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.

The editors attribute the spread of “right-wing myths”—they do not distinguish analytically between myths and lies—to two causes: the “conservative media ecosystem” and the “devolution of the Republican Party’s commitment to truth.” So far, so good. Many prominent Republicans embraced and propagated former president Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Even after it was revealed that Fox News commentators, including Tucker Carlson, knew that they were lying to their viewers, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy entrusted Carlson with exclusive access to video footage of the January 6 storming of the Capitol. Such brazen disregard for truth threatens the basic norms and principles of American democracy.

Or does it? To believe that Republican lies threaten our democracy, you also have to believe that our basic norms and principles are worth defending. But why sustain something as corrupt as American democracy? In her contribution to Myth America, Kathleen Belew, professor of history at Northwestern University, condemns those who proclaim that the events of January 6 do not reflect who we are as a country. She argues instead that this is “exactly who we are,” and a careful examination of the white nationalism and violence in our history will prove it. Belew simply inverts the story: White nationalists—including the Ku Klux Klan—embody the true America. Any story suggesting that we Americans are something better, or even that we have ideals that should inspire us to be better, is naive and false.

Like Belew, other contributors to Myth America write in absolutes. There is little that is tentative in this volume. The United States is an empire. American exceptionalism is a lie. The United States is xenophobic. There is no complexity. The world is divided into right and wrong, true and false, left and right. There is a lot of either/or but not much both/and. We find few good people doing bad things, much less flawed people achieving good things. There is almost no engagement with competing scholarly perspectives.

There are many missed opportunities. For example, in his essay on American exceptionalism, David Bell notes in passing that “the more progressive that Americans are in their politics, the more likely they are to see America as exceptional, if at all, in large part because of the harm it has done: the treatment of indigenous peoples, slavery, US foreign policy in the twentieth century, and contemporary inequality and racism.” Why leave this as an aside? Why not devote some space in the volume—especially given our public controversies over how we should teach American history—to the dangers posed by exceptionalist narratives from the left?

Myth America’s editors rightly worry that our divisions over history are caused by “unmooring our debates from some shared understanding of the facts.” They argue that “this shift has been driven by the rise of a new generation of amateur historians who, lacking any training in the field, or familiarity with its norms, have felt freer to write a history that begins with its conclusions and works backwards to find—or invent, if need be—some sort of evidence that will seem to support it.” They condemn the “cottage industry on the right” with “partisan authors producing a partisan version of the past to please partisan audiences.” I think that they are referring to the best-selling publications of journalists such as Bill O’Reilly, but might the same words also apply to other amateur historians such as journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the primary editor of and contributor to The 1619 Project?

Myth America does not engage with The 1619 Project because, the editors write, there has already been much public debate, but the American Historical Review, the nation’s most exclusive and influential journal of academic history, disagrees. In its December 2022 issue the AHR published an eighty-two-page forum involving nineteen of the country’s most prominent historians. In it, only a few contributors offer truly critical assessments. Speaking truth to power is hard, and the power that most shapes historians’ careers is our reputation among our colleagues. Do “we” want to risk sounding like “them”? Whose side are you on? Instead, many contributors to the forum take the easy path, accusing The 1619 Project of not being radical enough. For instance, it did not fully account for the displacement of indigenous people. Worse, they argue, Hannah-Jones has not freed herself from American exceptionalism because she hopes that the sacrifices made by generations of black Americans might be redemptive and let Americans, in Hannah-Jones’s words, “finally, live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded.”

It is unusual for historians to be so gentle (just read the book review section of any journal or sit in on one of our graduate seminars). Perhaps Cornell historian Sandra Greene, in her contribution to the forum, explained why: “The publication of The 1619 Project is so important, despite its flaws,” which include “factual errors” and “several chapters [that] simplify to the point of distortion.” Important how? Politically. For Greene, The 1619 Project is “a necessary book” and its flaws “should not be used as an excuse to deny the reality that slavery and racism have influenced every aspect of US history.” But one need not deny slavery’s and racism’s historical significance to ask whether historians should defend public narratives that simplify to the point of distortion—what Kruse and Zelizer call myths.

Fortunately, most Americans have a much more nuanced understanding of American history than professional historians (or their most vocal right-wing opponents). Most Americans recognize that the past is complicated. According to an American Historical Association poll, 78 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans agree that students should learn painful history even when it makes them uncomfortable. According to another recent poll by the organization More in Common, 95 percent of Democrats and 91 percent of Republicans agree that Americans “have made incredible achievements and ugly errors.” Indeed, despite what one learns in the headlines, 87 percent of Democrats believe Washington and Lincoln should be admired for their role in American history and 83 percent of Republicans agree that all American students should learn about slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. In other words, we Americans know that we have much to atone for in our past, but also much to celebrate. Americans understand that we contain multitudes. It should give historians pause when the common sense of ordinary American people shows more appreciation for historical complexity than trained experts.

After reading Myth America and the AHR forum, one can understand why Republicans have become so distrustful of professors and have proposed dangerous policies that threaten academic freedom, such as weakening tenure or banning entire fields of study. We historians would like to say that it’s because we speak truth to power, but perhaps the truth is that we are afraid to do so when it endangers our reputations or politics. I’m nervous just writing this review.

I don’t think professional historians fully understand the damage they are causing to the history discipline’s credibility and integrity. We have a public trust to uphold, one that has become even more important as the US Supreme Court draws on “history and tradition” to interpret the Constitution. Can we be relied upon to offer honest appraisals of gun laws, abortion access and regulation, public health, and other important questions facing our country? Moreover, at a time when universities are closing humanities departments and cutting tenure lines, can we convince leaders of both parties to reinvest in our fields? I’m not saying that historians should not have politics. We can’t help but have them. But when a volume on myths and lies—edited by historians—attacks the right without asking about the left, what is one to conclude about professional historians? When historians are willing to celebrate narratives that simplify and distort so long as they support “our” side, what is one to conclude about professional historians? And if we treat all competing narratives as myths and lies, then who will listen to us when we call out actual lies, such as claims about stolen elections?