These Truths: A book review

These Truths: A History of the United States, released a couple of months ago, is a big book.  Written by Jill Lepore, reflecting her lectures as a distinguished professor of history at Harvard and her many essays in the New Yorker, it contains  almost 800 pages of text and almost 2000 footnotes. But its magnitude is only partially measured by its length and scholarly depth.  It is a book of great scope and importance.

Its scope encompasses major aspects of American history from Columbus’ initial voyage through the beginnings of Trump’s presidency.   Its importance is the themes it revisits during various periods of that history.  I will stress two of her themes here.

First is the blindness that many Americans have shown toward minorities of all types; beyond discriminating against Native American, Africans, Latinos, Asians, women, gays, and other “minorities,”  we have systematically oppressed them throughout our history.  We might decry that Trump has given voice to racism and sexism and that we now normalize his crude statements and his biased objectives and policies, but Lepore makes clear that Trumpism has been a regular reoccurrence in American history.  Second, is the limited and declining respect that Americans have had for truth.  Partisans have always purposely misled and lied about objectively true facts, but today we live in a country where respect for truth has declined to the vanishing point, leaving us with little common ground upon which we can mediate or resolve our differences.  While she does not absolve liberals from contributing to our current crisis, she stresses that “conservatives had pulled up the ship (of state)’s planking to make bonfires of rage…demolishing the idea of truth itself.”

Against claims of white nationalists, she points out that the English were late settlers of America.  Not only had native Americans established rich cultures in America, but the Spanish and Africans were more prominent than northern Europeans in the origins of our country.  For every European to settle in England’s America between 1600 and 1800, 2.5 Africans were brought here through slave trade.  The immorality of slavery was recognized by most of the framers of our Constitution, but resistance to it was attenuated and limited, even by those of more liberal temperament who gave priority to economic needs (for slaves to pick cotton, the new country’s most profitable export crop) or who feared that political stability would be jeopardized by full inclusion of blacks into citizenship. The Civil War and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments did little to end the oppression of minorities, and the civil rights movements of the 20th centuries have not ended various racial oppressions, as revealed by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Of course, minorities have not always been united in their protests against white male oppression.  Lepore does an excellent job describing the internal conflicts within the black community and among women.  As an example, she highlights the role that Phyllis Schlafly has played in the conservative feminist movement and in enhancing support for Trump.  As she does with other prominent historical figures, Lepore treats Schlafly with considerable respect, even while highlighting her divisive role in our society.

Moving beyond large conceptual trends and forces that depend on the particular theories and lenses of historians, Lepore presents and emphasizes the acts, thoughts, and written records of specific people.  The diminished capacity of elections to hold politicians accountable is brought out by how Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker created Campaigns Inc. to enlarge the role of propaganda and public relations in manipulating citizen votes.  The tragedy of 9/11 is brought to life by the brave but desperate messages sent by a passenger and flight attendant on the hijacked planes.  But the people that she includes in her history are seldom portrayed as heroes or villains.  Lepore believes that history must focus on documentary evidence and facts, and that it is for readers to reach their own judgments about the positive and negative roles that various people have played in our history.

If there are villains for Lepore, they take the form of large social groupings.  Perhaps most prominent in this regard are the postmodernists and poststructuralists in academia, who gave prominence to the idea that everything is a lie and that “there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge.”  Postmodernists have given intellectual support for reformulating liberalism away from earlier emphases on freedom and equality to its current focus on identity.  In so doing, they have moved the agenda of the left from relatively inclusive and even universal concerns toward the fragmented concerns of increasingly narrow aggrieved interests.  And each of these identity groups derive their distinct ideas and interests from particular grievances that are not easily aggregated into some sort of common understanding and inclusive political agenda.

But perhaps Lepore does not mean to judge negatively such groups as  postmodernists or particular identity groups.   Perhaps the real causes in the decline of America are the reduced role of  newspapers and the rise of the Internet – especially such recent sources of public opinion as Facebook and Twitter.  At their best, newspapers have provided factual accounts of the news, and they have encouraged readers to compare alternative treatments of community issues in ways that enable reasonable accommodation of diverse views.  While the Internet provides access to a huge menu of ideas and facts, bloggers post non-vetted “facts” and “conspiracies” in order to get an audience (at least among partisan followers). The narrow-casting that occurs on the Internet and other media end up sorting people into tribes that emphasize extreme ideas and that fail to recognize such broad community issues as the widening economic distress that breeds widespread frustration and now has America embroiled in a domestic cold war.

Lepore’s themes of minority oppression and indifference toward truth (understood as insistence on verifiable facts and exposure of falsehoods and hysterical conspiracies) are not exactly new revelations, but her presentation of these themes is done in such an interesting, insightful, informative, and literate fashion that this big book is difficult to put down.