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Voting As Preference For An Historical Narrative

March 6, 2008

The Chicago Tribune‘s cultural critic, Julia Keller, wrote a first-rate piece for this past weekend’s paper titled “Searching for our authentic narrative.”

I saw the piece as an argument for thinking about each presidential candidate’s version of history. Keller proposes that voting is an exercise where we, in part, choose a candidate’s historical narrative. Here are some excerpts (bolds and italics mine):

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– “Step carefully, please. We teeter on the threshold of the most literary presidential race in American history.”
– “Not because arguments still rage over the relevance of Sen. Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts or the originality of his phrasings. Not because any particular candidate has been caught loitering suspiciously in the library stacks. Not because the surname of a certain Republican hopeful sounds amusingly similar to Mark Twain’s most famous creation.”
– “And not because, frankly, any of the candidates still standing — Sen. John McCain and the aforementioned former Gov. Mike Huckabee on one side, and Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama on the other — attain, in their respective autobiographies and public utterances, anything close to the radiant literary standard set by a precious few former commanders in chief. If you disagree, I dare you to pick up any of Theodore Roosevelt’s many books, most especially The Rough Riders, his 1899 account of the Spanish-American War, a taut, stirring book which is still in print. You will thrill to the shock of passionate philosophizing and ostentatious vigor Roosevelt brings to the printed page. Those pages crackle and burn with energy, even all these years later.” …
– “In the present contest, to be sure, we have nothing to compare with the eloquent ghosts of some past presidents. But words and books aren’t the only building blocks of literature. There is also the matter of narrative. And this election, more than any other I can recall or any about which I have read, is about acquiring the naming rights to the American story at this point in history.” …
– “Are we moving forward or backward? Is the Iraq war a good idea or a bad idea? Did it make us safer or more imperiled? Does the subprime mortgage crisis truly threaten the foundation of the American dream — homeownership — or is it a temporary dip in the perpetual roller-coaster ride of a nation’s economy? Is the United States lurching and stumbling into its twilight years like a battered behemoth, or is it a nimble giant, ready to spring into another round as a superpower?” …
– “Candidates are storytellers. We’re persuaded and enthralled by their version of the times in which we live — it’s morning in America, it’s time for a change, stay the course — or we are not, and if we are not, we move on down the aisle and choose another book from the rack, one whose cover entices us, one whose plot seems more plausible and closer to our own ideas about how things really are.” …

There’s more in Keller’s article. Do check it out.

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Despite my history-colored glasses, I agree with Keller that a candidate’s narrative must also tell the story of the present and the future. A good back story will only get you so far: a solid history must also be followed by a convincing status report and a clear vision.

Still, perhaps this is yet another way for teachers of history to sell their wares on philosophical grounds. We can argue for the present applicability of history because, during each election cycle, we must be aware of our preferences for certain kinds of historical narratives. What subjective choices affect our likes and dislikes on stories about the past?

Which of our current presidential candidates will put together the best story of our past, present, and future? How will our awareness of our own subjective storytelling preferences help us get behind each’s veneer? – TL

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