Americans Should Embrace Their Radical History
This post first appeared atCampaign for America’s Future Blog.
American history education is once again a political and cultural battleground. Dominated by conservatives, the Jefferson County Colorado School Board decided to revise the teaching of Advanced Placement US History to not only “promote patriotism and … the benefits of the free-enterprise system,” but also to discourage “civil disorder.” Meanwhile, liberals have insisted that we must teach both the good and the bad in America’s past. And any good historian must agree.
Nevertheless, both right and left too often ignore, if not deny, that Americans are radicals at heart – that the American experience represents a Grand Experiment in democracy, an experiment that requires us to continually challenge exploitation, oppression and inequality – and that at our best we have struggled to promote justice and advance freedom, equality and democracy. Indeed, very much expressing what it means to be American, Jefferson County high school students have rebelled against the School Board’s dictates in favor of a fuller telling of the nation’s past – and the Board has decided to revisit the question.
Recent events in Colorado led me to recall the following resolution and argument that I prepared for delivery at the invitation of the Yale Political Union (YPU). An organization composed of Yale student political groups from across the political spectrum, the YPU is the oldest collegiate debating society in America. Presented on February 25, 2009, the resolution passed by a margin of two to one. My arguments, which follow, originally appeared on-line at OurFuture.org soon after.
In his 1939 book – It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy – progressive writer Max Lerner proffered: “The basic story in the American past, the only story ultimately worth the telling, is the story of the struggle between the creative and the frustrating elements in the American democratic adventure.”
With those words in mind, I move that: “Americans Should Embrace their Radical History.” And to second the resolution, I call upon a voice from 1930, one of America’s finest voices, the voice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man destined to become the greatest president of the twentieth century.
Looking back on 10 years of conservative-Republican presidential administration and what they had wrought – an intensifying economic crisis and spreading human misery that would come to be known as the Great Depression – FDR, who was then the Governor of New York State, said: “There is no question in my mind that it is time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation.”
And do we not see what Roosevelt saw then?
We have experienced three decades of conservative ascendance and power. Three decades, in which well-funded conservative movements, and ambitious and determined political and economic elites, secured power and subordinated the public good to corporate priorities, enriched the rich at the expense of working people, hollowed out the nation’s economy and public infrastructure, and harnessed religion and patriotism to the pursuit of power and wealth. In short, we have endured thirty years of right-wing political reaction and class war from above intended to undo or undermine the progressive advances of the 1930s and 1960s.
Plus, if all that were not enough, we have suffered eight years of a presidency – the presidency of George W. Bush – marked not only by the tragedies of 9/11, war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minnesota, but also by assaults on our civil liberties, the denigration of human rights, breaches in the wall separating church and state, tax cuts for the wealthy, a campaign to privatize Social Security, continued corporate attacks on labor unions and the pursuit of a politics of fear and loathing – all of which has not only led us to the brink of economic and social catastrophe, but also effectively placed the American dream and the nation’s exceptional purpose and promise under siege.
We clearly see the consequences of conservative rule or, more accurately, misrule – not to mention, liberal deference to it.
I therefore urge this assembly to resolve that, “We Americans should embrace our radical history” – and as FDR himself averred – “make the nation radical for a generation.”
I do so not only because the circumstances we confront demand a radical response, but also because to do otherwise would be to deny who we are. Our shared past calls on us to do so. Our own historical longings urge us to do so. And Americans yet to be await our determination in doing so.
Let us start by recalling our history and reminding ourselves who we are – a by no means simple or easy task. For as ruling classes have been ever want to do, America’s own powers that be have regularly sought to control the telling of the past in favor of controlling the present and the future.
I could take you through a long list of New Right initiatives – from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush – intended to determine the shape and content of American memory, consciousness and imagination. But let’s just consider the popular little volume and video – Rediscovering God in America – authored and produced by one of America’s smartest and most prominent conservatives, former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Therein, Gingrich, a PhD in History, takes us on a walking tour of Washington DC – a walking tour in which he guides us around the Mall to discuss both the monuments and the figures they memorialize.
