If Thomas King is right, and stories are all we are, then it seems to me we have two choices in life. We can either live the story that others have written for us, or we can write our own story.

The story of our culture, the story others wrote for us, teaches us:

  • that we are at heart sinful, lazy, untrustworthy, in need of salvation or redemption
  • that our world is a place of danger, frightening, cruel, brutal, plagued with scarcity and adversity
  • that we should do what we’re told by our betters, and be grateful for what we have
  • that the world was created for man and man alone, as his dominion
  • that we should multiply and fill the earth, regardless of the consequences for the rest of life
  • that we should spend our life working hard and acquiring, because our worth is measured by what we own
  • that our heroes are fighters, warriors, those who struggle and conquer and overcome
  • that no matter what we do, god will forgive us and clean up our mess before it gets too bad

There are several novel resources that those of us who find this story unsatisfactory, counter-instinctive, and dangerous, can use to write a different story, a New Story:

  • Steve Denning, formerly of the World Bank, has a whole archive of storytelling resources, including how to write a ‘springboard’ story — one that precipitates change
  • Creating the 21st Century has an introduction to storytelling that explains why storytelling is so powerful
  • Inner Self, drawing on the work of Daniel Quinn, suggests a setting for a new story, almost the antithesis of the adversarial setting in which most of our culture’s stories are written
  • In business the process of writing a Future State Vision is very similar to creating a new story — envision a possible world, a few years in the future, from the perspective of your ‘representative’ character, where her/his objectives have been met and her/his problems resolved — and let the reader fill in the blanks on how the future state was achieved (in other words, invent the possible)
  • My own earlier post on Why Stories are Subversive has links to several other storytelling resources

Not that we should not be bound by how others say stories should be written. I think we know instinctively how to tell stories. Children start telling stories, to themselves and anyone who will listen, almost as soon as they can talk. And it’s only later when they fall victim to the cultural biases that say that a story needs tension, drama, heroism, conflict, resolution, and substantial length. Some of the best stories are joyful, simple and brief.

Economists Peter Jay and Marshall Sahlins have both told stories that have essentially rewritten ‘pre-civilization’ history, changing our conception of hunter-gatherer cultures from poor, dirty and brutish to affluent, comfortable and carefree. Regardless of their focus, good stories change the way we think and therefore change who we are. They can even show us a new way to live, and hence be transformational.

As I’ve written often in these pages, I believe the only hope for our world is for some, then many, and finally most of us to walk away from the old culture, the old economy, the old politics, the old business models, the old religions, that are driving us headlong to ecocide, endless war, violence, psychosis, oppression, and physical and imaginative destitution. We can’t fight them, change them. But we can create new ones that will undermine and replace them. But to walk away from the old, we need something to walk to. Through stories, we can invent a new world, a new culture, completely different from the one we live in now. Instead of teaching us the eight dreadful lessons bulleted in red above, these new stories could teach us some things almost unimaginatively positive and astonishing, things that we somehow forgot when the existing culture took hold 30 thousand years ago:

  • that we are magic, perfect, wonderful
  • that our world is a paradise, and we are inextricably part of it and welcome in it
  • that we should trust our instincts, and that by listening to the earth we will always know what to do
  • that the world is a sacred organism of sacred organisms, and that it belongs to all of us and to none of us
  • that our purpose is to be and to let others be, in balance and in harmony
  • that we should spend our life experiencing and sharing joy and learning
  • that we do not need heroes, leaders, hierarchy, order, possessions, property — earth works perfectly well without them
  • that we are all responsible for sustaining the balance of the natural world to which we belong

Is it naive to believe we could achieve a world like this? Maybe. Is it contrary to basic human nature? Not at all. Our destructive, acquisitive, fearful modern culture has only been around for a mere 30 thousand years. For three million years before that humans at least behaved as if they believed, for the most part, the green bullets above. I think we know, in our hearts, instinctively, that there is something very wrong with our culture and what it’s done to our planet. I think we know that if we really knew what sustains our current culture — what goes on in prisons, third world child labour camps, slaughterhouses, corporate and political backrooms, torture centres, factory farms, schoolyards, dictatorships, hospitals and asylums and old-age homes, and behind the closed doors of private homes where women and children are beaten and abused — we could not allow this culture to continue, we could no longer believe its false stories. But in the absence of an alternative, a New Story, we turn away, preferring not to know the terrible truth about our culture.

