Never Underestimate the Power of Narrative -- the Emerging Portrait of a Dastardly America Could Cost Us Dearly

Release Date: June 14, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- History is replete with "black legends," conflations of truth, myth and bad press that have caused individuals, families, and whole nations to have what English poet and dramatist John Dryden called "a name to all succeeding ages curst."

The term "Black Legend" originated as a reference to the world-wide loathing of Spain during its conquest of the New World, but an expert in the production of such cultural narratives says history, in one sense, may be repeating itself.

Scott Stevens, Ph.D., assistant professor of English at the University at Buffalo, has written widely about such phenomena and says we may be witnessing the establishment of just such a "black legend" about the United States, one that could seriously besmirch its reputation and reduce its influence worldwide.

He says, "The U.S. media declines to repeat or broadcast the components comprising of this emerging new portrait of the U.S., but Americans are beginning to see that this new story of what America is and stands for diverges dramatically from the one we tell ourselves.

"We may or may not be as bad as our enemies claim," he says, "but dark secrets are coming out -- cultural arrogance, acceptance of torture, 'remaindering,' political manipulation and deceit, corporate greed and corruption -- secrets that surprise, and even horrify, many Americans.

"To the extent that we deny these revelations and refuse to recognize the tremendous power they have to catalyze world opinion, we increase their ability to produce a 'Black Legend' of American power that could darken our reputation for many years to come."

Stevens recently delivered a talk on the Black Legend at St. Louis University in Madrid. He is conducting a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar on the European encounter with indigenous peoples from the 16th through the 18th centuries at the John Carter Brown Library, an independent institution for advanced research in history and the humanities at Brown University.

"Blinded by our personal good intentions and a certain amount of righteousness," he says, "most Americans literally do not 'see' the resentment building all over the world toward U.S. foreign and economic policy and cultural domination."

The process our reputation is undergoing, he says, is similar to the one that produced Spain's notorious leyenda negre, which developed in the wake of Spain's 16th century naval and military power, cultural and religious hegemony and successful, though often brutal, colonization of Latin America.

The Black Legend, full of accurate reportage and spurious accounts, befouled Spain's reputation for centuries. Stevens says the Spanish still wince to recall it.

"What gave the Spanish legend its strength and resiliency," Stevens says, "was the printing press, which made it possible to spread the story of Spain's 'greed and iniquity' throughout the world. It is not coincidental that America's idea of itself as the savior of nations and purveyor of global freedom is being challenged in part because of another revolution in communication.

"Whatever we do -- whatever we are said to have done -- is globally broadcast over the Internet, as we know," he says. "The power and ubiquity of the mode of transmission makes it impossible for the U.S. to constrain the message, just as the power and ubiquity of the printing press spread Spain's Black Legend around the globe.

"As a result, when we construct and broadcast a one-sided narrative of the U.S. as only a benevolent, generous, noble nation, increasingly we are talking only to ourselves," Stevens says, "as a parallel narrative is constructed and promulgated by others.

"Americans still basking in the glow of the 'American Century,' should know we are neither unique in that role nor impervious to a ruined national reputation."

During Spain's 17th-century Golden Age it wielded vast military, naval, economic, cultural and political influence on four continents. It was the center of the first global empire of the 16th century and remained the superpower for nearly 150 years before it was financially weakened and felled by its own overreaching and the hatred of those it defeated.

At its imperial peak, Spain embraced much of Latin America, parts of the Caribbean, Southern Italy, Sicily, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Philippines, which was named for Philip II of Spain, famously tried to conquer England and came perilously close to doing so.

"Spain fell," Stevens notes, "because, although accompanied by righteous justifications, the ultimate goal of any imperial dominion is financial gain at the expense of others.

"Spain claimed to be spreading 'Christian civilization' to the New World, Asia and Protestant Europe," he points out, "but what Spain actually imposed was a militant and hyper-orthodox brand of Catholicism that sought to stifle other religions and the countries that tolerated them.

"The notorious Spanish Inquisition attempted to impose this orthodoxy within Spain's borders. The nation also expelled its Muslims and Jews, even as it set its sights on restoring England to the sphere of papal influence," he says.

"During its Golden Age, Spain also forced hundreds of thousands of Native Americans and Filipinos to 'be saved' at the point of a spear."

Stevens says that like 16th-century Spain, "America is wealthy, powerful, the world's only superpower, with world's greatest military force, widely considered an imperialist power that wields a massive, powerful economic and cultural bat.

"Our self-definition is attached to a fundamentalist Christian administration with an undercurrent of intolerance for less than conservative religious views even within the U.S. We need to remember that the 'war on terror' is seen by some -- notably many Muslims -- as a religious war, and, whether true or not, there is political rhetoric that supports that assumption and it has been broadcast all over the world."

Worse, says Stevens, like the Spanish of three centuries ago, we do not recognize the destructive force of our own legend.

Whether this new "narrative of America" is true or not, it is building, Stevens says, helped along by the Internet and its pictures and film, envy of U.S. power, eyewitness reports of torture, political deceit, wanton destruction, brutal economic militancy, megalomania and lack of human compassion.

Stevens says, "Our corporate media outlets can ignore this notion of America or mold it to some purpose, but it is out there nevertheless, and has the power to destroy."

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