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Debunking U.S. History | Higher Ed Gamma

Is history a struggle between the forces of good and evil, pitting the children of light against the children of darkness, as the 3rd century Manicheans believed, or is the historical process more complex, convoluted, and circuitous, involving ambiguity, ambivalence, mixed motives, and irony, as Reinhold Niebuhr insisted 17 centuries later?  

Two recent scholarly accounts, one by Jill Lepore on the January 6 Report, and the other a collection of essays on myths and legends that distort public understanding of US history, illustrate this interpretive divide in its starkest form.  

The subtitle of Professor Lepore’s New Yorker essay, “What the January 6th Report Is Missing,” sums up her argument in 26 words:  “The investigative committee singles out Trump for his role in the Capitol attack. As prosecution, the report is thorough. But as historical explanation it’s a mess.”

The report, she argues, “is less an account of a conspiracy than a very long bill of indictment against a single man,” who “refused to accept the lawful result of the 2020 election,” “disseminated false allegations of fraud,” pressured the Vice President and state officials “to refuse to count electoral votes” and “transmit false electoral certificates,” “summoned thousands of supporters to Washington,” and “refused repeated requests over a multiple hour period that he instruct his violent supporters to disperse and leave the Capitol.”

What’s wrong with the report as history, as opposed to prosecutorial brief, is that it is scanty in history’s defining elements: context and backstory, which would require a more thorough analysis of the political and societal circumstances, evolving discourses, policies, and festering public distrust that gave rise to the assault on the Capitol.  As Professor Lepore points out, there’s nothing in the report about the pandemic, the lockdowns, the racial justice protests, or deepening distrust of “educated national élite of politicians, journalists, and academics.”

Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, uses the word myth in its most conventional sense: as a synonym for falsehoods and deceptions. Myths are treated as narrative fictions that deceive, delude, and distort, often deliberately and with design. 

Myths can, of course, mislead.  US history is filled with myths that misrepresent and misinform.  Examples abound and include the myth of American innocence, the myth of the self-made man, and popular culture’s rags-to-riches mythology.

But the word myth need not be equated with untruth.  There are fanciful tall tales that no adult takes seriously as factual, even though some may be grounded in some kernel of truth.  There are also myths that “remind us of our noblest ideals, challenging us to realize our nation’s promise while galvanizing the sense of hope and unity we need to reach our goals.”

No adult assumes that the best-known stories from this nation’s colonial past – about Pocahontas, the First Thanksgiving, and William Penn’s 1683 treat with Tamanend of the Lenape – tell us much about the nauseating, often repellent relations between the colonists and the indigenous peoples of eastern North America that they displaced.  Such tales serve other purposes: to uphold an ideal, however misleading or self-deceptive, about the possibilities of interracial harmony and peaceful cross-cultural relations.

Myths can also cloud and obscure contradictions in values.  Frontier heroes, whether living figures like Daniel Boone or fictional creations like James Fenimore Cooper’s Hawkeye, were, at once, pioneers and natural aristocrats even as they displaced native peoples.  

In addition, myths can contribute to collective self-definition. After all, the very word myth, which comes from the Greek words mythos, the story of the people, and logos for word or speech, doesn’t connote misrepresentation.  When politicians refer to the American Dream or speak of the United States as a nation of immigrants or a land of opportunity or America as the Promised Land and Americans as the New Israel, God’s Chosen People, or as Nature’s Nation, they reinforce a set of collective values and hopes: about this country’s a special, redemptive mission and its supposedly altruism and righteous intentions.

Certainly, one of history’s primary functions is to puncture disingenuous and overly simplistic understandings of the past.  But even if all history is, as James M. Banner puts it, revisionist history, serious historians shouldn’t simply be pedants, debunkers, cynics, or iconoclasts.  

Let’s look much too briefly at several essays in Myth America.  David Bell’s contribution is largely dismissive of the concept of American exceptionalism, but, to my surprise, fails to engage with the classic work on the subject, Werner Sombart’s 1906 book Why There is No Socialism in the United States, nor with other serious scholarship that this topic has prompted.  As James Q. Wilson and Peter Schuck have demonstrated, the United States is distinctive in the complexity of its political system; the absence of a strong socialist party or labor movement; its acceptance of high levels of inequality; the limits of its welfare and health-care systems; its low expenditures on pensions, unemployment insurance benefits, family allowances and childcare; its high rate of murder and violence and the number of people incarcerated; its litigiousness; its relative success in integrating immigrants; the strength of its research universities;  its emphasis on negative rights; its early acceptance of the principle of birthright citizenship; and its attitude and treatment of nonwhite people, combining elements of caste and class.

Above all, the United States was the only country in which key 19th century developments – expansion into a frontier region, the shift from various forms of unfree to wage labor, the Industrial Revolution and economic modernization, mass migration, and more — took place within a single country’s national boundaries. The United States really is distinctive not merely in the sense that all nations are unique, each in its own way, but in this structural and ideological characteristics and political organization.

Or take Ari Kelman’s claim that the notion of the vanishing Indian was a myth, since the indigenous peoples never disappeared and never lost their cultural integrity or capacity for agency and resistance. The tragic truth is that as a result of displacement, destruction of food supplies, and deliberate slaughter, the number of Native Americans did fall to 248,000 in 1890. Certainly, the massive decline in the native population helped legitimate callous, cold-hearted policies of removal, concentration, extermination, and ethnocide otherwise impossible to justify.  

