America Doesn’t Have to Be Like This

On Jill Lepore’s These Truths and the myths on which the United States is built. 

Adolphe Yvon, The Genius of America, circa 1870

 

It didn’t have to be this way.

This thought kept blinking through my mind, like a neon sign on a dark street, as I read These Truths, the newest book by Harvard professor and The New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore. A 900-plus page tome, it is a full history of the United States, a country I was born in and soon after left. I was raised in a much younger country, Israel, which was handed over by a colonizing force to a people desperate for a home, back in the days—not so long ago, really—when colonizers could simply gift the land they’d taken as if it were theirs to give. The history I was taught from the ages of six to eighteen was both condensed and elongated, the history of a fledgling country full of war but also of an ancient people once enslaved and long persecuted.

But I was born in the U.S., which makes me a citizen. I didn’t have to pass a test, or learn about this country, or understand any more of it than any non-American understands about the place that gave us McDonalds, the internet, the iPhone. I moved back here easily, when I was 19 years old. My birth certificate sufficed, my ignorance was never questioned or corrected.

What are the myths the United States has it built itself on? Lepore’s question—the one the book explores—is more honed, adopted from statements by Alexander Hamilton: “Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit?” Lepore’s answer is something like: Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no, and, in the past few decades, it kind of depends on who’s being asked.

When I set out to read this book and write this article, I had a general understanding of how the United States of America came to be. I knew about the founding fathers (though couldn’t name them all; like Disney’s seven dwarves, I always forgot at least one). I knew that this land wasn’t empty, or fallow, or wasted—it was settled, and loved, and well-cared for by the peoples native to it long before Europeans landed on its shores. I knew about the terrible legacy of slavery, of the millions of human beings forced onto ships, across oceans, onto land, where they were treated horribly, worked to death, and yet survived, generation after generation.

But there was a lot more that I didn’t know, or that I had understood incorrectly. I viewed history as a straight line, a collection of clearly defined and connected dots. I saw it as inevitable, maybe self-evident.

It isn’t.

Let’s take the American Revolution, for instance. A seemingly renegade idea, the severing of a people from another land—courageous, ballsy. But the myth is always simpler than the truth. Lepore writes:

The revolution in America, when it came, began not with the English colonists but with the people over whom they ruled. Long before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, long before George Washington crossed the Delaware, long before American independence was thought of, or even thinkable, a revolutionary tradition was forged, not by the English in America, but by Indians waging wars and slaves waging rebellions.

In other words, the American Revolution, the very idea that it was possible to revolt against power came not from the bright minds of a few white men (whose whiteness, I might add, was newly recognized as a feature of note), but from those they attempted to conquer and subjugate. Proof of the possibility came, for example, from Jamaica, where in 1739, the First Maroon War yielded victory, freedom, and independence over some 1500 acres of land for former slaves led by a man named Cudjoe.

Slavery itself wasn’t inevitable, or even taken for granted in the early days of American thought, though the simplified narrative I’d picked up in dribs and drabs from pop culture, various college courses, and the occasional Wikipedia rabbit hole allowed it to seem so. Of course, those held as slaves weren’t resigned to their fate—and any notion that they were is a gross fabrication to reduce guilt over the institution’s dehumanization. But beyond that, it wasn’t as if everyone else was just cool with it until Abraham Lincoln came around. Lepore tells the story of Benjamin Lay, a small hunchbacked man who wrote a book titled All Slave-Keepers That keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates and sailed the world denouncing slavery to anyone who’d listen. He was furious at the hypocrisy of so-called good Christians who found moral excuses for the ownership of slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, who himself owned slaves and didn’t particularly care to free them, still wrote in the draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence that King George III had waged “a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery.” The statement didn’t make it into the Declaration, which, as Lepore writes, “marked a colossal failure of political will, in holding back the tide of opposition to slavery by ignoring it, for the sake of a union that, in the end, could not and would not last.”

Lepore’s book—which over its first half or so mentions slavery and free black folk on almost every page—is full of people like Lay, who didn’t sit idly by as human beings were treated like property. It is full of statements by men like Jefferson, who saw the horror of the institution and yet refused to end it for their own comfort and monetary gain. We don’t talk about people like Lay often, nor do we discuss the moral quandaries and disastrous choices of men like Jefferson. Ultimately, the former lost and the latter won—history, the truism goes, is written by the winners. But as I read These Truths, I realized again how important it is to search for the truth.

In Lincoln’s address, four months after the battle of Gettysburg, he didn’t mention slavery. For years, I had heard—and believed—that the Civil War was fought over slavery, yes, but also over states’ rights. The latter is a pervasive notion, one that buried itself into my brain without reason or education or understanding. It is patently untrue. Even if Lincoln didn’t mention slavery in the Gettysburg address, it was the root of the war. Lepore quotes the words of a soldier writing for his Wisconsin regimental newspaper in 1862: “The fact that slavery is the sole undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that it is a war of, by, and for Slavery, is as plain as the noon-day sun.” And another solider, that same year, writing for his Confederate brigade’s paper: “Any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks is either a fool or a liar.” Both sides knew it then. This knowledge, this certainty, has gotten lost.

It didn’t have to be this way.

So why is it this way? Why does it seem inevitable? I kept wondering this as I read, trying to figure out whether there was a unifying meaning behind the collective misinformation and belief systems that have overrun political debate today.

