historians in Salon

Two fantastic historians (and personal friends of mine) have published pieces in Salon in conjunction with the release of their excellent new books. 

David Sehat's book, The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (Simon & Schuster), was published last week. This book is not another history of the founders themselves. Instead, it is concerned with the way that later generations of American politicians have invoked this group throughout our nation's history. Beginning with Jefferson, Sehat argues, political figures have been able to capitalize on the appeal of the founding generation to gain votes and advance their own political agendas. But the revolutionaries themselves are essentially placeholders in this tradition, venerated but not understood. As a result, politicians have found that they can construct versions of the framers that comport quite nicely with their own political values. With concise narratives that span the course of American history, Sehat demonstrates this point by tracing the very differentand often incompatibleversions of the founders that have been advanced during various historical eras. The end result of this trend, Sehat writes, is that by now "founders talk degrades debate" and "encourages intellectual dishonesty." The use of the founders has consistently represented both bad history and bad politics. Sehat does a fantastic job of explaining why this is true and how it happened. It is also an easy read, something that cannot be said of many history books these days.

On Saturday, Salon featured an excerpt from the book. It concerns the tea party movement, whose very name invokes the revolutionary generation. In analyzing their role in shaping the direction of the contemporary Republican Party, Sehat quotes Sam Tanenhaus's characterization of the movement as not "a practical attempt to find a better answer," but instead "a ‘Constitutional’ demand for restoration of the nation to its hallowed prior self." This development left conservatives defending less what Sehat calls a "Jeffersonian argument about maintaining founding principles" than a "Calhounian vision of state-sponsored nullification and retrenchment."

Another excellent history that speaks to current events is Andrew Hartman's A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago). In the 1980s and '90s, liberals and conservatives expended a disproportionate amount of intellectual and political capital skirmishing over issues whose immediate impact seemed to exist more in the realm of ideology than of policy or economics. These issues included the presence of religion in public schools, affirmative action in higher education, the increasing national visibility of feminism and homosexuality, obscenity in popular music and even the books students should read in college. Hartman's book is simultaneously a thorough compilation of the various conflicts, a sophisticated yet comprehensible exegesis of the intellectual agendas of both sides and a historical explanation as to the causes and significance of the culture wars themselves.

With regard to the last, the book challenges the notion that the culture wars were a sideshow. Hartman invokes as the most influential recent statement of this view Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, a book whose argument he summarizes as "religious conservatives often voted against their own economic interests due to their illogical obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians cynically lent rhetorical support as they attended to more important matters, such as rewriting tax codes in favor of the rich." Frank's book is already a decade old (really?!), but even today one could look to religious freedom legislation and proposals to ban sharia from American law as an attempt to cloud issues rather than illuminate them. But Hartman soundly rejects that interpretation. "The history of America, for better and worse, is largely a history of debates about the idea of America." Since the days of the fierce contests between the aristocratic Federalists and the more more broadly-based Republicans, and leading through the rise of Jacksonian democracy, the Civil War, Populism, Social Darwinism, Prohibition, the Dawes Act, the Immigration Act of 1924, the Scopes Trial, McCarthyism and the civil rights movement, American politics has always carried a significant cultural component. The defining features of these disputes have been a cleavage of "us" and "them," and a corresponding dispute over the most basic commitments and priorities that should define the American nation. These debates are not peripheral to American political history, but central to any complete understanding of them.

If culture wars have characterized most of American history, though, then what is special about the period covered in the book? Hartman argues convincingly that what makes it different is the special role of the protest movements, anti-establishment ethos and loosening of cultural mores that we associate with the 1960s. This period "gave birth to a new America, a nation more open to new peoples, new ideas, new norms, and new, if conflicting, articulations of America itself." This was in contrast to the vision of what Hartman calls "normative America," a view he associates with those who found much to praise in the less tumultuous but more homogenous 1950s. In seeking to overturn the values of normative America, those who supported these "new articulations" found themselves at odds with those who cherished those values. The result, writes Hartman, was that "the sixties universalized fracture." The cultural skirmishes of the next several decades can thus best be understood as an continual debate, endlessly recast, over the meaning of that pivotal decade.

On Monday, Hartman also published an excerpt from his book, which concentrates on the role that historians played in the culture wars. History, he argues, "was all the rage among late twentieth century Americans" even as "they disagreed fervently about how it should be represented." While conservatives sought to recapture a patriotic narrative by, for example, reimagining Vietnam as (in Ronald Reagan's words) "a noble cause," leftists like Howard Zinn and Gary Nash tried to draw more attention to the plight of those written out of conventional narratives and to tell the stories of those who had resisted American injustice. These competing visions of the American past motivated not only debates among professional historians, but also controversies involving Disney theme parks and Smithsonian exhibits.

Check out the Salon pieces. If they strike your fancy, read these two great books. I'd highly recommend them both.