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Issue No. 108 (June 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Re-inventing American history

When narratives collide, compromise is not the answer

Last month I mentioned that one reason Israelis and Palestinians don’t get along is that they’ve bought into competing and mutually exclusive “narratives” of their past (expertly articulated by Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, 2003, and Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage, 2006, respectively).

Alarmingly, we Americans are increasingly falling into the same trap.

On the left, it’s hard to find people who don’t swear by Howard Zinn’s brilliant and fascinating A People’s History of the United States (rev. 2003, orig. 1980). On the right, waves are being made by a new, conservative equivalent of Zinn -- Larry Schweikart & Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States (pbk. 2007, orig. 2004).

The books are basically incompatible. For example, Schweikart and Allen wax enthusiastic about late 19th century “captains of industry” like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan. To Zinn, they were “robber barons” pure and simple.

For Schweikart, “Modern Indians are proud Americans who simultaneously embrace their Indian ethnicity and folk traditions, Christianity, western legal traditions, capitalism, and all facets of mainstream American civilization.” For Zinn, “Native Americans had become a visible [protest] force by the sixties and seventies” and especially distinguished themselves in 1992 when they led the mobilization “against the glorification of the Columbus conquest.”

Compromise non-solutions

Plenty of American history books try to split the differences between Schweikart and Zinn. And they are often informative. But they fall flat as compelling syntheses.

For example, the best-selling popular U.S. history, Kenneth Davis’s Don’t Know Much About History (rev. 2003), is held together not by any thesis, but by Davis’s unpretentiousness, humor, and sprightly writing style. It’s as close as a history book can come to feeling like the newspaper USA Today.

The best-selling U.S. history book for college students, George Tindall and David Shi’s America (7th ed. 2006), also lacks a genuine narrative thesis, and is stitched together by what the publisher calls a different “theme” for each edition -- in the current edition it’s the environment, in the last one it was work. But the theme always predictably buckles under the weight of over 1,400 pages of information about everything but the kitchen sink.

Some of us would fight (and have fought!) for Zinn’s power-to-the-people vision of America. Others of us would fight (and have fought!) for Schweikart and Allen’s touched-by-God vision.

Few of us would rouse ourselves for Davis’s or Tindall’s amorphous visions.

Five new narratives

The 21st century demands great things of us and we’ll have to work together. Where can we find the vision, where can we find the “narrative,” that can inspire us and pull us together?

Over the last 10 years, under the radar, a new generation of American historians and social scientists has offered at least five major new narratives that go beyond both the simplistic, divisive, good-guys-vs.-bad-guys approach of Zinn and the arrogant, divisive, we’re-the-best-that-ever-was approach of Schweikart & Allen.

The ecology narrative

Ted Steinberg (Ph.D. Brandeis 1989) has taught environmental history for nearly 20 years -- currently as a chaired professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland -- and he’s written several wonderful books on the subject. But nothing quite prepared the history profession for his grand synthesis, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (2002).

“This book will try to change the way you think about American history,” he declares in his first line. And he means it: he puts the natural world and what we’ve done with it at the very core of his narrative, in the same way that traditional historians put presidents and wars at the core. Here’s what he thinks the old left / right histories are missing:

Historians of course have not completely overlooked nature. Virtually every U.S. history textbook, for instance, has an obligatory section on Theodore Roosevelt and the conservation movement. Sometimes there is also a brief discussion of the environmental reforms that began in the 1960s. Nature as politics -- that has long been the main concern. You are unlikely to learn anything about the role of climate or soil fertility in [American] history. Little about how Americans and Native Americans before them went about the task of feeding themselves. Virtually nothing about pigs, chickens, cows, and corn -- or hamburgers, despite the fact that McDonald’s plays a major role in the lives of so many people. Nothing about global warming or cooling. Not a word about volcanic eruptions across the world that led to hunger in America. . . .

With such a different perspective, you’d think the very markers most American historians use to shape their histories -- Plymouth Rock, Revolution, Civil War, World Wars One and Two -- might have to be jettisoned. And they are. In their place, Steinberg introduces three new “turning points,” as follows:

1. European arrival in North America -- brings ecological turmoil “as two landmasses isolated for millions of years suddenly came into contact with one another”;

2. Land Ordinance of 1785 -- government authorizes surveyors to divide the landscape into “perfectly square six-by-six mile townships.” The grid not only allowed the land to be bundled up and sold in 160-acre tracts (“democracy’s building blocks”), it was the beginning of “a century-long quest to bring nature into the world of exchange”;

3. Rise of consumerism in late 19th century -- “Under this new economic order, production and consumption became physically divorced from each other.”

