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LGM Review of Books: Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States

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Jill Lepore is arguably the most famous professional historian in America at this point, thanks to her frequent New Yorker columns and now her one-volume history of the United States that became a New York Times bestseller. She is somewhat beloved by a certain subset of liberals. But in reading These Truths, I have little else to conclude that this book is a pretty significant failure due to a combination of hubris, significant omissions that say way too much about her own position in this project, and a horrific ending that David Broder would love.

The great historian Richard White has called Lepore’s approach, in his lengthy review in Reviews in American History, “New Yorker Nation.” This is a better summary of how I initially interpreted this book, which is a history by and for NPR liberals. This means that it is a straight political history by someone who really very much wants to believe in American stories and mythologies about itself. That’s different from someone who wants to cover up the horrors of the American past. What it means is that Lepore is a historian of early America who still sees the ultimate American project as a pretty great thing, despite its flaws. I simply cannot agree. I see the American project as an unmitigated disaster for most of the world, a nation that has existed almost entirely upon the repression of people of color over many centuries, one that has gobbled up the planet’s resources to the point of destroying most of the species on Earth over the next century and possibly threatening human civilization itself, and ones whose foundational myths are primarily used to erase stories of oppression, run roughshod over other nations, and not take seriously the inequality at the heart of the project. The reason why this overarching interpretation of American history matters so much is that it goes far to frame the story of the nation and what does or does not count as central to the narratives we are going to tell ourselves about our country in these troubled times.

Now, I don’t want to be unfair here. Writing a one-volume history of the United States is very, very hard. Things are going to be dropped out of the story, even at 750 pages. The only way to approach such a project is without much hubris, just admitting that the whole thing is a fool’s errand, but that I have a story I want to tell anyway because I think it is important. And while there’s a little lip service to this in the introduction, this is not a story or a historian who seems to share a lot of self-doubt. She says that a big part of the reason she wanted to write this is because a one-volume history has not been tried in awhile. She then connects herself up with some of the liberal historians of the past such as Carl Degler while notably omitting the one example of the genre that people actually read, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. And while I certainly believe Zinn’s work has problems and we need a new history of the nation from the left (the book is 40 years old after all), it isn’t any more problematic than any of the other older one-volume histories. And it certainly isn’t more problematic than Lepore’s stab at it.

Let’s be clear here as well–the book has its strengths. In addition to her New Yorker writing, Lepore is one of the finest scholars of early America. The material on the American Revolution is probably the book’s strength, a masterful telling of a political narrative of the nation’s founding that has great appeal for lots of liberals in the age of Hamilton, the play whose popularity rests in part on liberals desperately seeking a Founding Father than can use as a lifeboat in an age when slavery has sullied so many of our once beloved Founders and when the rise of fascism has polluted the broader understanding of the period for nefarious ends. Lepore’s writing is sometimes intentionally showy–she could tamper down the storytelling flourishes a little bit without losing the narrative power from time to time–but she certainly delivers the goods for a general readership.

But this is a story that is fundamentally about a vision of politics that is very comforting to the NPR liberal set–one that focuses on a pretty narrow set of rights, with far more interest in milestones than justice. The “rights vs justice” framework is pretty important to delineate different forms of left of center politics and is really on display here. So Lepore is very concerned with the utopian ideas of the Founders and how they were extended through time. This creates space for certain types of stories–women’s suffrage, mainline civil rights. But what it also means is that this book’s politics nearly lacks any interest in political economy. That means that corporate power is hardly discussed. And that’s a huge hole in this book because these political rights have never operated within a vacuum and her fretting about them declining today falls apart by not focusing on corporate power.

This also means that there are shocking omissions. The entire field of environmental history does not exist for Lepore. Class conflict simply does not exist in this book. Samuel Gompers is not mentioned. The CIO is mentioned precisely one time. Debs is mentioned a few times, but her interests in him are far more concerned with the denial of “these truths” in the World War I era than him as a labor leader. Native Americans exist in this book only as a story about European expansion and the contradictions in this American Dream. She literally does not mention Native Americans in the twentieth century for one word. Not one. Latinos are hardly better. The United Farm Workers get a couple of sentences. Corky Gonzales gets a few words. And that’s all. The Zoot Suit Riots are not mentioned at all, for instance. Neither are the deportations of the 1930s.

