We live in stories. We live so deeply and completely in stories that it’s hard to see the narratives that we live inside as narratives. In unexamined life, the stories we have been told and the stories we’ve learned to tell ourselves appear to be “reality.” In order to see the stories for what they are, we have to stop, take a breath, and go meta.
“Meta” and “narrative” add up to that big — the biggest — story that large numbers of people tell themselves. It’s the broad strokes of a worldview, and it is how each of us makes meaning . . . again, if we don’t stop, take a breath, and go meta.
Yes, postmodern philosophers talked about the death of meta-narratives, but by that postmodernists did not mean that meta-narratives are a thing of the past. Rather, they observed that meta-narratives are bifurcating and trifurcating and quadra-cating.
Due to this subdividing of stories, we have a whole bunch of micro-narratives that sometimes add up to a meta-narrative, but for many of us, it’s kind of hard to get there.
For example, what does patriotism mean in the larger story of being a citizen? Is resistance patriotic? What is required of us if as citizens we deeply believe government must be fundamentally changed? In that treason? How far can the change go before we stop the changing?
As you know, questions of that sort go on and on.
But still, even though there are oodles and gobs of conflicting micro-narratives, I think there are broadly speaking two meta-narratives not only here in the US but in many places around our world. That is the meta-narrative of liberal democracy and the clashing meta-narrative of nationalism.
I know we all know all of this. But as the American form of this bifurcation manifests as Christian nationalism, those of us with a secular and liberal viewpoint can’t help feeling concerned. And we can’t avoid worry about liberal democracy itself.
But how new is this danger? Let’s go meta.
Take a look at the example of the British writer G. K. Chesterton. He wrote the Father Brown mysteries. He was known in his day as a Christian and a conservative. He eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and some think he should be made a saint.
One of Chesterton’s best friends was playwright George Bernard Shaw, a social progressive and atheist/agnostic. In other words, their meta-narratives were utterly opposite. They agreed to disagree. Because they got meta about the whole thing. In 1924, Chesterton wrote this:
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.
. . .
Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.” (G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 19 April 1924)
Sure, Chesterton’s cynicism is on full display here, but what he wrote makes some sense, doesn’t it? It’s true so far as it goes. And if we listen, perhaps we can lighten up a bit.
That’s what getting meta is all about: lightening up, getting over ourselves.
Take a few meta verses from one of Chesterton’s satirical poems, “The Logical Vegetarian” —
You will find me drinking rum,
Like a sailor in a slum,
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian.
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn,
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.
. . .
I am silent in the Club,
I am silent in the pub,
I am silent on a bally peak in Darien;
For I stuff away for life
Shoving peas in with a knife,
Because I am at heart a Vegetarian.
No more the milk of cows
Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian;
I will stick to port and sherry,
For they are so very, very
So very, very, very Vegetarian. (“The Logical Vegetarian”)
Chesterton invites us to follow the logic — rum not milk for vegetarians. It was something people discussed at the time: dairy and eggs are not vegetables, but many vegetarians eat them.
BTW, the term we use nowadays, “vegan,” was not coined until 1944, long after Chesterton died, but vegan was invented as a word to fix the logic problem.
Contradictions. Getting meta about it. Listen to Chesterton’s words again:
The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.
. . .
Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.
Now that’s meta! It’s cynical; it’s extreme. It’s a warning and an encouragement. Rather than spending our time in moral outrage and othering, might progressives and the conservatives change — or at the least examine — the stories we all tell themselves? Can progressives and conservatives change the meta-narratives that drive the devastating cycle of ruin and excuses that Chesterton points to?
Yes, the stories have changed. The old narratives do not show us the way forward, but perhaps they never did. I invite us all to get meta about it as we create a brand new story. And thereby, a new world.