Friday, September 17, 2010

What is a Super-Narrative? Part I

A narrative is the storyline we accept, that tale through which we interpret events. It's that macro-tale we tell ourselves that explains all. It can be as simple as Darwin's evolutionary explanation that comes to explain everything, or Marx's insistence that it all comes down to politics and economics. Or, more famously, Freud's insistence that it all must have to do with sex. You can see that the 19th century was awash in people who wanted to define all of reality into a single narrative model! Of course, they weren't the first, and certainly aren't the last. St. Augustine was happy to interpret the reality of the world through the lens of the Christian story of Salvation. And people today are just as happy to accept this or that super-truth that explains everything.

One, of course, is very common and popular amongst Western progressives. That is, basically, it's all the fault of the traditional Christian West. Ancient Greece was OK, and now even ancient Rome is getting a re-imagining. But once Christianity hits, it's all bigotry and racism and homophobia and anti-Semitism, and genocide, witch burnings, torture, imposed ignorance and hatred of learning - you name it. Naturally, this remains until some vague time after the Renaissance, when really super smart and loving people begin to trash the Christian faith, abandon it's bigotry and intolerance, and move toward the modern enlightened path to salvation to be found in the dogmas of Western Progressive thought.

There are many other narrative these days of course, but that's a starting point, since it's the one reinforced through our institutions of higher learning, our public school curriculum, our media, our popular culture, and the majority of anywhere else we get our stores from.

When a narrative takes shape, it becomes easy to believe anything if it fits the narrative, even if you aren't sure you've ever really studied it, or read about it, or know the details. Take, for instance, the Genocidal slaughter of the Native Americans. Well, that didn't really happen. What we do know is that Europeans may have brought smallpox with them (no doubt by accident - this is the 16th century), and infected the native peoples. Why Europeans weren't likewise hit by similar diseases is still not known (especially since popular culture portrays people in Europe at that time as filthy, mud covered messes, while American Indians are shown with buff bodies, perfect teeth, fabulous hair and great hygene). We also aren't sure it really happened that way, or if it did, the extent to which it happened. In any event, we know it wasn't intentional. And unless you are against any people ever migrating to find freedom and comfort, you can't blame the settlers for that.

Of course, many things did happened between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples. But it was complex, for neither Europeans nor the American Indians were a single culture or civilization. Rather, both were of a common racial stock, but from very different tribes, kingdoms, nations which fought, warred, and allied with one another. Over four hundred years, there was a clash as one side sought to maintain its land, even to the point of driving all immigrants away, while the other sought to take the land for itself. Tens of thousands would die on both sides, often innocent civilians on both sides, and often in horrible ways on both sides. In the end, by way of broken treaties and deception, the United States drove the American Indians off their land onto reservations. This is where it is today. That's it.

Yet it is now, even in textbooks, referred to as a genocide. What Turkey did to the Armenian Christians isn't. What Stalin did to millions of Ukrainians isn't. But the war of conquest and clash of civilizations between the United States and European settlers and the American Indians has turned into a one-side-is-evil story of an innocent, near perfect people slaughtered by the evil forces of racism and greed (and apparently biological warfare).

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is 'racism as the only sin Americans seem able to fathom', but our post is not to trace the assumptions and biases and definitions that go behind it all. Rather, it's to point out that this treatment of American history is not so much what has led to the 'America=Evil' meme of our modern age. Rather, it is the assumption already well under way when I was young that America is a shameless nation of racist murderers whose traditions must be thrown down and rebuilt in the New Way that allows us to take such a one sided and negative interpretation of events. Even if we don't know the facts, we don't have to. We already assume the US has always been racist and evil, so being told there was this genocide is easy to accept.

That is a narrative. When the story is accepted without evidence, simply because the story has already been accepted. Next: What, then, is a Super Narrative.

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