Richard Hughes serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University. This interview is based on the second edition of his book Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?
RH: At the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion that convened in Chicago in 2012, I was one of five scholars who responded to James Cone’s new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As part of my comments, I spoke of the five national myths that I identify in my earlier book, Myths America Lives By (Illinois, 2003), and how those myths shaped my understanding of both the nation and race when I was growing up in West Texas some sixty years ago. When I completed my remarks and took my seat at the panelists’ table, one of the panelists—the late Professor James Noel of San Francisco Theological Seminary—leaned over to me and whispered, “Professor, you left out the most important of all the American myths!” When I asked what I had omitted, he told me straight up, “The myth of white supremacy.” That simple comment launched me on quite a journey of reading, reflection, and introspection. In time I began to see Noel’s point, that even whites like me—whites who strongly resist racist ideology—can escape the power of the white supremacist myth only with extraordinary effort, if at all. That is because assumptions of white supremacy are like the very air we breathe: they surround us, envelope us, and shape us, but do so in ways we seldom discern.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?
RH: The book draws three conclusions—first, that the myth of white supremacy is the primal American myth that informs all the others; second, that one of the chief functions of the other myths is to protect and obscure the myth of white supremacy, to hide it from our awareness, and to assure us that we remain innocent after all; and third, that there is hope, but only if whites are willing to come to terms with this reality. An important sub-theme in this book is the role white churches in America have played in perpetuating the doctrine of white supremacy since the birth of the nation—and especially now
JF: Why do we need to read Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?
RH: As far as I know, no other book systematically explores the mythic structure of American identity and roots that mythic structure squarely in the myth of white supremacy.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RH: I was raised in a very narrow, sectarian Christian tradition that claimed to be the one true church. My deeply held, existential questions about those claims first led me into the history of American religion. In time I saw unmistakable parallels between the sectarian dimensions of my church and the sectarian dimensions of my nation, and the mythic structures that sustained both
JF: What is your next project?
RH: Sidney E. Mead was widely recognized as the dean of historians of American religion and was my teacher at the University of Iowa. Mead always claimed that the Enlightenment stood at the heart of the American experience. Much later, a group of evangelical historians placed American evangelicalism at the heart of the American experience. I want to do a project that compares the work of Mead and the work of the evangelical historians on the way those two traditions helped shape the American experience.
JF: Thanks, Richard!
Daniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?
DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.
I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?
DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.
JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?
DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.
At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.
JF: What is your next project?
DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.
JF: Thanks, Daniel!
Suppose Roe is reversed, and the states are allowed to restrict abortion as they see fit. Red states reduce access to abortion, in some cases nearly eliminating it. Blue states maintain or even liberalize their existing laws. The red states proclaim themselves right-to-life, the blue states right-to-choose. Women seeking abortions travel or move to the blue states, leaving the red states redder still.
Having repealed Roe, opponents of abortion would be tempted to push for a further step: the restriction or outlawing of abortion nationwide. Just as Massachusetts abolitionists felt compelled to condemn slavery in Georgia, so anti-abortionists in Texas would feel conscience-bound to try to prevent abortions in California.
They might not succeed, but the effort alone would cause many Californians to ask themselves whether their liberties were safe any longer in a Union with such people. California’s economy would rank it fifth in the world if it were an independent country. Californians might conclude that they could stand on their own and vote to secede. Perhaps they would be joined by Washington and Oregon, adding Amazon, Microsoft and Nike to the economic heft of the Pacific republic.
What would happen then is anyone’s guess. Would the heartland fight to keep the left coast in the Union? Maybe not. It’s worth noting that when the South seceded in 1860-61, many Northerners, not all of them abolitionists, applauded its departure. Lincoln took the opposite view, but another president might have let the South go. In fact, another president did let the South go: James Buchanan stood by amid the first wave of secession.
Read the entire piece here.
Here is a taste:
Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?
A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.
Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.
I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.
Q. The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.
A. It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.
Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.
Q. You get asked about your productivity a lot. I gather it’s a question you don’t like.
A. I sometimes say to people — this is like a 1930s thing to say, you can picture Barbara Stanwyck saying it in a noir film — it’s like complimenting a girl on her personality. It’s not about “You do good work,” it’s about “You do a lot of work.”
