Discover more from A User's Guide to History
The best story wins
Until it loses
The recent trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and the killers of Ahmaud Arbery are reminders of the powers of story in our legal process. In each case the prosecution and the defense crafted stories about what had happened at the critical moment in question. In the former case, the defense story proved more compelling to the jury; in the latter, the prosecution's story.
The death last week of Stephen Sondheim affords a similar reminder of the power of story. Sondheim's musicals moved millions of people during the last half century, striking resonant notes in audiences on several continents.
Stories are all around us. They infuse every aspect of human existence. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that stories are what make humans human. They weave otherwise inexplicable details into coherent explanation of the world we inhabit. They lift us out of our own time and place and connect us with others we will never meet personally. They remind us that our sufferings are not ours alone, that others have experienced, endured and sometimes triumphed over what we are going through.
Stories can be true and stories can be false. Some are both together. Well written histories are true in the sense that they actually happened. Novels are false in the sense that they did not happen, but good novels can be true if they reveal something important about the human condition.
Religions are based on stories. Their stories relate how the world was created, how humans came to be, how we should deal with one another, what will become of us after we die. They typically describe our relationship with higher powers.
Science tells stories. Science’s stories are called theories and they adduce laws. They are fundamentally different from the stories of religion in that the science stories have to be disprovable. That's what makes them science. Newton's theory of gravity explained the motion of the planets. It worked well until very precise measurements revealed that it was a little bit off. Einstein's theory of relativity provided a more complete explanation.
Nations tell stories about themselves. Sometimes these have religious elements; sometimes they are merely secular. Americans in the 19th century told themselves they had a manifest destiny to spread democracy and Protestant Christianity across North America. Communists in the Soviet Union and China in the 20th century claimed they had solved the problems of production and distribution that had vexed humanity from time out of mind.
Conspiracy theories form a special category of stories. Their appeal lies in the same part of the human brain that responds to religious stories, which likewise provide esoteric insight unavailable to nonbelievers.
Are there general rules for evaluating stories—for telling the good ones from the bad ones?
For the stories that purport to describe facts, the essential test is the evidence they provide. Is it reliable? Is it reproducible? Is it persuasive?
For stories that ascribe intention or put forward interpretations beyond the realm of facts, the standards are more subtle. One test, applicable to religious stories, is whether they promote human welfare in the here and now. Do their believers live in peace and harmony among themselves? With nonbelievers? The ultimate test of religious stories awaits the hereafter. Is there indeed a heaven? A hell? A god, even? We’ll find out, presumably, when we die.
The test for national stories lies in an intermediate realm between the here and now and the hereafter. American exceptionalism remained persuasive to the end of the 20th century; how long it will persist into the 21st is a basic question of contemporary international relations. The communist story collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union. China's Communist party still rules that country but no longer promotes world revolution or even socialism the way it did in the time of Mao.
Conspiracy stories often defy testing. Lack of evidence elicits the rejoinder that the conspiracy is deeper than anyone realized. For innocuous conspiracy tales this hardly matters. Kennedy assassination cranks natter on but do no real harm.
Other conspiracy stories are pernicious or worse. Those involving covid vaccines have contributed to the deaths of many thousands of people. Hitler's claim that Germany had not been fairly defeated in World War I but had been betrayed by Jews caused Germans to follow him into World War II and fostered the mindset that produced the Holocaust.
Stories are powerful. Like other powerful things, they must be handled with care.