Erika Lee is certainly correct in arguing that nativism and xenophobia, like other forms of racism, have longstanding roots in American culture, and that Americans have tended to minimize the role of US foreign and economic policy in driving immigration.  However, the latter development is much more true since 1945 than it was earlier and is less successful in explaining the European immigration that made up the bulk of immigration prior to 1965. 

Daniel Immerwahr concisely restates an argument that he made in How to Hide an Empire: that US expansionism, colonialism, annexation, and interventionism have a long history and that certain imperialist ambitions persist in new forms. But as the Soviet invasion of Ukraine has made vividly clear, the alternative to a Pax Americana resting upon complex alliances, overseas investments, and international educational, financial, health, legal, and trade institutions isn’t at all clear.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway discuss the failures of the marketplace, but might have done more, in my opinion, to examine the ways that activists, states, and eventually the federal government attempted, from early in American history, sought to impose limits on the market, even as others self-interested parties attempted to free commercial and labor markets from all constraints.

Is Eric Rauchway right in declaring the New Deal a success?  Sure, it did help create the regulatory state, brought lasting innovations including Social Security, the abolition of child labor, and expanded labor rights, and fundamentally altered governmental philosophy, instilling a belief that the federal government had a duty to ensure the health of the nation’s economy, and address poverty, unemployment, and the economic consequences of old age.  But the tragic fact is that Depression unemployment was deeper in the United States than in any other major country and lasted longer, and it was only World War II that ended Depression-era unemployment.  Also, only to a limited extent did the New Deal advance the rights of Black or Hispanic or Asian Americans.  

A serious account of the New Deal must place US responses to the Great Depression in comparative perspective, and ask why Western and Northern European societies were far more successful in combating joblessness and instituting a welfare state in the midst of financial collapse.  

Other essays might also have done more, in my view, to address the ambiguities of reform, especially in light of the protests over race in 2020. Why, six decades after the great legislative achievements of the Civil Rights movement, is school segregation greater in the North, where the Democratic party dominates, than in the South?   Why have racial disparities in criminal justice, education, employment, health, and income and wealth remain so persistent?  Are these basically an outgrowth of the white backlash described by Glenda Gilmore and Lawrence B. Glickman, or are deeper cultural, ideological and structural factors at work? 

This volume does an effective job of showing how certain ideas have been weaponized to advance narrow interests.  But as other reviewers have pointed out, this volume is rather nebulous and equivocal on a central point:  Are the barriers to greater equality in American society primarily a product of a single political party, entrenched economic and corporate interests, and white working-class grievance politics, or are the obstacles ultimately rooted in the nature of the Constitutional order, the political system, dominant ideologies, and a highly competitive society in which individuals and groups struggle to advance their well-being, benefits, and welfare at others’ expense?

If we are to treat the concept of myth seriously, we should distinguish among various kinds of myths. There are creation myths that describe, in symbolic, figurative, and metaphorical terms, a people’s primal origins. In US history, such myths tend to over-emphasize the nation’s religious roots and underplay the economic and the geo-strategic motives that drove colonization. 

There are also national myths, narratives that give expression to a national self-image and its basic values; etiological myths that explain long-held customs or unsavory realities; historical myths that invest a past event with immense and enduring meaning; and psychological myths that make the present part of an ongoing odyssey or journey, which, in the United States, has historically been the quest to create a more perfect union or advance the cause of freedom, liberty, opportunity, and equality.

I understand that at a time when history within the academy is growing ever more marginalized and beleaguered, as the number of majors plummets and department size falls, often dramatically, many historians want to demonstrate history’s relevance and speak out on the issues of the day.  I share that desire. My own teaching focuses a lot on US history’s underside, and I have no qualms about questioning patriotic truths. 

But I don’t think we should do that at the expense of nuance and complexity.  

History has much to contribute to public discourse.  But I don’t think we advance our cause by demolishing straw men or offering overly simplistic provocations.  Few but the already converted are ever convinced by naysayers, cynics, sourpusses, detractors, or wet blankets.  

I’m convinced that we do more to advance historical understanding by doing what historians do best: fostering historical perspective, deeply contextualizing events and developments, and reminding the public that:

  • Each time experts tell you that “this time is different”—that old rules no longer apply, and that circumstances today bear no similarity to the past—they are almost always wrong.
  • It’s almost always a mistake to believe that today’s problems are worse than those in the past or that one aspect of life or another is getting worse and worse.
  • Few historical events are inevitable, but are, rather, the product of human choice, action, and inaction.
  • War has uncontrollable consequences and every policy intervention has unintended results.
  • Every event has a backstory, contexts and circumstances that explain why occurrences unfold as they do.

Historians’ credibility ultimately rests on our integrity and trustworthiness.  Anything that undermines that authority and public confidence in our objectivity makes it all the easier for our critics to dismiss professional history not just as pedantry and antiquarianism, but as essentially political and agenda-driven.  

I fully agree with George Orwell’s words:  “Who controls the past controls the future.”  US historians may not be as influential as Ken Burns, Steven Spielberg, or Lin-Manuel Miranda  in shaping the public’s understanding of its collective past. Still, we do exert some power, even if its indirect, in instilling a sense of this country’s trajectory, its failings, its foundational ideals, and its character.  Let’s use that power as wisely and as skillfully as we can.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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