by Anitra Pavlico
I recently read Jill Lepore’s This America–which she describes as a “long essay,” calling on historians to begin again to tell stories about America to counter the rise of nationalism in the country, to bring about “a new Americanism, as tough-minded and openhearted as the nation at its best.” She writes that patriotism is not the same as nationalism: “Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred.” Lepore quotes Stanford historian Carl N. Degler, who at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1986 accused his colleagues of abandoning the study of the nation. Degler warned that if historians failed to “provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.” As Michael Lind points out in his review of This America, Lepore has made clear in other venues that she has problems with the “very lefty history that can’t find a source of inspiration in the nation’s past and therefore can’t really plot a path forward to power.” The left has renounced patriotism to such an extent as to leave a vacuum that the right has filled.
In recent decades, many individuals who were previously underrepresented in the history academy began to write about the experiences of their ancestors, both in this country and in their countries of origin. The study of American history took a turn toward globalism, cosmopolitanism, and individualism. In the late 20th century, many historians felt that by studying the American nation they would prop up nationalism, which many believed was on the wane. As we now know, nationalism has not died, as evidenced by the rise of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, and many others. Far from it.
Lepore has arguably directed This America not only at her fellow historians but at all Americans, urging us to begin to see ourselves again as part of a nation with a history that is worthy of being remembered as positive and illustrious–overall. She does not gloss over the negative by any means. Lepore paints the current battle of ideas in America as nationalism versus liberalism. Liberalism, “a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment”–was not a feature of the United States at the beginning of its nationhood. How are historians to square this fact with Lepore’s call for a renewed focus on telling a story of American liberalism to counter the rise of nationalism in the form it has taken in the last century? That is their quandary and ours to wrestle with.
Lepore is adamant that nations need an “agreed-upon past” to “make sense of themselves.”
They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of fiends and frauds willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence. When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.
It is easy to forget in the current “make America white again” climate that diversity has long been celebrated here. Lepore quotes George Bancroft, the first to write a history of the United States, who highlighted the country’s pluralist and cosmopolitan roots, writing that “France contributed to its independence, the origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine; of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.” Isn’t it possible, then, for Americans to think of themselves as citizens of the world instead of confined to the country where we reside? In a perfect world, maybe, but not in our world, where nations already exist, and where the dark side of love for one’s country can fill a scholarship vacuum with misinformation or incitement to dangerous nationalist sentiments. Lepore reminds us that while the emergence of nations can be lamentable, it is primarily through the auspices of the nation that liberalism’s aspirations of equal rights can be enforced. Further, the United States’ constitutional commitment to freedoms of speech, press, and assembly makes political claims to equality possible. She writes that “The nation is often wrong. But so long as protest is possible, it can always be righted.”
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Studying and writing about history is a messy undertaking. I majored in history in my undergraduate years, and I found it rather depressing. It was hard to concentrate in any particular area, because I had distribution requirements, but I took classes in American history whenever I could. I was drawn to somber topics, writing papers on the My Lai massacre and the Hiroshima bombing. After college I did not read a history text for many years. Was that because I did not come across what Lepore calls for, a “common history” of the American people? How can there be such a thing? There are countless different stories that American individuals can tell, not to mention the stories of individuals around the world who are collateral damage of American foreign policy. There are ideals that have supposedly animated the creation of the nation, but commitment to those ideals has waxed and waned in cycles that are hard to describe and hard to predict.
In order to craft sweeping tales that can sustain people’s need to understand themselves, can historians stay true to their own principles? Many scholars pursue a course of study because it interests them personally, perhaps because they feel it has been neglected. Many may also wish to present this story to a wider audience. But do academics as a rule want to present their studies in such a way that a vast audience can absorb them to an extent that their influence can spread, outpacing dangerous versions of history that have spawned the resurgence of racist and xenophobic nationalism? It’s a lot to ask. Lepore’s recent one-volume American history, These Truths, is well-received, but who can say if a 900-plus page history can reach enough people in the Twitter age.
Wikipedia defines “myth” as “a folklore genre consisting of narratives or stories that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths.” I wonder if historians are being asked to become myth-makers. The most compelling ideas driving the evolution of the liberal American philosophy–equality, civil rights, rule of law, diversity, America as asylum to those persecuted in their home countries–have emerged and been submerged time and again. History requires an unbiased look at facts. If we require a framework of ideas, maybe that is not the purview of historians, but of political philosophers, journalists, or other public figures. For example, Paul Krugman appears to answer Lepore’s call when he writes in an opinion piece on Thanksgiving Day, titled “Why Trump Should Hate Thanksgiving,” that “Thanksgiving is, in short, a truly American holiday. Not only is it unique to our country, it’s a celebration of the values that actually make America great: openness to people who look or act differently, religious tolerance, sympathy for the persecuted, belief in human equality.”
I wonder how I should teach American history to my 8-year-old. I don’t think much of interest is being taught in school for children of this age. He mentioned something about George Washington and a cherry tree the other day, so those old fables persist. I often used to wonder why history was taught to young children at all, when it is all names and dates, apocryphal tales, and “great men,” and little in the way of ambiguity, or emphasis that this is simply a story told by the people privileged enough to be heard. My cynicism personally has been decades in the making, but I feel inspired by Lepore’s essay to start looking again for the beauty behind the ideas. If Americans are going to start rebuilding our broken public fora and repairing frayed lines of communications between opposing camps, we are going to have to focus on the positive, looking to the future while being inspired by the ideals that have always made our country such an interesting experiment, that are worth continuing to work toward achieving.