The premise for this selection of a decade of essays on the effects of bad history on bad civics is here. And we’re getting near the end.
At last we re-arrive at the annus horribilis of 2017, just after Election Day 2016, and the ongoing crisis that will soon bring this selection of essays, to its shattering climax. What I’ve had to realize, looking back this way, is that the two massive events that blew me and the rest of our culture out of the water — Alexander Hamilton on Broadway and the ’16 election — had long been lurking in the swamps I was writing about in these essays. I’d been poking at them for about a decade.
I don’t mean, of course, that I saw them coming. Whatever I was poking at lay hidden in the murk. But for me, those two cultural events, exploding out of the murk, those two massive events in American history and civics, will be forever interlinked.
Interlinked not just in approximate chronology, but as effects and indicators of what’s wrong with how we think about our country. The Obamas’ natural delight, in ’09, at watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapping the Ron Chernow book at the White House, was explicitly connected to the Hamilton cult in policy circles, which I began writing about in ’07, and which yokes the Bush and Obama administrations on approaches to public finance and economics that have contributed mightily to some of our most disastrous situations. You can watch Tim Geithner congratulate himself, ten years later, for the bailout’s recouping all government money from the banks (and watch him feel so misunderstood). You can also take a look at the effects of Hamilton-inspired public finance on Puerto Rico. The big-tent idea that everybody from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton to the Obamas to Wall Street execs to a bunch of avowed right-wing pols could at least agree to love Hamilton on Broadway is for me the ideal encapsulation of the failure of our civics and our public history and that failure’s impact on our politics. I’m not a policy guy — I track the intellectual and the fantastical and the rhetorical currents — but maybe the equation’s more like “bad history = bad civics = bad policy.”
You can argue that Bush and Obama shared a good policy. At least then we’re arguing. Instead, liberalism can’t quit the fantasia represented by “Hamilton” the musical. The history profession, for its part, began criticizing the Hamilton phenomenon, sort of — for “inaccuracies” like ascribing abolitionism to Hamilton — only after the musical became so phenomenal. With a few notable exceptions (Jesse Lemisch, Mike Wallace, maybe a few others), the profession had never criticized the falsehoods in the highly rewarded Chernow book; the simplistic lionizing in Brookhiser exhibition at the New York Historical Society; or, most importantly perhaps, the Paulson-Orszag Hamilton-cult policy that joned the Obama and Bush administrations, even as those phenomena were dovetailing to produce a series of disasters — at the very, very least to our public discourse — that have now risen to climax.
I did engage in such criticism. But I’m not a member of the history profession. And so I criticze the profession, too. Where were all the “engage with the public” founding-history scholars when Alexander Hamilton was being trumpeted by everybody from David Brooks to Henry Paulson to Robert Rubin to the Obama economics appointees as the great inspiration for the public finance policy of the 2000’s? I now think that’s what these selected essays were really about, all along: how so many of the ways we’ve “done history” in my lifetime — I’ve embraced in this broad critique the postwar scholarly consensus and museums and broadcasting and speeches and magazine articles, etc. — are what got us to this crisis I couldn’t see coming when I was writing about it.
The liberal history-and-civics spectrum naturally disagrees with me. Many members of the profession, those most willing to engage with the public, and thus admirable to me, think the opposite: that what brought us to this awful pass is not enough history, not enough civics — not enough regard on the part of the public for their profession and its expertise. Thus a whole new kind of public history got fired up on Twitter after the election. Some think #askahistorian is a powerful mode of resistance.
I don’t think so. Sounds good now, builds careers and profiles and promotes the profession, but I repeat: where was all that expertise if and when it might have mattered? Maybe the whole basis for the expertise, and how it’s been used publicly, is wrong. Maybe, like the economics experts who got us into the financial crisis, and those who suppposedly got us out of it, deployment of historical expertise has been a major contributor to a current crisis, in this case a crisis in American civics. Maybe American history, as an endeavor, needs some radical rethinking.
Beginning to work out my dissent was the purpose of today’s re-post, from July ’17, about eighteen months ago, when I first tried to write about public understanding of history in the Trump crisis. Featured players include David Gergen (remember him?), Philip Gourevitch, Steve Bannon (remember him?), William Jennings Bryan, H.L. Mencken, and me: “Now More Than Ever, We Need Less History.”
Next up is the final entry in this selection.