So Steinberg is right -- his historical narrative is utterly different. You read it and you see the world with fresh eyes. By the end of the book, you might even be prepared to agree with him that “it is quite simply wrong to view the natural world as an unchanging backdrop to the past. . . . As historians and citizens we need to embrace a more humble view of human agency.”

You might even say that we’re not entirely in command.

You might even say that, in the long view, we’re co-creators with nature . . . if that.

The citizenship or democracy narrative

Another scholar who’s committed to going beyond the old left / right narratives of American history is Michael Schudson (Ph.D. Harvard 1976), a sociology and communications professor at UC-San Diego since 1980.

His history book is called The Good Citizen (1998), and it does for the practice of citizenship and democracy what Steinberg does for ecology -- places it at the very heart of the American historical narrative.

In addition, it has a thesis that will drive many radicals and conservatives nuts: “Citizenship in the U.S. has not disappeared. It has not even declined. It has, inevitably, changed.”

To prove his thesis, Schudson, like Steinberg, jettisons the old Plymouth Rock - Civil War - World War periodization of American history. He replaces it with a fourfold periodization, as follows:

1. Colonial era and after, “period of assent” -- white males typically (and usually happily) reaffirm the social hierarchy of their communities by voting wealthy and supposedly upstanding men into office;

2. Early 19th century, “politics of affiliation” -- white males typically vote for a political party not because it offers better public policies, but because of their ethnocultural heritage, or because it’s always been “their” party;

3. Late 19th century, triumph of the “private, rational, ‘informed citizen’” -- most of us vote our interests now. Some of us are voracious readers, but the presence and practice of political institutions provides most of our real political education;

4. Late 20th century, coming of the “rights-bearing citizen” -- the polling place is no longer the central act of political participation. Politics has now “diffused into everyday life.”

Although Schudson’s book is about history, he unabashedly wrote it in order to help us answer one of the most important questions we can ask of ourselves: “What kind of citizenship, of the kinds that may be possible, should we strive for [today]?” Few history books could be more useful to community and democracy activists.

The freedom narrative

Eric Foner (Ph.D. Columbia 1969), son of a famous Marxist historian, has been a chaired professor of history at Columbia since the 1980s. His subtle grand narrative The Story of American Freedom (1998) makes freedom the “organizing theme” of the American story.

There’s nothing new about that. From time immemorial, narrative histories have celebrated free Americans becoming ever-freer (I grew up on Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager’s prototypical America: The Story of a Free People, orig. 1942, enormously popular in the 1940s and 1950s). What’s different here -- and it’s a huge difference -- is that Foner recognizes that there’s no one fixed meaning to the word freedom, that’s it’s constantly being redefined and argued about (it’s an “essentially contested concept,” as the postmodernists say).

As a result, Foner’s history is neither a simplistic celebration of American freedom nor a righteous attack on American hypocrisy. It’s a study of the way freedom’s meaning has changed over the years. Foner explains his approach well when he says,

I attempt to [show] how at different periods of American history different ideas of freedom have been conceived and implemented, and how the clash between dominant and dissenting views has constantly reshaped the idea’s meaning. . . . Definitions of freedom relegated to the margins in one era have become dominant in the next. . . . The meaning of freedom has been constructed not only in congressional debates and political treatises but on plantations and picket lines, in parlors and bedrooms.

Although the concept of “freedom” is rather abstract, the questions Foner repeatedly asks keep his narrative down to earth: Does freedom only mean absence of external coercion? What are the social conditions of freedom? Who is entitled to enjoy freedom?

I suppose you could describe Foner as a radical-liberal, but one thing his book proves is that there are many kinds or “dimensions” of freedom -- moral freedom, personal freedom, freedom of contract, political freedom, freedom from want -- and they can’t be easily pigeonholed into ideological boxes. The chapter on the 1960s is called simply “Sixties Freedom.”

The nation-among-nations narrative

For many years, NYU’s “University Professor of the Humanities” Thomas Bender (Ph.D. UC-Davis 1971) has been urging professional historians to see U.S. history in a global context; see RE:SOURCES section below. Now, finally, his grand public synthesis is out, A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006), and it does not disappoint. If you read it, you’ll never see U.S. history in the same way again.

“The nation cannot be its own context,” Bender says. “No less than the neutron or the cell, it must be studied in a framework larger than itself.”

According to Bender, even the new U.S. social historians -- mostly traditional radicals and liberals working on issues of gender, class, and race -- simply assume the old nationalist framing of U.S. history. (An echo of Steinberg, who says the new social historians retain the old nature-as-background prejudice.) After too many years teaching history the old way, Bender began asking such questions as, “What were the true boundaries of America’s national experience? What history did the U.S. share with other nations? How would the use of a wider context change the core American narrative?”

