Category Archives for Social myths

US debt crisis as a clash of stories

childrens museum tug of war

Children's museum tug of war, Photo by Paul J. Everett, Flickr Creative Commons


I’ve been listening to politicians from the left and right as they tell their versions of debt in the U.S. The right insists no agreement is possible without a constitutional amendment capping debt. The left insists no agreement is possible without raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Each side claims the other’s story is a false interpretation of the way things really work.

I confess bias toward the left. The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is the worst in the world, and it keeps on widening. The trickle-down story, where leaving money in the hands of corporations and the wealthiest ensures jobs for everyone else, has proven fictional but still has incredible staying power.

It’s clear the U.S. needs a new and healthier story of how government should function in a democratic society. The minimal-government right is suspicious of anything that gives power to those not in the producing sector, as if roads, hospitals, schools, libraries, and parks were not of benefit to everyone. They are suspicious of all regulations, as if industry would, on its own, stop polluting our streams, land and air and poisoning our bodies.

No side has a corner on The One True Story. Life is far too complex for that. However, it seems to me that any country in which the predominant story is focused more on accumulation of wealth than on egalitarian principles is doomed to failure.

An article published on Oakland Local last December said of the need for viable stories, “In a world so out of balance, we need landmarks and milestones to help us see the way forward. Narrative is like a series of virtual cairns that help us stay on the path.”

May the U.S. build new cairns before once again bringing the world to its financial knees.

Related reading:

Not your usual banking story

Ads for Canadian banks focus on things they figure their customers care about – credit cards, investments, loans, banking services, consumer goods. The stories they tell are bland, cautious, predictable. They want us to see them as responsible and fiscally conservative.

Those are good qualities for banks. Given the economic chaos of the last few years, we want to believe our money is safe. So a marketing story that makes us feel safe is probably a good business decision. Somehow I can’t imagine a Canadian bank making a social justice statement with its advertising.

That’s what Argentina’s Banco Provincia does with this ad, and it’s a fascinating cultural reflection. We see a vehicle stop. An older man gets out and walks up to an attractive hairdresser, who is standing outside her shop. He apologizes for mistreating her and tells her he asked the bank for a car loan because that same bank granted her—a transgendered woman—a loan to start her hairdressing business.

Argentina is ahead of tolerant Canada in creating an atmosphere of acceptance for transgendered people. It’s encouraging to know that in 2009 Marcela Romero, an activist who fought successfully for the right to have a sex change, was chosen Argentina’s Woman of the Year.

I don’t think we’ll see an ad like this one on Canadian television this year, but the time is coming nearer when we will.

[Keep reading below the video to see one of the reasons I think such ads in Canada are a long way off.]

A postscript to this story, from a Canadian perspective:

No one will be surprised to note that Royal Bank’s ads don’t mention the compensation it gives its CEO. In 2010 Gordon Nixon received $11 million in direct compensation and a pension top-up of $810,000. Another four RBC officers divided up a pie worth $28.08 million.

That same year Toronto Dominion CEO Ed Clark scooped $11.3 million. Scotia Bank’s Richard Waugh came in third, at $10.7 million. Bank of Montreal’s Bill Downe earned $9.5 million. Scotia Bank’s CEO, Gerry McCaughey made a mere $9.34 million.

The heads of Canada’s Big Five banks earned a total of $51.84 million. Statistics Canada figures always lag behind the current year so the closest I can report is that in 2008 the average income after tax of all families of two or more was $74,600. Singles averaged $31,000.

To put that in context, let’s assume those CEO’s didn’t hire smart accountants, lawyers and financial advisors to shelter most of their income. Instead, let’s assume they paid the full 29% owed by anyone making over $128,800. Ludicrous, I know, but it’s a starting point.

Discounting additional income from those CEO’s wives and any investment income they might have, they had an average after-tax pay of $8.4 million. Divide that by the average family income, and each of them made about 113 times as much as the average Canadian family and more than 270 times the average single.

They can afford to buy the things their marketing tells us are important – houses, cars, vacations. Do they really deserve to make that much more than ordinary folk?

Time for a new story.

The truth behind the truth

Lately I’ve been feeling like a very small dot on a big, troubled planet. The stories I hear on awakening or while preparing a meal are like vultures pecking at my peace of mind.

We all know the headlines: Devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan. Floods in Australia. Tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. Protests in Egypt. Civil war in Libya. Acidification and plastic pollution of our oceans. Peak oil. Climate change. Drought. Hunger. Disease. Fear. Violence. Corruption.

So I was pulled up short when Liz Weir, a dear friend and one of the best storytellers on the planet, sent this to me:

You storytellers know how to describe peace. We need you more than ever.

