Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Lying and Liars

 I have just finished a short, provocative book by a very good friend of mine, the law professor Catherine Ross.  Entitled A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, it surveys the law of lying in the United States with particular attention to several interesting court cases, and then asks what might have been done to deal effectively with our once and possibly future liar-in-chief, Donald J. Trump.  It is a very readable work of detailed legal scholarship and lay person will learn a lot from it.  While I would not have been able to accept a formal reviewing assignment because of our friendship, I see no reason not to explore the issues that it raises here.

The first part of the book explains carefully, first, that lying is generally protected by the First Amendment, and second, that as a result, recent states' attempts to ban lying during campaigns have generally been thrown out by federal courts.  Lying is of course illegal in certain contexts:  in legal proceedings, in filling out government forms, and if it is undertaken to secure monetary gain via fraud.  We also still have state laws against defamation--that is, slander or libel--but under New York Times vs. Sullivan (1964), which Ross discusses relatively briefly, it has become almost impossible for public figures to win defamation cases, since they must show willful, reckless disregard of the truth, motivated by "actual malice," on the part of the offender.  In 2005, the federal government tried to ban one form of lying in the Stolen Valor Act, which criminalized false claims of having been awarded certain military decorations.  When the case of Xavier Alvarez, a local elected official and compulsive liar, reached the Supreme Court, however, the court decided, in a split opinion, that the law was unconstitutional because it banned falsehood for its own sake, whether the speaker uttered it for a separate nefarious motive or not.  While banning falsehoods to serve a compelling interest might be legal were it done narrowly enough, any blanket prohibition against lies would violate the speech clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held, in short, that the government cannot restrict speech under the First Amendment without some clearly compelling interest to do so that would not, in turn, lead to further indefensible prohibitions  Ross clearly agrees with that holding, and so do I.  The courts have also protected satirical falsehoods, creating a potentially dangerous doctrine that one is not liable for falsehoods that listeners could not be expected to believe--a sound doctrine, perhaps, in quieter times, but a slippery one in the climate of the 2020s. 

Political campaigns in the United States have featured outrageous lies both by candidates and their supporters since the first truly contested presidential election of 1796, and our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, probably faced more of them than anyone.  Ross cites the infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988, in which the George H. W. Bush campaign falsely claimed that Michael Dukakis was personally responsible for the furlough policy that had enabled a convicted murderer to commit a rape, as a particularly influential case.  However, in a long, controversial case involving a Wisconsin campaign for a seat on the state supreme court, Judge Michael Gableman eventually got away with a very similar and even more misleading claim against his opponent, even though he was bound by a judicial code of ethics that specifically banned campaign misstatements of fact. The case eventually reached the state supreme court--he recused himself--and Republican justices found ways to claim that the ad was not a lie, because its individual statements, while arranged in an utterly misleading sequence, were each true.  The court split 3-3 and dismissed the complaint against Gableman.  More generally, Ross tells us, federal courts have thrown out every state statute that has come before them since 2012 that tried to regulate campaign speech, except some relating to judicial elections where different rules often apply.  Various federal Courts of Appeals have agreed that such laws have to pass a strict scrutiny test, meaning that they would have to serve a "compelling interest," that they would truly solve the problem, and that they would not unnecessarily restrict other speech.  Opposing speech, in short, remains the only legal remedy against false campaign speech--but any serious historians knows that that has been the effective rule for the whole of our history, and we have so far survived.  Ross also makes clear that she believes this is how things should be.

In its last section, the book turns to the falsehoods of Donald Trump, who appears to have been a compulsive liar for the whole of his adult life.  She focuses on two sets of lies.  First, starting in early 2020, Trump's false statements about COVID, masking, and potential treatments obviously hampered a proper response to the pandemic and cost the nation an untold number of lives--in  my personal opinion, tens of thousands at least.  Second, of course, his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election before, during and after it took place undermined faith in democracy and led to the January 6 insurrection.  In order to propose a remedy for these and similar lies, Ross begins with another provision of federal law.  The President is undeniably a government employee, and the political speech of government employees is in fact severely restricted.  Ross mentions that under the law, government employees' speech is only protected if they are speaking as private citizens on a matter of public interest.  I might add that federal employees in recent decades have been severely disciplined for circulating articles endorsing or criticizing candidates via email at work.  Such laws open the door, she argues, to legislation or other Congressional action--including warnings, censure, or impeachment--in response to presidential lies.   While she recognizes how unlikely such legislation is in the current climate, she wants us all to start thinking about it.

