The fight for rights and power in the US, through the eyes of his­to­rian Jill Le­pore.

His­to­rian Jill Le­pore says the Amer­i­can sys­tem of gov­ern­ment isn’t cop­ing with the un­leashed power of tech­nol­ogy.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — AN­THONY BYRT

Mark Zucker­berg’s ap­pear­ance in April be­fore the United States Con­gress, to ex­plain Face­book’s role in the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal, was a water­shed mo­ment in the in­ter­net age — the first time one of con­tem­po­rary tech’s ti­tans was forced to de­fend the per­ni­cious forces they’d col­lec­tively un­leashed. But it was also a mo­ment that may, ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Jill Le­pore, have been longer in com­ing than many of us think.

About two-thirds of the way through her new book, These Truths: A His­tory of the United States — an epic, 900-page nar­ra­tive bi­og­ra­phy of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tion — Le­pore writes that “Hiroshima marked the be­gin­ning of a new and dif­fer­ently un­sta­ble po­lit­i­cal era, in which tech­no­log­i­cal change wildly out­paced the hu­man ca­pac­ity for mo­ral reck­on­ing. It wasn’t only the bomb, and the dev­as­ta­tion it wreaked. It was the com­put­ers whose de­vel­op­ment had made drop­ping the bomb pos­si­ble. And it was the force of tech­no­log­i­cal change it­self, a po­lit­i­cal power unchecked by an 18th-cen­tury con­sti­tu­tion and un­fath­omed by a 19th-cen­tury faith in progress.”

The dec­i­ma­tion of two Ja­panese cities, in Le­pore’s for­mu­la­tion, marked the be­gin­ning of a revo­lu­tion that, in 2018, has brought Amer­i­can democ­racy to the brink: com­pu­ta­tional power’s abil­ity to think quicker than us and turn us all into data — frag­ments of in­for­ma­tion that can be mapped, ma­nip­u­lated and fun­da­men­tally re­shaped.

“Our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment isn’t de­signed for that speed,” she tells me. “It’s like we have a rocket en­gine on top of a

tri­cy­cle, and we’re try­ing to not fall off while it’s ca­reen­ing all over the place. No won­der we’re dizzy all the time and our knees are all scraped up.”

Le­pore, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Har­vard and a staff writer at the New Yorker, is one of Amer­ica’s great­est ob­servers, whose work is al­ways marked by el­e­gance, wit, and ex­tra­or­di­nary his­tor­i­cal acu­ity. These Truths is her most am­bi­tious ex­pres­sion of this to date, a book named af­ter three ideas so fun­da­men­tal to the Amer­i­can Ex­per­i­ment that Thomas Jef­fer­son de­scribed them as “these truths” — po­lit­i­cal equal­ity, nat­u­ral rights, and the sovereignty of the peo­ple.

And yet right from the start, Le­pore points out, these “truths” were un­der­mined by Amer­ica’s orig­i­nal sin: slav­ery. It su­per­charged Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism; it tore the coun­try in two; and it left open wounds that are far from healed — and in fact, have opened up even more since the brief prom­ise of the Barack Obama era.

Le­pore says that although there’s been a huge surge of re­search about African-Amer­i­can his­tory over the past 50 years, “that schol­ar­ship has been largely seg­re­gated, frankly, from what is con­sid­ered the main story of Amer­i­can his­tory — which is the rise of Amer­i­can democ­racy and Amer­ica’s global reach into the world. I wanted to give it my best shot to write an in­te­grated ac­count that put those two sto­ries along­side one an­other. In fact, they’re driv­ing each other. There’s a causal re­la­tion­ship, and they’re con­stantly in ten­sion with one an­other, forc­ing changes. Slav­ery was an eco­nomic sys­tem but it was also a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, and it trans­formed Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.”

Le­pore’s abil­ity to write sen­tences that can flip your heart in­side out si­mul­ta­ne­ously sets her apart from most his­to­ri­ans and aligns her with some of the he­roes of her Amer­i­can story: the great or­a­tors and writ­ers who have shaped Amer­i­can lan­guage, and, in a coun­try lit­er­ally cre­ated by the words of a con­sti­tu­tion, shaped its civic and cul­tural iden­tity. There are the great early rhetori­cians Ben­jamin Franklin, Jef­fer­son, Abra­ham Lin­coln and Fred­er­ick Dou­glass; the tran­scen­den­tal­ist writ­ers Ralph Waldo Emer­son and Henry David Thoreau; African-Amer­i­can icons in­clud­ing W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Stokely Carmichael and Mal­colm X; and mas­ters of modern pres­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tion like FDR, JFK, Bill Clin­ton and Obama.

