The U.S.

Jill Le­pore Talks His­tory

Newsweek - - Con­tents - BY ANNA MENTA @an­nalikest­weets

in 2009, jill le­pore was re­port­ing on the Tea Party move­ment for The New Yorker. At a rally, she en­coun­tered a woman car­ry­ing a sign that read, “I want to live in 1773.” Le­pore was ap­palled. “How can any­one say that? Do you want to die in child­birth? Life in the 1770s was hor­ri­ble!”

That ex­pe­ri­ence, she says now, gave her “a height­ened aware­ness of the prob­lem of pub­lic dis­course hav­ing no shared past,” she says. “The idea that you could turn back the hands of time and col­lapse the dis­tance be­tween the past and present? We hap­pen to be vul­ner­a­ble to po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion around imag­ined his­to­ries right now.”

Where, Le­pore won­dered, was the com­pre­hen­sive nar­ra­tive of Amer­ica that tied to­gether our past and present? She de­cided to write it her­self. The re­sult is These Truths: A His­tory of the United States (W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, $40).

Le­pore, a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can his­tory at Har­vard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, has writ­ten mul­ti­ple award-win­ning books, among them 2011’s The Whites of Their

Eyes: The Tea Party Revo­lu­tion and the

Bat­tle Over Amer­i­can His­tory; 2013’s

Book of Ages, about Ben­jamin Franklin’s sis­ter Jane; and 2014’s best-sell­ing The Se­cret His­tory of Won­der Woman. But These Truths, at least in terms of am­bi­tion, leaves her pre­vi­ous ef­forts in the dust. The ti­tle refers to the three po­lit­i­cal ideas—equal­ity, nat­u­ral rights and pop­u­lar sovereignty—out­lined by Thomas Jef­fer­son in 1776, and the book re­counts Amer­ica’s his­tory from Christo­pher Colum­bus to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

“Some Amer­i­can his­tory books fail to crit­i­cize the United States,” Le­pore writes in her in­tro­duc­tion. “Oth­ers do noth­ing but. This book is nei­ther kind.” Rather, she tells Newsweek, her goal was “to write an ac­count of his­tory that would ex­plain the ori­gins of the demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions we take for granted— some of which are in free fall right now.”

What’s wrong with his­tory as its taught to­day? We don’t study it in a mean­ing­ful way, and that’s only got­ten worse be­cause of this STEM [science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics] non­sense. I wrote an es­say for The New Yorker in 2014, “The Dis­rup­tion Ma­chine,” in which I ar­gue that Sil­i­con Val­ley’s idea of dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion is a fal­lacy. For ex­am­ple, Face­book’s thing is “Move fast and break things.” That in­volves an ab­di­ca­tion of the past, be­cause if

you think about the past, you will only pro­duce in­cre­men­tal change. It’s like, “Oh no, you might ac­tu­ally change things slowly!” And that is ac­tu­ally what you’re sup­posed to do. Dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion be­came a fan­tasy of tech­no­log­i­cal change, but it’s spilled into pol­i­tics too. It’s sold to you as a virtue: The less you know, the bet­ter.

What do you think is lack­ing in Amer­i­can his­tory text­books?

There are four main prob­lems. One is that there is no religion in Amer­i­can his­tory text­books. It’s a blind spot of our his­to­ri­ans. When I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent, there was cri­tique from the Chris­tian right about the sec­u­lar reg­u­la­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion. I pooh-poohed that ar­gu­ment then, but religion was a force in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Jef­fer­son’s no­tion that “all men are cre­ated equal” [in the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence] is not the same as ours to­day, which is pig­gy­backed onto a spir­i­tual no­tion of Chris­tian equal­ity. Abo­li­tion­ists and other evan­gel­i­cals be­lieved in the equal­ity of all men and women be­fore God, re­gard­less of color. There’s a deep doc­tri­nal com­mit­ment to that idea, but it came decades af­ter the Dec­la­ra­tion.