It is here that I personally have a different view.  I share the concern about the impact of presidential lies, but I think the remedy is already in the Constitution in the impeachment clause, which provides for the removal of the president upon conviction of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."  While lying in itself does not fall under those words, Trump's lies about COVID--and many other things as well--formed part of a pattern, for me, that would have fully justified his impeachment and conviction.  Here I am relying on my reading of another work of legal scholarship, Impeachment, the Constitutional Problems, by Raoul Berger, which appeared (fortuitously) in 1973.  The phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors," he showed, came from British precedents having to do with the impeachment and conviction of high officials (the monarch, unlike the president, being legally invulnerable in Britain.) It clearly did not refer to ordinary violations of laws, and an eminent 18th-century commentator, Richard Wooddeson, listed among precedents various kinds of malfeasance in office: "a lord admiral to have neglected the safeguard of the sea," "a privy councilor to have propounded or supported pernicious or dishonorable measures," and "an ambassador to have betrayed his trust," among other measures.  It is true, as Ross mentions, that in the debates in the constitutional convention, James Madison rejected "maladministration" as one specific grounds for impeachment because the word was too broad.  Yet in my opinion, those precedents show that truly disastrous performance of one's duties in office is indeed grounds for impeachment.  If a failure to "safeguard the sea" is sufficient grounds, then surely a failure to safeguard the whole people of the United States against an epidemic and instead repeatedly make statements that put that people risk must surely be grounds as well, in my opinion.

Although President Nixon resigned before he could even be impeached, he would not only have been impeached but convicted--as no other president has been--had he tried to remain in office. Lying, as Ross points out, was one of the reason--but his lies were a critical part of an attempt to cover up a serious crime, the Watergate burglary.   We agree that subverting our laws is proper grounds for impeachment.  I think that the nation now fails to recognize that disastrous performance in office should--indeed, in my opinion, must--be grounds as well because we take our government's functions for granted and tend to regard the presidency as something we bestow upon people we like.  Thus the Republican Party was willing to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about an extramarital sexual encounter, but turned a blind eye to Trump's four years of disastrous government.  Indeed, most of that party has now chosen to embrace his lies about COVID implicitly (by opposing various kinds of mandates) or explicitly (by endorsing the idea that the election was stolen.)

And on this point Ross and I agree: the current state of the Republican Party makes any remedy for these very serious ills impossible.  On the one hand, the Republic has ever been entirely healthy in this respect--we have heard many campaign lies and some presidential lies for the whole or our history.  It is only in the 21st century, however, that a major party nominated and the country elected a hopelessly compulsive liar to office, whose party subsequently became entirely loyal to him and reluctant to disagree with anything that he said. Meanwhile, I would add, distrust in government has grown so far that another large segment of the population no longer has any real expectations of it. The founders understood that our republican experiment depended upon an informed electorate and a responsible leadership class, and both of those, now, are lacking.   There may be no legal remedy for such ills.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

What makes a nation?

 A few weeks ago, browsing through the left wing Israeli daily Ha'aretz--whose opinion pages I prefer to those of any US newspaper--I came across an interview with a very iconoclastic Israeli academic named Shlomo Sand.  Sand, now 75, has been a leftist all his life and was once a Communist, and the interview dealt with his latest book, A Brief History of the Left, which is not yet available in English.  I did not agree with everything he said in a wide-ranging metahistorical discussion, but I liked his frankness about the collapse of the traditional left in the west, owing to the new disconnect between the old working class and the intellectual elite.   Sand understands "the left" to be focused on greater equality, whether obtained through democracy or by force.  He actually argues that capitalism is decreasing inequality in the poorer parts of the world today--a point which I would question, even though I agree that the standard of living in the lower classes in Asia and Africa has been rising--but he recognizes how much inequality has been increasing in the developed world in the last half century or so.  He has lived through the almost complete disappearance of a social democratic ideal in Israel and he sees it vanishing in countries like France and Germany as well.

