The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘Myth America,’ historians set out to battle misinformation

While setting the record straight about the past, these essays also point to the malleability of how we think about history

The White House in 1941. Myths and untruths can give Americans a distorted view of the past. (AP)
9 min

There is no escaping the long shadow that history has cast over contemporary American life. Whether Supreme Court justices jockeying over the original intent of the Founding Fathers, universities probing how much of their wealth derived from slavery, public officials removing memorials to white supremacists or school boards debating the content of history curriculums, we are daily reminded of how much the past shapes the present and inevitably the future. A new book edited by a distinguished team of Princeton historians — Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, who previously co-authored “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974” — sets out to interrogate what they claim has been the alarming rise of an “age of disinformation,” a deliberate effort to distort facts to advance right-wing myths: “narratives about the past [that make it] … impossible to imagine futures that are substantially different.” Not surprisingly, they locate the most pernicious warriors against the truth in the Trump administration, and the Republican Party more broadly, aided by a conservative media ecosystem. That effort culminated in the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission report, released in the final days of the Trump White House with no American historian among the authors, to provide a national history that would promote “patriotic education.” Kruse and Zelizer dismiss it instead as propaganda that values “feeling good over thinking hard” and “celebration over complex understanding.”

This recent attack on truth motivated Kruse and Zelizer to assemble 20 essays in a volume with the somewhat sensationalist title “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.” That grandiose billing aside, the book brings together outstanding historians who draw on rich, often surprising recent research by themselves and others to present a much more complicated and less congratulatory picture of many of the most contentious issues in the nation’s history. Moreover, these essays treat readers to wonderfully accessible, jargon-free historical writing.

We learn from Akhil Reed Amar about the flaws alongside the strengths of the Constitution, from Sarah Churchwell that Donald Trump’s “America First” goes back to the 1850s as a marker more of discord than of unity against foreign enemies, and from Geraldo Cadava that for much of American history the border was a site of connection rather than illegality. Karen Cox links the current conflicts over removing Confederate monuments to the “Lost Cause” rationale for the Civil War that can be traced back as far as the war’s end. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela exposes how, despite the frequent charge that feminism is anti-family, from its origins in temperance and abolitionism through to suffrage and the founding of the National Organization for Women most feminists have defended the traditional family.

Several essays take up myths related to post-World War II party politics and racial activism. Kruse dismantles the belief that Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign invented the Southern Strategy by tracing it back to the Dixiecrat split with the Democrats in 1948. Zelizer shows that the Reagan Revolution, so often touted as the death knell for liberalism, was “more of a political talking point than a description of reality.” Glenda Gilmore conveys how the myth of the civil rights movement as “The Good Protest” — succeeding through passivity — distorts the truth and has been deployed to vilify more recent demonstrators for racial equality as “lawless.” Relatedly, Elizabeth Hinton disputes popular assumptions that protest violence always starts with the protesters and argues instead that ever since Lyndon Johnson’s War on Crime of 1965 militarized law enforcement, the police have been the instigators. Lawrence Glickman explores how White backlash has repeatedly been justified on the grounds that protesters are going “too fast.” Carol Anderson traces the current manufactured hysteria around voter fraud back to the days of Jim Crow in the South, but also to the Northern cities where Blacks increasingly voted.

Interestingly, almost all of the essays depart in a significant way from the premise laid out by Kruse and Zelizer — that trafficking in untruths and spinning myths about the past in service of a political agenda are products of the Trump years. Rather, almost every essay documents how deeply embedded these myths have been in American history. David Bell’s examination of American Exceptionalism shows how, rather than a time-honored truth about the country, it was an idea created during the early 20th century and recast “at different moments and for different reasons, serving the needs of different constituencies.” Ari Kelman documents how the mythology of the American continent as a blank slate, absent of Indians, arrived with the first settlers. Erika Lee claims that Trump’s anti-immigration rant that “they keep coming” has a long history, consistently overlooking decades of American recruitment of immigrants to make the nation an agricultural and industrial powerhouse. Daniel Immerwahr refutes America’s idealized self-image of having avoided an empire; he insists we had one from the very start.

Other essays disprove common tropes of current political discourse. Michael Kazin argues that far from being considered un-American, socialist ideas have persisted for two centuries within mainstream politics. Eric Rauchway supports this point by showing that the recurrent repudiation of the New Deal as a failed experiment in progressive big government belies the facts; Joshua Zeitz refutes a similar charge about the Great Society. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway reject the mythological “magic of the marketplace” that supposedly has proved more effective than government. And Kathleen Belew dismisses as wishful thinking the claim made about the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that “this is not who we are,” by documenting a century of assaults by white supremacists.

After reading these essays, it is hard not to conclude that mythmaking has long been a part of U.S. history. To some extent, all nations indulge, constructing usable pasts that reinforce desired social values and political goals. But there may be reasons that mythmaking has been particularly powerful in the United States. A country without any one ethno-religious underpinning may rely more on invented narratives for national identity. Moreover, the American tradition of keeping the federal government out of education, both as a funder and a standard setter, may help to propagate myths. Instead, schooling has been left to localities or, when there’s a higher authority, to a state, as well as to the private marketplace of textbook publishers that inevitably cater to their school district purchasers. In fact, years before the controversy over the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which explored the centrality of slavery to American history, an effort in the 1990s to set national standards for K-12 history teaching ended in disaster. A contest between “Great Man history” and one more inclusive of overlooked groups resulted in a destructive culture war before the whole enterprise was abandoned. The ceding of control over curriculum content to localities has minimized professional accountability and granted authority to those using history to promote special interests.

To the extent that Kruse and Zelizer are right to note that historical mythmaking has grown in recent years, it may be a result of the retreat from teaching history. When I checked the recommendations for applicants to my home institution, Harvard — arguably among the most demanding in college admissions — I discovered a request for four years of English, mathematics, a single foreign language and science, and only two years of history, with some encouragement to take a third.

The cost of devaluing the teaching of history has become increasingly obvious. Survey after survey documents Americans’ shocking lack of historical knowledge and understanding: Only 1 in 3 could pass the U.S. citizenship test, made up of basic questions. Half of Americans believe that the Civil War took place before the American Revolution. Less than a third can describe Reconstruction. Nearly half do not comprehend the three branches of government. And so on. Without any reservoirs of historical knowledge to draw on, Americans are vulnerable to untruths, disinformation and myths.

But this book points to a still deeper problem. As the authors of these excellent essays carefully track how popular mythologies about the past have been invented, refined and redefined to serve particular moments, they hint at something very important that challenges to some extent the framing of this book as a contest between truths and untruths, myths and realities. Historians recognize, and sophisticated teachers of history impart to their students, that history is not only about facts. It is also about interpretations, and those interpretations shift over time as the perspectives of historians change. Fresh documentary sources are discovered, methodologies of analysis evolve, the current moment inspires different kinds of questions and in turn new answers. One could argue, therefore, that the real challenge for Americans is not to strive to substitute “what actually happened” for some mythological rendering of the past but to recognize that history is always a construction where the present meets the past, even as it never abandons the responsibility to stay as true as possible to the best available evidence. The job of the critical citizen, then, is to learn to recognize how and when biases are shaping our history — to gain the tools for analysis, not just a set of pat answers. That may be the most crucial historical truth that Americans should aspire to learn.

Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones professor of American studies at Harvard University. She is the author, most recently, of “Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age,” which won the 2020 Bancroft Prize in American History.

Myth America

Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past

Edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer

Basic. 392 pp. $32

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