In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR (1955), St. (Richard) Hofstadter wrote:
...The American mind was raised upon a sentimental attachment to rural living and upon a series of notions about rural people and rural life that I have chosen to designate as the agrarian myth.1 The agrarian myth represents a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins.
1By myth, as I use the word here, I do not mean an idea that is simply false, but rather one that so effectively embodies men's values that it profoundly influences their way of perceiving reality and hence their behavior. In this sense, myths may have varying degrees of fiction or reality. The agrarian myth became increasingly fictional as time went on.
Since the 1960s when he encountered this definition this blogger has carried the definition of historical myth like a knife in his brain. National exceptionalism is a myth, plain and simple, despite all of the imprinted caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the myth of national exceptionalism. If this is a (fair & balanced) sober assessment of our belief in myths, so be it.
[x CHE Review]
The Importance Of National Myths
By Steven Conn
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
Early in February I was walking down a street in San Francisco, and I passed a T-shirt-and-tchotchke shop with a wide selection of anti-Trump-themed baseball caps in the window. Some were amusing, some were angry, but the one that caught my eye read: "America Was Never Great." And it struck me that if you paired that cap with Trump’s own, you would have a pretty good summary of how Trump supporters view American history on one hand, and how many American historians view it on the other.
Hillary Clinton tried to offer an alternative by saying variations of "America has never stopped being great" and "America is getting better every day" at her campaign events. But though she did win three million more votes, those sentiments never got much traction; I never saw them summarized on a baseball cap. What "Make America Great Again" encapsulated managed to fire up just enough people in just enough places that it won the election. And while I was as stunned as anyone on election night, as a historian I shouldn’t have been. We had no compelling counternarrative to offer in 2016 and haven’t really for some time.
It’s worth thinking about why, even as many — most? — members of my guild were keen to reject Trump’s view of history, we were uneasy embracing Clinton’s frankly patriotic version. In the face of the most fundamentally anti-American presidential campaign perhaps ever — Earl Browder got less help from Moscow when he ran for president than Donald Trump apparently did — waving the flag for many of us felt uncomfortable, or certainly unfamiliar. The best we could do was to challenge the Trumpistas to be specific: When, exactly, was American great? We would show them otherwise.
The tale of how historians got here is familiar. In the mid-20th century, the experience of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War shaped a generation of American historians collectively known as the "consensus school." They cast American history as a Whiggish triumph of common sense over extremism, of pragmatism over ideology. In books like Henry Steele Commager’s The American Mind (1950) or Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), the American past looked almost as quiescent as the America of their day.
There was never as much consensus within the consensus school as the next generation of historians insisted there had been, but that was part of the Oedipal point. Historians who came of age during the civil-rights struggle, who grew up with the terror of nuclear war, and who marched against the American debacle in Southeast Asia rebelled, both against American society as they found it and against their teachers.
The results have been too various to summarize with any justice, but let me offer this: The new historical turn placed a value on history "from the bottom up," the stories of all the people forgotten, ignored, or suppressed by the consensus historians. Aided by sophisticated quantitative techniques, these historians gave the voiceless, those who left none of the usual sorts of archival traces, a voice, though in a small irony, the historians often spoke in the sometimes unintelligible language of regression analysis and chi squares.
That impulse evolved, and historians’ attention moved from the "bottom" to the "margins." In this sense, American historical practice tracked the drift of leftist politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Identity history became a companion to identity politics — subjects like African-American history, women’s history, Latino/a history, Native American history, and gay history developed into their own subspecialties. Marginalized no more, these subjects have flourished, with their own journals, conferences, professional societies, and book series, even while some scholars have quietly fretted whether there could ever be a whole of American history greater than the sum of its multiplying parts. I don’t know if Jean-François Lyotard had been reading any of the new American history when he formulated his thesis about the "incredulity toward metanarratives," but by the time he published The Postmodern Condition, in 1979, American historians were already pretty incredulous about any grand narratives of the American past.
The tendentious, j’accuse! strain of this scholarship reached a crescendo of sorts in 1980 with the publication of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003). I loved that book when I first read it as a high schooler, and I like it still. But in truth, Zinn reduced the story of American history to a conspiracy of "elites" against "the people," and, in turn, he portrayed the people largely as victims of that vast conspiracy. The line between valorization and victimization got blurry pretty quickly.
Let me hasten to add that I am not bemoaning the new directions that American history took toward "the bottom" or "the people." I do not think historians have somehow exaggerated the brutality of slavery or its centrality to developing American capitalism; nor do I think that American foreign policy has been any less destructive or feckless than historians since William Appleman Williams have argued it often has been.
Rather, my point is to wonder about the unintended consequences of historical scholarship over the past two generations. One of the things lost, I think, is a coherent narrative about the past that is more inspiring than the story of "turtles crushed while crossing the highway," as one of Zinn’s reviewers described A People’s History. And here is the bitterly ironic lesson of 2016. Voters who feel themselves to be on the losing end of the American bargain tipped the electoral scales. Never mind that they voted for a candidate who won’t make their lives measurably better and may well make them worse. It turns out that many of those on the bottom and at the margins do not want to hear that their America has never been great.