The interview also mentioned that Sand had published a controversial book in 2008 entitled The Invention of the Jewish People (he is not a man to mince words), and I was moved to get it out of my local library system and read it.  It's a remarkable study of about three millennia of Jewish history, based on a very wide reading of secondary sources about the history of the Jews, the Mediterranean and the Near East in general, and Central Asia--including a great many archeological finds in various places.  It's a highly political document, among other things, aiming to undermine the central myth (I'm using that word in its broadest sense, without reference to truth or falsehood) of the Zionist state of Israel.  That myth holds that the Jewish people are a homogenous ethnic group descended originally from Abraham and Isaac that was scattered twice, first by the Babylonians and then in the first century A. D. by the Romans.  Exiles, it holds founded all the large Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in Central Asia, some of whom eventually migrated to Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Jews lived by around 1900 or so. The late-19th century Zionist movement in Eastern Europe began their return to the Holy Land, and the creation of Israel in 1948 consummated that process. Meanwhile, in an effort to lay an historical foundation for their new state, Sand argues, a number of Zionist historians began to accept the Old Testament as a reliable historical document detailing the rise and fall of the original Kingdom of Israel.  

Step by step, Sand uses other histories and sources to explode these myths.  He draws on the much-neglected Bible criticism of 19th-century Germany, which used linguistic analysis, among other things, to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not in fact written by Moses, but were written many centuries after his death--somewhere between the 6th and 3rd century B. C.E.--if indeed Moses ever existed at all.  (I was quite surprised that Sand never mentioned another favorite book of mine, Freud's Moses and Monotheism, which used the same sources to make a similar argument, concluding that Moses was in fact a rebel member of the Egyptian royal family.)  It turns out, Sand shows, that the Egyptians left behind considerable written records of their early history, and they say nothing about Jews or the events surrounding the exodus at all.  More importantly, he argues convincingly that there was no mass expulsion of Jews from Israel under the Roman Empire, and that the "exile" Jewish writers made so much of was metaphorical, referring to their evident loss of God's favor.  Judaism, he argues based on other scholarly works, was a proselytizing religion in the first centuries of the Christian era, creating large new Jewish communities in what is now Yemen, all along the North African Coast (from which they later moved into Spain), and a bit later, in Central Asia, where the Khazar tribe adopted Judaism.  The rise of Islam beginning in the 8th century converted many (but never all) of these new Jews to Islam, and the Mongol invasions centuries later destroyed the Khazar kingdom.  Following Arthur Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe, which I read when it appeared in 1976, Sand argues that the great Jewish communities of Russia and Poland began as Khazar refugees from the Mongols.  This remains a very strong argument, since there really has never been another convincing explanation of how those very large groups could have come from Germany (where the Jewish population was very small) or the Mediterranean.  These communities did eventually adopt Yiddish, mainly a German dialect, as their language, but that, he thinks, was because of the large Christian German immigration into the same regions during the Middle Ages. 