For a lot of people writing is an agony; it’s a part of what we do as scholars that they least enjoy. For me writing is a complete and total joy, and if I’m not writing I’m miserable. I have always written a lot. For years, before I wrote for The New Yorker, I wrote an op-ed every day as practice and shoved it in a drawer. It’s not about being published, it’s about the desire to constantly be writing. It’s such a strongly felt need that if it was something socially maladaptive it would be considered a vice.
Read the entire interview here.
Andrew Delbanco‘s new book is titled The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War. While I was on the road last week I listened to Delbanco’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio. I recommend it.
Over at The Atlantic, Delbanco explains what the 19th-century debate over slavery can teach us about our own contentious political moment. Here is a taste:
With the united states starkly divided and with many Americans asking what kind of nation we are, it seems a good moment to look back to November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Abraham Lincoln tried to answer the same question. Consecrating a Civil War battlefield where thousands of young men and boys had died four months before, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For most Americans since, and for much of the world, those words have attained the status of scripture. We draw our sense of collective identity from them. They were, however, not strictly true, and Lincoln knew it.
Five years earlier, he had been more candid. Speaking in Chicago in the summer of 1858, Lincoln noted that when the republic was founded, “we had slavery among us,” and that “we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted” slavery to persist in those parts of the nation where it was already entrenched. “We could not secure the good we did secure,” he said, “if we grasped for more.” The United States, in other words, could not have been created if the eradication of human bondage had been a condition of its creation. Had Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the nation was conceived not in liberty but in compromise, the phrase would have been less memorable but more accurate.
The hard truth is that the United States was founded in an act of accommodation between two fundamentally different societies. As one Southern-born antislavery activist wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life, while in the other it was fading or already gone. The Founding Fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.
Read the rest here.
Jeanne Petit, a professor of history at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, offers some historical perspective as the United States awaits the central America migrant caravan. Here is a taste of her Washington Post piece “Refugees or threat?: How we see migrants reveals our competing visions for America“:
News about the caravan of Honduran and Guatemalan migrants fleeing gang violence and poverty to seek refugee status in the United States has been splashed across television screens for more than a week.
President Trump and members of his administration declared, with no evidence, that Middle Eastern terrorists are embedded in the crowds, hoping to infiltrate the United States. Their fearmongering is challenged by images of individual migrants, usually with children, that emphasize the humanitarian crisis the caravan represents.
These dueling interpretations — threatening vs. vulnerable — reflect a far deeper debate, one that dates back to the country’s founding, about whether Americans should be bound together by a national identity built around shared civic ideals or through common ancestral, religious or racial background. They also reflect longtime debates about whether we ought to focus on border security or whether, by keeping refugees out, the United States is failing to fulfill its promise to be a haven for the oppressed.
Our current moment has parallels with the immigration-restriction debates of the first decades of the 20th century. The United States received a record number of immigrants, mostly coming to work in the growing industries. Unlike earlier immigrant streams from more Protestant nations of northern and western Europe, the vast majority of these immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe. Many Americans welcomed them and saw their immigration as a sign of American vitality, but others worried that the fundamental character of the nation was under threat.
Read the rest here.
Adam Serwer of The Atlantic argues that “Trumpism is ‘identity politics’ for white people.” Here is a taste of his piece:
But the entire closing argument of the Republican Party in the 2018 midterm elections is a naked appeal to identity politics—a politics based in appeals to the loathing of, or membership in, a particular group. The GOP’s plan to slash the welfare state in order to make room for more high-income tax cuts is unpopular among the public at large. In order to preserve their congressional majority, Republicans have taken to misleading voters by insisting that they oppose cuts or changes to popular social insurance programs, while stoking fears about Latino immigrants, Muslim terrorists, and black criminality. In truth, without that deception, identity politics is all the Trump-era Republican Party has.
