The Bad News and the Good News
By and large, ordinary Americans like their history much as they like their milk: homogenized and pasteurized, with all impurities removed. Our preferred narrative of the past is the Ken Burns PBS version: plenty of drama and lots of human interest, but ultimately uplifting rather than subversive or discomfiting. Oh, yes, and packaged with an old-timey soundtrack.
Whatever the particulars of their background or upbringing, ordinary Americans know that ours is the greatest nation ever. Greatness in this context does not imply grace or refinement or superior cuisine. It refers to opportunities seized, wealth accrued, power wielded, and privileges enjoyed, with more of the same still to come, as the Almighty Himself surely intends.
If the past as recorded, interpreted, and conveyed has an agreed upon purpose—and most Americans think it ought to—that purpose is to chronicle the nation’s ass-kicking rise to global primacy. While the allowable metanarrative may reference the odd disappointment or momentary setback, it emphasizes obstacles overcome by a people given to snarling “don’t tread on me” when annoyed. Year by year, decade by decade, century by century, American-style freedom and democracy thereby come closer to perfection. So at least most ordinary Americans like to believe.
My reference to “ordinary Americans” is not meant to suggest that every U.S. citizen subscribes to the “We’re number one!” school of historiography. But I’m willing to bet that virtually all of the 74 millions who in 2020 voted for Donald Trump do. And so do more than a few of the millions who voted for Joe Biden, himself on the record as declaring the United States “the greatest nation on earth.”
Granted, members of the intelligentsia don’t necessarily subscribe to the views entertained by ordinary Americans. After all, their job is to think otherwise. They delight in subverting and discomfiting. So they skewer, deflate, and raise a ruckus.
Consider, by way of recent examples, critical race theory and the “1619 Project” initiated by the New York Times. Each attacks the patriotic narrative at what has always been its weakest point: on matters related to race. Each in its own way appears intent on rendering that narrative untenable. Hence, the semi-hysterical response that each has elicited, not all of it attributable to the cynicism of Fox News and the Trump-compromised Republican Party.
But trust me: That response is vastly overwrought and needlessly so.
It is an odd thing, but true: Intellectuals are as susceptible to fads as teenagers. Confusing novelty with insight or truth, they rush to climb onboard whatever is the shiniest new bandwagon to appear in the campus parking lot. We live in a moment when the purveyors of the latest intellectual fads—consider the celebrity status of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates — happen to be riding high. That they are making the most of it is understandable. You would too.
To my fellow citizens who find all of this disconcerting, I would simply say this: Chill. Take it from a former teacher: What gets conveyed in the classroom is probably the least important source of the education that your children actually acquire in high school or college. If you really want to keep them from succumbing to corruption, take away their cellphones.
Most ordinary Americans, regardless of color, are always going to prefer 1776 to 1619 as a point of origin for our national story. And given a choice between the racialist doctrines that are currently all the rage in some quarters and the insistence on inalienable rights explicit in Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration and woven into Dr. King’s preaching, the overwhelming majority will opt for Jefferson and King.
On this front, in other words, the good news is the bad news: Ongoing controversies notwithstanding, Americans really do believe that theirs is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. And except in passing, few are likely to entertain any second thoughts on that score.
And who knows? The bad news just might prove to be the good news. At a moment of acute national disunity and dysfunction, resurrecting the ideals to which the American Revolution gave voice just might provide a path to salvation.
Life, Liberty, Equality: How’s that for a political slogan?
Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.