Imagine that the Nazis had ‘won’ WW2. Do you think today we would be, most of us, angry and ready to overthrow the Thousand Year Reich? We wouldn’t. The opponents would have been exterminated and the rest of us brainwashed to believe that aryans are ‘naturally’ the master race, and that corporatism (that’s what Mussolini called the complete integration of corporate and government power and the suppression of opposition to it via a ruthless police state, before the historians renamed it fascism) was necessary to the order and good government of society. The education system would have taught us, elite and masses alike, stories that reinforced the rightness of this status quo, and ensured our obedience, our subservience to the powerful, our fear of scarcity if we didn’t conform, our inability to imagine any other way of living.

Our situation today isn’t all that different. Don’t believe me? If my Ten Things To Keep You Awake list wasn’t enough to convince you, consider this: The most successful story-teller of 2003 (his was the best selling CD of the year), entitled (and there is no irony in the title) Get Rich Or Die Tryin is a guy named 50 Cent. The number two best sellers were a band (can’t remember their name) who have made their entire fortune around a new line of sneakers (they have a 20-foor Reebok sneaker that they dance around during their numbers). MTV and MuchMusic have entire programs devoted to which celebrities are currently endorsing which products, including customized six-figure limited edition ‘gangsta’ vehicles issued by the Big 3 US auto makers. These artists don’t care if people download their songs free — they make their big money on endorsements from Nike and the Gap, who in turn make their real money from third world sweatshops, offshoring American jobs and child and slave labour. Now, guess what the messages of the very powerful stories in these artists’ very popular songs are (check out the lyrics if you doubt me):

  • money and power and property are the measure of every man
  • life is brutal and violent and you must be ruthless and competitive to survive or succeed
  • it’s OK to kill, cheat, rob, rape, lie if your victim is even vaguely associated with your ‘enemy’ — the end justifies the means
  • women are chattels, property to be collected for the pleasure of rich and powerful men, for display
  • god is on the side of the rich and powerful — why else would they still be alive and have money and power?

Sound a lot like the red bullet list above? Sound like the belief system of some corporate and government leaders you know? Today’s best selling artists are bombarding a generation of sadly under-educated kids and uncritical young adults with the fiercest corporatist might-makes-right neocon cultural propaganda since the McCarthy and Nixon Eras, and they’re eating it up.

This is why we desperately need new stories. We are running out of time. The defenders of our bankrupt, reckless, out-of-control culture know what they’re selling is counter-intuitive, irrational, unethical, but they have everything tied up in its continuance, everything to lose, and they’re holding on, throwing all their money and influence at keeping it going, at subverting opposition and attacking other ways of thinking. Our only defence is three million years of instinctive knowledge, and the power of stories. The power to change everything.

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  1. Susan says:

    Obviously you haven’t heard the lyrics to a massive hit by the Black Eyed Peas entitled, “Where is the love”? You might like that one. I agree MTV is sold out big time (they seem to be singlehandedly supporting Brittny Spears’ faltering career), but it’s interesting how the breakaway hits seem to happen when they’re not looking. there’s plenty of popular musicians producing good stuff. If you look only for the blingbling music (which is almost a parody of itself these days), that’s all you’ll find.I’d also point out that the age group listening to the music you object to–under 30–is by far the most liberal and tolerant segment of American society, according to opinion polls. On gay rights alone, young people (who listen to eminem!) are light years ahead of their elders. The Baby Boomers, the most selfish generation in American history, listen to all the classics, and don’t seem to get a thing out of it, from what I can tell.Don’t knock the younger generation–they’re a hell of a lot smarter than you realize. And the messages they may be getting from that music might be different from what you pick up. This is, after all, a generation raised on multimedia and irony.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Susan: I really hope you’re right. There is some disturbing data that suggests otherwise. Here’s a recent quote:CNN’s “Crossfire” co-host Paul Begala said: “If ignorance is bliss, then young (under 30) voters are the happiest folks in America.”One of the things that comes out of the CNN poll here is that they are three times less likely than their older peers to be plugged into issues and ideas,” he said. “They are our future, and they are hopelessly ill-informed.”It’s unclear what difference, if any, younger Americans will have in the 2004 presidential election, but it is clear they support the president, if only slightly more than older Americans.When asked if they approved of the way Bush was handling his job as president, 62 percent said yes, while the rating dips to 53 percent for the older group.Sixty-six percent of the younger Americans surveyed said they had a favorable opinion of Bush — compared with 62 percent of older Americans.

