American Revolution Reborn:
Michael Zuckerman on American Exceptionalism


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home_revolutionI 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.

5 thoughts on “American Revolution Reborn:
Michael Zuckerman on American Exceptionalism

  1. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez

    On balance, the American Revolution or the American War for Independence/The American Revolution was not in and of itself a good thing or bad thing. It did however undermine the ludicrous idea of the “devine right of kings and one man rule dictatorships and short, it started a slow but inexorable world-wide movement toward democracy. In this regard, it would be better to label it as the “American Evolution” since the magnitude of the changes it immediately brought about were relatively small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things of the late18th and early 19th centuries. Nonetheless democracy, i.e., representative government, progressed in a shaky, step-by-step and imperfect fashion, here and abroad. As far as I am concerned, it is still a work in progress although sometimes it is stalled and even takes a step or two backward. Perhaps the greatest error was to believe that the Revolution and democracy was a one size fits all concept that could be exported. It seems to me that democracy takes on many forms and in this sense the U.S. is indeed exceptional, meaning that no other country is like the U.S. in the way it governs itself. However, this uniqueness is not necessarily better or worse – it is just acomplex and different.
    Similarly, The American War for Independence was a complex undertaking and not one that can be explained just in terms of its glories or mistakes. This conflict was a civil war with brother fighting against brother and not just a war of good America fighting against an evil, despotic, unfair tax imposing Britain. It was a world war fought far beyond the borders of the 13 colonies and it could not have been won by the Americans without the intervention of foreign nations, principally France and Spain. (The latter’s role was equal to that of the former but has been dismissed because Spain allied itself to France and not to the U.S.) It was a war that came into being as a result of American propaganda and the outcome rested on public opinion both in British America at home and in Great Britain itself. It was won in great part because of American diplomatic efforts. (Benjamin Franklyn was particularly brilliant in wooing the French public to see things our way.) It was an asymmetrical war that took full advantage of geography and it a brilliant American strategy of avoiding pitched battles with a stronger British Army whenever possible.
    In summary, calling the American Revolution good or bad thing is a moral judgement and not a historical one. Moral of judgments of past events should be left to philosophers and ethicist and not to historians. Their role is to tell us the who, what ,where, how and why of history with a plausible interpretation.

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  2. Avon

    Michael Zuckerman’s piece makes me want to go back and review Peter Feinman’s again! I wish there were a link to it. The two pretty clearly have very different political beliefs. And I did like Feinman’s advocacy of national pride, since I too love a lot about our country and our nation, but I don’t believe in enforcing it! Patriotism for patriotism’s sake alone is beneath us – and ignites international conflicts.

    But regardless of what Feinman said exactly, Zuckerman has a good point: There is so much valid debate, based on so much conflicting evidence and so many conflicting interpretations of it, that we do not yet know what the Revolution was – and without that, responsible historians literally can’t say whether it was good or bad. Zuckerman doesn’t say so, but he makes me think it’ll never be possible.

    And commenter Hernandez also has a good point: Ethics arguments are for ethicists, not historians!

    Zimmerman has identified and listed some good things and several evils that may be attributed to the Revolution, and other historians such as Howard Zinn (widely debunked, yet also defended here in recent days as having a point of view worth discussing) have very different lists.

    The history lessons I grew up with glorified the Patriot cause, even while I – raised in Morristown NJ where the winter encampments are a National Park – visited often the sites of great misery and despair and imagined exactly the opposite. As a pacifist who studied in depth the techniques of Gandhi, the Norwegian WWII resistance, and other historical examples, I’d argue that the Revolution was an inefficient, costly, slow, immoral and ultimately damaging way to achieve independence. (I cringe when we criticize Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Egypt today for their equally “bad” conflicts for new nationhood, since there were poverty, tumult, rebellion and injustices in our own nation’s first decades too. No war ever seems to leave things nice.)

    If historians decide the American Revolution was a good thing, I’ll never accept it.
    If ethicists were ever to say so, I’d be more interested in at least entertaining the idea.

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  3. Herb HallasHerb Hallas

    Thanks for putting this link up. Peter did a wonderful job reviewing the conference and offering insights. He hardly deserved Dr. Zuckerman’s rebuke.

    Dr. Zuckerman claims that Peter: ardently affirms, in a “pious hyper-patriotic way,” American exceptionalism which is “an embarrassment”; has written an article in praise of an America which is a “fantasy” because it denies “the drastic diminution” of the American Dream and American democracy; “excortiates” academics for abandoning the good old days and the ancient virtues; “berates impotent academics” for hijacking the country; and laments the fact that ivory-tower elites do not have pride in the birth of their own country.

    I re-read Peter’s articles and I cannot see where he is guilty of any of Dr. Zuckerman’s charges. If Peter excoriates anyone, it is people who have a “small-minded ignorance of America’s past”—they “sabotage the potential of America’s future.” Peter’s statement that “the eyes of the world are still upon us” and that “we still have a rendezvous with destiny as the last best hope for humanity” is a call to action—not a story about a dream or fantasy.

    I agree with most of Dr. Zuckerman’s substantive comments about the state of the union. Great corporations wield enormous power over us, we are part of the problem, our political institutions are rigid and unresponsive, there has been a diminution of the American Dream and American democracy, and the world has been greatly transformed since the days of the Founding Fathers.

    “We the People” are being challenged to continue to fulfill the ideals of the Founding Fathers in new circumstances. One way average Americans can meet this challenge is to become actively involved in politics and government on the local level on a long-term basis—not one or two elections. Failure by academics to add participation in local government and politics to their curricula vitae only makes it easier for the corporate “evil empire” to consolidate its power.

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  4. Rick Bondi

    Concerning the implications of Doctor Zuckerman:

    I am exhausted after reading and comparing the text, stopping to contemplate and formulate a score card on points made ( and by whom) and the unresolved questions asked.

    Before taking up another cup of coffee perhaps I should take a nap and rest being thankful that the issues were raised and debate followed.

    The ping-pong from Feinman’s detractor PhD from Pennsylvania was to be anticipated as you placed the esteemed elder in the crosshairs. The notion that we are either hijacked by impotent academics or powerful corporate moguls is one of degree rather than definitive proof, in my view, and therefore defies resolution by any standard resembling guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
    Rick Bondi, Esq.

    ps: Should Doctor Feinman seek more violent controversy, perhaps next he may delve into a debate on the Civil War when he and we the people are up to it. I opine that after one hundred fifty years, the moment is not yet at hand.

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