“Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable”

I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.

One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.

I think talking about them together could be illuminating.

First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.

“As post-Americans see it,” Neem writes,

this nation was founded on racism and is defined by racism. It is not just that America has a long history of racism. It is that America exists for, and because of, racism. It is a country for white people. White supremacy is its defining feature. The story of America was ‘stamped from the beginning,’ in historian and activist Ibram X. Kendi’s words.

The post-American perspective does not simply provide a new interpretation of American history. The problem that it claims to address is not the kind that can be solved by adding greater complexity or a fuller picture of race-based exploitation to the story. At the base of its historiographical ambitions is a stunning assertion: For those who seek social justice, American history does not belong to them and they do not belong to it. There is, in short, no usable past.

Neem’s complaint, I think, is actually pretty old. To me, his core concerns do not seem very different from those made by conservative (and liberal) critics of left-wing educational activism for decades now. They are basically the same complaints, for example, that were lodged against Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, fairly or unfairly, when it was published more than forty years ago.

But the age of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and educational gag orders has given these complaints new urgency. And I don’t think Neem is entirely wrong that some Americans, in the age of social media activism and counter-activism, have been drawn toward more extreme denunciations of the United States as an irremediably white-supremacist historical entity. I suspect, however, that this is primarily an artifact of the way contemporary media tend to polarize and intensify our discourse, making more extreme positions available and attractive to otherwise very conventionally patriotic thinkers.

(Indeed, I think Neem misreads, for example, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay to the 1619 Project, which has been so vituperated online by conservative activists and a few historians. As I’ve observed before, Hannah-Jones asserts, in a militantly patriotic way, the unity of the American nation and the timelessness of its founding ideals. I think Neem is mistaken when he charges that “Hannah-Jones is not situating black Americans’ struggles and stories within American history.” On the contrary, she’s centering them in that history.)

At the same time, I share Neem’s concern that a growing number of educators, or at least educational activists, may be giving up on the idea that America has one story we can all share. I think Neem’s concerns in that respect should be taken seriously, even though I would approach the subject differently.

Anyway, a central focus of Neem’s own essay is Thomas Jefferson, or rather, the memory of Thomas Jefferson. Several times, Neem returns to the question of how—and whether—Jefferson should be memorialized, considering his undeniable roles as both a key American founder and an enslaver of many human beings.

Neem describes Jefferson’s legacy as a matter of direct personal significance to him:

I remember my earliest visits to the Jefferson Memorial, the first when I was in college in the 1990s, the second when I was working in Washington after graduating. The place felt like sacred ground. At night, other than the sound of the Tidal Basin waters lapping against the nearby seawall, it was preternaturally quiet: a temple to a man whose words and deeds had helped found a nation, whose idealism was premised on the simple but profound fact that every human being has dignity and is entitled to basic human rights.

Sitting there, I felt inspired to live up to those ideals. I knew that America had a long way to go, and I wanted to help it get there. … I was both a recent immigrant and part of an experiment that had begun over two centuries earlier.

That focus on Thomas Jefferson brings me to the second recent piece of writing I want to discuss. This one I can’t recommend at all.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in the dark.
(National Parks Service photo by Terry Adams. Public domain.)

This weekend, the New York Post published a propaganda screed disguised as a news story about historical interpretation at Jefferson’s estate of Monticello.

This article complained that Monticello is, in its words, “going woke.” It claimed that the Charlottesville historic site now subjects visitors to a “harangue” about slavery in order “to belittle Jefferson and his life,” making tourists feel “sad and demoralized.” The Post’s authors, apparently untroubled by any need for subtlety, quoted a visitor’s claim that one tour guide—whose race they did not explicitly mention—was “surly.” And they insinuated that Monticello is being manipulated by a rich Jewish “globalist” in the thrall of the Chinese.

Unsurprisingly, given the article’s barely concealed racism, it turns out that Jeffrey Tucker, the “recent visitor” whose claims provided the core of the article—and who publicized it in an appearance on Fox News—has been an associate of the League of the South, a prominent neo-Confederate organization.

In 1997, Tucker called the civil rights movement’s success “a complete disaster and a major source of tyranny of our times.”

Johann Neem, unlike the New York Post or its key source, is not engaged in a project of ginning up racist or antisemitic resentment. Quite the opposite. But I don’t think the timing of the Post‘s racist article is doing his argument any favors.

The Post article suggests to me that what’s at stake in the wider conversation about “post-American” history isn’t historical interpretation so much as sacredness. The real debate is about how we’re supposed to feel about the spiritual essence of Jefferson, not what we know about him.

As it turns out, the Post didn’t deny that Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people. It didn’t need to. As far as the Post is concerned, those 600 people were mere people. There could be 6,000 or 60,000 of them and it probably wouldn’t make any difference. To acknowledge Jefferson’s victims as humans who each mattered just as much as Jefferson himself would still be sacrilegious.

(The New York Post article did, however, falsely insinuate that there is scholarly debate about whether Thomas Jefferson “allegedly” had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, as “many historians believe.” In reality, there has been no serious disagreement about that fact among American historians for twenty years.)