Sounds nice, right? But there’s more to it. Along the way Gingrich presents a narrative of US history that attributes America’s founding, survival and progress to Divine will, to our unceasing faith in and devotion to God, and to our having sustained God’s and religion’s presence in the public square.
Fair enough, you might say. However, after bizarrely and vehemently warning that “There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular left’s relentless effort to drive God out of the public square,” Gingrich not only discounts or ignores the fact that most of the leading Founders were deists not Christians and that – in one of the most revolutionary acts of the age – they wrote a “Godless Constitution” which provided for the separation of church and state. He also somehow neglects to mention that those originally most determined to assure that separation included not just the usual suspects, but also Christian evangelicals.
Nevertheless – with all due respect to God and the faithful among us – we must remember who we are, for as Wilson Carey McWilliams proffered 25 years ago: “A people’s memory sets the measure of its political freedom. The old times give us models and standards by which to judge our time; what has been suggests what might have been and may yet be. Remembering lifts us out of bondage to the present, and political recollection calls us back from the specialization of everyday existence, allowing us to see ourselves as a people sharing a heritage and a public life.”
So let us not forget that we are the descendants of Revolutionaries – of men and women who, inspired by an immigrant working-class pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, through words such as “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and “These are the times that try men’s souls,” not only turned their colonial rebellion into a war for independence, but also transformed themselves into a nation of citizens, not subjects; endowed their new nation with exceptional purpose and promise; and launched a world-historic experiment in extending and deepening freedom, equality and democracy.
Let us not forget that we are the descendants of generations of radicals – of men and women, native-born and immigrant, who, struggled not only to realize the American dream, but also to expand the “We” in “We the People.” Recognizing the contradictions between the nation’s ideals and realities – and rejecting the notion that the American experiment had reached its limits – evangelicals, workingmen’s advocates, freethinkers, slaves and abolitionists, suffragists, populists, labor unionists, socialists, anarchists and progressives, respectively, dissented from their established churches; pressed for the rights of workingmen; insisted on the separation of church and state; resisted their masters; demanded an end to slavery; campaigned for the equality of women; challenged the power of property and officialdom; and together made the nineteenth century an age not only of growth, expansion, conflict and the accumulation of capital, but also of militant democracy.
And let us not forget that we are the children and grandchildren of America’s most progressive generation, the men and women who confronted the Great Depression and the Second World War – the men and women who not only made the “We” in “We the People” all the more inclusive, but also subjected big business to public account and regulation; empowered government to address the needs of working people; organized labor unions; fought for their rights; established Social Security; expanded the nation’s public infrastructure; refurbished its physical environment; and defeated the tyrannies of German fascism and Japanese imperialism.
And you yourselves are the children of a generation who – for all of our many faults and failings – marched for civil rights, pursued the vision of a Great Society, challenged cultural prohibitions and inhibitions, pushed open institutional doors for women and people of color and protested an imperial war in Southeast Asia. Admittedly, we made mistakes, regrettable mistakes. But we also made America better and more promising in the process.
Finally, let us never forget that we are the descendants of Americans who – confronting seemingly overwhelming crises in the 1770s, 1860s and 1930s and 1940s – not only rescued the United States from division, defeat and devastation, but also succeeded, against great odds and expectations, in extending and deepening freedom, equality and democracy further than they had ever reached before.
Still, I do not argue that we “should embrace our radical history” merely because we owe it to past generations to do so – though that in itself is a good, strong and compelling reason to do so.
I further contend that we should embrace our radical history, because we owe it to ourselves – and, ultimately, to Americans yet to come – to do so.
As our greatest democratic poet Walt Whitman rightly saw it: “There must be continual additions to our great experiment of how much liberty society will bear.”
Or, even better, as the progressive journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd put it a century ago – in words that I believe you will immediately grasp: “The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance. There must also be eternal advance. We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children.”
Those words do speak to you – don’t they? You know why? Because you are Americans – and no less so than any previous generation of Americans, you – all of us – remain radicals at heart.
