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,