I am grateful for Peter Feinman’s kind words about the conference I helped to organize, The American Revolution Reborn. I am even more grateful for his unkind words.
Peter’s complaints and criticisms hit home. He is right that elite academic historians embarrass themselves when confronted with questions like the one that one entire conference panel dodged: was the American Revolution a good thing or a bad thing? He is right that many academic historians, and not just those at elite institutions, are reluctant to engage the conundrums that come of asking what part great men play in momentous developments and whether the leadership of one such man, George Washington, was indispensable to the winning of American independence? And he is right, profoundly right, that ivory-tower educators never quite get around to the dilemma that ought to haunt all educators: how do we teach what we know to the young?
But if Peter rightly insists that Ulrich embarrassed herself in ducking the challenge about whether the Revolution was a good thing, he might equally have added that Obama and Bush and Clinton and Reagan have embarrassed themselves too. The American exceptionalism that they – and Peter – all affirm so ardently is an embarrassment in the pious hyper-patriotic way that they affirm it. It keeps them from engaging the world as it is. That exceptionalism is an ideological straitjacket that confines us to fantasies of evil empires and axes of evil and wars against terror. It is a psychopathology that leaves us with illusions of innocence and collusions with evil that the rest of the world rightly stands aghast at. We are a part of the problem, often the largest part of the problem, and a host of Americans have been saying so since at least the time of Mark Twain. And it’s getting worse faster than it’s getting better. The American elite – the real American elite, not the academic elite that worries Peter so, and not “We the People” – now holds a faith in the free market that no American elite ever held before Reagan.
I would never dispute Peter’s claim that a great many elite academics are out of touch with We the People. But I would add that their out-of-touchness does not matter remotely as much as the out-of-touchness of the political, economic and media establishments. Turn on Fox News and see its economic pundit proclaim $250,000 a year a poverty income for New Yorkers. Or check out the survey data, which show almost unvaryingly for the past three decades that, on virtually every issue of consequence – war and peace, defense spending, health care, jobs, unions, poverty, education, and on and on – the President and Congress are out of touch with the American people. Usually badly out of touch. But money talks and democracy walks in our sclerotic political institutions.
Peter’s panegyric to America is a fantasy. It refuses to come to terms with the America that is. It dreams that we still are what we once more nearly were, in the years before World War II and the beginning of the national security state. It simply denies the diminution – and in the last thirty years the drastic diminution – of the American Dream and American democracy. Two centuries ago, Tocqueville celebrated and worried over American equality, but that was then and this is now. The United States is now the least egalitarian nation in the developed world, with incomparably the widest differentials between the income and the wealth of its elites and its workers. In the nineteenth century, America offered half again as much opportunity to the children of the poor as England or France. In the twenty-first century, virtually every study shows that we rank below the middle of the pack in opportunity to rise. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, we were, per capita, the richest country in the world. Now we consistently trail half a dozen countries in northern Europe and erratically lag a changing handful of others in Europe every year, while unfailingly bringing up the rear in health care, longevity, infant mortality, and virtually every more sensitive measure of quality of life.
This is now a nation in which great corporations hold the rest of us hostage in splendid indifference to We the People. They pay dramatically diminishing taxes, they shelter earnings offshore and send jobs offshore, they disdain any obligation to their communities and their employees, and they pay obscene numbers of lawyers and lobbyists to insure that they can imperil the environment and human life on this planet for their next-quarter profits. Their power precludes the return to the good old days and the ancient virtues that Peter excoriates academics for abandoning.
I don’t for a moment discount the bright visions and the glowing words of the Founders, and I don’t know any other academics who do. The scholars who spoke at The American Revolution Reborn study the founders – all the founders – because they treasure those ideals and that rhetoric. But the world of the Founders and the founders is not ours, and their virtues no longer characterize us distinctively or, in some cases, at all. The question is how we salvage something of those virtues in a world transformed, and largely transformed in ways inimical to those virtues. The question is how we renew those virtues under new circumstances and against the odds. But we can’t take up those questions and a dozen others like them if we simply reiterate the old verities. If we are to engage in the conversation we have to have in 2013, we have got to acknowledge the realities of our new world. And if we do, we will assuredly face the intense hostility of the powerful people who have actually hijacked the country Peter loves while he’s been busy berating impotent academics for the heist.
In one of his most severe swipes at those academics, Peter lamented their lack of any apparent pride in the Revolution. People everywhere, he says, take pride in the birth of their own country; only ivory-tower elites do not. But, in this regard, Peter did not attend the same conference I did. He blogged as though we all understand and agree on the story of that birth. BUT WE DON’T. That, it seemed to me, was the burden and the anguish of the conference. A bunch of well-meaning scholars who don’t even know their own minds with any assurance, let alone think they know “the truth” of that birth, came together in the hope that, together, they might make more sense of it than they now do. The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in that birth. The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth?
Pride was not the mood of the conference because humility was. That is why messiness was, as Peter admits, the recurrent theme of our time together. That, I think, is why no one was eager to address the question of whether the Revolution was a good thing. That question begs a deeper one, on which no one wanted to pronounce pontifically: what was the Revolution? On that, we will be having conferences like The American Revolution Reborn forever. Or at least until the great corporate leaders who really don’t believe in We the People or in America finally win and tell us once and for all what the Revolution was.