If you want to understand why Rev. Jeremiah Wright said the US government invented Aids, or what Barack Obama sought to accomplish in his Philadelphia speech on race, the best commentary is political scientist Marc Howard Ross’s book “Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict” – even if it never mentions Obama or Wright.
I described Ross’s book in my recent American Prospect piece about the smears against on Robert Malley and the shoutfest over Israeli-Palestinian history. Ross describes the critical role of the stories that
…ethnic groups build to explain their past, their present, and their relation to their opponents. The narratives are “compelling, coherent” and link “specific events to that group’s general understandings.”
They are also selective and inaccurate. Disagreement with a group’s memory is often perceived as an attack on its identity, if not its existence.
Ross certainly isn’t the first to talk about a shared narrative as part of ethnic identity. In Israel, there’s constant discussion in the tenure-track class of the Israeli narrative and the Palestinian narrative and how they don’t fit together. For Israelis, 1948 means independence; for Palestinians, the same date equals catastrophe. For Israelis, the southeast corner of Jerusalem’s Old City is the Temple Mount, proof of Jews’ ancient connection to their land; for Palestinians, the same place is Al-Aqsa Mosque, the place where Islam and Palestinian nationalism are fused together.
But Ross gives the best description I’ve seen yet of how such narratives are put together, turning all of history into a justification for group identity today – and also of how strange the story sounds to outsiders. Two groups can live side by side, overlapping, among each other, talk about the same history – and select such different facts, give such different explanations of those facts, that it sounds like they are talking about two distant countries. To one group, the other’s story sounds ludicrous. But if you attack a group’s story, you attack the very meaning of its world. Criticize your own group’s story, even softly, and you are likely to be considered a turncoat. And yet, as Ross also notes, within the same ethnic community, there are also conflicting versions of the story.
Politicians and preachers are often high priests of a group’s story. Members of minorities usually know better than to tell their story when the majority is present. Growing up as an American Jew, I learned at an age too young for me to remember that the story we told around the table in my Jewish home – a story out of jokes and horror and jokes about horror – was not to be told at public school.
Observed through Ross’s lens, the Wright affair was a standard, bitter fight over narrative. Wright told one variation of an African-American narrative. To white listeners, that story was not only irrational but an act of aggression – in that it portrayed whites as aggressive. Obama, running as a multiracial candidate, needed both to reject the story and avoid doing so.
For the least upset of white listeners, Rev. Wright was loony to suggest that Aids is a government plot against blacks. (As loony, say, as a Palestinian saying that there was never a Temple at the Temple Mount sounds to Israelis.) But a 2005 survey of African-Americans aged 15-44 found:
- 27 percent believe AIDS was produced in a government laboratory;
- 15 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks; and
- 16 percent say the government created AIDS to control the black population.
Earlier, a 1999 survey reached similar findings, ad showed that “blacks who agreed that AIDS is a conspiracy against them tended to be culturally traditional, college-educated men who had experienced considerable racial discrimination.” In other words, Wright was repeating a well known variation on an accepted story. The variation was a minority view, perhaps infuriating to some blacks, but not a surprise to them.
The Aids-conspiracy story suffers from the fallacy of intent (someone deliberately made this happen) and the monolithic fallacy – our opponents act as one, lead by their government. Not only are those common flaws in ethnic narratives, they are particularly infuriating to the opposing group. On the other hand, the story fits an essential piece of the larger, shared black narrative: We’ve suffered hatred, neglect and deliberate government abuse. There is more fact in that story than many whites feel comfortable acknowledging. The Aids story says that this latest plague fits the larger, coherent and unchanging African-American reality.
As a candidate, Obama couldn’t disown Wright completely because to do so would be to attack not just the Aids story but the wider narrative, and thereby to attack his own community. Instead, he criticized a third basic flaw of ethnic narratives: the fallacy of timelessness: The past is the present is the future.
Very softly, he also alluded to a white, working-class American narrative of blacks getting unfair advantages. He had to be even more delicate with this one – after all, in the American story, someone half-white is all black, so he’s an outsider. And he’s a candidate, seeking consensus – not a professor or a pundit. He couldn’t say that working class whites sometimes blame blacks for their lack of opportunity because America’s story of itself doesn’t have much room for explanations based on entrenched class privilege.
So what he did instead was to try to offer a new, shared American narrative: All this racial tension is real, it’s part of our past. But the real American story is about constant progress toward a “more perfect union.” Even the constitution started out stained by racism – but can be perfected.
He also offered a symbol for the change: himself. I’m not black, he said, I embody the multiracial future, I’m America reborn.
A new narrative, obviously, isn’t going to solve the practical aspects of the racial conflict in America. It won’t end black poverty. But as Ross has written, solving the practical problems is only part of any process of ethnic reconciliation. The stories do have to be rewritten; new symbols do have to be found, or old ones reinterpreted.
As someone not enamored of personal saviors, I’m uncomfortable with Obama making himself into the symbol of reconciliation. His willingness to present himself as the answer provides the waft of psychological truth in the comments about “Obama is Jesus.”
But it also seems that he belongs to a rare group of leaders who understand that they reshape the stories instead of being prisoners of them, that they can take old symbols and give them new meanings, so that people look at their past and suddenly imagine new possibilities.
It’s not a unique skill. In his book, Ross describes how King Juan Carlos of Spain opened the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Barcelona is in Catalonia, whose people regard themselves as members of the Catalan nation. For Spaniards, Spain was hosting the Olympics. Catalans had a different idea. At the opening ceremony, Juan Carlos declared “Welcome to Barcelona” – in Catalan. It was as he had said, “I am the king of Catalonia, and of Spain, sister-nations.” Pope John Paul II performed similar magic during his 2000 visit to Israel when he prayed at the Western Wall, affirming by gesture the validity of Judaism and altering the dynamic of Jewish-Catholic relations.
Obama, on the other hand, likes to talk. So he told a different story about America, in which whites and blacks are working together. If he can get other people to tell that story, he might change history – that is to say, history itself, memory.
To which I should add one more point that Ross makes – it’s not necessary for two groups in conflict to agree on one shared story. It’s not even likely. They do need to learn a way of telling the past that leaves room for living together. At a great remove from my native country, I can see how Obama is trying to do that. All together immersed in Israeli-Palestinian madness, I find it hard to imagine how each side in this conflict will rewrite what we tell about the past, about the places we contest, about the future. But it’s quite clear we need to do so.