An­other prob­lem is that the sto­ries are racially seg­re­gated. It’s like, [cheery voice], “Jack­son was elected, then Van Buren!” And in a text box on a sep­a­rate page [omi­nous voice], “The do­mes­tic slave trade was ac­cel­er­ated.” As if those things are un­re­lated! It’s a weird seg­re­ga­tion that makes no sense. As a kid, I re­mem­ber think­ing, So all this was go­ing on, but then also slav­ery? They’re hap­pen­ing at the same time, so what is the re­la­tion­ship?

Then, on women’s stuff there’s just noth­ing—some twee non­sense about Abi­gail Adams, then Betty Friedan and Glo­ria Steinem make a cameo. That’s the end of our story! It’s a com­plete dis­missal of women as po­lit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal ac­tors.

And, fi­nally, there’s no tech­nol­ogy in ac­counts of our past. There’s weirdly no STEM! [Laughs.] We know now that there is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween tech­nol­ogy, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and our po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. But that’s been the case since the print­ing press.

You started writ­ing in 2015, when Barack Obama was pres­i­dent. Was Don­ald Trump even on your mind?

I knew it wouldn’t be done be­fore the next elec­tion—and I wrote strictly chrono­log­i­cally—but I fig­ured Obama’s in­au­gu­ra­tion was a great end­ing. In 2016, when polls sug­gested that Hil­lary Clin­ton was go­ing to win, I fig­ured I’d men­tion it in an epi­logue. And then Trump won. I thought, I have to in­clude this elec­tion be­cause it’s po­lit­i­cally mys­ti­fy­ing. I knew ev­ery­body would have ques­tions: What does it mean? Is this a new di­rec­tion? Or were we al­ready go­ing in this di­rec­tion, and we just didn’t see it? It was an un­happy de­ci­sion, be­cause it’s hard to of­fer a sat­is­fy­ing an­swer to those ques­tions as a his­to­rian; we don’t have per­spec­tive yet.

So I had to do two things: One, write an ac­count of the Amer­i­can past in which Trump is not an in­ex­pli­ca­ble coda in a book that seems to be go­ing in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. And, two, not write an ac­count of the Amer­i­can past in which it seems like the in­evitable last chap­ter. The themes of These Truths do seem par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to this ad­min­is­tra­tion. Did you re­write any of the book af­ter Trump’s win?

The main themes were al­ways there. I had the ti­tle from the start too; it was al­ways go­ing to be about the obli­ga­tion of cit­i­zens of a democ­racy to have shared knowl­edge with which to make de­ci­sions. Maybe those things seem overde­ter­mined now, but they were there long be­fore Trump was elected. Re­mem­ber, in 2005, Stephen Col­bert coined the term truthi­ness. Poli­ti­fact was founded in 2007. The fact-check­ing fetish has been around for a lot longer than we now per­ceive.

In the sec­tion “Bat­tle Lines,” you break down “a civil cold war” be­tween lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives, giv­ing much credit to ’70s ac­tivist 3hyl­lis Sch­laʀy for her take­down of the Equal Rights Amend­ment. Why spend so much time on her? Sch­lafly doesn’t get any­thing near the credit she should—even from fel­low con­ser­va­tives—as one of the lead­ing po­lit­i­cal fig­ures of the 20th cen­tury. Lib­er­als just dis­miss her as a crank. But she is like an oc­to­pus with ten­ta­cles, reach­ing across the con­ser­va­tive move­ment. I don’t agree with Sch­lafly about the [Equal Rights Amend­ment], but she was an in­cred­i­ble or­ga­nizer. She’s also a through line from the Cold War era to Trump; the last thing she did be­fore she died in 2016 was to en­dorse him. One of the ar­gu­ments in “Bat­tle Lines” is how the fail­ure to come to a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment about equal rights for women haunts the democ­racy to this day.