Sand argues, in short, that there is no genetically homogeneous  Jewish people with a common ancestry and more than there is a Catholic one, and that proselytizing created both.  (The  Catholic analogy is mine, not his, but I don't think he would object to it.)  Since the discovery of DNA there have been attempts in Israel to prove common ancestry, but Sand argues based on various studies that their claims to do so have not been validated. The real basis for Israeli citizenship, he says, is not race but religion, and a quite orthodox brand of Judaism at that, one that emphasizes the need to maintain the exclusivity of the Jewish community--the reason that there has never been a legal way for a Jew in Israel to marry a non-Jew, since there is no such thing there as civil marriage. Sand, like me, has obviously never been religious--his parents were left wing as well as himself--and he obviously bitterly resents that particular restriction upon Israeli citizens' personal freedom very much.  It offends me at least as much because I happen to be a child of the kind of marriage that can't take place in Israel, and I obviously can't accept any belief system that argues that I should never have been born.  The last part of his book is an extended argument--delivered as much in sorrow than in anger--that Israel should adopt a new definition of citizenship based simply on residence, not religion, and that it abandon the idea that it can proclaim itself a "Jewish state" and provide equal justice to its 20 percent non-Jewish minority (I am referring their to the population of pre-1967 Israel, not to the occupied territories, which present even more serious problems.)  From what I can see, Israel has in fact moved further in the opposite direction since the publication of his book.  He predicted that current policies might eventually lead to violent uprisings among the Arab population of Israel proper, and such uprisings indeed took place during the last year.  On the other hand, the current Israeli government includes some Arab representation.

I should certainly add, by the way, that Sand notes that the trend towards tribalism and away from universal values is a worldwide one, and he is right about that.  

Since I am not and could not be an Israeli, it is not my place to take sides in the arguments about the ruling ideology and the future of Israel.  Sand did set me thinking, however, about what has traditionally held the United States together.  Clearly that has never been either a common religion or a belief in descent from a common gene pool--even if some of the original immigrants from Britain have felt some superiority to the rest of the citizenry during various periods.  Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision argued that only white people could be citizens, but the two dissents from his decision, as I showed years ago, left no doubt that he was wrong as a matter of law and of history.    The Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments put an end to that controversy for all time.  What occurred to me as I read Sand was this: what really makes a nation is adherence to a common set of laws.  That is why law is, or should be, so important to history.  And in the United States this principle has another dimension.  We do commit merely to obey the law for its own sake, but because our laws are founded on a novel set of principles embodied in the Constitution--one based upon the legal equality of all persons residing within the country, and upon the use of democratic procedures--voting--to select our leaders.  The founding generation purposely created the nation based upon those principles and millions of immigrants came to this country because they wanted to live under them.

Of course, we did not initially apply those principles universally.  They did not apply in some respects to women, whom the law treated unequally, to slaves, or in some instances to free black people.  Yet as I have pointed out so many times, those exceptions were not demanded, or even specifically recognized, by the Constitution, which used the universal term "persons" throughout.  The question of who could vote--including women--was left entirely to the individual states, some of whom indeed did begin to grant women the vote well before the passage of the 19th amendment.  The common law did not protect slavery--it could exist only in states that specifically sanctioned it, and before Taney's decision in Dred Scott, dozens of slaves had in fact won their freedom in court after their masters had taken them into a free state.  That is why Frederick Douglass in 1860 could argue at length, and very effectively, that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  It is also why women and their allies could argue effectively that the restriction of the suffrage to men contradicted the spirit of the founding document.

We now face a serious threat to our nation and its principles--not as serious as in the late 1850s, in my opinion, at least not yet, but serious enough.  That threat comes in the first instance from the Republican Party which is threatening to use a gap in the Constitution to overturn the will of the electorate in the next election.  In creating the electoral college the founders left the manner of the choice of electors to the states.   Nearly all of them  rapidly gave the choice to all qualified voters, but even today, nothing requires that they do so.  Several presidents, led by Andrew Jackson, called for the abolition of the electoral college and a system of direct presidential election, but this has never been adopted.  Republicans in various states are trying to undermine popular election by giving their legislatures the power to certify the vote.  I still do not believe that voting rights are seriously threatened, as they were for much of our history.  The new laws Republicans are passing are taking away relatively new ways to vote conveniently, such as by mail or in drop boxes, but they have done nothing, in my opinion, that would keep a determined voter from casting a ballot.  Democrats should use them to mobilize and organize, not to claim that the election has already been lost.  They should also use them as issues in the next round of state legislative elections to try to change the balance of power in some states and perhaps get the laws repealed.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence, critical race theory and its offshoots argue that the principles and guarantees of the Constitution have never really been worth anything, and one prominent academic argues that we need a new institution, an unelected Department of Antiracism with virtually totalitarian powers, to restructure our society.  

