Friday, July 12, 2019

Review: The Soul of America

The Soul of America
From The Soul of America, by Jon Meacham:

Open quote 
For many, the fact that we have arrived at a place in the life of the nation where a grand wizard of the KKK can claim, all too plausibly, that he is at one with the will of the president of the United States seems an unprecedented moment. History, however, shows us that we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness, and strife. The good news is that we have come through such darkness before."

The bad news is that the same shit keeps happening, generation after generation. It's not Meacham's thesis, but like playing Russian roulette, eventually the bad shit is going to kill us.

Grade: B-

Meacham may have meant this history to be an optimistic telling of American history. That no matter how bad things were in the past — and Native American removal, slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and the Red Scare are definitely bad — we managed to get through them. But I took a more pessimistic lesson from my reading.

Each generation, the forces of evil, like the waves of a storm, break against the levee of our American civilization. The fact that the levee still stands gives me little comfort. The fact that the waves endlessly continue to break tells me that the levees will eventually, somewhere, somehow, be breached and America will drown.

Yeah, it's that bad. At least in my reading. Jon Meacham obviously thought he was writing a different kind of book, a book of hope and optimism. But Americans always think the best.
"I always consider the settlement of America with Reverence and Wonder," John Adams wrote in 1765, "as the Opening of a grand scene and Design in Providence, for the Illumination of the Ignorant and the Emancipation of the slavish Part of Mankind all over the Earth."
Source: The Soul of America.
It boggles my mind how Adams could blindly overlook the ongoing removal, even genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans for the benefit of American business while extolling America for the exact opposite of what was happening on his own watch. I think something of the same myopia afflicts Jon Meacham in this book. I fear each generation of Americans mistakes material progress for moral perfection. Air conditioning is not justice. Color television is not a more perfect union.

I'll leave you with one more quote from the book. It's about Senator Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare tactics in the early 1950s.
McCarthy’s headline hunting also benefitted from the culture of journalism at midcentury: that the job of a journalist was to report the content of a statement, not to assess its validity. 'My own impression was that Joe was a demagogue,' one journalist of the era observed. 'But what could I do? I had to report—quote—McCarthy. How do you say in the middle of your story, ‘This is a lie’? The press is supposedly neutral. You write what the man says.'
Source: The Soul of America.
That passage strikes me as something that could be written today about what's happening in Washington. The good news is that America survived McCarthyism. The bad news is that surviving McCarthyism is not the same thing as vanquishing it. A more virulent strain of demagoguery is at large today, infecting not just the Senate but the White House itself. For me, Trumpism is evidence against the belief that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." We have no choice but to resist, but that's not the same thing as optimism that America will always prevail.

No comments: