volumes about why this election season seems so empty and meaningless.

At the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, a group that ranged from Nobel prize-winning scientists to authors and philosophers discussed the subject of memory. At the University of Baltimore, a conference focused on emerging computer technologies. And, down at Camden Yards, Oriole Park opened in a burst of civic pride.

Though that seems like a motley crew of community events, all three shared a Janus-like feature -- they were looking backward and forward at the same time. It is a crucial trick that has eluded our national leaders for about a generation now.

The symposium on memory, by definition, focused on something associated with the past. But, in presentation after presentation by the scientists, it was clear that in trying to figure out how the brain remembers, the most cutting-edge, futuristic medical technologies imaginable are employed.

Moreover, the talks by the humanists involved reminded that memory is not an element of the past, but is an essential part of the present that we use to construct our vision of the future.

Philosopher Mary Warnock speculated that memory is so

cherished not because it defines each of us as individuals -- though it certainly is involved in that process -- but because it connects us with the whole of human experience, something that will go on eternally into the future.

Social critic Paul Fussell claimed that we select and alter our memories to conform to classical plot structures -- from Cinderella to Romeo and Juliet -- thus organizing them in a way that helps us in trying to make sense of present.

At the University of Baltimore, most of the presentations celebrated and demonstrated the possibilities of a computerized world that comes complete with libraries on videodisc, interactive novels and virtual reality plays.

But there was another side. Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins talked of the ways and means of advertising, how its images and techniques -- designed and derived by these celebrated technologies -- have become the ersatz building blocks of popular culture.

And, in a talk that could be termed the keynote of the weekend, Neal Postman of New York University warned that we are suffering from an information glut -- thanks to these technologies we all have access to a mountain of facts and data, but we have no way of making sense of it, nothing to tell us what among it is important and what is not worth paying attention to.

Dr. Postman said that what we need is a story. Whether it be from Genesis or the Declaration of Independence, Horatio Alger or Norman Rockwell, Steven Spielberg or Steven Bochco, the country yearns for a narrative framework that can organize the limitless information that confronts us every day.

Such a story would probably conform to one of Dr. Fussell's paradigm plots, evoking an archetype in our collective memories to use as we face the future. It can be seen as the connection with the an experience larger than the individual that Dr. Warnock referred to in her assessment of memory's value.

This narrative would necessarily arise from the past, but must look to the coming years, must give us a blueprint derived from the foundations of history that we can use in constructing the future. It would encompass the possibilities of the technologies now mapping the human brain and creating virtual realities, but would place them in a context that would show them as part of the continuum of human achievement.

The glowing success of Oriole Park at Camden Yards is due to its being the architectural equivalent of that narrative. Its setting, its detail, its structure, refer to baseball's past, conjuring up memories of its legacies and traditions. Most importantly, it evokes the game's and its team's strong connection with its communities. The park belongs in Baltimore, is intrinsically a part of Baltimore, just as the team is supposed to be.

But, with its luxurious club level, its modern conveniences, its state-of-the-art huge television screen, the park is future-oriented, designed to provide an architectural narrative for baseball in Baltimore for generations to come.

The presidential candidates would do well to realize that the electorate is in search of such a narrative. More than they want details of economic programs, more than they want the "correct" views on abortion or handgun control, more than they want a stance on aid to Russia, voters want a story that will make sense of the current state of America and its position in the world, its mission in the future. It has to reconcile the fact that while our country seems to be in deep trouble, people still get on rickety boats to try to get to our shores, our founding fathers are still quoted by those emerging from decades of oppression.

Such a story must be mythic, but not a myth. It has to conform to the truths that people are confronted with every day. That is not to say it must be a picture of absolute reality, only that it cannot be totally at odds with the evident facts. These stories are always idealized portraits, much as the bottom-line business aspects of the relationship between the city and the Orioles are not the main theme of the architectural story of Camden Yards.

One of those truths that the political story must reflect is that the best-laid legislative plans are inevitably sidetracked. That's why the various specifics touted by the candidates are not resonating with the electorate. They must be subservient to a larger narrative. We are more interested in where the candidate plans to take the country, not precisely how he plans to get there because we know that there will inevitably be some unplanned detours along the way.

Ronald Reagan's appeal can be credited to his ability to tell his story convincingly, but his version mainly looked backward with nostalgia. Its appeal was undeniable to a country that was, for the first time, beginning to see that its past might be brighter than its future, but eventually that story's contrast with reality became evident. The "shining city on the hill" tarnished when everyone in it was driving Toyotas and homeless people clogged its streets.

Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was an attempt at such a story, but it mainly looked forward to a utopian future, a last gasp of modernism as the New Deal machinery was sputtering to a halt. It was the political equivalent of those all-purpose circular stadiums; they looked good on paper, but the reality was oddly empty.

John Kennedy was probably the last president who gave the nation the story it sought and the very phrase he used -- "The New Frontier" -- evoked past and future in equal measure. It is probably one of the reasons our memory of him remains so positive even as it is battered by the emergence of unsavory stories about his personal life and critical analysis of his political positions. The overall picture is what stands out in people's memory, not the occasional bad brush stroke you see when you stand too close.

Bill Clinton seems eager to spew out his proposals, but thus far has not been able to connect them with a larger narrative, or at least to any beyond a garden-variety, out-of-the-book Democratic philosophy.

The fact that Jerry Brown's chameleon-like poses have not been rejected out-of-hand is because he represents the confused frustration so many feel. We want to change, we know we need to change, making attractive Mr. Brown's willingness to change unabashedly. But there is no new national story amid this turmoil, only a recognition of the fact that we need one.

Paul Tsongas probably had the potential to come closest to delivering on this mythological level as the pain of his personal battle with cancer -- cured by cutting-edge medical technology -- provides a metaphor for the difficulties that lie ahead in re-establishing America's position in the world. It's a story that faces the challenges of the future with the work ethic that's a central part of the country's past. But Mr. Tsongas was an indifferent messenger, more comfortable talking about encouraging the growth of capital than the spirit of a nation.

On the Republican side, Pat Buchanan's bile clearly provides no larger narrative, and George Bush has long acknowledged that he has trouble with "the vision thing." Indeed, the heavy reliance of both of those candidates on negative advertising is a virtual admission of narrative bankruptcy.

Ross Perot's sudden emergence can be attributed in part to the fact that his personal story resonates on a national level. He made his way up the ladder with a classical American entrepreneurial spirit, but in the forward-looking field of computers. Whether its appeal is ephemeral or not remains to be seen.

The media are of little help. Long ago, in the name of objectivity, they gave up any practice of the role of national consensus builders. If campaign reports are not focusing on polls and horse races, they are boring in on factual fallacies that may or may not plague specific candidates, asking questions a, b and c, demanding answers x, y and z, then analyzing the results like a sixth grade teacher diagramming a complicated sentence. Such details are rarely used to construct a picture bigger than the screen of a TV set.

The United States is a country founded on the philosophical precepts of modernism. Our faith in modernity, reflected in our belief in progress -- that tomorrow will be better than today, that our kids will have more than we have -- is now being shaken in a post-modern world.

Like a child about to face the uncertainties of sleep, we yearn to be told a story. There is nothing childish about that; such stories give us the simple truths around which we organize our lives. Our country now seeks such truths that come out of our collective past to guide us as we face what is perceived as a dark night of the future.

Michael Hill is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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