I am a journalist. I get paid for writing about wars and other disasters.

You storytellers know the truth behind what we other people think is the

Tell us all about it!

Winfried Dulisch

Winfried is a talented writer and musician. He is also an astute critic. He has experienced the spell of Liz’s stories. He understands that in the space between words and listeners something important happens. And that something is truth.

Not the capital T kind that True Believers of any ilk use as a club. More the subtle kind of truth that sneaks up on us and startles us into awareness.

So many times I’ve been jolted upright by a story. Epiphanies emerge from folk tales, myths, and legends. They rise out of history, family stories, and dinner conversation. And, yes, they pop up in the news.

Just this past week I’ve been reminded of that. Bombarded by death, loss, destruction and war, I have found refreshment in the well of stories.

When workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant began exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radiation, I remembered the story Dr. Wangari Maathai told in the movie Dirt! While all the animals of the forest fled a raging fire, the hummingbird flew back and forth, filling her beak with water, pouring it on the fire. She persisted when the other animals mocked her puny efforts. Matthai said she will be like the hummingbird: “I will do the best I can.”

A video about factory farming plunged me into despair, but another about a dog who would not leave his injured canine pal buoyed me. The two friends were rescued by compassionate volunteers. The injured dog was taken to the vet, the faithful pal to a no-kill shelter. The video went viral, and money poured in to help other animals in need of rescue.

A couple days ago Dayna from Bella Coola sent me the link to Singing Our Treasures Back to Life. She cautioned me to start at the bottom, with the first entry, and work my way up. The blog has only a few entries, every one of them powerful.

Six young men from the Heiltsuk community traveled from Bella Bella, British Columbia, to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The young men brought the spirit of the Heiltsuk people to objects taken from their land long ago. Their intent was “to sing these treasures back to life”.

The whole account is deeply moving. I will never again look at items in a museum in quite the same way. And so I take to heart this message from the blog:

“Please carry this story with you. It’s your story now, and I want you to share it. Celebrate with us. We uphold you and uplift you – you have witnessed something that is of great importance to us. The strength of our story, like the strength of our people, will not diminish. We hold it in a sacred space within us – a space of narrative, memory and language – a space of touch and sound and light – a space that is shared between all of us, and you, and everyone who reads this. We will remain strong together.”

Strong together. Yes. That’s it. Our world’s not just a sorry old place. It is mysterious and beautiful. Our lives have meaning. For every act of corruption, violence or betrayal, there are thousands more of generosity, love or compassion.

We must tell those stories. We must live those stories. We must pass them on.

Stories are a sacred legacy.

Stories are our truth.

Rehabilitating the rat’s reputation

My friend was adamant. “There are no rats in my neighborhood!”

I’d stopped by for a visit to a lovely home in a decidedly upper-middle-class area of Seattle. On my way up to the door, I spied a big, grey rat scurrying among the garden plants. Since rats are ubiquitous, I didn’t find anything unusual about it.

The friend I was visiting was offended when I mentioned the rat. Not her fault really. Rats have a bad reputation. When we think of rats in western cultures, we think of stories such as

  • rats spreading plague in the dark days of the Black Plague
  • the Pied Piper ridding Hamelin of rats by piping an enchanting tune
  • scenes in horror films where hundreds of rats attack a bound victim
  • rats stowing on board ships
  • expressions such as “rat-faced”, “I smell a rat”, “rat on someone”, “dirty rat”

Rats are intelligent, social creatures. They don’t deserve their bad reputation. They need a new story that will rehabilitate their image. Maybe something that will make labs think twice about inflicting pain. A story that will bring respect to these much-maligned rodents.

And here it is. Bart Weetjens admires rats. He knows there are some things they do better than humans, like recognize odors. So he trained them and put them to work sniffing out land mines and tuberculosis. Turns out they trump humans and our machines many times over on both those tasks. And they ask little in return.

This TED video is twelve minutes long. Watch this, and you’ll have a new story about rats, a story that will make you look at them with respect.

This is important because so many of the stereotypes and misconceptions that divide us as people, that rip apart organizations and shatter families and plunge us into wars, are really a function of unhealthy, inaccurate, or incomplete stories. I’m not saying that telling a new story about rats would convince the fleas who feed on them not to spread diseases from rats to humans. I’m not naive enough to claim that if we all knew the stories of Osama bin Laden, Margaret Thatcher, Gandhi, and our next door neighbour, we’d usher in peace on earth.

But I do believe we’d be more careful with each other, our fellow creatures, and our planet if we acknowledged that our stories are always like the ones the blind men told about the elephant—predicated on our partial knowledge of any topic we broach.