Trying to scare white people is an effective political strategy, but it is also an effective ratings and traffic strategy. Trump’s ability to manipulate the media through provocation and controversy has been effective precisely because covering those provocations and controversies provides news outlets with the ears and eyeballs they crave. Trump considers the media “the enemy of the people” only when it successfully undermines his falsehoods; at all other times, it is a force multiplier, obeying his attempts to shift topics of conversation from substantive policy matters to racial scaremongering. The tenets of objectivity by which American journalists largely abide hold that reporters may not pass judgment on the morality of certain political tactics, only on their effectiveness. It’s a principle that unintentionally rewards immorality by turning questions of right and wrong into debates over whether a particular tactic will help win an election.
Read the rest here.
So I wonder: Is it possible that we will ever see a politics driven by the things that hold us together rather than the things that divide us? I don’t just see this kind of divisiveness in national politics, but I see it as well in many of our communities, professional associations, and churches.
True leaders, it seems, find way to bring us together amid our differences.
Here is a taste of his piece at Time:
Today, we hear the sloppy, misconceived term “white nationalism” more often than we hear about American nationalism. And whenever the term nationalism is raised, it is often quickly conflated with racism. For instance, at an Oct. 23 rally, President Donald Trump declared that he was a nationalist. He used the term in contrast with globalist, who he called “a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much.” Many commentators quickly deplored the President’s statement as a dog-whistle admission that he truly supports “white nationalism,” once again suppressing legitimate debate over the value of American nationalism, while insisting that racialist “white nationalism” is what we really should be talking about.
This is a problem. Because it’s American nationalism that the U.S. needs right now. Never in our lifetimes have we seen America’s various tribes so divided, so intolerant of one another, so quick to delegitimize and even threaten violence. The mutual loyalty that has bound Americans together as a nation seems like it is disappearing. The bitter argument over ongoing large-scale immigration is only a proxy for this deeper issue: Can Americans ever unite again around a shared national story? Can they ever see themselves as brothers again?
Read the rest here.
There is little I disagree with in David Brooks’s analysis of Kavanaugh hearings. Here is a taste:
These hearings were also a devastating blow to intellectual humility. At the heart of this case is a mystery: What happened at that party 36 years ago? There is no corroborating evidence either way. So the crucial questions are: How do we sit with this uncertainty? How do we weigh the two contradictory testimonies? How do we measure these testimonies when all of cognitive science tells us that human beings are really bad at spotting falsehood? Should a person’s adult life be defined by something he did in high school?
Commentators and others may have acknowledged uncertainty on these questions for about 2.5 seconds, but then they took sides. If they couldn’t take sides based on the original evidence, they found new reasons to confirm their previous positions. Kavanaugh is too angry and dishonest. He drank beer and threw ice while in college. With tribal warfare all around, uncertainty is the one state you are not permitted to be in.
Read the rest here.
Brooks’s point about intellectual humility is an interesting one, especially for historians. How do we treat out sources? How do we use those sources to find out “what happened?” What can and can’t we know? Any historian knows that this is a difficult task and one in which knee-jerk reactions and political rhetoric are not always helpful in getting at the truth.
If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a great nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.
–Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, 1952
In case you missed it, here is CNN’s Brian Stelter’s report on Ingraham’s recent comments about “massive demographic changes.”
Ingraham is correct about the demographic changes facing America today. This is not the first time we have seen such changes. It is also not the first time that Americans have responded to such changes with fear-mongering. This time around the fear-mongers have a cable television channel.
A few more points:
- Ingraham says “the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She says this in the context of immigration and demographic change. And then she says that her statement is not about race or ethnicity. Seriously? Then how does Ingraham define the America “that we know and love?”
- Tucker Carlson says “no society has ever changed this much, this fast.” This sounds like something a white Southerner might say during the late 1860s and 1870s, the period of Reconstruction when freed slaves were trying to integrate into southern society.
- In her response, Ingraham condemns white supremacists. But her comments about immigration and “demographic change” seems to be little more than a defense of a white America that she believes is being threatened by people of color. How is this any different than David Duke and others?
- How does Tucker Carlson know that we are undergoing “more change than human beings are designed to digest?”
