Wood, Lepore, and the Tea Party: a Comment Intended for John Fea’s Blog

For some reason I’m having huge trouble responding, with Blogger, to comments on this issue at John Fea’s excellent blog, where much discussion is ongoing. A virtue of the FB board would be to address the problem of diffusion I complain about below — but only John Bell and I are posting there, so no help! This comment will make sense only if you also check out both of John Fea’s posts on the topic, and the comments, here and here:

OK, now I’ve mucked up this thread with removals to correct inadvertent repetitions, then failed to post something I thought I posted. Semi-conscious resistance? It dismays me when comments full of interesting ideas, challenges to previous comment, etc., proliferate in scrolldown threads, fragmented across multiple posts on multiple blogs, even as new topics pull our attention up to the home pages. Diffusion may be part of what’s good about blogging, but sometimes the byplay just defeats me.

Yet I appreciate the space dedicated to this issue here (even amid some very interesting reporting from AHA!). Commenting below on this post and its comments and the other post and its comments on the same topic:

John Fea, I’ll send you a copy of Inventing American History, the MIT Press book from which my reflections on Wood are drawn (and I’m looking forward to reading your book). The continuum you shrewdly identify between Holton and Wood is what concerns me in both authors’ work: both think there was a 1780’s backlash, associated with Federalism, against emergent democracy; I don’t think it was a backlash — to me, elite fear and loathing of populist democracy had never truly wavered (that’s despite Holton’s citations) — and I don’t think anti-democratic efforts were by any means Federalist alone. But that’s what my (other) books are about (and I’m trying to avoid writing a book on your blog!). [UPDATE, here on my blog only: I should add that I think Holton’s Unruly Americans is indispensable reading for everyone interested in these matters.]

Wood’s work is so nuanced and complex, and so well written, that it would take a career to really dissent from it, but my endnotes to those same books probably make clear that I read Wood — plenty audaciously, I know, given my outsider’s status — as ultimately (deep breath) overdetermined, tendentious, and strangely motivated historiographically. Continue reading

Facebook discussion board on Wood, Lepore, and Tea Party

Those interested in ideas about critical history and popular memory, raised by Gordon Wood’s New York Review of Books piece on Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes, can comment on a Facebook discussion board dedicated to the topic, established by John Bell of Boston 1775. It would be good to see other interested parties weighing in there! The Wood review itself is here.

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Gordon Wood, Jill Lepore, and the Tea Party

First impression [UPDATE: I meant of Wood’s whole piece, not just the part in front of the firewall [[UPDATE: OK, that’s not what a firewall is (IT figuratively); I was just copping imprecise language from hnn.us]]; I read the Wood piece in something called print (HNN complains about NYRB “firewall” here, Wed. 1/5/10)].

Anyway, as I was saying, first impression:

Gordon Wood’s review, in the latest New York Review of Books, of Jill Lepore’s book on the Tea Party, The Whites of Their Eyes, looks to me almost fantastically, even goofily, unfair.

Haven’t seen any comment anywhere else yet [UPDATE: Well, now I have, especially here and here (for the latter, scroll down to “Wed., 1/6”)], but this is a moment, as far as I’m concerned: two ultra-credentialed, famous, Ivy-league historians of early America (for those who don’t know, Lepore is at Harvard, author of New York Burning, among other things, and a founder of Common Place; Wood, at Brown, is Wood), at least a generation apart, both committed to bringing real history to general readers, are commenting on the populist right’s claim on founding period, and taking — so Wood says — dramatically different attitudes toward that claim, with what Wood sees as important ramifications for history and memory.

This may sound funny coming from me, since I roped in Lepore, in her role as a New Yorker staff writer, to my Boston Review criticism of liberal responses to the Tea Party. But that was in her role as as a New Yorker staff writer: my point was that nobody in that world, even including Lepore (whom I contrast with other liberal commentators like Frank Rich and Chip Berlet), and certainly including me in Boston Review, is capable of capturing Tea Party ethos for readers of that sort of publication, thanks to modes of discourse we must necessarily rely on in trying to do so (better to send the Hunter Thompson who was dying to hang out with the Hells Angels, the Elizabeth Hardwick who excoriated George Wallace as declasse, anybody but us…).

Wood accuses Lepore of making active fun, and fun only, of Tea Party views of history — a startling mis-reading, I think — and then gets into some very tricky and potentially revealing stuff about popular memory. That stuff needs unpacking, but for now: In his essay, and between the lines, Wood is reminding me strangely of Edmund Morgan, in a very early (1950’s?) essay, in which Morgan essentially called for an updated, qualified revival of Bancroft romanticism in American history. [UPDATE: Yes: William & Mary Quarterly, Ser. 3, No. 14, 1957.] Hence the ensuing work of Edmund Morgan. Reminding me strangely, I said. More on this to come … [UPDATE: Starting with here: John Bell’s Facebook board on the topic.]

But for one thing: Can we possibly at long last rule out the tendentious use of the word “concedes” when referring to something an opponent actually asserts? (Wood makes use of this tortured ploy more than once in his review.) I will if you will.