If you take the Post‘s view, Jefferson was a great and holy man no matter what his sins against his 600 victims may have been. The sensation of his sacredness should, at the end of the day, override the reality experienced by any mere person in his life. His sanctity, not the humanity of anyone else, must define the feelings we get from visiting his estate.

Historically, there’s no question that we can acknowledge both Jefferson’s political accomplishments and his oppression of other people. For most of us, I’d wager, keeping both sets of things fully in mind isn’t even difficult. Students in my courses show a natural ability to do it. People are curious about Jefferson’s contradictions because they’re interesting, and interest is all historical study requires.

For the purposes of the present conversation, however, it’s not Jefferson’s history that we’re agonizing over. Instead, the problem is spiritual. We are debating the concept of American national sanctity, and thus the personal sanctity of Thomas Jefferson as an avatar of it.

The leftist post-American perspective that Neem objects to, I suspect, emerged partly from attempts to take the concept of national sanctity seriously. It emerged from the implications of the old schoolhouse claim that there is some kind of essential, transhistorical spiritual stuff composing what we call the United States.

If America is angelic, the post-American perspective concludes, it must be a fallen angel. If Jefferson is a saint, he must be a saint for a faith promoting human enslavement.

“The white man,” Malcolm X told an audience in Detroit in 1964, explaining his embrace of Black nationalism, “made the mistake of letting me read his history books. He made the mistake of teaching me that Patrick Henry was a patriot, and George Washington—wasn’t nothing non-violent about ol’ Pat, or George Washington. ‘Liberty or death’ is what brought about the freedom of whites in this country from the English.”

Malcolm continued later in the same address, “And when I speak, I don’t speak as … an American. I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy—all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism. We see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism.”

The victim of Americanism.

Malcolm X took seriously the notion that the United States held sacred by white Americans—the United States of the faith called “Americanism”—was the same thing as the United States of historical reality. Thus, reflecting on historical reality, he drew the obvious conclusions about whether that sacred American nation had any place for people like him.

But what if we just dispensed with sacredness? What if we stopped expecting to find holiness dwelling in American history?

Like Johann Neem, I had a transformative encounter with the public memorials in Washington, D.C., when I was young. But mine had a different upshot.

I first got to visit Washington in the summer of 2001, when I was still in high school. It was the middle of May, halfway between George W. Bush’s inauguration and September 11.

I had grown up on patriotic history and symbols. One of my prized possessions was a half-complete run of Time-Life Books’ 39-volume history of World War II, the core collection of which I had inherited from my grandfather, a veteran of the European theater. One of my favorite movies was 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jimmy Stewart’s titular character repeatedly visits the monuments of Depression-era D.C.—especially the Lincoln Memorial—as temples of his personal faith, holy shrines of his Americanism.

But I had grown up far away from the capital. It existed for me in books, images, and metonymy. Now I got to experience it as an actual place on earth.

You know how they say you should never meet your heroes? Well, if you’re a Mr. Smith, you should probably never go to Washington.

First, I arrived in the region through Baltimore, where I saw concentrated homelessness and big-city racialized poverty for the first time. Heavy traffic and missed connections meant I got everywhere late. The climate was miserably hot and humid.

I did like visiting Fort McHenry and Mount Vernon, which were both self-contained enough that I could imagine I was breathing eighteenth-century air. But when I finally got to see the National Mall, I discovered it was an enormous wasteland of patchy dead-looking grass, swarming with distinctly irreverent teenagers on school trips, roughhousing and swearing. (The adult tourists were no better.) Getting around the perimeter took so long that there was little time to spend inside any of the great public buildings that had served as landmarks in my imagination. In the photos I took, the exterior of the Capitol building came out somehow looking dirty brown, not a gleaming celestial white like in the movies.

In short, the capital of the United States was, to my horror, a real place that existed physically in 2001.

The one exception to my disillusionment on the National Mall was the Lincoln Memorial. There, the tourists quieted down and slowed to read the inscriptions and linger in the shade near the great idol of the Great Emancipator. A schoolteacher stood on the steps with a little boombox, playing an audio recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech for a semicircle of pensive young people. I liked that.

But even the Lincoln Memorial was too small for my expectations.

I remember being annoyed about the ceiling. It doesn’t appear in most photos, and I found its presence distracting.

Looking back, I think that visit to D.C. may have played a small part in the great shift that would soon take place in my thinking about American virtue as a result of the so-called War on Terror. It may have demystified the federal government just when I needed to be capable of political judgments that defied my subculture’s understanding of patriotism. But in the long run, as my anger about the abuses of the “reign of terror” grew, it also may have helped protect me from the bitterest forms of cynicism and anti-nationalism, too.

Just in time, I had begun to learn that American objects are only objects and American people are only people. And representations of America were only representations; even photographs didn’t capture reality well. It followed—at least, it made emotional sense—that I could be content if the people and objects of the American past were only people and objects, too, and if representations of American history were imperfect.

What America had been and what America ought to be didn’t have to be the same thing.

Since then, therefore, I haven’t lost my faith in what America can be.