There’s more at stake here, and not just for historians, than the nostalgia for an earlier, easier age when you could make categorical statements about "the American mind" because you could exclude any minds that did not fit neatly into the story. Whatever goes on inside the historical profession, driven by its own imperatives and logic, outside the academy politics is built on narratives, and particularly narratives about the past. If historians don’t provide those narratives, then someone inside Trump Tower will. As an old mentor of mine said to me years ago: It’s great to tear down people’s myths. What will you put in their place?
Let me elaborate that point with an analogy I would have thought too much of a stretch a year ago.
During the election cycle, I pulled David Remnick’s book Lenin’s Tomb (1993) off the shelf and read it again. It came out in 1993, and I read it first on a trip to Russia in 1999. It helped me to understand what I was seeing and hearing. Among many other things, Remnick chronicles the opening up of Soviet archives in the post- Soviet period, and the almost daily revelations that some piece of Soviet mythology or other had in fact been a state-sponsored lie.
Giddiness ensued as people rushed into these archives to find out what had really happened during the preceding 70 years. But that giddiness quickly mixed with vertigo and disorientation, as Remnick describes it, because while some families might have gotten clarification or closure about the fate of a relative, collectively Russians no longer knew who they were. Having pulled back the curtain on the Oz of Soviet history, Russians found they had no history at all.
No wonder, then, that people started turning up with posters of Stalin at street demonstrations. No wonder, too, that Vladimir Putin should step into this void — a void of historical narrative and thus of national identity. Putin understands full well the need to invent a set of historical myths in order to create the pliant national unity he requires. In the end, the historical truth did not set Russians free, because they had no myth about their nationhood to substitute for the collapsed Soviet one. Putin obliged.
As I said, not long ago I would have found this analogy between post-Soviet Russia and Trump’s United States almost histrionic. Today I’m not so sure. A year before the election, the Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case released a shocking study showing that the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans was rising and had been since 1999. And as far as they could determine, the rising death rate is attributable to the consequences of despair: suicide and the many bad health outcomes related to drug abuse, primarily. Grasping for an explanation, Deaton speculated that these people had "lost the narrative of their lives." Incidentally, life expectancy for Russian men also dropped precipitously after 1990.
The people Deaton and Case studied voted for Trump in Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania. Trump gave them their narrative back, however briefly, however falsely, however viciously.
So what are historians supposed to do?
"Our life is frittered away by detail," Thoreau famously wrote in Walden, a line that haunts me sometimes when I am rummaging through archival boxes filled with stuff or reading some book crammed with too many archival factoids. Are big historical narratives of the sort people respond to frittered away by our historical details?
Sometimes it can feel as if the job of historians — and other humanists, too — is to make matters as complex as possible. Turn the phrase "I’d like to complicate …" into a drinking game the next time you’re at an academic conference, and see how long it takes before you’re fall-down drunk.
Of course, the world is a complicated place, and the past no less so. The problem is that however stimulating complication may be in a graduate seminar, it does not do so well against simplicity in the town hall. "Simplify, simplify," Thoreau wrote later in that paragraph, and we should take heed, despite or perhaps precisely because of all the complicated things we know.
More than that, even, it is time that historians let go of their suspicion — their incredulity — toward grand narratives and try once again to construct them. Every academic I know is skeptical of the word "progress" and just as wary of the idea of "patriotic," and rightly so. Progress is a soothing fairy tale we tell ourselves to paper over all things that are wrong with our society, and Samuel Johnson told us a long time ago that only scoundrels wrap themselves in the flag.
But if we also acknowledge that all nations are really invented communities, then shouldn’t historians help with that invention? We need to generate historical narratives that don’t pander to cheap patriotism but extol democratic virtues and in so doing serve as the glue to cement civic solidarity. In other words, our challenge as historians is to turn complicated history into simpler myth without sacrificing our honesty.
As the call to "resist" has swept through large parts of the population in the past several months — and as I have been heartened by it — I remember something Todd Gitlin wrote more than a decade ago. Resistance, he observed somewhat bitterly, had become the de facto position of the left, but that is an implicit admission of defeat: They have the power; we resist it. "Intellectuals of the left," Gitlin wrote, "have been playing defense." As much as that stings, I’m not sure Gitlin was wrong. "We are the critics," he went on. "It is for others to imagine a desirable world and a way to achieve it."
Critique and criticism are important and necessary, and we’ve gotten very good at them. They also allow us to position ourselves at an oblique angle to the mainstream — they ensure that, as Pete Townshend vowed, we won’t get fooled again. Right now that all feels like cold comfort. Imagining a desirable future cannot happen unless we have a version of history upon which to build it. And if historians don’t provide that kind of narrative, we have already seen who will. ###
[Steven Conn is the W.E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University (OH). His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century (2014); see Conn's other books here.. Conn received a BA (history) from Yale University and a PhD (history) from the University of Pennsylvania.]
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