- Ingraham says that “the rule of law, meaning secure borders” is what “binds our country together.” On one level, Ingraham is correct here. Immigration restriction and securing the borders once bound America together as a white Protestant nation. White Protestants did not want Chinese men and women coming into the country, so they “bound our [white Protestant] country together” by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. White Protestants did not want more Italians and other southern Europeans coming into the country, so they passed the Johnson-Reed Act (1924) to restrict them from coming. So yes, Ingraham is correct when she says “the rule of law” and “secure borders” have bound our country together. It was racist then. It is racist now. On another level, Ingraham probably needs a history lesson. For most of the 19th-century, the United States did have something equivalent to open borders. So there has been a significant chunk of American history when secure borders did not bind America together.
- I will let someone else tackle this, but “merit-based immigration” seems like a racist dog-whistle. This reminds me of when Trump said that we need more Norwegian immigrants and less immigrants from “shithole” countries.
Often-times fear is propagated by Christians who claim to embrace a religious faith that teaches them that “perfect love casts out fear.” This faith calls us to respond to demographic change with love, not fear.
By the way, I wrote a book about how fear of such “demographic change” led evangelicals into the arms of Donald Trump.
Americans are right to wonder if, at long last, what George Washington called the Great Experiment has failed, and that our founders have lost their extraordinary wager that regular people could govern themselves better than a few rich men could.
Consider that in his disastrous press conference in Helsinki Monday — and again in a comment before a Cabinet meeting Wednesday — President Donald Trump sided with a hostile foreign oligarchy over our own democracy.
Asked by a reporter Wednesday, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?,” Trump responded, shaking his head “Thank you very much. No.” (Later, his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, offered that he was saying “no” to answering questions.)
Trump’s alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in defiance of America’s own intelligence community, the Department of Justice, and the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forces us to face that the fundamental principles of our nation are under attack.
History suggests the game is not yet lost. Three times before, in the 1850s, the 1890s, and the 1920s, oligarchs took over the American government and threatened to destroy democracy. In each case, they overreached, and regular folks took back their government.
Read the entire piece here.
This cover is getting a lot of attention today.
Russian-American military historian and writer Max Boot thinks so. Here is Boot on Robert Mueller:
Mueller embodies the ideals of probity, service and self-sacrifice that trace back to the Pilgrims who came to America in search of a “city upon a hill.” The Puritans preached devotion to the Almighty and had nothing but contempt for vanity and luxury — no blue shirts for them. Over the centuries, their religious fanaticism leached away, leaving behind in American culture a residue of obligation to serve not just God but also mankind.
Here is Boot on Donald Trump:
Trump combines the hedonism of the 1970s with the bigotry and sexism of the 1950s: the worst of both worlds. His consciousness was not raised in the 1960s, but his libido was. He did not take part in the civil rights or antiwar movements and won five draft deferments — including one for “bone spurs” — so that he could devote his life to the pursuit of women and wealth. He later said that fear of catching a sexually transmitted disease was “my personal Vietnam.”
Trump is the embodiment of what Christopher Lasch in 1979 called the “new narcissist” who “praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself”; whose “emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace”; and whose “cravings have no limits,” because he “demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” A product of the “me decade,” Trump is a “me first”— not “America first” — president whose speeches are full of exaggerated or falsified self-praise.
Read Boot’s entire Washington Post piece here. This makes a lot of sense to me.
Benjamin Park is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. This interview is based on his new book, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write American Nationalisms?
BP: As I was beginning my graduate education in 2010, I was struck by how the Tea Party appropriated ideas of the nation in their attempt to “take back” the country. I became interested in dissecting how conceptions of a national body fed into political action and partisan movements. American Nationalisms was my chance to trace how national imaginations and parochial conflicts were tethered together since the country’s founding.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Nationalisms?
BP: Today we assume that the term “nation” is directly correlated to a federal government, but that has not always been the case. American Nationalisms demonstrates how the first five decades of our country’s existence witnessed a plethora of competing forms of “national” definitions—including regional, ethnic, and religious bodies—that in turn drew from both local contexts and transnational debates.
JF: Why do we need to read American Nationalisms?
