Narrative at the Expense of Reality

First, my apologies for not posting Saturday. I was out of Internet content until well past suppertime. But, there is a post tonight.

Anyway, this past January, just after the New Year, I went to an academic conference in New Mexico, where papers were primarily presented by undergraduate and graduate students–these papers were short, I should add, no more than ten pages in length. At any rate, I was one of what turned out to be a three-person panel, and all of us were discussing the American Civil War and Reconstruction. My paper was on Civil War recruitment in Tennessee, the second was on a colony of contrabands on Roanoke Island, and the third was on US policy towards Indians during the Grant administration. I’d like to say that all of these were fascinating and well-presented papers, but as I am biased in the matter I will say nothing as to that.

However, I will say that I did notice a couple of oddities in the other two papers. The second, about the contrabands, was a fascinating study of an attempt to give freed slaves a new start in life. However, when discussing the colony’s failure, the paper claimed that it proved “the limitations of the free-labor ideology” held by the Republican Party at the time, which claimed that all a man needed to get ahead was his own land to farm. However, just a few paragraphs earlier, the paper mentioned that a large part of the reason the colony failed was the fact that the slaves were on land that belonged to a plantation owner, which was handed back over to him after the war by the Johnson administration. In other words, the colony failed because said ideology was not applied–the ex-slaves did not own the land.

The third, about Indian policy, claimed that Ulysses S. Grant’s administration essentially sought cultural genocide in the matter of the Indians by forcing them to adopt white ways of living and religion and abandoning their native traditions, and was rather sarcastic concerning whether or not those who enacted the policy were concerned for their charges’ well-being. While I could understand the paper’s concern–it does seem a rather raw deal, to give up the way one’s ancestors have lived for a goodly amount of time–it seemed to me that the paper was overlooking the prevailing way of thinking in America at the time, which essentially said: we must have the land between the Rockies and the Mississippi, that we may farm there. In other words, the Indians had two choices: die or undergo assimilation, because the powerful were going to take what they wanted–such is the nature of man. I mentioned this when I most likely broke protocol by asking her questions, the second of which centered on that idea–the first is another story for another day. Her answer included the fact that a policy that did not just present those two options had been tried under Grant’s Civil War and Indian chief of staff, Ely Parker, but that it had been a political nonstarter. This, essentially, proved my point, but I did not pursue the matter.

I was reminded of this incident when I heard from a friend of mine that a former friend of his, after hearing allegations of mishandling of multiple sexual assault cases by a private Christian university, essentially declared that she would destroy evangelical Christianity, on the grounds that it was one of the utmost forces for evil in this world. My friend, being a stout fellow, proceeded to engage her, then had to deal with all matter of nonsense from her and her friends about the various postmodern boogey-isms evangelicalism apparently backs: imperialism, patriarchalism, heteronormativism (and a few thoughts on that notion will be a blog post eventually), etc., etc. Never mind evangelicalism’s association with actual societal progress–abolition of slavery, etc. Never mind the existence of such things as one-child policies, drug cartels, suicide bombings, and female genital mutilation.

Nope. The problem is evangelical Christianity, and she will stop at nothing to be rid of it. The fact of the matter is, she is so invested in her narrative about the oppressive nature of the faith that she will ignore all history and reason and facts to carry the notion forward–and let’s face it, folks. Some of ours have a problem with this–see David Barton’s comments on soldiers with PTSD just needing to read the Bible, or Thomas Jefferson’s faith in supernatural religion–yes, Jefferson, the one whose edition of the Bible cut out all the miracle. I’d bet my life savings (paltry though they are) that I’ve done it a time or two.

The problem is that this is dangerous, because narratives that ignore facts are falsehoods. And if there’s one thing the postmodernists got right, it’s that stories tend to drive people. When those stories are false, or told wrong, or are misused, bad things happen. Ask any victim of persecution–or those descendants of the persecutors who’ve had a chance to think. They’ll tell you straight.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

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One thought on “Narrative at the Expense of Reality

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