The first half of Lepore’s book focuses deeply on the way slavery affected every political move of the first 150 years or so of the United States, and the second half holds the answer to my question about inevitability. She moves into a discussion of journalism, social science, and the nature of progress.

The rise of modern journalism can be traced back to the 1880s and 1890s, when newspapers began focusing not on differing opinions but on facts—or purported facts, anyway. Fact-checkers were introduced into the field of journalism not long after, in the 1920s, when Time was founded. And soon after that, political polling entered the field, right alongside the rise of political campaigners for hire.

“[George] Gallup liked to call public opinion measurement ‘a new field of journalism,’” Lepore writes. He believed he was taking the ‘pulse of democracy’. E. B. White, on the other hand, wrote that “Although you can take a nation’s pulse, you can’t be sure that the nation hasn’t just run up a flight of stairs.” Though Lepore is careful to leave her own opinionating largely out of the narrative, it becomes clear that she rather agrees with White.

Gallup’s polls attempted to predict the outcomes of elections, but they were also meant to scientifically represent the opinions of the nation so elected officials could know what the people wanted. But representation was the woeful problem. Though ten percent of American citizens in the thirties and forties were black, they made up less than two percent of survey groups—and only in the North, because Gallup didn’t bother to survey black people in the South, where a variety of methods prevented many from voting. This was selective representation, at best. Plus, Gallup’s method implied that his participants already had opinions on the issues at hand, when often these takes were formed on the spot, spawned by the question, for the simple purpose of having a yes or no answer.

Meanwhile, the “lie factory,” as some called Campaigns, Inc. was founded in 1933 by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, who made politics a business: “No single development altered the workings of American democracy so wholly as the industry Whitaker and Baxter invented,” Lepore writes. In the 1934 California gubernatorial race, Campaigns, Inc. was hired by the author Upton Sinclair’s Republican rivals. Sinclair, having written novels in the past, was screwed by his creativity—Whitaker and Baxter printed quotes from his novels as if they were his own opinions, thus smearing his name.

Their strategies were basically: Keep it simple, don’t explain yourself, and repeat, repeat, repeat. If this sounds familiar, that’s because, as Lepore writes, Whitaker and Baxter shaped the way political campaigns would be run ever after. It’s been eighty-five years since they founded their lie factory, and it inspired others, which have been doing booming business ever since. In the 1960s, Leone Baxter finally expressed her reservations about what she’d started, believing that political consulting should remain “in the hands of the most ethical, principled people. People with real concern for the world around them, for people around them, or else it will erode into the hands of people who have no regard for the world around them. It could be a very, very destructive thing.” Well, yes. Quite.

Around the same time that Baxter apparently became aware of her conscience, American history began to be loudly reclaimed. “The civil rights movement,” Lepore writes, “and the war in Vietnam called attention to aspects of American history that had been left out of American history textbooks from the very start. The American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, challenged the story of the nation’s origins… The Black Power movement, the Chicano movement, and a growing Asian American movement made similar demands.” The legacy of these movements remains with us today, as history continues to require reclamation, as certain false ideas persist even in those of us who think we are aware of the injustices of the past. Somehow, there are always more of them to uncover.

It didn’t have to be this way.

In the final section of the mammoth book’s final chapter, “America, Disrupted,” Lepore sits in a room with the campaign managers of the 2016 presidential elections, where they debrief, as they have been doing since 1972, in a kind of post-election gloat session.

No one said a word about the United States or its government or the common good. Sitting in that room, watching, was like being a pig at a butchers’ convention: there was much talk of the latest technology in knives and the best and tastiest cuts of meat, but no one pretended to bear any love for the pig.

It didn’t have to be this way, but this is how it is: there are still myriad ways in which minorities and marginalized people in the US suffer systemic oppression, and there is still so much money in politics that it boggles the mind and seems like an obvious, glaring flaw in the system. And so, what to do? Lepore doesn’t give us any answers, though she does appear to be unfortunately impatient with millennials’ insistence that language—how people are spoken about, joked about, belittled—matters. She writes that the rules of “intersectionality” (she uses quotes) involve “intricate, identity-based hierarchies of suffering and virtue.” I disagree with her definition of intersectionality. But I agree with her that it isn’t the only thing that matters. Laws, protections, supreme court rulings, these matter just as much. In the long run, maybe they matter more.

Lepore’s final metaphor in the book relates back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ship of state from a poem whose original ending was dire:

where, oh where,
Shall end this form so rare?
…Wrecked upon some treacherous rock,
Rotting in some loathsome dock,
Such the end must be at length
Of all this loveliness and strength!

But when a hopeful Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery activist, convinced Longfellow that the nation still had a chance, Longfellow changed his ending to the one we know:

Sail on! Sail on! O Ship of State!
For thee the famished nations wait!
The world seems hanging on thy fate!

Perhaps America’s ultimate direction is neither as desolate as Longfellow’s first draft, nor as self-important as his last. Instead, we can look back, educate ourselves about our history, and try to do better. The women running for office all around the nation give me hope. The eight trans politicians elected to public office in 2017 give me hope. And living in a red state, watching first year students learn to discuss, respectfully, their differences and misunderstandings, I am hopeful that we can learn to have productive conversations despite the media landscape, despite the clickable outrage, despite the systems set in place to prevent them. I am hopeful.

It doesn’t have to stay this way.

 

 Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American book critic and fiction writer. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, struggling, and established fiction writers. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and more. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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