Both these attacks on our traditions and principles threaten to destroy the American experiment--the most thoroughgoing attempt to implement the principles of the Enlightenment for the benefit of all. Both Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt recognized that those principles had to succeed here to have any chance of success in the rest of the world.  We still bear that responsibility.  We can restore those principles both for ourselves and the rest of the world by returning to our best traditions.  If we do abandon them, the whole world will suffer in ways we cannot foresee. 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

A great film and a parable

 Last Wednesday my 12-week course on Generations in Film, 1938-2021, came to an end  I gave it via zoom (alas) for the Harvard Institute for Learning and Retirement, where all sorts of retired professionals can teach whatever they are interested in.  Very few of us are academics and I only heard about it through a friend I met in a film group.  I had taught the course to Boomers and Xers at the Naval War College and to Millennials (once) at Williams College.  This time the 18 students were Boomers and Silents, including several old enough to have clear memories of V-J Day. It went very well.  None of us, alas, could find much cause for optimism as we contemplated the immediate future of our country as it tries to emerge from the crisis which, in my opinion, is now two decades old.

As I have have, I chose to end the course by returning to the beginning--the last crisis--with the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.   I have always loved using this film because its three main characters, played by Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Tim Holt, beautifully represent three different generations.  The film dates from 1948 but the novel that inspired it is 21 years older.  Huston represents the post-civil war Missionary generation, Bogart the Lost generation, and Holt the GIs.  They are the counterparts of today's Boomers, Xers, and Millennials. Huston--the elderly, experienced prosecutor Howard--blew me away the first time I saw the film on a dark January night 55 years ago at the Brattle theater--the first Bogart movie I ever saw. He has tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and understanding.  He is always doing, but also commenting on what happens, and he knows what to look for.  Not until Strauss and Howe's books came out did I realize why the impact was so great--I had never seen a fully adult example of my own Prophet archetype (which includes both Missionaries and Boomers) before.  

Midway through the movie, when the three prospectors have struck gold in the wilds of Mexico, is a scene that captures the three generational types perfectly.  I used it in this 30-minute summary of the 1929-45 crisis.  Each of them, in succession, talks about what they plan to do when they get back to civilization.  The Missionary wants to sit back and enjoy his last few years; the Lost is totally focused on his appetites; and the GI wants of make things grow.  

Yet it occurred to me as I prepared for this year's final class that it fit the mood of the moment for another reason.  Here I must post a spoiler alert: I'm going to have to give away the plot of this masterpiece. If you haven't seen it, you might want to find it streaming for a couple of dollars and enjoy it first.

Howard, the missionary, warns the other two early on that the "noble brotherhood" among prospectors only lasts until they find gold.  After that they fall out over the division of the spoils.  This plays out, of course, after they start heading back to civilization with $105,000 in depression among them.  They encounter some local Indians who need assistance, and Huston manages to revive the chief's child, who has nearly drowned. The Indians insist that he (but not the others) accept their hospitality for a few days, and Bogart and Holt set off with all the gold on their burros, promising to wait for Huston when they reach town.  Bogart almost immediately suggests that they cut Huston out entirely, and Holt, always loyal to the group in good GI fashion, refuses.  They immediately become enemies and Bogart tries to kill Holt.   He succeeds only in wounding him, although he does not know it, and Holt makes it back to the Indian camp while Bogart goes on alone.  Holt and Huston set off in pursuit, but before they can catch up, Bogart is killed by bandits just a few miles from the town he is trying to reach.  The bandits don't understand what the sacks of gold dust on the burros are, and they cut them open with their cutlasses for spite.  The gold dust blows back to the mountains, and Huston and Holt discover the ruin of their dreams a few hours later. 

What hit me with the force of revelation this time was that the whole story was a parable of the last 90 years of American history.  Down and out in 1931 like the three prospectors, the American nation went in search of great things, first by trying to rebuild society under the New Deal, then to defend and extend democracy in the Second World War.  We struck it rich not only economically but politically and socially, achieving between 1945 and 1980 or so the most egalitarian society in modern history.  But our unity began to break apart in the late 1960s and we have never regained it.  As the GI generation died off, our economics and politics degenerated into a struggle for our parents' legacy, the gold strike that we inherited and have now squandered.  The prospectors went to war with one another when there were only two of them left--a nice symbol of the polarization that has destroyed our politics.  

