Telling Stories

In CIVIC IDEALS (Yale, 1997), Prof. Rogers Smith, now chairman of the Political Science Dept. at Penn, looked deep into the underlying principles of American citizenship … and found racism and xenophobia. “Through most of U.S. history,” he argued, “lawmakers pervasively and unapologetically structured U.S. citizenship in terms of illiberal and undemocratic racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies, for reasons rooted in basic, enduring imperatives of political life.” (p. 1) (See here for a typical review.)

His new book, STORIES OF PEOPLEHOOD: THE POLITICS AND MORALS OF POLITICAL MEMBERSHIPS (Cambridge, 2003), is foreshadowed by a long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today examining “ethically constitutive” stories of the American identity. (Link requires subscription) After an analysis of President Bush’s inaugural address, Smith observes:

There are many kinds of ethically constitutive stories — cultural, historical, geographic, linguistic, ethnic, racial, and more — and they can be dangerous, imbuing chauvinistic nationalisms with moralistic fervor.

Smith was reacting, or over-reacting, to a reference in the speech where the new president quoted from a letter to Jefferson during the American Revolution asking, “Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?” At the end of his address Bush concluded that “[t]his story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.”

Smith doesn’t like Bush’s “story.” He thinks it teaches “the right and duty to engage in unilateral rejection of international agreements, such as the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court, when the United States finds them undesirable.” According to Smith, “the angel in the whirlwind now seems to have directed a basically unilateral extension of Operation Desert Storm,” and he does “not believe that the United States should write the next chapter of our story under the heading, ‘America: The Imperial Rome of the 21st Century.'”

Smith would like us to write another story — or rather other stories since he believes in diversity.

Since ethically constitutive stories, like factions, cannot be eliminated, we should instead seek to multiply and diversify them and set them against one another. We might then foster a politics in which individuals, groups, parties, and movements often are compelled to rethink their most extreme positions, so that they can form coalitions broad enough to gain power and advance their most valued goals.

History, of course, is a form of story. But good history is more than a moral, and is not written backwards from the lesson its author would have us learn.

Say What? (2)

  1. Dom July 9, 2003 at 2:05 pm | | Reply

    The link to the review is not working.

  2. John Rosenberg July 10, 2003 at 12:05 am | | Reply

    Oops. Fixed it. It’s working now.

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