[UPDATE: If I’d known this post would get so many views, I might have unpacked Wood’s reflections more thoroughly here. By the time I work it all out, the moment will have passed … But I do think there’s fertile ground for a review, somewhere, of differences between Wood and Lepore as a way of looking more generally at how certain kinds of American history have developed over the past generation or two. In that context, people might want to check out Lepore’s review of Wood’s book Empire of Liberty. There’s an interesting long-term argument going on between these two (who may be fast friends in real life for all I know…).]

[UPDATE: More on all this, right here on this blog, here and here.]

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New Deal 2.0 Crosspost

I have a brief post on New Deal 2.0 this morning, partly reviewing ideas in my far longer Boston Review piece on the 19th-century war between liberalism and populism, but partly tying that story back to the founding story I tell in Declaration:

… Every time liberal commentators open their mouths, no matter what they say, they make the populist-right case: Liberalism is elitism. … Some may protest that during the New Deal an alliance did prevail between liberalism and populism. Braintrust meritocrats and salt-of-the-earth laborers got together, struggled out of the Depression, beat fascism, and elected a president multiple times. Yet the New Deal was a period of astonishing change. It may have been exceptional, but it blocks our longer view — maybe because that view is grimmer than we want to know. … the war between liberalism and populism goes back even farther than that. It goes all the way back to our beginnings. More

Please feel free to comment on the post over at New Deal 2.0. I’m pleased to be on that site — vigorous, nuanced liberal debate (with much more newsy items than mine!) goes on there every day.

Socialist Pilgrims? (The War on Thanksgiving)

gobble gobble gobble

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over, and the MSM no longer even remembers it, I will comment — I actually feel forced to comment! — on the flap about the Pilgrims as socialists that I was drawn into over the past week. The trip began when I was quoted in an interesting Sunday Times “Week in Review” piece, which lays out the controversy.

(Briefly here: For years, Rush Limbaugh and some publications of the Austrian School of economics beloved by American libertarians, and more recently Glenn Beck, have been saying that the story of the Pilgrims is a story of socialism failed — that the Pilgrims began by holding property in common in a socialist-utopian way and starved because of it, then switched to private property and thrived enough to thank God for the bounty of the harvest: the first Thanksgiving. Thus America began in a lesson about the evils of socialism and glory of property. This year, thanks to the Tea Party, the story has received new mainstream attention.)

The Times quoted me near the end of the piece, not on that subject but on the problem that I think arises when people across the political spectrum seize on some historical event and force it to serve an overdetermined purpose for a current position. Bad history, bad politics. As I told the reporter, history is always slanted. How and why it’s slanted, in particular cases, is something we should be keenly aware of. … blah blah blah.

But thanks to that one, general quote, which came with a reference to my MIT Press book Inventing American History (where I write about distortions in public history), and thanks also to my seemingly endless eagerness to promote myself, I went on both Michael Smerconish’s syndicated radio show and ABC News “Good Morning, America” (do they observe that comma?), to weigh in not on my subject, which is the way everybody across the spectrum, each of us, distorts history, but on the current controversy: whether the Pilgrims began as socialists and then learned the error of their ways.

In the interviews I tried both to wrangle with the immediate question about the Pilgrims and to discuss what is, to me, the great, non-seasonal theme, political tension in public history. I also suggested that now and then we might want to lighten up a bit on the whole “lessons of history” thing. It was fun. Smerconish gave me ten minutes, and we had what I thought was an interesting conversation (and I like his unique effort to bring talk-radio intensity to centrism). “Good Morning America,” with its very specific needs, managed to shoehorn three seconds (literally!) of a twenty-minute interview into a piece on the controversy. Not surprising, but startling to watch: my name flashed on the screen so briefly that all I can do is hope that subliminal advertising actually works.

So now that I’m a media-certified expert: Were the Pilgrims socialists?
Continue reading

Constitution Shmonstitution

This is the third in a series of posts about how people from Tea Partiers to pro-choice, anti-gun liberals invoke and rely on what they call “the Constitution,” often without being able to say anything very specific about it. The first post was on the First Amendment and religious freedom; the second was on the Second. Comments on those posts, some related off-blog correspondence about them, some related statements on Twitter, and a remark on my Facebook author page inspire this one.

But first, for context, this mess (anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen my outbursts about it):

In a piece in Saturday’s New York Times, offering perspective on the Tea Party’s reverence for the Constitution, Samuel G. Freedman wrote:

… Constitution worship has not historically been the province of any one political faction. Despite the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass intoned its language about equality and inalienable rights.

The gaffe is that the Constitution doesn’t say anything about inalienable rights or equality. [UPDATE: By “equality” I meant anything that Frederick Douglass would have been intoning; the Constitution does of course have things to say about equality in the post-Civil War amendments. But Freedman meant Douglasss’s reference to “all men are created equal.”] That language is found — and pretty memorably too! — in the Declaration of Independence.

