The Stories We Tell—The People We Become
And it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan, that the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying: “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from every tribe, and command them, saying, ‘Take for yourselves twelve stones from here, out of the midst of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm.…’”
Then Joshua … said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder … that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord.… And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4.1-7, NKJV)
One might say that the ancient Hebrews discovered history. We have been trained to think of those illustrious Greeks, Herodotus and Thucydides, as the first historians, but we forget that the Hebrews discovered history as a way of being, a way of seeing, rather than a way of analyzing. When Moses encountered the god who is called “I AM,” the God beyond the cosmos, the creator God, Moses had to answer the most pressing question: “why did God create the cosmos?” Out of this encounter with God, so runs the story, comes the Genesis account—the Beginning. God began history, and as a purposeful God he has a plan for his creation, however mysterious to human wisdom.
Thomas Mann captured well this feeling of being part of a story one understands dimly. At the conclusion of Mann’s retelling of the story of Joseph and His Brothers, Joseph, speaking to his brothers, says: “When you talk to me about forgiveness it seems to me you have missed the meaning of the whole story we are in … One can easily be in a story and not understand it.” The Hebrew Bible is about a story told by God, in which the participants struggle, unsuccessfully, to understand the parts they are to play. They understand dimly, and then only in retrospect. As a people, the Hebrews worked mightily to remember, and the perpetual call to return to God was tethered to stories or monuments that helped them to remember. The text is replete with examples in which faithfulness is connected to remembrance, where the present and the future become illuminated by the unending call to Return. The stories that the Hebrews told, the reenactments of God’s divine grace, the rituals of remembrance: these are what made the Hebrews a nation, a people, retaining their identity long after they had lost their home.
If the Hebrews discovered history, then the Athenians discovered human nature. The creation of philosophy resulted from a desire to know the nature of things—things as they are essentially. Socrates, for instance, sought to understand what is defining about a human rather than what is characteristic of this or that person. Philosophy yearns for the ahistorical nature of a thing.
Of course these two views of humans can be made quite compatible and much of Western history is testimony to the constructive tension between these two perspectives. But it is also true that in the modern era the balance has tipped rather dramatically toward the philosophical, ahistorical view. This tendency is greatly exaggerated in democracies, as Alexis de Tocqueville argued. The fatal doctrine of equality leads to the conclusion that all humans are alike and that if one understands one’s self then one can understand all others. It might be better claimed, as I think Tocqueville did, that democratic man produces something close to “natural man”—by which I mean the human who is only barely altered by the artificial adornments of culture. This is the human un-elevated by artificial restraints on her will, whose most basic desires are sanctioned as “natural.”
Nonetheless, no human society can dispense entirely with history. And even if history, and the past more generally, is devalued in a society, that society is shaped in ways obvious and subtle by the stories it tells about itself. Story-telling is part of human nature. Because humans are cultural beings, we depend upon a pre-existing culture to give us identity. A culture passes down to each generation language that allows for the highest human potential: deliberation about the Good. A culture passes down a complicated set of traditions, mores, habits that provide the resources for crafting a distinctive person. But as important as all of that, a culture provides a larger story in which to locate one’s self. As social beings, humans belong to others and stories remind us of our interconnectedness. To belong to something helps one in the most pressing human need of all—to answer the question of purpose or meaning. Human life simply has no meaning outside of a story. Without a story, to whom would we owe allegiance? What would we mean by good and evil? What meaning could we find in living?
History—or story-telling about the past—is crucial to the health of a people. It knits them together, connecting generation with generation, with purposes both mundane and divine. Bad history deforms a people just as readily as good history forms them. It matters both ontologically and morally that we tell good stories, as these tales shape the nature of a people, helping them to understand the purposes toward which they put their lives. When we lose sight of our story we become, in Alasdair MacIntrye’s famous phrase, moral stutterers, and when we deform our history, as the Nazis did German history, we can become beasts.
Over the years of reading U.S. history textbooks, I’ve taken note of the competing stories of our past—the different ways people want us to remember. Each way of remembering shapes a different kind of people, with different ideals, different sins, and different goals. Here I briefly sketch three narratives that compete for our nation’s soul. There are many more, of course, and I am giving here only a simplistic version of each. But the sketches I provide will, I think, illustrate the point I’m making and allow us to trace some of the probable consequences for choosing one or another of the stories.
I should note that each of these stories is true in the sense that each rests upon evidence and their authors follow the basic rules of the historical discipline in making claims and suggesting causation. Surviving evidence from America’s past can support a great many competing narratives. Still, the difficulty of making that assessment gives us no moral option from making a choice, from defending with evidence and argument what we consider to be the best story or our people.
Let me supply reductive labels to these three—otherwise rich and complicated—stories. The first I will call the Liberal Story, the second is the Radical Story, and the third is the Conservative Story. These, I think, are in descending order of popularity.