Yes, the likes of Newsweek editor Jon Meacham tell us that “America remains a center-right nation.” And yes, former Reagan speechwriter and now Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan has very graciously reminded us that our newly-inaugurated President Obama “would be most unwise to rouse the sleeping giant that is conservatism.” But such talk ignores or denies what we ourselves feel and have been feeling for some time….
While we may not yet fully recognize it, we ourselves continue to feel the radical impulse and democratic imperative that generations of Americans, through their struggles, passed on to us – or better said, endowed or imbued us with. Truly, we never stopped feeling them.
Ask yourselves this: Why was it that in the midst of the seemingly most conservative political era since the 1920s, Americans passionately sought to recall, honor, celebrate and engage, America’s most revolutionary and progressive generations – the nation’s Founders and the so-called Greatest Generation and its greatest leader, FDR?
Most of you are probably too young to remember the mid 1990s explosion of interest in the likes of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and, yes, Paine – an explosion of interest that editors and academics alike somewhat dismissively referred to as “Founders’ Chic.”
And you may also be too young to remember the even grander explosion of interest in FDR and the young men and women of the Great Depression who went on to fight the Second World War – an explosion of interest that turned books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation into bestsellers and films like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan into blockbuster hits; that made television series such as HBO’s Band of Brothers and Ken Burns’ The War major events; and that instigated innumerable popular gatherings around the country. Indeed, an explosion of interest that led us to erect two new grand monuments in the very heart of the nation’s capital: one to Franklin Roosevelt and the other to the 16,000,000 veterans of World War II.
But even if you do remember those developments, you may not have critically considered what they represented. And you would not have been alone in not doing so.
Consider the phenomenal interest in the Greatest Generation and its greatest leader. While commentators marveled at its scale and intensity, they never seemed to grasp the most profound meaning of it all. Discussing the New Deal as merely a massive program of economic recovery and the Second World War as just a series of vast military struggles – and describing Americans’ expressions of admiration and affection as if it were all one big farewell party – mainstream media folk never really appreciated or acknowledged either the radical-democratic achievements of the men and women of the 1930s and 1940s or the radical-democratic anxieties and yearnings that motivated the popular desire to thank, honor and celebrate the generation that was passing away.
In fact, many conservative – after decrying that FDR didn’t even deserve a monument – used the interest in and admiration for the Greatest Generation as an opportunity to attack the Sixties Generation for challenging the nation’s political and cultural order and opposing the war in Vietnam. And sadly enough, leftists did little better. They either belittled the attention to the wartime generation as nothing more than nostalgia, media hype and the commercialization of the past or – in a somewhat paranoid fashion – charged that government and media were orchestrating a campaign to eradicate the nation’s “Vietnam syndrome” in favor of new “imperial adventures.”
Such critics – right and left – never really considered the connection between what Americans were experiencing and what they might actually have been trying to say and do. We, however, should not fail to consider it.
Recall that in November 1992, Americans – despite the nation’s victories in the very long Cold War and the very brief Gulf War – turned out the Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush in favor of Democrat Bill Clinton, the presidential candidate who not only emphasized “change,” but also promised to address the needs of middle- and working-class families by, among other things, investing in the nation’s already crumbling public infrastructure, protecting the environment and establishing a system of universal national health care.
Of course, if Americans truly were expecting renewed liberalism, they were to be sadly disappointed, for Clinton quickly betrayed those who had worked to place him in office by making his first priority the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an initiative proposed by Republicans and promoted by big corporations.
And we know what happened next. In the wake of NAFTA’s passage and the death of the promised progressive endeavors, Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Change and growth ensued, but not always or exactly the sort hoped for in 1992. In addition to learning of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans and genocidal civil wars in Africa, Americans witnessed accelerating globalization, persistent corporate “downsizing,” the further deregulation of capital and privatization of public goods and services, the steady erosion of the nation’s industrial base and decay of its public infrastructure, continuing assaults on labor, increasing concentration of wealth, intensifying material insecurities, the termination of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the growth of illegal immigration, virulent “culture wars,” the emergence of right-wing militias, foreign and domestic terrorist attacks, burnings of black churches, killings at family-planning clinics, the impeachment of a president and a quite possibly stolen presidential election in 2000.