Gaffes are gaffes. I’ve made my share. This one is painfully revealing of a significant problem in liberal thinking. [UPDATE: I think I mean “for liberal thinking.” That help?] Freedman nodded, it happens, but so did his editors. A lot of people fussed with that piece before it went out. Nor has the error been corrected since, nor do I see any uproar about it online. That means the Tea Partiers, too, though hairtrigger sensitive to NYT slight (and they would have taken Freedman’s piece as a slight), read right past it.

So what’s the big hairy deal? Why am I knocking NYT and liberals who don’t their Constitution so much harder than I knock Christine O’Donnell for not knowing hers? Or, to put it the way David Tuttle (a cousin, and nice to hear from him even in this weird postmodernist manner) put it on my FB author page: Is the Times error so much worse than what David calls the Tea Party’s effort to deny separation of church and state?

Yeah. It’s a lot worse. Continue reading

The First Amendment and Liberal Prejudice against Religion

[UPDATE: This turned out to be the first in a trio of posts about misapprehensions and misappropriations of the Constitution, across the political spectrum. The second one, on the Second Amendment, is here. ]

Say “first amendment” to most people, and they’ll say “freedom of speech.” They’re right, of course, as far as it goes. But.

The failed Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell drew some laughs a while back when she asked, she hoped rhetorically, where in the U.S. Constitution church and state are separated. Her opponent knew the answer and paraphrased the relevant part of the First Amendment aloud. Her laughing audience were law school students and faculty, so they knew the answer too.

But many otherwise well-informed people, who are sure that there is a constitutional separation of church and state, don’t know where in the Constitution to find it; or know that the First Amendment opens by disestablishing religion, and only then goes on to protect speech; or that the amendment is based on what was known during the founding period as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Jefferson, its author, listed it among his proudest accomplishments).

That ignorance raises some weird questions. One has to do with the inveterate scorn of educated liberals for the likes of O’Donnell. It’s far from clear that many who deem themselves intellectually superior to her could have responded to her challenge (it’s good that her opponent could). The challenge might seem a dopey one, but it would have left plenty of liberals sputtering. And since she is not well-educated, and those liberals generally are (in ways other than law and history), that’s bizarre and disturbing.

“These Tea Party people don’t know any history,” fume some I know, and while in some cases (like O’Donnell’s) that’s true, in others it’s not. A lot of them know American history because they just happen to like it. You could argue with their interpretations — but only if you knew something about it yourself!

I find that it’s liberals, and I mean the kind of liberals who can read Chaucer in Middle English, who really don’t know any American history. Continue reading

Chernow Gets It Right

Nobody has been more critical than me — this statement may even be true — of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Yet Chernow’s Sunday NYT op-ed on the fruitlessness of appealing to the founders for support in contemporary politics could not be more spot on, from my point of view. I won’t discourse on its many virtues of clarity, detail, and logic, just say that I think it’s “must” reading for everyone across the political spectrum who is concerned about the role history can (and can’t) play in framing public debate. Chernow is in a position to put the matter so much less fractiously than I’ve been doing, thus probably far more persuasively, and he has a huge audience that crosses political divides. His weighing in on this issue might actually do some good, and that would be a big help in these wild times.

The Chernow from whom I’ve dissented of old does make an appearance in the final graf:

No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity. Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans.

Huh? The rowdy, ruthless infighters Chernow has evoked everywhere else in his piece, where he constantly reminds us of their gritty humanity, now suddenly turn into the “lofty,” “sacred” figures of misty-eyed cliché? For a brief and bad moment, it’s as if we’re supposed to assume the usual supplicant position and just be sure to keep our grubby hands off some holy, ingeniously wrought grail.

Hell no. Hence fractiousness.

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What Would the Founders Think? (And Would It Really Matter?)

Advice about invading Iraq?

Another blog I’ve been engaging with is What Would the Founders Think?, which focuses on connecting current debate about the proper role of government in America to the political philosophy of the founders. One of its bloggers, Martin, and I have had some polite yet feisty exchanges on this blog: here and here. I find our differences revealing (and the politeness encouraging), since what I’ve been hoping to do is foster debate, across political lines, about these very issues. 

So instead of more back-and-forth with Martin, buried in the comments, I thought I’d express a few reflections on WWTFT — and about the whole idea of what the founders thought, as it also relates to thinking about the founders’ religion, in the blog American Creation (I discuss that here and elsewhere). 

Putting it bluntly, WWTFT is coming from the current political right — but taking seriously the Tea Party’s appeal to the founding period. Continue reading

Why Liberals Have Never Gotten Populism

old BR / new BR

My essay “Real Americans” is out from Boston Review, both online and in the cool-looking relaunched print version of that well-regarded, well-established publication. (You can’t tell in this picture, but my essay is flagged on the new cover.) The cast of characters includes Sarah Palin, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Frank Rich and others. The idea is to base a discussion of the Tea Party, etc., on a critique of liberalism and its tropes.

Feel free to comment on BR’s site or here or both; updates to follow.

[UPDATE: Since I’m inviting people to comment on the article over at Boston Review’s site, it’s unfortunate that in Internet Explorer 7, at least, comments there are not displaying. I think BR is working on it, but in the meantime, the site as a whole is best accessed in another browser.]

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