  3. Kev says:

    People will be much more willing to accept your stories if you make them true and accurate. It seems like you are trying to compensate for the previous list and going too far. These stores are similar to affirmations, and cognitive behavior therapy, and they only work when you can accept them as true. If they are an exaggeration, they won’t work.> that we are magic, perfect, wonderfulI guess “perfection can be achieved if the standards are low enough.” I won’t feel perfect if I have cancer.> that our world is a paradise, and we are inextricably part of it and welcome > in itIn my idea of paradise, there is no cancer and I could eat nothing but pizza and ice cream.> that we should trust our instincts, and that by listening to the earth we will > always know what to doNo, that is a dangerous one. For example, my instincts tell me to have sex with as many women as possible. > that the world is a sacred organism of sacred organisms, and that it belongs > to all of us and to none of usSounds nice, but what does it imply?> that our purpose is to be and to let others be, in balance and in harmonySounds nice, but who defines the balance?> that we should spend our life experiencing and sharing joy and learningFreud said life should be calm, fun and responsible. > that we do not need heroes, leaders, hierarchy, order, possessions, property > — earth works perfectly well without themNothing would survive without some order. Biology has lots of order, hierarchy, possessions and property. There are 24 hours in a day. Bears eat fish who eat minnows who eat photosynthetic organisms. That’s called a hierarchy. Many animals fight for territory and property.> that we are all responsible for sustaining the balance of the natural world to > which we belongWho’s balance?

  4. Stonethatbleeds says:

    A new type of city is the solution to all the problems of Humanity. This city form I teach to study does also use your life recordings of this time in great detail. This permits to speak to the living from the living of the time one was recorded. Death? What is that?The template is of basic 4 concentric circles at equal distance creating a core, a center and a seal of the city leaving the last as marker of domestic to wild. Children in the core, mothers on the same seal outward. Women in a seal facing in and men back to back with them. Then the older mature couples inside can service the outside visitors. Each is split by a thoroughfare to 12 gates that each have a service building (Oval) that can close the gate or move forth and open it to any degree wanted. No thoroughfares in the core.Cycle all things and share with same cities worldwide. Spread it to claim all other forms of religion, politics or any other powers. On the line of the circle you really are an equal! You get in Balance! The cycle of all equality in all things by need (Rejecting what you need not) permitting the shares to spread over the world.Recording one

  5. mscandide says:

    Thanks for the green-bullet list; I’ll cut and paste it to my forehead. This is what I’m saying.–sam

  6. Bruce Hughes says:

    At least one interesting counter-argument to your notion that the first item in the red-bullet list does us harm is posed by John Taylor Gatto in his essay Absolute Absolution: The Forgiveness of Original Sin By Ministers of Government Schooling.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Bruce: Gatto is a fascinating writer. I’ve quoted him before in my posts on education. He’s a brilliant guy, but sometimes seems to argue against himself for the sheer perverse pleasure of the debate. What he describes here as the education system’s forgiveness of sin and support for a scientific agnostic ‘Eden’ is bogus — Eden is a metaphor, but in this essay Gatto chooses conveniently to take it literally, and misrepresent a secular and agnostic rejection of religious dogma as the force-feeding of a hedonistic and amoral philosophy. This is akin to saying that the rejection of a set of formal tenets with a negative worldview is necessarily advocacy for irresponsibility, mindlessness and faithlessness. It’s nothing of the kind. Guys like Gatto are so cynical that they see conspiracy in the promotion of positive, life-affirming worldviews. As I admit, such worldviews may be naive, maybe even subversive, but they’re hardly conspiratorial, and certainly not beholden to any vested interests.

  8. Bruce says:

    fantastic Dave. I’m right there with ya.

  9. chlora says:

    If the moccasin had been on the other foot 200 years ago in America, your green points would be part of the Constitution. Ah, if only…

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