Monday, February 6, 2017

The American Story

One of the things Americans have fought over tenaciously in recent decades is how to tell our story. The old tales about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, John Smith and Pocahantas, seem pretty lame these days, and heroic narratives of settlers battling against savage Indians feel a tad one-sided. Clearing the forests and plowing up the prairies don't seem as positive as they used to. The era of great inventors, from Eli Whitney to Henry Ford, was also the era of raw capitalism, robber barons, and labor strife. During the War of 1812 the perfidious English went sailing around the South freeing slaves and arming them to fight against their former masters; this tactic had little impact on events at the time, but it has thrown a big wrench into how we in the 21st century understand those times.

Ross Douthat thinks our lack of a common narrative is a major reason our politics are so bitter:
So far we haven’t found a way to correct the story while honoring its full sweep — including all the white-male-Protestant-European protagonists to whom, for all their sins, we owe so much of our inheritance.

Instead liberalism, under pressure from the left, has become steadily more anxious about its political and cultural progenitors, with Woodrow Wilson joining Jackson and Jefferson in the dock. Meanwhile the right’s narrative has become steadily more exclusionary — religious-conservative outreach to Muslims has given way to Islamophobia, racial optimism has been replaced by white resentment.

Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.
Rod Dreher had this comment:
I’ve told the story in this space before about going to visit a school in a very poor part of Dallas, and hearing a fourth grade Latino boy, the son of immigrants, give an oral report on his hero. His report was on Santa Anna — the great villain in the founding myth of Texas! This kid wasn’t trying to be provocative or anything. He was just a kid. Santa Anna is a heroic figure to him. I don’t know how that gap gets bridged, to be honest, unless it’s by all Texans coming to believe that they don’t need a founding myth to live by. That doesn’t seem likely. All humans live by narrative myths, whether they think they do or not.
As a professional historian I may be the worst person to comment on this. I see in the American past such a complex web of forces that I can hardly pick out a narrative beyond the basic one of modernity. Attempts to judge the past based on our own criteria, whether those of nationalism or liberalism, leave me shrugging. I see history as a boundlessly vast and mostly tragic novel with more amazing characters and extraordinary events than anyone could possibly invent, but precious little sign of a moral.

But I know that many people want a clear story, with lessons, and they will keep rewriting history to provide them. Since I don't see how we are going to agree any time soon on who we are, I very much doubt we will agree on a story of how we got here.

1 comment:

leif said...

i'm puzzled about dreher's assertion that everyone has their narrative myths, despite their opinions. i must be so deep in my mythos that i can't see out: i don't think the dems always have the moral high ground and the repubs are always villains, i don't think that american settlers were all bad or all good either, and i don't think there's much worth in us-versus-them polarization. i do think that money tends to corrupt, but plenty of people are corrupt with or without it, so it's again not a childish world of absolutes. so what's my myth? an anti-myth? something that says, institutions and moral beliefs and foibles and chaos all are unshakable parts of our collective being? a gray wash of nuance? what sort of myth is that?