BP: We like to think that, in moments of cultural division, our national values can hold us together, that the very notion that we’re all American can bridge unfathomable chasms. Yet my book shows that the very definition of what our “nation” means, let alone what our national values include, have been contested ever since our political independence from Britain. How we define “America,” and even how we define one’s national belonging, reveals a lot about our own biases, interests, and priorities. Our very understanding of togetherness, then, is itself a tool for division.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BP: I was raised in the Mormon faith and, as a college student, became interested in my religion’s past. My interest in Mormon history, however, soon became a Pandora’s Box as I then became fascinated with religious history writ large and, eventually, American history in general. Along the way, I had a series of teachers who demonstrated that a proper understanding of the past can help us better understand the present.
JF: What is your next project?
BP: I am currently working on a history of the Mormon city of Nauvoo, an 1840s settlement on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River that featured 20,000 converts, bloc voting, clandestine polygamous arrangements, and secret political bodies. I aim to use the story as a microcosm of democratic angst during the antebellum period, as Americans feared the nation’s commitment to self-rule left them vulnerable to cultural oppression. The book is under contract with W. W. Norton/Liveright, and a full manuscript is due in November. I offer more of an overview here.
JF: Thanks, Ben!
So where does the American idea stand today? To some extent, it is a victim of its own success: Its spread to other nations has left America less distinctive than it once was. But the country has also failed to live up to its own ideals. In 1857, the United States was remarkable for its high levels of democratic participation and social equality. Recent reports rank the U.S. 28th out of 35 developed countries in the percentage of adults who vote in national elections, and 32nd in income equality. Its rates of intergenerational economic mobility are among the lowest in the developed world.
On opportunity, too, the United States now falls short. In its rate of new-business formation and in the percentage of jobs new businesses account for, it ranks in the lower half of nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Today, Americans describe China as Europeans once described the United States—as an uncouth land of opportunity and rising economic might.
It is no surprise that younger Americans have lost faith in a system that no longer seems to deliver on its promise—and yet, the degree of their disillusionment is stunning. Nearly three-quarters of Americans born before the Second World War assign the highest value—10 out of 10—to living in a democracy; less than a third of those born since 1980 do the same. A quarter of the latter group say it’s unimportant to choose leaders in free elections; just shy of a third think civil rights are needed to protect people’s liberties. Americans are not alone; much of western Europe is similarly disillusioned.
Read the entire piece here.
Today, White is back with a piece at Smithsonian.com on the idea of “home” in America’s Gilded Age.
Here is a taste:
When reduced to the “Home Sweet Home” of Currier and Ives lithographs, the idea of “home” can seem sentimental. Handle it, and you discover its edges. Those who grasped “home” as a weapon caused blood, quite literally, to flow. And if you take the ubiquity of “home” seriously, much of what we presume about 19th-century America moves from the center to the margins. Some core “truths” of what American has traditionally meant become less certain.
It’s a cliché, for example, that 19th-century Americans were individualists who believed in inalienable rights. Individualism is not a fiction, but Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie no more encapsulated the dominant social view of the first Gilded Age than Ayn Rand does our second one. In fact, the basic unit of the republic was not the individual but the home, not so much isolated rights-bearing-citizen as collectives—families, churches, communities, and volunteer organizations. These collectives forged American identities in the late-19th century, and all of them orbited the home. The United States was a collection of homes.
Evidence of the power of the home lurks in places rarely visited anymore. Mugbooks, the illustrated county histories sold door to door by subscription agents, constituted one of the most popular literary genres of the late-19th century. The books became monuments to the home. If you subscribed for a volume, you would be included in it. Subscribers summarized the trajectories of their lives, illustrated on the page. The stories of these American lives told of progress from small beginnings—symbolized by a log cabin—to a prosperous home.
Read the entire piece here.
During the first couple weeks of my “Teaching History” course at Messiah College we have been discussing whether or not a 7th-12th grade history course should be built around some kind of narrative. And if a narrative is important (not all of my students think it is), what might that narrative look like? As I posted yesterday, Gary Nash’s History on Trial has been helpful in this regard.
I really enjoy teaching this course and there is so, so much that I want to give my students to read. Perhaps at some point in the semester I will introduce them to Duke law professor Jedidiah Purdy‘s recent piece at Politico: “Is America Still a ‘Nation of Ideas’?” It seems like the tension between American ideals and American reality might be a nice way of organizing an American history course.
