By Frank Buckley
Cows don’t have a history, observed Ortega. They just are. So too with reality. It just is. Or so one might have thought. But reality does acquire historiographical significance where there is more than one of it.
I’m not talking about alternative histories. As it happens, today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the burning of Pittsburg in Alternative Southern History. That’s not reality, however, just a fond counterfactual for some, who realize that, sadly, it never happened.
Nor am I talking about historiography itself, the idea that the manner in which history is narrated differs over time. For example, the Whig idea of history as the unfolding of progressive ideals is different from a cyclical theory of history in which people continually tumble into bad patterns of behavior. Thought they might differ about time’s arrow, the Whig and the cyclical historian share a commitment to truth as the touchstone of their profession. Events that don’t fit their theories are an embarrassment that cannot be ignored.
Reality does have a history, however, when inconvenient truths no longer matter. I noticed this happening twenty years ago in my discipline, when law reviews began carrying stories about racial oppression in place of legal analysis. Storytelling replaced facts with narratives and claimed a right to a remedy for imagined harms. Daniel Patrick Moyniham once said that we’re all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts, but that’s exactly what storytellers deny, when they assert the primacy of narrative over reality.
We now live in a world where we are asked to take seriously things known not to be true. Moreover, they’ve now become official government policy. The murders in Benghazi, the administration tells us, were all the fault of a crude video. That’s their story, and they’re sticking with it. They had no advance warning. And the more that the facts get in the way, the more the story dominates. The problem is that we’re being asked to go along with all this.
An older generation of academics will see in this the perversions of Continental deconstructionism, the abandonment of Enlightenment ideals. It goes back even farther, however, many centuries before. What we’re witnessing is a battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism, between a stubborn religion which based its claims on truth and the more fashionable intellectuals of the day who believed in a secret reality to which they had privileged access. The modern priests of Mithras tell us that the oceans will rise a foot in a century and that they alone can prevent this. They tell us that we are unconscious racists and homophobes, and must submit to their cures. We are biased and they can de-bias us. Their reality trumps the facts. What they offer their followers is power, the heady rush that comes from the ability to oppress, the permission slip to hatred. Compared to all that, how little truth matters.