History Review

Sweet land of liberty - and empire

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By David Greenberg
Sunday, November 14, 2010



By Aziz Rana

Harvard Univ. 415 pp. $29.95

People love to complain that academic history is too specialized. But there are good reasons why we don't see more first-rate works that tackle big subjects over large swaths of time. One is that they're very hard to write. Not many scholars are capable of freshly analyzing the whole of our nation's history, from settlement to the present, and conveying their interpretation with depth, persuasive power and lively prose. To cross that high bar, you need to possess either formidable historical knowledge or uncommon skills in developing and presenting original ideas and arguments. Ideally, you'd have both of these things. Unfortunately, few people do.

This fundamental challenge of writing groundbreaking historical syntheses, I think, explains why, despite its commendable ambition, Aziz Rana's "Two Faces of American Freedom" comes as something of a disappointment. An assistant professor of law at Cornell University, Rana has in his first book attempted a synthesis that follows in the footsteps of such scholarly heavyweights as Christopher Lasch ("The True and Only Heaven"), Michael Sandel ("Democracy's Discontent") and Robert Wiebe ("Self-Rule"), to name but a few - all of whom bemoaned America's supposed slide from a Jeffersonian republic of self-sufficient farmers and workmen to a vast administrative state that allows citizens only token participation in national political decisions.

The scholars who have followed this thread through our history have often looked for alternatives to today's ostensibly jejune politics in the so-called classical republicanism of 19th-century America - a political culture centered in local communities and rooted in civic virtue. Yet, as its analysts have usually grasped, the culture of republicanism, which empowered elite civic leaders trusted by the community, was exclusionary, denying women and racial and ethnic minorities full claims to American citizenship. Indeed, historians have perennially wrestled with the irony that social inclusion has increased alongside - perhaps because of - the growth of the federal power that Rana and other communitarians decry.

I've never been convinced that it's either desirable or possible to return to a world even remotely like the small r-republican culture of the Federalist era. Still, the historian-enthusiasts of republicanism, with their wide-ranging books, have contributed amply to the history of political ideas by demonstrating that liberalism has hardly been the sole intellectual tradition in America, as was once commonly supposed.

Rana now seeks to add to this discussion not so much by conducting original research as by melding his predecessors' well-developed ideas with a somewhat rarified but interesting new area of scholarship focusing on settler societies - colonial outposts where newcomers mixed with indigenous peoples. America's relentless territorial expansion in the 19th century, Rana argues, made it nothing less than a "settler empire," in his phrase. He traces that idea and the contradictions it contains - a generous provision of liberty, but tied to the exclusion of those defined as less than full American citizens - through a series of wide-ranging episodes in American political and legal history; we revisit Shays's rebellion, the Dred Scott decision, the populist movement of the Gilded Age, the women's suffrage crusade, and more. But the outcome is, for Rana, always bleak and repressive. Viewing U.S. global leadership in the 20th century as a new form of imperialism, he links American intervention abroad to the demise of settlerism at home. The upshot: "empire has become the master rather than the servant of freedom."

All this strikes me as a bit of a reach. The conclusion itself is dubious since - notwithstanding certain shameful presidential policies, such as the open-ended jailing of suspected terrorists without trial - most of the world envies the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by Americans, even those in Guam, Puerto Rico or other parts of the "empire."

But the larger problem lies not in Rana's arguments, which are provocative if sometimes a little flaccid. Rather it lies in the nature of this undertaking itself. Almost any rising academic is going to be pulled in one direction by the institutional demands of writing a first book aimed at gaining credibility within an academic discipline, while the aspirations of a book like this to offer "a large-scale act of historical reconstruction," as Rana puts it, tug in another.

Rana thus seems torn about whether to present himself as a confident master or an apt pupil. On the one hand, striving to establish his own authority, he makes grand promises about his book. "I reinterpret the lasting implications of our political origins and shed light on questions of how settler identity, economic independence and ethnic assimilation grounded popular contests regarding social inclusion," he writes; "I then reconceive the central causes and consequences of the American Revolution by reinterpreting the Revolution as a settler revolt."

In other ways, though, Rana lacks the quiet self-confidence needed for a study like this. The book suffers from academic jargon, a preference for the abstract over the concrete, and a tendency to brandish other scholars' insights as tokens of erudition. ("This book is an experiment in what Michael Walzer has called 'connected criticism.' ") These stylistic habits may assure finicky academics that the requisite literature has been digested, but they can also signal a lack of comfort with one's own ideas. Successful syntheses convey their authority not through brash claims, mystifying jargon or literary name-dropping but through a fearsome command of detail, deftly deployed.

But if "Two Faces" doesn't offer a fully comprehensive (or fully comprehensible) account of liberty and empire, it is to be admired for trying to reconcile clashing impulses in the American past - exclusion and tolerance, security and freedom, humanitarianism and imperialism. Scholars will be wrestling with these dilemmas and ironies for a long time, and Rana will surely have more to say on the subject.

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for 2010-11.

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