Historians tackle the biggest lies about America’s past
Some American myths date back to the founding of the nation. Like the one when, as a young boy, America’s first president, George Washington, felt compelled to tell the truth about throwing a hatchet at his father’s cherry tree because he didn’t couldn’t lie.
“There are a lot of lies that are sort of white lies that have a positive spin,” says Kevin M. Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University. “And what’s the harm in that? It teaches kids the value of honesty.”
The real harm comes, says Kruse, when lies or myths impact US government policy. Kruse and fellow Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer put together a collection of essays for their book, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.”
In the anthology, 20 mostly liberal historians address what they see as conservative distortions of history behind burning issues like border security, voter fraud, police brutality and the backlash against civil rights protests. following the 2020 police killing of George. Floyd, a black man.
Yale University’s Glenda Gilmore writes that a sanitized and somewhat one-dimensional image of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, leader of ‘good protests’, obscures its relevance to Black Lives Matter protesters who took to the streets in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“[Martin Luther King, Jr.] was much more virulent in his denunciations of capitalism [and] militarism,” says Kruse. “King was stripped of all that controversy and complication, reduced to this non-offensive figure who just stood up and said, ‘Well, racism is bad and everybody agrees.
“As a result, it cuts him off from any connection to the present. This example of the good civil rights protest is constantly pitted against the bad civil rights protests to shame people involved in Black Lives Matter for not being like King when in fact they look a lot like King.
Northwestern University historian Geraldo Cadava writes that Americans concerned about policing the southern border with Mexico have “displaced concerns about imperial and national decline, economic fragility, and demographic changes”.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, professor of history at The New School, challenges the idea that feminism embraces anti-family values by exploring how feminists have historically defended the traditional family.
Eric Rauchway, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, studied the New Deal, a series of programs, financial reforms and regulations enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to help America to recover from the Great Depression. In the book, Rauchway challenges the claim of some conservative politicians that the New Deal was ineffective.
“If we believe, wrongly, that the New Deal was a failure, it discourages us from any economic action in this direction. You constantly see historical tropes trotted out in a way to close options. Our sense of what happened in the past deepens our understanding of what is possible in the future,” says Kruse.
“If we firmly believe that this type of approach has failed, or got us nowhere, we are much less likely to try it again. So we have to understand where we are if we want to understand where we are going.
The book and its claims have been dismissed by some conservatives who say “highly partisan” analyzes are hampered by “left-wing myths”.
A National Review essay suggests, “The book debunks no myths; it simply promulgates other, radically progressive ones.
Writing for the American Institute for Economic Research, Michael J. Douma argues that history is an ongoing discussion that historians often disagree on.
“When you view your opponents’ opinions as lies, myths and legends, it might say more about how you engage your opposition than about the content of their arguments,” writes Douma, who is an associate research professor. at Georgetown University.
Kruse contradicts these criticisms by saying that he and his co-contributors are reacting to the moment.
“I understand that we live in a time where there is going to be a sort of reflexive desire to create equivalence on both sides right now.” Kruse said. “No. The real challenges to American history come from the right and so that’s where we’ve directed our attention.