Here is a taste of Purdy’s piece:
It is a bipartisan commonplace to talk about America as a nation of ideas. House Speaker Paul Ryan declared in 2016 that the United States is “the only nation founded on an idea, not an identity.” President Barack Obama said pretty much the same thing when he won reelection in 2012. Alexander Hamilton himself opened the first of the Federalist Papers with this thunderclap: It was up to Americans “to decide … whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” What could guide “reflection and choice” but ideas?
But the image of the United States as a country of ideas suffered a severe setback in November, and it has been reeling ever since. Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential win violated so many norms—civility, avoiding explicit racism, the rudimentary appearance of consistency—that a subtler omission was easy to miss. Trump had no truck with the paean to America as a constitutional nation, a continuous inheritance of principle running from Lexington and Concord through Philadelphia and Gettysburg, Selma and the March on Washington, and down to today. The mogul from Trump Tower talked instead about warring tribes, the need for “Christians” to “stick together” (as he claimed Muslims do), the danger from “Mexicans” (including American-born judges of Mexican descent) and, of course, zero-sum “deals” that would surely cow the Chinese and the Iranians. And Trump was full of contempt for the fine talk of more conventional politicians, deeming the principles they preached just hypocritical horseshit.
Trump’s victory was a vivid reminder of something that has been easy for many people to forget in recent decades: As often as Americans have imagined that they inhabit a country of ideas, many have insisted instead that it is a nation of identity, a land of blood and soil, more about who you are than about what you affirm. Then in August, hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to rally to the blood-and-soil idea—some chanting that very phrase—and one of them murdered a counter-protester in an automobile attack that could easily have killed many more. Notoriously, President Trump responded by lamenting violence and bigotry on “many sides,” implying that the white-tribe view of America is no less legitimate than its opposite.
As nation-of-identity politics has risen, nation-of-ideas practice has been battered. In his seven months in office, Trump has shown indifference to and contempt for the notion of shared principles, flouting basic ethical norms of financial disclosure, trolling the American institutions that elected leaders usually treat with some deference, like federal courts and the press. He has shown consistent contempt for the very idea of political principle in favor of an erratic personal code built around loyalty and betrayal, esteem for money as a sign of virtue (or at least virility) and a penchant for any utterance with shock value. As many have observed, it is as if the national id had occupied the White House and announced to its constitutional superego, “You’re fired!”
Read the rest here.
James Baker III was the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush. Andrew Young, a Civil Rights veteran and close associate of Martin Luther King Jr., was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Carter administration and served eight years as mayor of Atlanta. Together, in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Baker and Young argue that “identity politics practiced by both major political parties is eroding a core principle that Americans are, first and foremost, Americans.”
Here is a taste:
The divisions in society are real. So are national legacies of injustice. All can and must be addressed. Those who preach hatred should be called out for their odious beliefs. But even as extremism is condemned, Americans of good will need to keep up lines of civil, constructive conversation.
The country faces a stark choice. Its citizens can continue screaming at each other, sometimes over largely symbolic issues. Or they can again do what the citizens of this country have done best in the past—work together on the real problems that confront everyone.
Both of us have been at the center of heated disputes in this country and around the world. And there’s one thing we’ve learned over the decades: You achieve peace by talking, not yelling. The best way to resolve an argument is to find common ground…
Congress and the president must…set an example to all Americans. We understand that politics is a contact sport, but leaders in Washington need to restrain their rhetoric and practice the lost art of compromise. They should stop pandering to the worst in us and appeal instead to what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French diplomat who identified strengths in the American experiment, admired the resiliency of the system the Founding Fathers devised. He wrote in the first volume of “Democracy in America” that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
America has many faults that must be repaired—from a failed health-care system to a military that needs upgrading. Americans must, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during a 1965 commencement address for Oberlin College, learn to live together as brothers and sisters. Or, we will perish together as fools. We are convinced that the vast majority of Americans would like leaders in Washington to remember King’s advice when they return to work after Labor Day.
Read the entire piece here.