In this new book, Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, co-editors Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse have assembled a team of well-known academic historians to help the public sort historical fact from historical falsehood. For those who know the co-editors, it will come as little surprise that all twenty lies, myths, and legends identified in the book are supposedly conservative views about history, including the myth that the United States is not or has never been an empire, the idea that there were few Native Americans around when European settlement of the Eastern seaboard began, and that immigrants are part of a “hostile invasion.” The editors have a noble wish that everyone would agree on historical facts, which, they write, “makes constructive dialogue possible.” But history is an endless discussion and historians rarely agree about much.
Like any collection of essays, some contributions to this volume are stronger than others, and I would agree that most of the historical errors identified are indeed errors, but I doubt that some of these are the “biggest legends and lies” about our past, as the subtitle of the book claims. Is, for example, the myth that the term “America First” does not have racist and fascist roots really one of our top twenty lies and legends? What about the myth that the “Reagan Revolution” was actually a revolution? The inclusion of chapters on such topics certainly reflects a recency bias.
As far as I can tell, not once do the authors point to any prominent conservative historians who hold the views they label as myths, lies, and legends. Instead, each one of these myths, lies, and legends is introduced by way of a quote or example from people like Rick Santorum or Donald Trump, certainly not America’s leading historical minds. Not one of the topics is identified as a complex historiographical debate, with any reasonable opposing voices.
The editors and the contributors don’t define the difference between a lie, myth, and a legend, and perhaps this is a good rhetorical strategy for a book of this kind. A lie supposes devious intention. A myth or a legend, however, might only reflect a kind of ignorant inertia beyond a story. By not identifying whether an interpretation of the past is a myth, lie, or legend, the authors can let readers decide whether a story conservatives tell about the past is intentionally and maliciously wrong, or just plain wrong.
The contributors believe, by and large, that they are slaying dragons, but it appears more often than not that they are only toppling straw men. Take for instance the attempt of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway to dismantle a supposed myth of “the market is magic.” I run in some pretty pro-market circles, and I’ve never encountered this phrase nor someone who would believe it. Most supporters of the market believe that market action is generally preferable to government action, but that markets cannot solve all problems. The general view is that the market does not and cannot bring about utopia, but is the best option in spite of this. Orekses and Conway oppose the view that “economic freedom has been [as] central to the fabric of the American nation as political and civic freedom, that markets underwrite that freedom, and that any economic constraint on business is a threat to freedom overall.” They follow this by saying, “The truth is that American governments have always been involved in managing and at times even directing the economic life of the nation, and economic freedom does not guarantee political freedom.” Any freshman logic student should recognize the incongruence here. Whether governments have been involved with markets or not is irrelevant to the argument that economic freedom is central in American history, nor that economic freedom is inseparable from political freedom. This is not an historical position at all, but a political one. An historical “is” doesn’t translate so easily into an ethical “ought.”
Time and again, historians who know plenty about their subject are susceptible to making philosophical errors. Erik M. Rauchway, drawing on Harry Frankfurt, calls the myth of the failure of the New Deal “bullsh*t.” He writes that “This myth may turn out to be the most consequentially pernicious and indeed catastrophic in all of human history.” (142) Really? Is this greater than denial of the Holocaust, Holodomor, or the Armenian genocide? Is it greater than the myth of Aryan supremacy or Stalin’s beneficence? Even limited to American history, there are plenty of historical myths that are missing from this volume: anti-Catholic myths, 9-11 conspiracies, or Obama birther myths. At any rate, Rauchway’s argument is that the American economy expanded during the New Deal, and that therefore the New Deal was responsible for economic growth. But then he briefly recognizes the epistemological problem, the problem of cause and effect in his analysis. So, he argues that at the very least the New Deal did not prevent recovery. He writes: “We cannot necessarily say, based on [historical] information, that the New Deal promoted this recovery. But we can say that even if – to use Grassly’s phrase, the New Deal dampened economic growth, it did not dampen it sufficiently to prevent an extraordinary rapid rate of recovery from the Great Depression.” This is an extended logical error. Historians, like sportscasters, weave narratives to make sense of the world. In college football, if a team had 6 wins and 6 losses one year, then hired a new coach, and then had 10 wins and 2 losses next year, one could argue that the new coach was responsible for the team’s turnaround. But this is not necessarily so. Perhaps the new coach was actually much worse than the old coach, but the team simply played better in the second year, or they had a weaker schedule, or they got lucky and won more close games. Likewise, in economic history, it simply does not follow that when the rooster crows, the sun rises, nor that when plan A is put into effect, and the economy improves, that plan A was responsible.
A chapter on the myth of the failure of Great Society is similar in approach. Take a large, complex historical topic like the New Deal or the Great Society, and then ask whether it was good or bad, or succeeded or failed. But is asking whether something as large and as complex as the New Deal “failed or succeeded” even the right question? Is this something that can be answered affirmatively? And, moreover, why is it that the contrary view must be called a myth, a legend, or a lie. It is as if it is longer possible for there to be competing, respectable historical views, in which we don’t label a lie. Is the Milton Friedman interpretation of the Great Depression a myth, lie, legend, or something else, like perhaps a respectable attempt at explaining the past? It seems to me that this style of writing is not history, per se, but politics, or even anti-history, in so far as it discourages people from asking hard questions and considering multiple sides.
In fact, this book is rather instructive in how to set up a straw man. First, propose that there is an absolutely rigid and hardline position out there. Then, find a handful of examples to the contrary to disprove this supposedly great myth. Follow Geraldo Cadava’s example and suggest that some people believe the southern border is only a place of lawlessness and vice. Or, like Glenda Gilmore, argue that some people believe all police violence is in response to neighborhood violence, then identify some examples of when neighborhood violence started because of police violence. I work with philosophers, and philosophers work with arguments. Historians still have a lot to learn from philosophers on how to construct good arguments. For cheap political history to rally the true believers, straw man arguments are fine. But to convince independent thinkers, historians should always present the strongest version of their opponents’ view.
This book lumps together pro-market myths with racist myths, and it treats some obvious historical errors as equal to legitimate historiographical debates about the past. The co-editors say that “Knowing and understanding our history is the only path to a more democratic future.” This sounds good, but strictly interpreted, does anyone actually believe it?
The co-editors, like the Progressive educators of a hundred years ago, believe that if only Americans could agree on the facts, we could have productive discussions about how to move forward. But no philosopher of history in the past hundred years would agree that facts exist independently of interpretation. After all, who determines what the facts are? If history is not a debate about the facts, then it is not history. When you see your opponents’ views as all lies, myths, and legends, it might say more about the way you engage your opposition than the content of their arguments.