Tell a story; start a movement

I’d like to have been in the audience for Marshall Ganz’s lecture for the 2001 meeting of the American Sociological Association. I’d have been listening intently when he said, “story telling may be what most distinguishes social movements from interest groups and other forms of collective actions”.

Somewhere in my wandering around in the huge digital library that is the Web, I stumbled onto the draft of his paper, “The Power of Story in Social Movements”.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez understood the power of storytelling (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The title stopped my quick clicking from one site to the next. Intended for an audience of peers, the paper satisfies the need for academic language to make the text believable. But it also tells a story.

The bulk of Ganz’s lecture is the story of La Causa and the role of stories in framing the movement, as well as inspiring and energizing supporters. From the beginning, the leaders of the National Farm Workers Association wove the elements of their struggle into a narrative line. Weekly meetings were not just serious discussions of burning issues. They were celebrations, relating the week’s events through theater and music.

The 300-mile march to Sacramento, to pressure Governor Brown to intervene on behalf of the farm workers, became one of the movement’s defining stories. Ganz writes, “The march was story telling in action, words and symbols. It enacted an individual and collective journey from slavery to freedom.…This cultural dynamic infused the NFWA with significance for farm workers, Mexican-Americans, students, religious activists, and liberal Americans far beyond its political reach or economic influence as a community organization.”

And that’s the key, isn’t it? We can be serious and sincere and committed to social justice. We can march, sign petitions, serve meals in soup kitchens, raise money to educate African children, and volunteer in shelters. As important and satisfying as our actions may be, they will not lead to change without a compelling story.

The march became one of La Causa’s compelling stories. What stories will transform the cause you care about from interest group to social movement?

Marshall Ganz is Lecturer in Public Policy at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard). He cut his social-justice teeth working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. It was only after many years as a community organizer that he returned to Harvard and earned a PhD in sociology.

No longer strangers, no longer afraid

As long as we look out at each other only through the masks of our composure, we are looking through hard eyes. But as the masks drop and we see the suffering and courage and brokenness and deeper dignity underneath, we truly start to respect each other as fellow human beings. ~ F. Scott Peck, The Different Drum

A young Cowichan woman was among the people who signed up for the first storytelling class I taught after moving to Vancouver Island. The class was being held on her people’s traditional territory, long ago lost to colonizers.

For the first three sessions she sat quietly. Although she participated in the exercises and group work, she did so hesitantly. Still, she kept coming back.


Our stories are like the florets that make up a dandelion's sunny head; each contributes to the beauty of the whole.

Not until the fourth session did she muster the courage to share her story. Through her eyes we saw the stern man who bullied her family into letting her go. We saw her family’s tear-streaked faces. We wept for her homesickness as she lay on a cot in a drab dormitory room. We ached as she was punished for speaking her language.

As she quietly but confidently told her story, she changed for us. She was no longer the nearly invisible young woman on the edge of the group. The gift of her story, painful though it was, was like opening a box. Suddenly we saw the treasure that lay within.

Her story was both personal and universal.

In the years since then, I have heard many more stories of the residential school system whose agenda was bluntly articulated by Sir Duncan Campbell Scott: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian problem.”

At the time the system was developed, Scott was head of the Department of Indian Affairs. He is often quoted as saying the purpose of the schools was “to take the Indian out of the Indian.”

The wounds from this government-supported initiative to erase cultures, languages, and the very essence of identity run deep. Canada is not alone in being slow and inadequate in understanding why such awful wounding is not something people can simply “get over and move on”.

The young Cowichan woman’s story was an important part of the education of a small group of storytelling students. It’s harder to hang onto the sense of Otherness that divides us when we listen to each others’ stories with an open heart.

Narrating the Gulf oil spill

I’m noticing the different ways people are choosing to tell the story of the oil spill. There are no edges to the disaster. Even the beginning has spiky fingers. How do we deal with oil-soaked birds, dying turtles, the shattered lives?

Here are eight of the stories people have created to make sense of the senseless. Some are serious attempts to come to grips with the consequences of the spill. Some are parodies. One is a conspiracy theory.

Vancouver photographer Kris Krug was hired by National Geographic but was able to share his photos on Flickr’s Creative Commons so that people everywhere could use them to tell the story of what happened and what must be done.

CBS tells the story of the human cost of the spill through the suicide of lifelong charter fishing Captain Allen Kruse.

UCB’s Comedy Channel chooses parody to tell the story: “When BP spills coffee”.

The BP Oil Spill Chronicles is a news mashup that points fingers in all directions.

RTAmerica video blows the whistle on BP, telling the story of “A culture of neglect driven by penny pinching”.

