We live in an age of discord and distrust, much of it fueled by the splintering of our media landscape and the sheer volume of circulating information — and misinformation. But there is also a deeper fracturing of what we used to think of as national historical truths.
Over the past several years, significant reappraisals of our collective past have exploded in number. The post-Reconstruction era, which was always an inconvenient blemish on our redemptive Civil War saga, is now rightly seen as the systemic continuation of oppression that it was, for example. And the perceived unity of purpose of the Greatest Generation is now counterbalanced by a more rounded view of the ambivalence felt by many at home and the brutality felt on the battlefield.
In an era of falling statues and other icons, some Americans despair that we have lost our collective American narrative to cynical and/or negative portrayals that disconnect us from a healthy patriotism and one another. Others respond that we need such accounts to acknowledge past injustices and better legitimize our present society and government.
One thing is clear: Our revised annals are richer and more complex. As Diane Turner, curator of an Afro-American history collection at Temple University said recently, by “being able to tell everybody’s story, it’s good for the society as a whole … Let’s have these stories, because the more truth we have, the better it is.” But with this ever-growing number of stories, might something also be lost?
One prominent American historian worried about this years ago. In a 1982 essay in Foreign Affairs appropriately titled “The Care and Repair of Public Myth,” William McNeill (author of sweeping histories such as “The Rise of the West” and “Plagues and Peoples”) feared discrediting old myths “without finding new ones to replace them.” He understood such myths not in a negative sense as imaginary or unverifiable, but as a people’s rendering of historical events that illuminates their worldview. To McNeill, a “people without a full quiver of relevant agreed-upon statements, accepted in advance through education or less formalized acculturation, soon finds itself in deep trouble, for in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain.” In what he saw even then as an increasingly atomized environment that might cause societies to retreat to “more narrow in-groups,” McNeill beseeched “thoughtful men of letters” to create new, more inclusive forms of myth. “We must do the best we can,” he said, “to survive in a world full of conflict by creating and sustaining the most effective public identities of which we are capable.”
What narratives can contribute those broader identities today? They cannot simply be those of yesteryear, no matter how nostalgically (or misguidedly) some citizens may yearn for them. Nor can they be manufactured overnight. Their appeal must be expansive and inspirational, and their credibility strong. They must reflect not a “yes, but” orientation that effectively seeks to erase narrower identities, but a “yes, and” approach that affirms both larger affinities and more localized loyalties.
One starting point might be the continuing significance of our Declaration of Independence, with its twin themes of liberty and equality tracing a common ongoing quest of various American communities — religious, racial, ethnic, disabled, and those of different sexual orientations — to gain greater freedom and status. Another is our reputation for both commercial and social entrepreneurship: While this is often touted as emblematic of our communal “freedom from” the state, we are also blessed with a history of innovative government-funded research and development, infrastructure, public health and environmental programs that have generated “freedom for” improved societal well-being. And of course, there is our voluntarism and activism, which continues to inspire people around the world nearly 200 years after de Tocqueville commented on them.
Perhaps our apex narrative needs to be one of economic and social progress that admits flaws and tragedies, but traces a hopeful and persistent, if jagged, story of growth and learning. Such an account, informed by more humility (and maturity) than those trumpeting our purported New World innocence and self-righteousness, can help inoculate us not only against hubris and global overreach, but exceptionalism and ignorance of other countries’ histories. It might even make us more compassionate toward our forebears, whose transgressions, we tend to forget, were not informed by later knowledge and insights.
Our rejuvenated, more expansive public “myths” — fewer in number, but also more modest and congruent with our current understanding of the world — will require many different contributors (not simply “men of letters”), who are all part of our national mosaic. These myths will not, by themselves, dissipate the rancor that has swelled in the past decade. But they may be one way to help keep our conversations more constructive.
Malcolm Russell-Einhorn (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.