Monthly Archives: January 2023

A House Divided: Why We Need a New National Narrative

Photo courtesy of NASA’s image library

A new social contract should have replaced the First Constitution in our national consciousness as the recognized source of our most sacred freedoms. But we continue to insist on arguing about the “original intent” of the 1787 document instead of acknowledging the “rebirth of the nation” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg. Ignoring that new, Second Constitution and sticking to a national narrative out of date since the days of the Civil War is tearing the nation apart.

The history of a nation is its national myth, the story it tells itself about who it is and why. The role of historians is to create and reinforce that myth.

This isn’t to say the myth or story is a complete fabrication. But history is not a science; it cannot run experiments to verify its conclusions. Historians, the best of them, do rely on facts and an empirical approach. Even so, a professional consensus is maintained about what the national story is, the biography of a nation, people, or civilization. That narrative is true to the extent any biography may be, even those we fashion for ourselves individually, editing and enhancing as we go along. We pass on that autobiographical narrative to people in our lives in bits and pieces until they have what seems a plausible story about who we are. We do so for various reasons, any one of which may be more important than the truth of the narrative itself, which even we may stop doubting after enough repetitions.

Historians are supposed to be more careful than we are about our individual life stories, but they are no less prejudiced. They may have no official constraints on the content of their work, but an inclination to tell the most flattering and edifying tale is built in to the profession. But the historian’s job is to make sure not just that the young but everyone in a society is exposed to the approved version without too much variation. Founding myths about a nation are necessarily created after the fact. First you cobble together a political entity by force and clever political maneuvering. Then you declare it a nation and provide it with a history demonstrating the people who live within its boundaries have a common identity based on deep ancestry and mutual consent. You can spin the myth in various ways at different times to suit the changing requirements of the times. France is a social contract that includes all its citizens of all origins on an equal basis; America is a land of immigrants based on the idea of God-given equality of natural rights. In 21st-century America there are competing national myths: America was founded as a Christian nation vs. America is the brain-child of the 18th-century secular Enlightenment; America is a people that wants all human beings to be free like them vs. America is an empire that engages in the same atrocious behavior as all other empires.

Differing versions of what happened on January 6th, 2021, and why it occurred have exposed the contradictions in the narrative our history textbooks used to be so confident about. Millions of Americans view the acts of that day as sedition, an attempt to subvert by intimidation and violence the constitutional process of electing a president. Other millions insist it was an attempt to put to rights a criminal disregard of the people’s will. For the former, the then-sitting president’s refusal to accept the outcome of the November 2020 election and the violent protest that occurred on January 6th, 2021, were violations of its most sacred law. For the latter, that cold winter day was an act of supreme patriotism grounded in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

Not by accident, some of the protesters on January 6th carried Confederate flags. The Confederacy from the South’s point of view was of a piece with the spirit of the Revolution: a people’s right to take up arms against a tyrannical government. The rebelling states in 1860-61 also claimed justification from a Constitution favoring the rights of states over the central government and guaranteeing the sanctity of private property (slaves).

The debate over slavery and states rights in mid-19th-century America was decided by a war, which cost the lives of three quarters of a million men. And then, before the nation could be fully reunited, the divide between North and South reopened thanks to the Union’s failure to remain an occupying power in the South long enough to rid it of the power structure that had detached the rebelling states from the rest of the nation. It was as if after the second world war the Allies, instead of installing new democratic institutions, had occupied Europe only for a year or two and left without dismantling the political structures of fascism….

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