Tremendous News uses cats to tell the BP story.

Russia Today focuses this story on the “wildlife apocalypse”.

One of the strangest stories is attributed to an “unknown online entity”, claiming the whole thing is an illusion.

Overturning stereotypes with a new story

It might seem a stretch to include this video in the Story Route blog, but it seems to me this is the kind of story that can completely upend stereotypes and spur creation of a new story.

Things have changed a great deal since I picked up a skipping rope and began jumping away. That was decades ago, at a time when boys would not have been caught dead doing something so, well, girlie.

I’d like to think that’s one more stereotype that has crumbled, one more story about female inferiority that no longer tracks. The faces of the men in the US Naval Academy audience tell me otherwise.

As the fourth- through eight-grade girls begin their rope-skipping routine, the camera pans to a lot of jeers among the guys in the crowd. Less than eight minutes later, those same guys are giving a standing ovation to the Kings Firecrackers.

I have a hunch a lot of those fellows have told the story over and over, of how they couldn’t understand why such a stupid halftime show was being offered. But the story will likely have a twist, of their gradual realization they were watching young athletes with incredible skill, coordination and strength.

And maybe the story’s lesson will spill over into other attitudes, making the world a better place as these girls grow into womanhood.

It’s no fairy tale

Michael Margolis posts a lot of good links on Facebook. Today’s was a blog entry from Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby.

In the September 1, 2009 entry on his blog, Sivers wrote about a talk by Kurt Vonnegut, who explained “why people have such a need for drama in their life”.

He blamed it on the stories we grow up with. Sivers quotes him as saying, “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories.”

That sent me to Google to see if I could track down Vonnegut’s original talk. Bingo. Found it on Lapham’s Quarterly.

Vonnegut drew a graph on a blackboard, what he called “the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here—great prosperity, wonderful health up here. Your average state of affairs here in the middle.”

Arthur Rackham's Cinderella

Arthur Rackham's Cinderella

He warned his audience people buy books and magazines or go to movies to hear stories that fit the rise and fall and ultimate rise of their expectations. Cinderella fits the graph. Hamlet doesn’t.

Vonnegut says we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece because “Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth…The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

It’s worth checking out the Vonnegut talk and contemplating his graphs in the context of the stories we tell, whether it’s around the kitchen table, in ads, on the nightly news, or to a paying audience.

The talk is vintage Vonnegut, provocative and ironic. Reading it made me ponder our hunger for the dramatic, for the rise and fall and ultimate rise. If we need evidence of that hunger, we have only to surf the channels on TV or scan the magazines while we’re waiting to pay for our groceries.

Would it be a different world if we were satisfied with the small ups and downs of ordinary life? Maybe, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out.

One Big Dream

Red mittens

2010 Olympic red mittens from k-ideas' Flickr photostream

Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee members had many dreams when they began planning the 2010 winter games. One of them was to send the Olympic torch on a relay that would bring the flame to within 150 kilometres of every Canadian community. In a country the size of this one, with a population as small and scattered, that is one big dream and it makes one good story.

Airplanes had to be pressed into service to bring the flame to the small pockets of population that inhabit the territories of Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon. And, of course, the Greece-to-Canada portion was airborne.

Elsewhere torch bearers rowed the flame, danced with it, and attached it to a wheelchair. They held it aloft while snowshoeing, surfing, bicycling, dogsledding, crossing ice, riding in a horse-drawn buggy, and driving a snow-grooming machine. When it finally entered the stadium for the opening ceremonies, it was tied to a wheelchair.

In small towns and big cities, thousands of people lined the path, insisting repeatedly that witnessing the relay made them feel part of the games, part of the country. Coast to coast, red-mitten fever generated pride and enthusiasm.

Canadians don’t spend a lot of time waving flags or bragging about their country. Some parts of the Olympics build-up seemed uncharacteristic, like calling the program to fund athletes, “Own the Podium”. Not that Canadians didn’t want their athletes to win medals, but the slogan was over the top for a country where people are more comfortable with modesty than swagger.

So pundits and bloggers and friends sitting around the dinner table will discuss endlessly what the torch relay meant to them and to the country. They’ll wonder if the opening ceremonies were pageantry or wanna-be, how facilities could have been improved, and why we spent $10,000,000 for a temporary Canadian pavilion that looked like a big tent.

But it’s been a good party, and we are quietly proud. And the torch relay? That stitched us together for a few months. We won’t soon forget it.

It is all part of the story.

  • See photos of the relay on the Boston Globe Web site.
  • Trace the route on the Olympic Torch Relay Interactive Map and watch videos of its day-by-day progress.