The narrative he’s come up with differs substantially from the old left / right narratives:

-- Part One puts the beginning of U.S. history in the context of the ocean seafaring that connected all the continents and created a common history of all the world’s peoples;

-- Part Two puts the American Revolution in the context of the competition among the great 18th-century empires -- and in the context of the many other similarly-caused revolutionary crises around the globe;

-- Part Three puts the Civil War in the context of the European revolutions of 1848;

-- Part Four puts American territorial and imperial expansion in the context of all other industrial nations’ attempts at empire and colonization;

-- Part Five sees American progressive (and conservative) reform as part of a global response to “the extraordinary expansion of industrial capitalism and of large cities” from the 1890s to the present.

Bender explains the implications of his approach beautifully when he says,

The United States has always shared a history with others. To acknowledge that literally makes us more worldly, and it makes our history more accessible to foreign scholars and publics. . . . It will, I hope, better educate us and our children to the kind of cosmopolitanism that will make us better citizens of both the nation and the world.

The visions narrative

Still in his 30s, Zachary Karabell (Ph.D. Harvard 1996) is the youngest of our path-breaking historians and the only one to leave academia (U. Mass, Dartmouth) for a career in the private sector -- currently he’s a “Change Fellow” at Coburn Ventures and a senior economic analyst at Fred Alger Management.

It figures. After writing a couple of traditional histories (on the 1948 U.S. election and on creating the Suez Canal), his next book put business and ambition and vision at the forefront of U.S. history -- A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead (2001).

“The United States is a visionary nation,” Karabell proclaims. “Americans believe in the promise of a better world. Unlike other societies, the U.S. has no shared ethnicity, no common religion, no sense of historical heritage. Instead, there is an idea.”

The “idea” -- the vision -- keeps changing, though. “People become disillusioned. They reject the vision for not satisfying all of their needs, and then they invent a new vision, a supposedly better one. A new stage forms, and the pattern begins again.”

The cycle of vision following vision has been going on for 400 years now, Karabell says. There have been six main ones, as follows:

1. Religion -- City on a Hill (our Puritan origins);

2. Individualism -- innovative amalgam of individualism, freedom, and liberty (Revolutionary War);

3. Unity -- drive to create a national union (Constitution through Reconstruction);

4. Expansion -- “manifest destiny” vision of territorial and economic expansion (late 19th century);

5. Government -- narrow focus on government as the lever for significant change (rise of Progressive Era through collapse of Great Society);

6. Market / Internet -- birth of the so-called New Economy (Reagan through Bush II).

Karabell sees a seventh vision arising to correct the “errors” of the sixth. He christens it “Connectedness” because he says it will privilege “the mores of connectedness and community. [It] might replace economic goals with communitarian ones, and it might embrace the language of the New Age rather than the patois of The Wall Street Journal.”

But Karabell is no enthusiast for the seventh stage. He surmises that it “will be no more balanced than any of the other previous stages. Its visionaries will be just as convinced that they are right [editor to author: you’ve got that right, Zach!]. . . . And so like past visionaries they will overreach . . . and sow the seeds of deep disillusionment.” And so the seventh (unbalanced) stage will be followed by an eighth (unbalanced) stage, and so on to infinity.

What Karabell really wants, sooner rather than later, is a stage where we finally begin to understand that

no one paradigm can possibly provide for all human interests, wants, and desires. Instead of stages that are dominated by a simple template, we might try, collectively and individually, to construct a culture that combines the past visions, explicitly and deliberately. . . . The only way to address the entire spectrum [of human needs and wants] is to combine visions, to blend the spiritual yearnings of connectedness with the material mores of the New Economy, to honor the need for unity and the need for individualism, to respect that the dream of the City on a Hill has befuddled human beings forever. . . .

Regular readers of this newsletter will recognize that Karabell’s ultimate stage is precisely what we’ve been calling “radical middle,” and others have been calling “holistic” or “integral.”

Common threads

Obviously, the five new U.S. history narratives above are vastly different from one another. But unlike the standard radical and conservative narratives, they are compatible. And they all promise to take us beyond the simplistic us-vs.-them world of the radicals, and the suffocating God’s-#1-nation world of the conservatives.

In other words -- they can all (jointly or singly) take us into the 21st century, where we desperately need to join together to save our nation and the planet.

It was fun seeing American history as a narrative of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. But it’s time to move on.



For an overview of many more syntheses, old and new, see Thomas Bender, “Strategies of Narrative Synthesis in American History,” American Historical Review, vol. 107, issue 1 (February 2002); and Bender, “Historians, the Nation, and the Plenitude of Narratives,” intro. to Bender, ed., Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002).


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