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The Many Storied Story of "The Narrative" and What the Loss of It Costs Us

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So it is that the memes they have appropriated--a "freedom" as uncomplicated as it can be for third graders; a "freedom" devoid of either "responsibility" or of the historical fact of slavery; a "democracy" entirely based on an equality that never existed for women and is weirdly divorced from social class or economics; and "low taxes" that are not only contrary to "promoting the public good" but also transfer and then protect wealth for the richest 1% of us who control elections--these are the memes, the half-truths, and the outright lies that the Tea Party uses to win the already politically burdened hearts and media saturated minds of Americans.   It is enough to make any serious student of history cry.

How did we let that happen?   Here again, Wood and LePore are useful.   Both of them agree that since about 1970 (or roughly during the ascendancy of modern conservative politics in America), narrative historians have been replaced by newer historians who wrote primarily as scientists and critical theorists and postmodernists.   All of them criticized narrative history and before long even the idea of it fell into disrepute.   And all of the critics in their own way, in their own many-storied stories, contributed to the current lack of a coherent historical narrative of and about our country.

What we have in academic departments of history from sea to shining sea are competing discourses of power and historical explanation.   Scholars are trained not to be generalists familiar with the broad scope of history, but instead are trained deeply in a wide range of stories that contribute not so much to a master narrative about America, but instead to smaller stories--and I add necessary and interesting stories--that are taught as women's history, Chicano/Chicana history, Asian-American history, the history of science, the history of art, the history of Greek immigrants in early 20th century New Jersey, and the history of gay sailors in the Navy from 1790 -" 1815.   

These are just a few of the stories that are told and that are taught under the general heading of "American History."   These are the "many-storied stories" that challenge the hegemony of white, (mostly) male, "heteronormative" American histories, as well as the dominant historiography--the methods--used to construct those understandings.   And these few counter-stories don't even take into account historians who argue for an "Atlantic World" history that sheds new insights on who we are as an American people based on more than the narrow views perpetrated by American historians, or even the kind of "people's history" popularized by folks like the late progressive historian, Howard Zinn.

One cost of investing intellectual energy in these new stories of America is the loss of a unifying narrative of who and what we are as a people.   Gone are the days of America as a "melting pot" (denies ethnic, tribal, and racial identities) or even of a "crazy quilt" to describe how it is that so many diverse people, divided by just about everything from language and culture to religious faith to social class and income, can still manage to think of ourselves as "Americans."  

Gone is a shared story.   What we are left with is a kind of empty pluralism, a laissez faire approach to governing our national narrative that allows just about anyone to appropriate the memes, the stories, the story forms, and the archetypes in order to press their own advantage for a political outcome.

How important is this loss of a historical core to who we are as Americans?   It's an easy thing to point to the Tea Party and Republicans of recent vintage, but it is much harder to do so without admitting our own complicity in their victories.   After all, where is our core historical narrative?   What do we have in our stockpile of available stories about our country that can effectively counter the newly dominant partial, partisan, and highly problematic history offered by the Tea Party and Republicans?

How much history do you know?

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I'm not blaming American historians alone for the current state of politics, because to do so is simply wrong.   I am implicating them in the loss of respect for crafting a historical narrative, and for teaching it to students from kindergarten through college, that would prepare citizens to argue against the rude appropriations and fabrications that passes for historical truths in today's politics.   But as I say, the fault is not theirs, not entirely.

Since 1970, if we must specify a date to attach our story to, American culture has been defined by those who controlled new information and communication technologies. These media moguls, such as Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, had the insight to use those technologies to replace the old ways of knowing that valued reading over viewing, discussing ideas in public over listening passively to talking heads and radio talk show hosts who claim to be entertaining us but instead are molding us in their own images.  

As a result we have, as citizens, been led merrily down a yellow brick road by wizards who hide behind mediated curtains and show us only smoke and mirrors.   Since 1996 and the reform of the FCC Code of Conduct, we have allowed "truth" in broadcasting to disappear, and the news to be redefined by pretty jesters who tell us what we already believe and dedicate more time to celebrity worship in order to distract us from what is real an what is important.   But we have our gadgets and they comfort us.   We have our screens and we get to choose what we play on them.

Bruce Springsteen lamented back in 1992 that there were "57 channels and nothing on."   Now there are hundreds of channels and with them, hundreds of ways to spend mediated time doing what comes naturally, which is to say, stuffing our faces with junk food.   But if it isn't the fault of historians for the current lack of narrative history, then it certainly isn't the fault, not entirely, of television and the Internet for distancing us from each other and slowly dissolving any center that could hold all of us together by some common experience, or what the ancient Greek rhetoricians called a "commonplace."   It is the confluence of these two cultural developments that have redefined American culture in relation to what we think it means to be Americans.

And that confluence has a high cost.   For without a narrative commonplace in which to share experiences, without a common historical narrative to unite us, we find ourselves further divided from each other and from the possibility of electing representatives who "promote the common good."   Who wants to pay higher taxes to support others who we have been narratively trained to think of as "the enemy."

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How can there be a "common good" without a shared understanding of who and what we are?   How can there be a "common good" without a shared vision for who we want to become in the future?  

The good news is that every once in a while we hear an echo of narratives past that still manages to break through the mediated noise and speak to our hearts.   This week that echo was provided by President Obama, who asked us to use the horror in Tucson to rededicate ourselves to making America the kind of country worthy of a nine year-old girl.  

Contained in that plea was the rich echo an older historical narrative, an America we call the beautiful, a land not only of the free and home of the brave, but a land free of senseless violence and a homeplace made brave by its real heroes rather than worship of its celebrities, and not fearful about the slaughter of innocents.   It was an echo that itself contained an American history made out of many other stories, most notably those tales that show how we as a people can meet any challenge, carry any burden, and overcome hardship, often against overwhelming odds.

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H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)

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