I am currently in the middle of teaching a super fun graduate seminar on the topic “American Ideas in Conflict” that I could have alternatively titled “Reading Books Written by My Smart Friends.” I briefly describe the course content in the syllabus as follows: What does it mean to be American? What is the idea of America? Questions about American identity have been debated since the nation’s founding. This course will examine the history of this ongoing debate by studying the conflicts over the big ideas that have long dominated American political discourse: democracy, capitalism, and religion. Conflicts over these supposed American ideas have become increasingly polarized since the 1960s. In short, we still don’t know what it means to be an American. But we know that American ideas have long been in conflict. This course will investigate this historical conflict by way of an analysis of recent exciting developments in U.S. intellectual and cultural historiography.
The reading list is as follows, in the order in which we are reading the books:
David Sehat, The Jefferson Rule: Why We Think the Founding Fathers Have All the Answers
Mike O’Connor, A Commercial Republic: America’s Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism
Edward Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America
Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas
Ray Haberski, God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945
Adam Laats, The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education
Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture
Kevin Schultz, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Relationship that Shaped the Sixties
Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (yes, yes, I know–I’ve become one of those professors)
Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism
Jonathan Holloway, Jim Crow Wisdom
We’re halfway through the reading list, having discussed Haberski most recently and getting ready to discuss Laats at our next meeting. So far I have detected another theme in the course that I would like to play with a bit. It seems to me that the first six authors (Sehat, O’Connor, Blum/Harvey, Robin, Ratner-Rosenhagen, and Haberski) all to varying degrees wrote their books to destroy some seemingly implacable myth or myths about American history. The course is becoming less about American ideas and more about unmasking the very notion that there are American ideas as such.
Sehat’s book is perhaps the most explicit about this intervention, and is thus the most polemical. The Jefferson Rule absolutely destroys the idea that the founders had a unified political vision of the world, in the process demonstrating that the founders cannot speak to our issues. In fact in one historical case study after another Sehat shows that the founders quit speaking to American political problems almost immediately following the nation’s founding, and especially after the Civll War and abolition destroyed much of the political world inhabited by the founders. Myth exploded.
O’Connor’s book reads nicely in tandem with Sehat’s because he too uses history to tear down false idols that too many of our contemporaries worship. In an enjoyable read–very enjoyable by the standards of most histories of economic ideas–O’Connor wrecks the libertarian myth that some prelapsarian time existed prior to the New Deal–a time when the American state allowed economic activity to go unregulated and unfettered. Rather he convincingly shows in a series of cases studies ranging from Hamilton to the Tea Party that the US government has always been in the business of choosing winners and losers. Myth destroyed.
Blum and Harvey’s bracing book is also in the business of myth busting, although its cultural approach is subtle about this agenda compared to Sehat and O’Connor. Blum and Harvey most obviously show that “White Jesus” is a figment of the American imagination, and that as a social construction such imagery has been put to use in a number of often contradictory ways. White Jesus has reinforced white supremacy, but has also been put to use by exploited racial minorities in dissonant and sometimes transgressive ways. Perhaps more interesting is the ways in which readers of The Color of Christ are forced to reckon with how Christianity itself–religion itself–is something created and recreated time and again in myriad and paradoxical ways. There is nothing timeless or specifically “American” about the Christian experience. Myth sunk.
Robin’s book, the publication of which became not just an intellectual event but an intellectual controversy, also seeks to undermine conventional wisdom. Specifically Robin beats to a pulp the notion that conservatism is about moderation, tradition, heritage, conserving. Rather, in smart and often hilarious prose (“Ayn Rand worked in that quintessential American proving ground where garbage achieved gravitas and bullshit gets blessed”) Robin convincingly argues that the only first principle of conservatives since Burke is that leftist achievements need to be destroyed at almost any cost. Myth mocked!
Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book is by far the subtlest of the bunch, in part because she doesn’t posit the stakes of her intervention in stark political terms. And yet American Nietzsche is invested in clearing out a few assumptions long held by many Americans, if not American historians. Ratner-Rosenhagen demonstrates in clever ways that ideas have no home–no foundations. Like the founders and Jesus, Nietzsche is so malleable that his ideas are almost what we make of them. In short American Nietzsche is an antifoundational analysis of the quintessential antifoundationalist Nietzsche. Although subtle and non-polemical, this book might be the most radical challenge to the notion that there are such things as American ideas! Myth questioned.
Last we come to Haberski’s God and War. The book appears to start out as a genealogical investigation of “civil religion” that by its very logic might undermine the very mythical notion of civil religion or at least unsparingly critique those who preach the civil religion. But by the end Haberski concludes with, you guessed it, an irony (what else would you expect from the blog’s resident Niebuhrian!) Haberski does not like the unthinking affirmational civil religion of those who think the American nation bathes in God’s glow and thus can do nothing wrong. But he does conclude with the idea that we need myths and symbols, even to critique, and that without them we can’t exist as a nation or community, good or bad. So by bringing us full circle Haberski offers an implicit critique of those historians who see their work in the myth-busting vein. Myth, reaffirmed?