This might sound like nitpicking a little bit. Going through an index for omissions is usually a cheap way to review a book. But in this case, it matters both what it omitted and what it means. The reason for this, I believe, is that Lepore is really committed to a vision of the past where “these truths” are in fact that most important story in America and while she certainly wouldn’t deny the contradictions, in some ways it is easier to frame the hypocrisy strictly through the stories of African-American oppression and then their fighting back, mostly telling a story of the black freedom struggle that reflects said truths denied and then at least sort of fulfilled, than to focus on the multiplicity of oppressions that define American history. If you erase class and erase corporate power and erase Native Americans and mostly erase Latinos, you can indeed simplify your story into a manageable narrative that doesn’t really question the fundamental promise and goodness of the nation, for all its flaws.

And then there’s the last two chapters, where she focuses on the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These are utterly disastrous. Lepore is pretty clearly now in Academic Superstar land, where Conventional Wisdom (TM) is the rule of the day and interaction with the real world become attenuated. In these, she channels a “both sides do it” narrative straight out of the decayed corpse of David Broder. For Lepore, the decline of civility in politics is not only something that we are all responsible for–with extra contempt paid for college students who are evidently all Oberlin students who supposedly raised hell over bahn mi (even though they didn’t), but she completely lacks the ability to see her own era as just another moment when political violence is a norm in America. I’m not saying that our current problems are not deeply troubling. They are. But as a historian of the colonial period and early republic, when political violence was far worse than today, I am highly confused at why she descends into civility concerns. Just last week, I talked about how Light Horse Harry Lee nearly had his nose cut off by rioters in the War of 1812; I’m not sure what today even comes close to matching this violence, at least not yet.

But let’s be specific about these last chapters. First, the central figure in them is Alex Jones. This is crazy. Alex Jones gets more attention in this book than every Latino who has ever lived in this nation combined. Now, I certainly agree that the rise of conspiracy theory media is important and I think the overall strength of the later chapters is her discussion of technology. But this is a vast overstatement of his importance, especially in the larger trajectory of American history. Moreover, while she bemoans the rise of the far right, she also takes every opportunity to blame the left, especially the kids. Take this example from page 691:

Liberals engaged in a politics of grievance and contempt: anyone who disagreed with them was racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic–and stupid. On college campuses, they passed “hate speech” codes, banning speech that they deemed offensive. They would brook no dissent.

What is she even talking about? The equivalent of Alex Jones are college students who don’t want Milo on campus? Then there is this, from page 701:

By the 1980s, influenced by the psychology and popular culture of trauma, the Left had abandoned solidarity across difference in favor of the mediation on and expression of suffering, a politics of feeling and resentment, of self and sensitivity.

I find Lepore talking about solidarity hilarious given that working class people basically don’t exist for her, but while there are legitimate critiques of the rise of postmodernism and its impacts, to me this reads as little more than “I am a professor and I don’t like trigger warnings.” Moreover, this is just a ridiculous channeling of elite narratives about young people and left-leaning culture as an identity politics that seeks to destroy American culture through anger. It’s befuddling. And it undermines her book.

In the end, Lepore’s narrative and vision of the past and present is that These Truths are very real to her and she doesn’t see people giving them the proper respect today. To me, said truths were always a lie and remain so today. In an era where one side has simply dropped the pretense that said truths do matter–which is hardly the only time in American history but perhaps the first time where lots of whites are clearly included in who doesn’t count–the other side is finally starting to wake up to this and reflecting reality rather than liberal self-serving narratives about law and justice and These Truths. Maybe These Truths are not self-evident and instead have been an excuse for white supremacy and corporate domination that slowly, very slowly and very hesitantly, allowed for the occasional expansion of rights to other people so long as they don’t challenge capitalism and usually not even then. Jill Lepore has a hard time processing this, leading to an interesting, breezy, and flawed history and a very problematic discussion of contemporary America. If your politics reflect Lepore’s you will probably enjoy this book. If you see her politics as limited, you will feel uncomfortable with the book.

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