Historians tackle the biggest lies about America’s past
Some American legends trace back to the nation’s founding. Like the one in which, as a young boy, George Washington, America’s first president, felt compelled to tell the truth about taking a hatchet to his father’s cherry tree because he couldn’t tell a lie.
“There are a lot of lies out there that are the kind of white lies that have a positive meaning,” says Kevin M. Cruz, a professor of history at Princeton University. “And what’s the harm there? It teaches kids the value of honesty.”
Cruz says the real damage comes when lies or myths influence US government policy. Cross and fellow Princeton historian Julian Zelizer have compiled a collection of essays for their book, “The Myth of America: Historians Take the Biggest Myths and Lies About Our Past.”
In the anthology, 20 mainly liberal historians deal with what they see as conservative distortions of history behind hot-button issues like border security, voter fraud, police brutality and the backlash against civil rights protests in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, a black man.
Glenda Gilmore of Yale University writes that the sanitized, somewhat one-dimensional portrait of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, leader of the “good protests,” obscures his connection to the Black protesters who took to the streets in the wake of Floyd’s death. .
“[Martin Luther King, Jr.] He was most dramatic in his denunciations of capitalism [and] Militarization,” says Cruz. “King was stripped of all that controversy and complexities, and reduced to this non-offensive person who simply stood up and said, ‘Well, racism sucks and everybody agrees.'”
As a result, this cut him off from any connection to the present. This example of a good civil rights protest is constantly held in contrast to bad civil rights protests to shame people involved in Black Lives Matter for not being like King when, in fact, they are, in fact, like King.”
Northwestern University historian Geraldo Kadava writes that Americans anxious about policing the southern border with Mexico had “displaced concerns about imperial and national decline, economic fragility, and demographic change.”
Natalia Mehlmann-Petrzela, Professor of History at The New School, challenges the notion that feminism espouses anti-family values by exploring how feminists have historically defended the traditional family.
Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, studied the New Deal, a series of programs, financial reforms, and regulations signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to help America recover from the Great Depression. In the book, Rauchway challenges the assertion by 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 kind of economic action along that line. You constantly see historical tropes played out in ways that close options. Our sense of what happened in the past deepens our understanding of what is possible in the future,” says Cross.
“If we firmly believe that this type of approach failed, or that it got us nowhere, we are less likely to try it again. So we need to understand where we have been if we are to understand where we are going.”
The book and its assertions have been rejected by some conservatives who say the “too partisan” analyzes are hampered by “left myths.”
An article in National Review suggests, “The book debunks no myths; It just releases radically different, progressive releases.”
Writing for the American Institute for Economic Research, Michael J. Dumas stresses that history is an ongoing debate that historians often don’t agree on.
“When you view your opponents’ opinions as lies, myths, and myths,” Dumas, an associate research professor at Georgetown University, writes, “they may tell us more about the way you approach your opposition than the content of their arguments.”
Cross responds to this criticism by emphasizing that he and his co-shareholders are responding to the moment.
“I understand that we live in an era where there will be a kind of reflexive desire to create parity on both sides of the moment.” Cross says. “No. The real challenges to American history come from the right and that is where we have turned our attention.”
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