If you want to understand why Rev. Jeremiah Wright said the U.S. 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 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, where I've lived for 30 years, 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. Continue reading at South Jerusalem