this america

This America: The Case for the Nation, by Jill Lepore

One Comment

  1. Just finished “This America: The Case for the Nation,” by Jill Lepore (2019).

    Here are a few pearls from this timely and important book:

    It is important that historians return to the study of nationalism. In the 1970s historians, appalled by nationalisms around the world, largely stopped studying them. However, when scholars stopped writing the national history, other less scrupulous writers stepped in. Nations, to make sense of themselves, need a common story, an agreed-upon past – “they can get it from scholars, or they can get it demagogues, but get it they will” (20).

    The idea of the nation – a word having the same Latin root as Nativity, meaning “birth” – is not a new idea. It goes back to antiquity. Nationalism, however, is not a very old idea – it was coined just at the end of the 18th century and didn’t really exist until the 19th century By the early 20th century, with the rise of Fascism in Europe, nationalism had come to mean something different than patriotism, something fierce, something violent” (22-3).

    Don’t confuse nationalism with patriotism. It’s easy to do, especially since they once meant more or less the same thing, but patriotism is animated by love of country and nationalism is animated hatred of the other, the foreigner, the globalist (23).

    Trump is a self-proclaimed nationalist (eg, as stated in his Houston, TX rally in 2018 [24]), but yet, “talking with reporters … the day after his Houston speech, Trump professed both ignorance of the history of nationalism and indifference. He said with a shrug, ‘I think it should be brought back.’ It shouldn’t” (25).

    The Declaration of Independence never described the US as a nation but rather invoked universal, not national ideals. The Articles of Confederation also did not use the word “nation.” The Constitution does not call the US a “nation.” Disputes about Federal vs state power in the 1830s led to the eventual use of the language of nationalism (33-34).

    Our Founding Fathers saw the US as an asylum: The US “founded as an asylum and a refuge. This was a form of patriotism. Thomas Paine called America ‘an asylum for mankind … [and George Washington wrote in 1788 that] ‘I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong’ … Thomas Jefferson in 1817 described the US as offering ‘a sanctuary for those whom the misrule of Europe may compell to seek happiness in other climes’ (38).

    19th-century nationalism and modern liberalism are born of the same clay, even if shaped into very different things. A nation like the US that declares most people in the world ineligible for citizenship (which the US did) and yet also describes itself as an asylum is defined by a contradiction. Yet, what has hitched nationalism and liberalism is the idea that the equal rights of the individual can be guaranteed only by their becoming the citizens of nations (42-44).

    The Civil War was a struggle between two nationalism, and that battle continued long after the war.

    In the US, “the race-based nationalism if the 1880s led to three sweeping policy changes: the Jim Crow laws, instituting a regime of racial segregation … the Chinese Exclusion act, prohibiting Chinese immigration … and the Supreme Court’s decision in Elk v. Wilkens [, in which] the Court ruled that Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship did not apply to Native Americans, a decision that was described by MA senator Dawes as “the strangest if not the wickedest decision since the fugitive slave cases (73-74).

    What Trump was really after in demanding Obama’s birth certificate and hounding Warren about her claim of Native American ancestry was asserting the right to question the birthright citizenship and racial ancestry of his political opponents, and providing the birth certificate and the DNA seemed to acknowledge his right to ask for them.

    “Appeals to nationalism are dangerous. But not thinking about the nation, and not learning from how all of the people in the US have thought about the nation, is more dangerous. Writing national history creates plenty of problems. But not writing national history creates more problems and those problems are worse” (132).

    In the period when scholars stopped writing a national history, nonscholars like Lynne Cheney and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, write those histories, which are often misleading – in the words of the conservative columnist George Will, “O’Reilly’s vast carelessness pollutes history and debases the historians craft” (133).

    If people don’t try asking and answering the hard historical questions, “other people will. They’ll declare America a carnage. They’ll call immigrants ‘animals’ and other countries ’shitholes.’ They’ll call themselves ‘nationalists.’ They’ll say they can make America great again. Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong” (138).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *