Jill Lepore’s new book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over History (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010), has been garnering much-deserved attention for the past few months. Building on an article in the New Yorker, Lepore seeks to show how fanatical and antihistorical are much of the Tea Party and its many boosters (Glenn Beck, etc.) in their pronouncements about history and their reverence for the Founding Fathers. By juxtaposing pieces of reportage at Tea Party events with stories about the Founders and others in the Founding generation such as Phyllis Wheatley and Jane Mecom, Lepore shows multiple ways in which the eighteenth century fails by our contemporary standards of decency and justice. Yet she also simultaneously manages to humanize the founding generation. It’s quite a trick, one that I wish I could figure out so that I could emulate. Her perspective is clear–she does not agree with Tea Partiers about much of anything–but even when she calls the Tea Partiers devotees of “historical fundamentalism” she seems reasonable and humane, like she is interested in having a conversation rather than simply passing judgment.
If anything, she seems to blame not so much the Tea Party as historians. Or maybe blame isn’t the right word. Lepore argues that the Tea Party’s version of history (or, rather, antihistory) began in the 1970s with the Bicentennial Celebration. Angry at the social protests and dislocations from the late 60s and early 70s, historical fundamentalists reacted angrily to what they as as the besmirching of national character perpetuated by leftists. But Lepore actually places a fair amount of responsibility–a better word than blame–on historians for the sorry state of affairs. She writes:
That reactionary history has simmered for decades and went, for the most part, unchallenged, because 1970 marked the end of an era in the writing of American history: [Richard] Hofstadter would turn out to have been one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time. For much of its history, the American historical profession has defined itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present–and especially to solve present-day problems–falls outside the realm of serious historical inquiry. That stuff is for amateurs, toadies, and cranks. Historians decry the fallacy of “presentism”: to see the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry into shabby self-justification. Hofstadter recognized the perils of presentism, but he believed that historians with something to say about the relationship between the past and present had an obligation to say it, as carefully as possible, by writing with method, perspective, skepticism, and an authority that derived not only from their discipline but also from their distance from the corridors of power.
I read Lepore’s book as an attempt to diagnose the present by looking to the past, providing a model for historically informed analysis of the present and calling on others to do the same. But I also wonder if Lepore isn’t calling for something that is already happening. Off the top of my head, I can think of several recent books by junior scholars that engage the public and have significant relevance for understanding the present: Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart (2009), Stephen P. Miller’s Billy Graham and Rise of the Republican South (2008), Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010), Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009), and (not a junior scholar) James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition (2010). My own book (ahem), The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011), also quite explicitly seeks to explain the present by appealing to the past. I’m sure there are others. All of this suggests to me that the narrowly professional model of historical writing might not be as dominant as it was in the past, with many historians seeking to reach a broader public in order to frame public discussions from a proper historical perspective.
But I also wonder if it matters. Put another way, Lepore seems to suggest that if historians had not abandoned the public sphere to write technical and professional monographs that the Tea Party’s history might have been stopped. She writes, “Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business.” But let’s say we all starting writing the kinds of history that Hofstader wrote. And let’s say that the we did it with even a fraction of his stylistic grace and critical acumen. Given the bully pulpit of Fox News and the fantasy history of Glenn Beck, which after all, tells people what they want to hear, would it actually change anything? After seeing Glenn Beck’s following, his multimillion dollar platform on multiple media outlets, and his ability to twist history any way he wishes, I ask myself: how can I compete with that? How can anyone compete with that?