American Elephants


Thinking About “The Narrative” by The Elephant's Child

In the current Claremont Review of Books, Wilfred M. McClay, Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, reviews Fred Siegel’s Revolt Against the Masses. This excerpt is his introduction to his subject, but I found it fascinating in itself. I’m familiar, of course, with the term “the narrative,” but there is so much obfuscation going on with our language that I was just inclined to put it aside. Mistake. Very worth pondering this development, aided by focus-group testing of words for their persuasive value. Minds must be subverted.

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We have this term now in circulation: “the narrative.” It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?

I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief—nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever”—and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity—acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe. These days, even your garage mechanic is likely to speak of the White House narrative, the mainstream-media narrative, and indicate an awareness that political leaders try to influence the interpretation of events at a given time, or seek to “change the narrative” when things are not turning out so well for them and there is a strongly felt need to change the subject. The language of “narrative” has become a common way of talking about such things.

One can regret the corrosive side effects of such skepticism, but there are good reasons for it. Halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, we find ourselves saddled with accounts of our nation’s past, and of the trajectory of American history, that are demonstrably suspect, and disabling in their effects. There is a view of America as an exceptionally guilty nation, the product of a poisonous mixture of territorial rapacity emboldened by racism, violence, and chauvinistic religious conviction, an exploiter of natural resources and despoiler of natural beauty and order such as the planet has never seen. Coexisting with that dire view is a similarly exaggerated Whiggish progressivism, in which all of history is seen as a struggle toward the greater and greater liberation of the individual, and the greater and greater integration of all governance in larger and larger units, administered by cadres of experts actuated by the public interest and by a highly developed sense of justice. The arc of history bends toward the latter view, although its progress is impeded by the malign effects of the former one.

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The review is interesting as well. The Claremont Review of Books, a quarterly, is one of my favorite publications. A great bargain. You can subscribe at the link, but there’s lots of good stuff there.

 

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