At the end of the movie, Huston and Holt have hit bottom once again, but Huston, as always, immediately puts things in perspective.  He doesn't have to return to civilization at all--he can live out his days as the guest of the Indians, who idolize him.  And Holt? "You're young!" says Huston.  "You've got time to make three or four more fortunes."  I keep hoping that the United States has hit bottom, but I have been disappointed again and again.  We remain addicted to money, to resentment, and to conflict.  Eventually we shall have to turn the corner and start moving towards real regeneracy.  I hope we will still be the same nation, territorially, when we do.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

The 1619 Project: Whence it came

 About four weeks ago, Jake Silverstein of the New York Times, who oversaw the original 1619 Project two years ago and subsequently defended it against an opening round of criticism from accomplished historians, wrote another long piece to commemorate the publication of an expanded version as a book.  He coupled a renewed defense of its main arguments--including the completely discredited claim that substantial numbers of Americans joined the American revolution to defend slavery against the British--while trying to put the project and the reaction to it in a broader historical and academic context.  Although Silverstein himself is only 46, he stated the bare facts of what has happened to history over the last 55 years or so pretty accurately, but from a very particular standpoint.  For reasons that I hope to make clear, I regard these developments as a catastrophe. He regards them as a triumph.

Silverstein begins this part of his long essay with a threadbare survey of American historians from the 19th century to the 1960s.  Only two are mentioned by name.  Silverstein describes the 10-volume history of George Bancroft as "generally seen as the first comprehensive history of the country," having an "incalculable influence.  He could not have actually looked at those ten volumes:  they tell only the history of the country from the first European landings in North America to the  adoption of the Constitution,   Bancroft did, as he says, regard the new country as an expression of the most advanced ideas of the age--and Bancroft was right.  His work was however anything but a simple hagiography.  He used extensive multi-archival research to write as good a history of the diplomacy surrounding the American Revolution as has ever been written.  From there Silverstein jumps about half a century to the progressive historian Charles A. Beard, who argued early in the 20th century that the Constitution might simply have reflected "a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption."  I happen to admire Beard myself for many reasons, but Silverstein states falsely that he fell out of favor because his views "could not provide the necessary inspiration for the America that envisioned itself a defender of global freedom and democracy" during the Cold War.  This is an oversimplification in at least two ways. First, although Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution created a sensation when it was published in 1913, his greatest influence came later with his textbook, The Rise of American Civilization--co-authored with his wife--which sold hundreds of thousands of copies beginning in 1927 and undoubtedly helped many Americans warm to FDR's New Deal.  Secondly, the turn against Beard's interpretation of the Constitution came after critics showed very clearly that he had oversimplified the economic interests that helped shape the Constitution and had read issues from his own time back into the Constitutional period--not coincidentally, exactly what so many historians are doing today.  Silverstein's historical views lack the subtlety to understand any of this.  He is simply inviting his readers--as many professional historians do as well--to ignore anything written before 1968 or so.

Silverstein then makes the argument, very familiar to historians, that new generations, starting in the 1960s, transformed history by paying more attention to the common people and less to elites. “From the perspective supplied by the new history," he quotes a 1975 article, "it has become clear that the experience of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are quite as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as that of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.”  He then precedes to argue, in effect, that historians before the 1960s had only paid attention to slavery in order to whitewash it.  There was in fact a prominent historical school in the early 20th century led by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips that tried to do just that, but it was never the only game in town, and the slavery issue was the subject of much of the best American history written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It was at the heart of what remains perhaps the greatest single work of American history ever written, Allen Nevins's The Ordeal of the Union, on the immediate origins of the Civil War.  Only the emergence of black historians, he argues, allowed a more enlightened view to emerge--a view which would come as a great surprise to white historians such as Eugene Genovese, whose Roll, Jordan Roll remains the single best work on American slavery.  

