Jill Lepore's Almost Brilliant American History
Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States, promises to be just the book we need in divisive times. It sets out to consider a question posed at the time of the republic’s founding by Alexander Hamilton: “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.”
I raced through the first several hundred pages of the book with a hunger to learn what course she could suggest through what looks like a complete collapse of civility and republican principles in our time. Yes, Magna Carta’s commitment to the rule of law mattered; yes, the English Civil wars and the beheading of Charles I in the 17th century shed new light on a people’s power to resist and laid bare the foundations of political authority; yes, the colonial experiments with self-government sowed seeds that would blossom into rebellion.
She writes in balanced and sometimes moving prose. (But first you must endure an introduction that putters where it should soar: the Constitution was sent to printers “who set the type of its soaring preamble with giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw." God save the ornithologists.)
Once past the preface, however, the prose serve, and serve well. But Lepore never really answers the question she set out to consider. It’s almost as though she wrote 600 or so pages, got us to the post-World War II era, and then, rather than quit while she had a complete narrative arc, decided to press on through the 2016 election.
Here’s her thesis: As soaring as our founding documents sound, their words do not match the reality of our lives. We speak of the equality of men, but for generations regarded women as something else, and African-Americans as less still. At the heart of the American promise lies a hypocrite’s compromise.
We’ve stumbled through a civil war in an effort to make plain words have plain practical meaning, but always our prejudices and biases get in the way. Equality? Not so then, at the time of the founding; not so at the time of the civil war; and not so now – the color line remains real, so, too, does the gender line. And lest you think full equality has arrived, consider now the widening gap between rich and poor.
We’ve never lived up to the dream we sold to the world as proud inhabitants of a City of a Hill.
Lepore chronicles the fault line in our lives. She writes well about W.E.B. DuBois and Susan Anthony. Malcom X speaks, and so, although in an oddly muffled voice, does Martin Luther King. She doesn’t wince when recounting how often our founders and political leaders asserted that this a country built and destined for white folk.
We’re struggling, all sinners in need of the grace ideals can bestow. Preach, sister. Tell me how to hear the muse of our ideals today, in a post-truth era, where identity trumps character and pathos is king, where fake news is the coin of the realm.
Somehow, Lepore fails to make the transition into the 21st century in a convincing way. She has plenty to say about the role of parties and polling and computing power to divide us in instrumental ways designed to win elections at all costs. She writes about how computers and IPhones have transformed our worlds. Yet not once did I see her discuss artificial intelligence and the replacement of human capital by the Internet of Things.
Too much time is spent on Alex Jones, Infowars, and cable news. Yes, we’re divided, fractured, and living in ideological silos. Lepore provides no account of how we’ve become so fractured, except to write extensively about the advent of political consultants. (I learned a boatload about Campaign, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1933 by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, that helped torpedo national health insurance and then served as the slash and burn strategists for a series of office seekers. If Donald Trump has ever read anything, I suspect he’s read a Campaign, Inc., playbook. Their campaigns were all about going on the offensive, using half-truths, even lies, boldly proclaimed, and castigating your critics.)
But slick advertisers, pollsters and political hacks working for a fee didn’t knock us off course. These are the vultures feeding on the culture in which they live.
Lepore writes as though culture, ideas, philosophy don’t matter. Just how she managed to write a nearly 800-page narrative on American history without ever discussing Isaiah Berlin and his discussion of pluralism and monism, or his essay on liberty, is beyond me.
Isn’t it possible that the current malaise is nothing more than pluralism taken to its extreme? When everything matters, there is no longer any sense in drawing distinctions between better and worse. We value diversity for diversity’s sake now. There is no meaningful discussion of the good life. In an effort to make every odd duck feel safe, we tolerate everything except the voice foolish enough to assert that some things are better than others. The bottom has fallen out of pluralism, I say. In the absence of even the semblance of trying to distinguish between better and worse, all that really matters is pathos. Everything suddenly matters. A certain weariness sets in, and is soon replaced by exhaustion. You, too? We mutter, as yet another victim -- no, make that survivor -- demands recognition.
My hunch is that our time is a time of fear. Rapid change has displaced settled notions of what a good life can and should look like. A displaced middle-class looks warily at the immigrants coming here to escape devastation in less fortunate parts of the world. The American pie is shrinking, and, when it is served, the invisible hand doing the serving is less the market that a computer’s idea of efficiency.
Not a word about opiod deaths, Ms. Lepore? Consider the following possibility: that in an era bereft of common ideals, where the only claim to distributive justice is being a victim, suicide is less an epidemic than a vote on the American prospect.
Sure, this is a depressing conclusion. But history has winners and losers. We’ve lost our way and it is by no means clear that there is a way out. Consider simply the confirmation fight in the Senate over Brett Kavanaugh. The U.S. Senate as the world’s greatest deliberative body? Only if you think a food fight is fine dining.
Unless something changes the answer to Hamilton’s question will be “no.” The government now is less an instrument of common good and more a tumor to be managed.
I want historians like Lepore to dig harder. What are the currents that are undoing us?
The American experiment succeeded so long as there was abundance. In an era of scarcity the rich grow richer. The rest of us scramble in any way we can to matter. Hence the thrill of identity politics. In the absence of realistic hope for earning a share of a shrinking pie by contributing to the public weal, claim victimhood. But when everyone is a victim, then no one is.
I hope Professor Lepore does a new edition of this book. She should rework the last four chapters, the part on the post-World War II era. After brilliant analysis of our distant past, Lepore seems to lose her way the closer she got to our time. This, more than anything, tells me that despite her wish to claim that a society founded of choice and reflection can endure, she’s secretly reached the conclusion that it cannot.
I’m hoping she’s wrong, but nothing in her book reassured me. Everything about the daily news tells me a certain deadly inertia has set it. We the people are enduring dark times.