The Liberal Story emphasizes the progressive liberation of the individual from external restraints on her actions. With intellectual roots in the Reformation, liberals construct a universal moral agenda out of the evolving concepts of ahistorical individualism, beginning with thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Understanding humans not as historical creations or as beings whose distinctiveness emerges out of cultural forms, but rather as rights-bearing individuals in a state of nature, liberals emphasize the need to protect individual rights and to liberate individuals from all non-consensual authority.
Under this view, America is not a people but an idea. What binds us together is not historical roots, ethnic ties, or cultural commonalties, but a shared idea. The American Revolution is the defining moment in this liberation and the Declaration of Independence is the defining document of the nation. In 1776 and the years following, the highest human ideals became luminous and took concrete and institutional form. This story stresses the first part of the Declaration, which asserts a most promiscuous ideal: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [humans] are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Note the themes. These claims are self-evident—they are in the nature of things. These rights belong to humans qua humans—not simply to people of this or that culture who have developed the cultural habits, customs, and affections to live a certain way. Moreover, the Declaration declares that humans are equal and that no one may rightly exercise power over another without the consent of the person ruled. Finally, no government is legitimate that does not have the overt consent of the governed.
Those who tell the Liberal Story stress that the ideas are more important than the reality. In 1776 the great ahistorical moral principles became self-evident, but it would take time for the nation, and eventually the world, to be redeemed. What is most important is not that America failed to live up to its highest principles but rather that in failure Americans never stopped believing in them and trying to achieve them. In this way the ideals of the Declaration have produced periodic revolutions in institutions, in habits, and in attitudes. The Liberal Story is a progressive saga, placing its emphasis upon the future rather than the past, from which we seek liberation.
Next to the Founding, the Liberal Story celebrates a second American Revolution when Abraham Lincoln, who stands highest in the pantheon of liberal heroes, not only led a crusade to end the most egregious violation of American ideals, slavery, but also rearticulated these ideals. Lincoln reclaimed, as it were, the principle of equality, elevating the Declaration of Independence to its rightful place next to, or even above, the Constitution. By so doing Lincoln established clearly—more clearly than ever before—that democracy was not only a procedural matter but the very expression of the highest human political potential. Democracy, as such, elevates people, making them citizens and not subjects.
Those who tell this story are not blind to the dramatic inequalities, to say nothing of the institutional inequalities, that followed the Civil War. But as the people of the nation became more devoted to the principles of equality and natural rights their habits would change and their institutions would adjust. Thorny problems remained, especially dealing with race. Meanwhile, the dramatic industrial and economic expansion during those years created a national wealth that would serve as a precondition for a greater democratic equality—an equality that tolerates concentrated wealth in the few because this fostered economic growth and expanding opportunities for everyone.
Because the Declaration asserts unchanging, universal moral imperatives, believers in its principles would eventually apply its logic to foreign policy. By 1917, when the United States entered into the Great War, the nation had the capacity to act on one of the moral imperatives of the Declaration of Independence. If one believes, as apparently Thomas Jefferson did, that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” then one must consider all governments not deriving their power from the conscious consent of the governed to be illegitimate and unjust. Woodrow Wilson, an ardent believer in the ideals of the Declaration, acted according to the logic of that document and plunged the nation into a war, not about national security, not about interests, not about land or money, but about democracy and natural rights (and international law). Since 1917, no American forces have ventured into combat without justifications very similar to those provided by Wilson. We are still fighting to make the world safe for democracy. In foreign policy at least, the Constitution is read in light of the Declaration of Independence, not the other way around.
Beyond foreign policy, America in the twentieth century, in this telling of events, experienced three significant phases in the struggle to work out the ideals of freedom and equality as expressed in the Declaration. The New Deal was the most controversial. For some it represented an important and moderate compromise in the tradition of free enterprise to balance freedom with a measure of economic security. For others it was a reversal in principles because it introduced the government as the protector rather than the servant of the governed.
For most who tell the Liberal Story, the Civil Rights movement was the most important domestic event in the twentieth century, dealing finally with the residual institutional inequalities of slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr., like Lincoln before him, made the Declaration the intellectual and moral source for his movement. King and others produced tangible results. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally completed the struggle, begun in 1861, to bring equality before the law. All that remained were changes in habits and feelings, which were outside the governmental purview—and perhaps in 2008 we witnessed evidence of these changes in feelings.
Finally, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. More than any other president, Reagan told this story of American history and ideals, emphasizing a progressive and liberating vision of America. In foreign policy Reagan stressed the liberation of all unfree people from repressive regimes. In domestic policy he sought to liberate people from an overweening federal government that threatened individual liberties and unnecessarily taxed its citizens. Reagan made explicit what had often been implicit in the Liberal Story—America is the redeemer nation, providentially placed to bring natural rights and democracy to the world.
