peace and justice files

A critique of critical criticism

By SKIP MENDLER
Posted 6/23/21

“History is a pile of debris.” — Laurie Anderson

Let’s face it: History is a big bleeping mess.

Civilizations, cultures, battles, empires, peasants, generals, advances, …

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peace and justice files

A critique of critical criticism

Posted

“History is a pile of debris.” — Laurie Anderson

Let’s face it: History is a big bleeping mess.

Civilizations, cultures, battles, empires, peasants, generals, advances, retreats, breakthroughs, setbacks, cruelties, atrocities—a huge unfathomable morass punctuated by occasional bright shining moments of hope, beauty, and transcendence, or simply the sum total of the actions of the 100 billion or so individuals who have been alive so far, each just trying to make it through another day. 

Historians and philosophers try their best to extract some sense out of it all, constructing narratives that attempt to coerce events into nice orderly storylines. From “Great Man Theory” to “Historical Materialism,” these narratives are nothing more than filters, or lenses; each one highlights certain aspects of history and ignores others. Some of them might even be found useful from time to time. (You have plenty to choose from, by the way: the Wikipedia page “Theories of History” contains nearly 200 entries.)

It’s all the same cake, really, but at least you get to choose how you want to slice it.

Writer George Packer recently published an important and thought-provoking article in The Atlantic called “How America Divided Into Four Parts.” He highlights four major narratives that compete for our allegiance at the moment. He calls them “Free America,” “Smart America,” “Real America” and “Just America.”

The “Free America” narrative imagines us as a nation of separate plucky individuals but serves the interests of corporations and the wealthy. “Smart America” is the meritocratic worldview of Silicon Valley and the professional elite. “Real America” is the “white Christian nationalism of the heartland,” a viewpoint that gave us Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. The nascent “Just America” narrative, brought into visibility by the police killings of African Americans over the past few years, sees our citizens primarily as members of identity groups that have suffered or inflicted oppression.

This last narrative has birthed many controversies of late, beginning with the publication of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” two years ago, and now the kerfuffle over what is called “Critical Race Theory” or CRT. Conservative commentators have been shaken to the depths of their core curricula by these developments and, as I write, are trying very hard to suppress them. Governor DeSantis of Florida has put emphatically placed CRT in his gunsights, and the Florida State Board of Education has proposed a rule that teachers “may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

I’ve long been intrigued by the question of how we each decide (or don’t decide, but merely accept) which narrative we want to believe. These choices, after all, shape fundamental aspects of our lives—for example, whether we face the world outside our doors with fear and suspicion or openness and anticipation. But these current struggles go even deeper: They are about how we see ourselves, about how we actually are and about the differences between the two.

No wonder some people are so terrified.

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