But Le­pore also makes a con­certed ef­fort to insert women’s voices back into the heart of things. She de­scribes the 19th-cen­tury jour­nal­ist and women’s rights cam­paigner Mar­garet Fuller, who died trag­i­cally early, as “the most ac­com­plished woman of the cen­tury”. Then there’s the equally re­mark­able 20th-cen­tury jour­nal­ist Dorothy Thomp­son, who an­tic­i­pated the demo­cratic dangers of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion as soon as ra­dio spread its waves across the na­tion. She doesn’t hide the bad ap­ples either. The ex­tra­or­di­nary Mary Lease may have been a key fig­ure in the suf­frage move­ment, but she was also a white su­prem­a­cist.

And what we now un­der­stand to be the hard edge of modern Amer­i­can con­ser­vatism was deeply shaped by po­lit­i­cal pow­er­house Phyl­lis Sch­lafly, who fought the Equal Rights Amend­ment and 1970s fem­i­nism tooth and nail.

This is not, then, a sim­plis­tic lib­eral his­tory that lauds Amer­ica’s sil­ver-tongued free­dom fighters while sneer­ing at its con­ser­va­tives, be­cause that would only tell half the story of how we’ve ended up in our cur­rent mess.

“There are plenty of peo­ple who said in­cred­i­bly ugly, ter­ri­fy­ing, odi­ous things,” Le­pore says. “It’s im­por­tant to hear that, be­cause there’s still peo­ple do­ing that, and they have an in­tel­lec­tual his­tory, too… A lot of these peo­ple haven’t re­ally had their place on the stage in the great pageant of Amer­i­can his­tory as it’s told, for rea­sons that are not dis­sim­i­lar to some of the prob­lems in our pol­i­tics to­day, where we just don’t pay enough at­ten­tion to pop­ulists, or don’t take se­ri­ously evan­gel­i­cals and the fer­vour of their po­lit­i­cal ideas.”

These Truths is ul­ti­mately a po­lit­i­cal his­tory; an ac­count of the fight for rights, and power. And the most im­por­tant bat- tle­ground for this isn’t the of­fice of the pres­i­dency, but the Supreme Court. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has been given the rare gift of two Supreme Court ap­point­ments in his first term. The day Metro spoke to Le­pore, Trump’s nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh was ap­pear­ing at Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings. A week later, her New Yorker col­leagues Ro­nan Far­row and Jane Mayer pub­lished the story of a woman al­leg­ing Ka­vanaugh had sex­u­ally as­saulted her 30 years ear­lier, later iden­ti­fied as psy­chol­o­gist Dr Chris­tine Blasey Ford.

“The Supreme Court has quite a bit more power as a branch of gov­ern­ment now than it was meant to have,” Le­pore says. “And that’s both good and bad. The main way its role ex­panded in the 20th cen­tury was as a rights-grant­ing body. That ex­pan­sion of the court’s role was vi­tal for de­liv­er­ing full cit­i­zen­ship, and grant­ing rights to all sorts of peo­ple. But there’s been a big counter-re­ac­tion since then. And since the court has as­sumed all these greater pow­ers, now rights can be stripped away by that same court, be­cause those rights don’t have the sta­tus of hav­ing ac­tu­ally been granted in the Con­sti­tu­tion. So I was try­ing to make sure peo­ple un­der­stood why the Ka­vanaugh thing is such a big deal.”

One of the book’s most il­lu­mi­nat­ing pas­sages is Le­pore’s foren­sic and fas­ci­nat­ing un­pack­ing of the con­nec­tions that have emerged from the 1960s to now, be­tween the Supreme Court, con­sti­tu­tional “orig­i­nal­ism” (best rep­re­sented by the late con­ser­va­tive judge An­tonin Scalia), anti-fem­i­nism and the New

Right — and how the judg­ment in Roe v Wade brought a new group into the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can sphere: evan­gel­i­cals. This is why Trump’s be­ing able to stack the Supreme Court’s benches is so danger­ous — be­cause there is a very real pos­si­bil­ity that the re­pro­duc­tive and abor­tion rights granted in Roe could be re­pealed.

Le­pore’s abil­ity to write sen­tences that can flip your heart in­side out si­mul­ta­ne­ously sets her apart from most his­to­ri­ans and aligns her with some of the he­roes of her Amer­i­can story.