It is here that we come to the heart of the matter: the idea that we have improved American history because, and only because, it is now written by many people who do not happen to be straight white males, and who therefore see truths that make white males uncomfortable.  In fact, good and bad historians come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and the emphasis on identity as a source of truth is behind the central flaw of the 1619 project and a great deal more of recent writing about American history.  Typically, Silverstein implies that the black historian Annette Gordon-Reid was the first to confirm that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings.  In fact, a white woman, Fawn Brodie, had argued this at length about thirty years earlier.  A broader, critical example of this way of thinking is a key point of the project, the "centrality" of slavery in American history.  To be sure, to two groups of Americans before 1861--slaves and slaveholders--slavery was the central fact of their lives and inevitably shaped their political outlook.  To the much larger number of Americans who fell into neither of those categories, it was not.  And not only was slavery not the central fact of life within the early American republic, it was not the unique fact about it either. Slavery in 1789 existed in much of the western hemisphere.  What was unique about the United States was its experiment in republican, elected government based on a universal idea of human nature--even if that idea was not originally applied in practice to anyone but white males. Thus, the traditional focus on political conflict in histories of the United States was entirely appropriate--all the more so since the country's political principles were bound to conflict with slavery, and eventually, to bring it down after a bloody war. Silverstein, on the other hand, claims that the United States was never really a democracy until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and that slavery and racism, in many forms, are still the basis for the organization of our society.  That is how today's historians, trained to focus on people who "looked like them," think, but many Americans of all races justifiably reject those claims.  To accept them simply writes off decades of extraordinary political and economic progress for all Americans, black as well as white, in order to make today's activists feel like the most important actors in American history.  

The changes in the historical profession Silverstein discusses came out of the general rejection of our parents' world by so many vocal members of my generation in the mid-1960s--largely, but not entirely, because of the Vietnam War.  At the height of that conflict in the late 1960s radical activists proclaimed, in essence, that everything our parents and teachers had ever told us was a lie, and that their vaunted democracy oppressed almost everyone.  Thanks to the gradual dissemination of those ideas over subsequent decades--largely through higher education--many younger people, like Silverstein, now seem to accept the idea that American society and American history before 1968 or so were simply a vast conspiracy of oppression by rich white males of everyone else, and that things have only begun to improve since. The opposite is true.  The years 1940-1980, statistics show, were the years of most rapid economic progress for black Americans.  That is because they were the years of the most rapid economic progress, and the greatest economic equality, for all Americans. It is since 1980 that the favorable mid-century trends have been reversed, and the Boom generation did less than nothing to stop that.  What I am suggesting is that their view of history--which the younger people who have written the 1619 project share--has been no better for the country than the economic policies of the three Boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush II, and Trump, and the other Boomers who have dominated finance and industry over that time.  

Near the conclusion of his article, Silverstein actually concludes, first, that history has some obligation to provide sustaining myths to the nation as a whole, and secondly, that it can only do so by falsifying the past.  "Democracy, we are often told," he writes, "requires a free press, one that will hold power to account. Does it also require a robust historical profession, free to ramify in a hundred directions at once, not all of them inspiring? Or in this regard do journalism and history differ, with journalism providing democracy its greatest service when most unshackled and critical, while history operates best with the sense of decorum and tradition that foments civic pride?" "You could see the pitched battles over public memory that have occurred since then as a product of the new history’s corrosive effect on national unity," he says,  "or you could conclude that a republic founded on an irresolvable contradiction — freedom and slavery — was always going to wind up in an irresolvable argument over how to tell its story, that this contentiousness is American democracy, that the loss of consensus means we’ve finally arrived."  I see them the first way--while not ignoring the problems that the ahistorical right is creating, too--and I'm not ashamed to say so.  Silverstein bluntly says at one point that history is inherently political.  He evidently thinks that his own profession should be as well.  That is why both history and journalism today are--to borrow another phrase from the late 1960s--part of the problem, not part of the solution.