RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Time to Capture the Narrative

We’re beginning year two of the Trump administration and the news is bad. We have a president who shows every day that he’s uncontrolled, undisciplined, incompetent and more, with outrage piled act upon act like pancakes in a stack. But he’s been successful—he’s got a Supreme Court appointment, a tax code, Federal judges, and he’s inspired fossil organizations touting racism, xenophobia, misogyny. His appointments threaten the educational system. Are we paying attention yet? Or do we still insist his administration is failing?

Exhausted by it all, I’ve taken to listening to easy-listening music in the car instead of radio news, so every evening, when I come home, my husband has a new monstrous tale to share.

On Jan. 6, when Trump announced he is “a very stable genius,” sweetie and I traded that phrase back and forth, imagining ourselves as just two of the millions of couples that entertained ourselves with those words. On Jan. 12, it was “s**thole”... or was it “s**thouse”? And how, by the way, did a room full of smart-phone carrying, selfie-obsessed politicians manage to go through a meeting without even one recording of the comments?

But never mind. The real question is … what do we tell the kids? What is the next American mythos to pass on, generation to generation, our shared tale of hope and glory? National narratives need to exist—to reassure us that we are moving in a sure direction toward an inevitable, good and honest, truth.

The original story of America, we now agree, was flawed. Forgetting that there were people here before European arrivals, and forgetting the work of enslaved Africans in building our nation, the first story had to do with oppressed peoples from European lands coming to this land of opportunity and making their own ways. Waves of immigrants, our ancestors among them, looked for freedom — religious, ethnic, financial — celebrated their holidays, made their fortunes, settled and built things.

This story has been mostly discarded. We amend it to include footnotes about those who came first and those that cleared our fields, built our plantations, laid the rails for our railroads. Dare we say “include those that our ancestors exterminated”? It hurts, and there’s more, and the truth is complicated and national stories are meant to be simple and easy to absorb.

So let’s look at the replacement story — the one that has to do with Americans taking care of each other. That one really rang true in rural America. That story birthed universities, hospitals, electric co-operatives, volunteer fire departments, water districts. In my community, we still live with those cooperatives and have recently added cooperatively owned internet companies. And, on a larger level, we have Social Security, Medicare.

Again, there are entire communities left out. Communities of under-employed, communities of color, communities that presented uncomfortable sexual desires — these didn’t fit into the story, and were left out of the stories of cooperation leading to the greater good. Cooperatives make for great stories, but baby boomers may be the last that could truly buy that mythos. So, what’s next?

We are, right now, writing the next story. It looks like it could be about winners and losers, with the heroes being the greediest. Because the winners write the stories, the next one could be about a booming stock market, corporate power and the end of nature. Or, we can resist and build a story that includes everyone, but to do that we will have to win.

For independent family farmers and consumers, if we don’t resist, the next story will have to do with the complete loss of independence. We are losing the ability to save seed, and even to own land. The inability to protect what we’ve planted when our neighbors use a spray that kills our plants and animals. The lesson might be that the protection of government is extended to corporations but not to people. That story might be spun to make corporate takeover of common good sound like it’s inevitable. The theme might be, “University scientists worked hard to find ways to feed a growing population, and government helped by creating a framework for success.”

But there’s still time to capture the narrative. In just a few months we’ll be voting for new winners to challenge the policy makers. If we are paying attention, we can help them win. The elections will be national, state and local. Let’s surprise the world by doing what we know is possible and electing the most diverse group of public servants ever to work in America. It’s conceivable that, with hard work and a lot of luck, we can win back some of the administration’s appalling gains. Then we’ll have a real story to tell the future.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts “Farm and Fiddle” on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Her latest book is The Golden Lane: How Missouri Women Gained the Vote and Changed History. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2018

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