It was, Le­pore says, “kind of rev­e­la­tory to me to take [evan­gel­i­cals] se­ri­ously as a po­lit­i­cal force. I was driven to do so be­cause, as a his­to­rian, that was the fair thing to do, but I was also think­ing about our con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics here in the US, and the weird schis­matic role that Chris­tian evan­gel­i­cal­ism plays, and the gen­eral con­tempt for it on the part of elites. I wasn’t go­ing to sub­mit to that; I was go­ing to try to take these peo­ple on their own terms and not just dis­miss them.”

The abil­ity of con­ser­va­tives to twist the Sec­ond Amend­ment — a weird lit­tle con­sti­tu­tional clause about the right to form mili­tias — into a be­lief in the right of all Amer­i­cans to bear arms is also, in Le­pore’s telling, a lin­guis­tic sleight of hand that has had dev­as­tat­ing po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences. Since the Rea­gan era, abor­tion and gun rights have been the defin­ing di­vid­ing lines be­tween left and right — and Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, she ar­gues, have been harder and more hate­ful ever since.

Run­ning as a par­al­lel track along­side her de­tailed, ab­surdly read­able ac­count of modern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is the tech­no­log­i­cal ac­cel­er­a­tion that took us in less than 70 years from the ra­dio to that rocket on the trike: the in­ter­net. Le­pore leaves us in no doubt that mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the dig­i­tal age has be­come a tool for atom­i­sa­tion, an ero­sion of faith in facts, and the prop­a­ga­tion of the be­lief that the “lib­eral me­dia” has it in for con­ser­va­tives. En­ter, then, Don­ald Trump, in 2016 — the pres­i­den­tial man­i­fes­ta­tion of strands that Le­pore shows have deep roots in Amer­ica’s past: pop­ulism, fake news, trib­al­ism, iso­la­tion­ism, racism, oli­garchic cap­i­tal­ism, and po­lit­i­cal ha­tred.

Read­ing the book, I couldn’t help won­der­ing whether Trump was just Amer­ica’s chick­ens com­ing home to roost. It was also weirdly re­as­sur­ing to see that re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics and pop­ulism are cycli­cal fea­tures of Amer­i­can life. So I asked Le­pore if she be­lieved the risk was of a dif­fer­ent mag­ni­tude right now, or if the cur­rent state of play is just a grim re- min­der of Amer­ica’s ugli­est truths.

“I think the repub­lic is in pretty sig­nif­i­cant dan­ger,” she says. “This repub­lic is tied to oth­ers in a deeper way than dur­ing pre­vi­ous crises. If a dif­fer­ent side had won the Civil War, it wouldn’t re­ally have af­fected New Zealand. But we’re all teth­ered to one an­other. So it does feel aw­fully per­ilous to me.”

She says that the pol­i­tics of hate, on the face of things, “seems to me fix­able. Ex­cept that what hap­pened is that di­vi­sion was au­to­mated, as a ma­chine-based process. When you have au­to­mated po­lar­i­sa­tion, how do you undo that? It’s harder for peo­ple to stop. It’s like a run­away train; that’s how it feels to me. That’s the part that wor­ries me — the Face­book prob­lem, the Twit­ter prob­lem.”

In other words, Zucker­berg and his pals. These Truths is a noble at­tempt to counter the col­lec­tive at­ten­tion-deficit syn­drome they’ve cre­ated in all of us, by mak­ing long-view sense of ev­ery­thing from how lib­er­tar­i­ans and evan­gel­i­cals be­came al­lies, to why Amer­i­cans love guns but hate so­cialised health­care, to why race is still Amer­ica’s defin­ing con­tra­dic­tion, and how polling, PR spin and tech­nol­ogy changed democ­racy in ways the na­tion’s found­ing fa­thers never imag­ined. But most im­por­tantly, it’s an in­vi­ta­tion to slow down and look not just at where Amer­ica is, but how the hell it could have got there.

“The world we live in has a flat­ness and su­per­fi­cial­ity that’s un­prece­dented,” Le­pore says. “The thick­ness of an iPhone screen is about as deep as you think about most things on any given day. I in­clude my­self in that. We live in that world and it’s just get­ting thin­ner, and thin­ner, and thin­ner, and I wanted to of­fer some­thing that had a depth to it. I know it’s long — but that’s pretty much the point. If you want to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on, the lat­est tweet is not what you need. You need the 900-page book. That’s my hope.”

ABOVE— Jill Le­pore’s book is ul­ti­mately a his­tory of the fight for rights and power in the US. She con­tends the most im­por­tant bat­tle­ground is the Supreme Court, not the White House.

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