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Lawrence Wallack: Retelling the American Story

Lawrence Wallack is dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University and so called “father of media advocacy”. He wrote an interesting article called Retelling the American Story.

The theme of the article reminds me of an article incorrectly attributed to George Carlin that was forwarded to me awhile back called The Paradox of Our Time. The article was actually written by Dr Moorhead, former pastor of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington. You have probably seen it. Here is one part:

“The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.”

From Wallack’s article:

“Yet despite such incredible advances, we still face collective challenges that won’t yield just to technology. The economy has rarely been better, but we have 45 million people without health insurance, the gap between rich and poor as a measure of inequality is growing and is alarmingly wide, global warming has gone from theory to reality, and we’re in a perpetual struggle to find adequate funding for education. No amount of computing power will figure these things out for us.

These are the social and human inequalities that flow from how we organize our society, and that, in turn, is based on the values that guide our collective decisions.”

The article goes on to talk about telling stories to communicate deeper meaning, specifically two kinds of competing stories: Yoyo (you’re on your own) stories and Witt (we’re in this together) stories. The collective decisions of the US are driven by this dichotomy. The US seems to have come to an impasse, however, in facing today’s social problems. Is there such a thing as a Yoyo problem? Without a Witt perspective, is the widening income gap or the fact that 45 million Americans don’t have health insurance even seen as problems?

In order for the collective decisions of the US to be guided by Witt values, Wallack says we “need more stories that articulate the values of shared responsibility, obligation to the local and global community, civic participation, and an appropriate helping-hand for government”.

Wallack’s solution was particularly interesting to me because I’ve been inundated this year with the idea that it is in stories where we find meaning. It was a topic of a John Thomas sermon at Church of the Redeemer. Mike Metzger of the Clapham Institute wrote a great article called A Different Way to Discuss the Da Vinci Code, that it is in imagination where we find meaning. Even at work for the American Cancer Society, HR is holding workshops that will help staff better inform the public about the organization’s crucial work and to express the impact of what the Society brings to every community through personal stories.

It seems there is nothing left to do but to tell a story….maybe another time.

Donna J said,

July 13, 2007 @ 7:58 am

Thanks for sharing this on your website. I would be interested in knowing if you agree with Wallack’s point of view. Do you think we are getting to be too much of a YOYO society? I have thought about this some before this article, but not with the same terms. I tried asking myself the following: Do you feel burdened or disgusted at someone you know who asks for your help? Is it different when it is a stranger? Is it different if it is a faceless stranger or a group of faceless strangers?
This is what I came up with. I love to help my friends and family. I am glad when they ask for me to be pulled into community. It makes me feel good. Meanwhile, if someone I don’t know were to ask me for help directly, I am not sure that I could turn them down. I can’t say that I would relish the request, but I think that 9 times out of 10, afterward I would be grateful that I had the opportunity or that I had something to offer. There is something about seeing the need on someone’s face that compels me to want to reach out. For instance, every time it rains and I see someone standing in the rain waiting for a bus, all I want to do is stop my car and offer them a ride. I have never done it out of my own fear (of people, talking to strangers, etc.), but I want to do it.
For the last question, I turn to an article I read recently:
It refers to a quote by Mother Teresa, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
The author is speaking more about genocide and our failure to act due to the large numbers and statistics used when discussing mass murder in the world. But I think this is just as useful to describe our reactions to millions without healthcare and all such grand atrocities in the US and the world. Speaking of my own personal feelings toward it, sometimes it all feels too big.
I guess it makes sense that sharing stories can help bring back our balance between the YOYO and WITT societies. I know that I could stand to hear more stories and less statistics, maybe it will help move me past my feeling of helplessness or numbness to the masses.

Andrew said,

July 16, 2007 @ 10:41 pm

I agree with Wallack’s point, but also am encouraged by the many examples of WITT that we are surrounded by. Friends and neighbors prepare meals for new parents and injured tennis teammates. Redeemer has a missions team in Guatemala. Many friends have adopted children who may otherwise be underprivileged orphans. That said, it seems Americans value YOYO ideals more. Nobody wants to pay more taxes. We still drive huge, gas guzzling cars. We think a market-based approach to erasing individual carbon footprints is appropriate. Maybe these trends can be reversed if, like Wallack suggests, we collectively make an effort to tell WITT stories. » Shared Responsibility, Human Bridges said,

August 8, 2007 @ 10:34 am

[…] my July 12 post about Lawrence Wallack’s article Retelling the American Story, I wrote about the terms WITT (we’re in this together) and YOYO (you’re on your own).  […]

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