Who doesn’t tell stories, frequently entertaining – often persuasive?  Take my advice, however – don’t accept them at face value.  Typically, they’re a blend of facts and fictions; and good luck disentangling the two.

Story telling has been going on since the dawn of time.  Clans and tribes constructed their oral traditions and passed them on from generation to generation.  Larger communities related tales of heroic origins, glorious conquests and fortuitous interventions by all-powerful gods.  To historians these narratives, however contrived, are nevertheless invaluable.

In more modern times nations have done likewise, telling stories of past glories while pruning troublesome chapters from the historical record.  Thus, the United States constructs a glowing portrait of hardy pioneers pushing westward where marvelous opportunities awaited an  expanding nation.  The British present a story of imperial expansion across the globe, an uplifting tale of advancing civilization.  The Russians hail the Bolshevik Revolution for ushering in a new dawn of freedom while the Chinese speak of centuries of backwardness and humiliation until the ascendancy of Mao Zedong.  These national narratives are predictably flawed.  Historical amnesia rules.  Americans said little about the displacement or annihilation of native Americans.  The British remained mum about the exploitation of their colonials and the Russians and Chinese changed the subject when it came to the murder of millions of their own people.

Narratives rarely go unchallenged.  Even the Holocaust, a horrific event of unspeakable brutality, testified to by countless survivors is contested.  A determined band of Holocaust deniers insist upon their own sanitized account of events.  Turks and Armenians have each produced conflicting stories about the enormous bloodletting that occurred during the World War I years.  Neither accepts the other’s version.  The Israelis and the Palestinians remain at an impasse buttressed in part by clashing narratives about when each settled in the region as well as the war that led to the establishment of Israel.

Closer to home, polarized politics almost always produce conflicting narratives.  Divergent accounts attempt to “explain” either the successes or failures of New Deal policies, while the Reagan years have generated opposing story lines about the real Reagan:  Why did we invade Iraq?  How were decisions made after the ouster of Saddam Hussein?  Pick your story.  More recently Democrats and Republicans have crafted their own accounts of the bank bailouts, the stimulus package, rescues of the automobile companies and the policies of the Federal Reserve.  Just tune in to any Sunday talk show to hear these carefully scripted but divergent narratives endlessly repeated, defiantly maintained.

We all have our own personal narratives as well, prepackaged tales ready for presentation when opportunities arrive.  With such accounts we reinforce how we wish others to view us.  As Americans, handy templates are readily available with which to frame our stories, the rags-to-riches immigrant success and underdogs triumphant scripts among the more popular.  Lately we’ve been partial to a novel twist on the standard success format, one that features heroic struggles against drug addition, alcohol dependency, physical abuse, sexual exploitation and fractured families.  But then second chances have long been in favor here.

So, remember well that nations as well as individuals will always be eager to tell you their stories and offer their version of events.  Listen politely, listen critically – don’t accept or pass on what doesn’t pass muster.

Leave a Reply