The Liberal Story emphasizes the abstract individual, freed from external restraints to enter a competitive but level playing field and to do with her life what she wills. As a progressive view of history, the past is something to be overcome—old traditions must give way to new circumstances. The function of story-telling, of history, is to remind us of the ahistorical principles that we reaffirm.
The Radical Story shares with the Liberal Story the principle of equality, though it understands the principle very differently. Liberals emphasize equality before the law and what they confusingly call “equality of opportunity,” while Radicals emphasize a more substantive equality—something approaching an equality of condition. Moreover, the fundamental dynamic behind the Radical Story is the exploitation of the many by those with power—an exploitation that often takes very subtle forms.
The story begins with Europeans exploiting the Americas, taking natural resources, stealing land, and enslaving or abusing the first Americans. In the early stages of English settlement the great need for labor inspired the introduction of race-based slavery in tobacco, rice, and indigo growing regions in the South. Meanwhile in New England, in what was ostensibly the most democratic social and political order, the religious leaders struggled to maintain their hegemony. Even their compromises to the growing pressures from below, like the famous “half-way covenant,” were, according to this view, ways of using religious beliefs as a barrier against challenges to their authority.
The American Revolution had many causes, but in this story the primary reason for revolt against Parliament was economic. Economically powerful elements in Boston and, to a lesser degree, Virginia, found that continued participation in the Empire worked against their interests. The revolutionary leaders created a literature that challenged the authority of Parliament, drawing from an eclectic body of religious and philosophical literature to craft a persuasive ideological defense for revolution—a defense that largely served as cover for their economic motivations.
The high-minded ideals of the new nation about natural rights and equality were, largely, camouflage. Unlike the Liberal Story, which stressed the ideals and the willingness of people to re-commit to those ideals after each failure to live up to them, in the Radical Story the distance between ideal and reality proved that some more sinister motivation was at work. Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves. Is there any way of squaring his words with his deeds? Similarly, the Constitutional founders constructed a governing document that served their economic interests, particularly after a period of economic dislocation and fears of a rising democracy. These men—and it is not insignificant that they were all men—hated democracy and sought to create a form of government that checked the will of the majority—and we could cite a number of examples in the Constitution that do just that.
Democratic pressures mounted, and a generation later reforms great and small chipped away at the most powerful interests. The Civil War, fought for a myriad of reasons, mostly economic, nonetheless performed a revolutionary function, ending slavery in the United States. But while slavery was ended, the old powers in the South regained hegemony and established a social and political order in the benighted states of the former Confederacy that once again exploited black Americans as well as poor white Southerners. Meanwhile, in the North a new power elite emerged, gaining early control of the emerging productive tools called, imprecisely, “industry.” These “robber barons” exploited the growing urban masses, and, ever-hungry for more and cheaper labor, worked tirelessly to increase the pool of urban poor by encouraging immigration. The new power class gained control over the machinery of government—both state and federal—and used their command over both railroads and banking to exploit the American farmer.
But the brave and tireless efforts of reformers were rewarded in the early years of the new century. Women gained the right to vote, the Constitution was amended to allow for direct election of Senators, Progressive reforms in cities, states, and the federal government, brought a measure of democratic control over huge economic interests. Other groups, like American Indians and American blacks, didn’t have the resources or the organization to fight a similar battle, so remained the most exploited of American groups.
The Depression provided another opportunity to use the federal government to serve the wishes of the people. But the New Deal programs that emerged were greatly influenced by the wealthiest segment of the population, again forcing a compromise with the principle of equality of condition. Similarly, the Civil Rights struggle brought long-overdue changes to the legal protections of some of America’s most exploited groups, but these small changes only hid the deeper economic exploitation and more subtle racism that maintained a power elite. Much of the struggle since the 1960s has been to recast our nation’s history by turning the focus away from powerful white males in favor of the voiceless. The rise of social history in the 1970s was a sign that a fuller, richer, more multicultural story was emerging—a story that exposed graphically and powerfully the exploitation and inequality that belie our national ideals.
The refocusing of our historical account helps to empower people in at least two ways. First, it gives them pride of belonging to some group, often oppressed, that now has a part in the American story. By having this part of the story told, one finds a place to belong in America and one gains pride in the distinctiveness of one’s group rather than being submerged in a hegemonic white culture. Second, by exposing the persistent and often subtle ways that the powerful have exploited the weak, one is empowered with knowledge to see exploitation in our own culture. The Radical Story, with its emphasis upon gross inequalities and pernicious and often hidden exploitation, challenges the listener to reform and cultivates a suspicion about the motivations of those who are powerful and a distrust of those in authority.
Ted McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair and is an associate professor at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at Seaver College.
Posted: March 9, 2014 in Essays.
Did you see this one?
Volume 46, Number 2 (Summer 2008)