America the Beautiful, Revised Version
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- True patriotism, especially of the American variety, comes from questioning the history you were born into. As July 4 approaches, we should all keep this in mind as we question some of the fundamentals of the American story — and we should ask ourselves not whether these reconsiderations are justified, but why there aren’t more of them.
Revisionist history serves many useful purposes, and for the most part it should be encouraged — even though many particular revisionist claims turn out to be wrong. The natural human state of affairs is a kind of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. If historians sometimes write a bit too sharply or speculatively to capture the audience’s attention, it is a price worth paying. At any rate, the audience tends not to take them literally or to pay close attention to their more detailed claims.
I was recently at a dinner party with a number of highly educated, well-known Washington pundits. Not even many of them had read through the entire New York Times 1619 Project — so how much attention might the broader American public be paying? At the same time, many people know that the role of slavery in American history is being re-examined, and that this has become an issue in our culture wars, and some states are introducing or passing legislation to regulate how history should be taught in schools.
Whatever your views on the underlying issues, the overall impact of the 1619 Project is much more important than its errors, such as overstating the extent to which slavery financed American capitalism.
As a teenager, I read Charles Beard’s “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” Beard argued that the real motives for approving the Constitution often were selfish, as many backers wanted to make sure their government debt holdings were paid off. As it turns out, the hypothesis does not entirely hold up, and the importance of this once-influential book has faded.
As a young reader, I knew to approach books skeptically. Beard nonetheless encouraged me to try to understand institutions more deeply, to look for hidden and possibly selfish motives behind political actions. For me his book demystified many of the Founders, even if not always for the right reasons. In short, the book was great for me, and I didn’t stop loving the United States or its Constitution.
I also read a broad swath of largely left-wing revisionist books criticizing U.S. foreign policy, ranging from William Appleman Williams to Gabriel Kolko to David Horowitz. A lot in those books turned out to be wrong, and some of the more simplistic interpretations were never plausible to begin with. Still, what an entire generation took away from those books was not some particular view about the Open Door Policy or the motives behind the Yalta agreement. It is that American foreign policy, and in particular American wars, should be questioned rigorously and skeptically.
Another benefit of revisionist history debates is how often they lead to unusual ideological alliances or shifts. David Horowitz, once a Marxist critic of American war capitalism, became a significant neoconservative figure. Some of the very best criticisms of the 1619 Project have come from the World Socialist Web Site. Mixing it up in this manner is the sign of a vigorous and needed debate.
The problem is that the revisionism isn’t diverse enough. A few issues — most of all those raised by Critical Race Theory — get caught up in the culture wars and are debated above all others. I agree that we should devote more time and attention to America’s disgraceful history of slavery and race relations, and I have incorporated that into my own teaching.
Still, other matters are being neglected. The longer trajectory of U.S. foreign policy is hardly debated, or what that history should mean for current decisions. There is plenty of carping about “the deep state,” but actual history has fallen down a memory hole, including the history of U.S. intelligence agencies.
It gets worse yet. According to one recent survey, 63% of the American public is not aware that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Ten percent had not heard of the Holocaust at all. Or consider the treatment of Native Americans, which was terrible and produced few heroes. Yet American soul-searching on this history seems to be minimal.
America needs revisionism, more of it please, and on timely and controversial topics. But it also needs less politicized and more intellectually diverse interpretations of its history. On this Fourth of July, what America needs is not the promotion of some particular claim of historical hypocrisy, but the elevation of the historical itself.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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