Politics, Coonskin Caps, and the Stories That We Are
How was it that as a boy of four or five I came to wear a Davy Crockett coonskin cap or a Wyatt Earp outfit complete with a red and gold vest, striped pants and boots? I suppose it was at least precociously post-modern of me to be carrying a candy-filled plastic walking stick instead of a gun.
One answer, of course, is 1950s television. Another is the profound importance of our cultural narratives to the way we think and act, to the personae we take on, to the choices we make. It’s easy to forget this fact when one of the dominant cultural narratives tells us we are immune to the influence of cultural narratives as autonomous, self-contained individuals.
Popular culture scholar Margaret King wrote:
Americans like to think of themselves as rational people – rooted in fact. If this were true, Consumer Reports would be our best-selling magazine instead of TV Guide.
Well, TV Guide is no longer No. 1. AARP The Magazine is. Still, King’s point is well taken. We don’t choose presidents or products by rational means. We choose them because of the stories they come wrapped in, stories that dress us up, too, sometimes in Wyatt Earp garb.
My parents used to tell me I could sing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” before I could speak another word. I was only a little more than one year old when the original Disney three-part series aired on TV. So it must have been re-runs and the 1956 Disney movie, Davie Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier that had me singing. I had a coonskin cap, of course, but I couldn’t fine a photo. Wyatt Earp will have to do.
I’m still a sucker for Davy Crockett lore, so I devoured Bob Thompson’s wonderful new book, Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier. Thompson found it delightfully impossible to separate the real David from the Davy of American myth and popular culture legend.
True story. In the early 1990s I shared an office with a close friend who had produced several movies. I answered the phone one day and heard a strangely familiar voice. It was Fess Parker, the actor who played Disney’s Crockett! I was suddenly a kid again, listening to Fess Parker pitch a new series idea that would have had Crockett surviving the Alamo taken prisoner. Escaping his captors later on, he and his sidekick, George Russell, would return to Texas to discover they were heroes. They’d hightail it out of there before they were recognized, sacrificing their return to their former lives to the legends they’d become.
Thompson mentions Fess Parker’s unfulfilled hopes in his book. He also does a fine job of reporting on the nascent American celebrity folk culture that Crockett’s life helped fuel. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of these stories to shape our thinking. We are children of culture. Illusions of independence from the stories that make our lives are just that.
Our values ride the stories we tell. And when we seek to share those values or persuade others in political or social spheres, we have to be aware of the existing narrative environment. Facts without stories are not just unpersuasive. They are almost without meaning. King writes:
[Our] values operate under the radar of conscious awareness and deliberation. However, they go very far toward explaining American life and norms. For example, why we do not have extensive or effective mass transit, when it would make great sense; why our divorce rate is so high, and our unofficial class system that no one talks about (we can talk in terms of occupation, income, and education, but not class).
Over the last few decades the Right has told more resonant stories than the Left. There are many reasons for this. The Left, closer inheritors of Enlightenment ideals, likes to think that facts and reason are sufficient. I’m tempted to joke that the Right is just more comfortable with the irrational. But there’s another reason that has to do with American individualism. According to King:
Culture is a system of values—which are simple preferences for one state of affairs over another. This system is the power driver of every decision we make, our cultural playbook. In American culture, the individual is the basic unit, the prime mover in our thinking, the heart, mind, and soul of American values. Our belief that individuals control, or should control, so much of what happens to them explains a great deal about American life, and its differences from other culture ways.
Those of us on the Left should tell more stories about the individual’s responsibility to and dependence on others. It’s common sense to us. I didn’t build my home, grow my food, pave my road, or educate myself. I don’t police my neighborhood, fight fires or perform emergency medical services. We are social selves, through and through.
The stories from the Right redact all that. The individual begins and ends with bootstraps. There are a good many more myths and legends about lone heroes than there are stories of community achievement (though it’s often overlooked that most heroes return to community after their journeys to bind those communities together).
Few remember now that Crockett’s Congressional career was marked by his battle to protect his constituents from the era’s Tennessee land speculators. It put him at odds with Andrew Jackson and James Polk and cost him his career. After his election loss, the storytellers say he stood up on a bar and said of those who opposed him, “You may go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”
That’s the part of the Crockett story we should tell.