What, in your view, are mis­takes lib­er­als have made in re­cent years to con­trib­ute to our po­lit­i­cal divide? I find the call­out cul­ture to be just plain vi­cious. I can’t iden­tify a

“Dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion, a fan­tasy of tech­no­log­i­cal change, is sold as a virtue: The less you know, the bet­ter.”

SEPTEM­BER 28, 2018

po­lit­i­cal, so­cial or eco­nomic cause that it’s ac­tu­ally ad­vanced. I don’t know if that’s a big tac­ti­cal er­ror that peo­ple in a board­room in Wash­ing­ton made so much as a par­cel of a broad­en­ing fail­ure of com­pas­sion.

I also feel frus­tra­tion to­ward what are called the Atari Democrats—the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee out­look from Gary Hart on­ward. It’s that Clin­ton-gore at­ti­tude of “Let’s get all our money from these rich peo­ple in tech cen­ters, and then we don’t need the white work­ing class any­more.” This was even be­fore Sil­i­con Val­ley and then cer­tainly af­ter it. I have no use for tech­no­log­i­cal utopi­anism.

Has the in­ter­net af­fected the way you do your job as a his­to­rian?

The big­gest prob­lem is that peo­ple don’t archive, which makes it harder to write about very re­cent his­tory. I pro­filed Brew­ster Kahle, who in­vented the in­ter­net archive the Way­back Ma­chine. I ti­tled the ar­ti­cle “The Cob­web” be­cause that’s what the web is: You could blow, and it would be gone.

Archivists all over the coun­try are work­ing on this—there are fo­rums about dig­i­tal ar­chiv­ing. But the daily lives of or­di­nary peo­ple? Fifty years from now, I’m sorry, but no one’s go­ing to have your Face­book page. That stuff will be gone. Or, if it does get kept, it will be­come use­less be­cause a search engine is not a vi­able means for doing schol­arly re­search.

The asym­me­try of the his­tor­i­cal record is only wi­den­ing, not nar­row­ing, and that fills me with de­spair.

Think of the [Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion] chron­i­cling the Okies, or Ralph El­li­son in­ter­view­ing peo­ple in Har­lem in the ’40s, ask­ing, “What’s life like?” We ex­pect that peo­ple are chron­i­cling nar­cis­sis­ti­cally their ev­ery se­cond, and yet the peo­ple that I’d be most in­ter­ested to hear from, this group we call “the un­doc­u­mented”— we ac­tu­ally say that; it’s like dystopian fic­tion!—are not on Face­book.

You end with Plato’s “ship of state” metaphor. In Amer­ica’s case, that means re­build­ing, then learn­ing “how to nav­i­gate by the stars.”

Part of that is my anti-al­go­rithm at­ti­tude: I’m against hav­ing a ma­chine fix our prob­lems, so “nav­i­gat­ing by the stars,” in­stead of by your GPS. Look at the world around you with your own, true, God-given pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion and com­pas­sion, and think about what would be in the pub­lic good.

I used the ship metaphor be­cause of a story about Henry Wadsworth Longfel­low, who wrote a poem [1849’s “The Build­ing of the Ship”] about the ship of state that ended with its crash­ing. Charles Sum­ner [a Civil War–era sen­a­tor from Mass­a­chu­setts] came over for din­ner and said, “Man, you can­not run that poem! The coun­try needs you to write a bet­ter frickin’ end­ing for your stupid poem!” So Longfel­low wrote a new end­ing; it’s very stir­ring and in­spires Lin­coln to write some of his great­est speeches.

This makes it seem like I’m com­par­ing my­self to Longfel­low and Lin­coln, and I’m not! I’m just say­ing, as a scholar, it’s im­por­tant to say, “The ship is now sink­ing.” But as a cit­i­zen, you’re sup­posed to say, “There’s still time to save it.”

MAK­ING HIS­TORY “Some his­tory books fail to crit­i­cize the United States,” Le­pore writes in her in­tro­duc­tion. “Other’s do noth­ing but. This book is nei­ther kind.”

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