Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Book Reviews

Missed America

Attacking the right without asking about the left.

Johann N. Neem

THR illustration (American Progress [detail], 1872, by John Gast, 1842–1896; public domain.

One day early in the pandemic, when schools and colleges first went online, my undergraduate students and I had just finished discussing an essay on the rise and decline of the innovative and powerful Comanche empire. I logged off and walked downstairs, where my elementary school-aged child was sitting at the dining table. “What did you learn in school today?” I asked, as I always do. He recounted to me—not in these exact words, of course—that North America had been an Edenic paradise before the Europeans arrived. I was shocked. This was the racist myth of the noble savage repackaged by the antiracist left. In reality, Native Americans did not need Europeans to introduce them to warfare, imperialism, slavery, or violence. This does not diminish the significant impact European pathogens and ambitions had on Native American polities. But to teach such distortive myths about the past? That’s the kind of thing historians should be upset about.

So imagine my surprise when I opened Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer’s new edited volume on contemporary historical myths and found no essay—not a single one!—that challenged myths that came from the left. The editors acknowledge “bipartisan” myths, but with a few exceptions, such as David A. Bell’s essay on American exceptionalism and Akhil Reed Amar’s on the Founding, the contributors focus on myths from the right. On their own, many of the essays, written by some of our best historians, are insightful. Collectively, they reveal the challenges facing the historical profession—my profession. When it becomes an axiom that truth comes from the left and lies from the right, something is amiss. When all the bad things America did are true, but none of the good things, something is definitely amiss.

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