Never get nostalgic about the 1990s!
Politicians and pundits of every sort described Americans as deeply divided, angry and cynical, and Americans surely had substantial cause to feel that way. And yet they did not – at least not in the fashion asserted by all the media talk and images.
More serious studies showed that while Americans felt anxious, resentful and even pessimistic, they not only continued to subscribe to both the “American creed of liberty, equality and democracy” and the “melting pot theory of national identity.” They also continued to believe – even while recognizing that Americans had far from always lived up to them – that those very ideals and aspirations defined what it meant to be an American.
In other words, Americans still possessed a shared understanding of and commitment to the nation’s historic purpose and promise – though they did wonder seriously about its prospects and possibilities
What politicians and pundits missed – or tried to obscure – about the popular desire and effort to reconnect with the Founders and the Greatest Generation was that Americans were doing exactly what Americans have always done when they sense that the American dream and the nation’s historic purpose and promise are in jeopardy.
Almost, instinctively, they were looking back – back to those who originally and most powerfully expressed what it meant to be an American – most particularly to those who, facing crises themselves, made the United States radically freer, more equal and more democratic in the process.
Even after 30 years of conservative and corporate rule – even after concerted efforts to make us forget, or at least confuse us about our history and what it has to say to us – we, too, not only yearn to redeem America’s purpose and promise. We also find ourselves looking back and reaching out to America’s Revolutionary and radical pasts. The task however – a task made all the more urgent by the crisis we face – is to embrace it. And perhaps we are not so far from doing just that…
In fact, maybe the resolution before us is not as fantastic as it seems… For if we look closely, we might well see that Americans are already reaching out to grab hold of and embrace their radical history. We might well see that instead of simply saying “We Americans should embrace our radical history,” we should actually be leaning into it and saying: “YES, We Americans should embrace our radical history.” Or – to quote a recently popular refrain – “Yes, we can.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not calling Barack Obama a radical. I’ll leave that to Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin (or to her smarter body-double, Tina Fey). Nevertheless, something critical, something progressive – and possibly even radical – seems to be happening.
Think back – to January 20th – to the inauguration of our new president. Inaugurations are always historic occasions, especially when one party replaces another. But this time it was historic in an even grander sense, for Americans had elected a black man to their nation’s highest office.
Of course, racism persists. But the day that Barack Obama took the oath of office was not simply a break with the past. It was truly a day of transcendence.
Looking from the Mall up to the Capitol – either standing there in the cold or watching on television – Americans, not only African-Americans, but all Americans, had reason to take pride and even shed tears of joy.
And yet, perhaps there was even more going on than that – that is, more than the talking-head politicians, pundits and presidential scholars pointed out to us.
Here’s what I mean…
Shift the vantage point and look out on the Mall from the Capitol as our new president did. Now if Newt Gingrich – or the Reverend Rick Warren – were talking to us, they would tell us that we were witnessing the American people assembled together in the presence of the Almighty.
But I saw something else that day – and maybe many of you did, too. I saw something that made me think that as much as Obama’s ascendance to the presidency represented a radical break with the past, it also represented something oh-so-very American, and yet again, in that very way, something also truly radical and truly promising.
I saw two million Americans gathered together amidst monuments and memorials that testify not so much to God’s beneficence – or, at least, not to that alone – but all the more to our persistent aspirations and perennial efforts to extend and deepen freedom, equality and democracy.
I saw two million Americans – in all their wonderful diversity – celebrating their democratic lives, peering into the future with hope and expectation and pressing up against monuments and memorials that render nothing less than a grand narrative of revolution and radicalism.
There they were – there we were – standing beneath a monument to a man who led a revolutionary army; chaired a constitutional convention that announced to the world that here in the United States “We the People” rule; and served as the first president of a pioneering democratic republic.
There they were, standing before a memorial to the man who wrote the words declaring “all men are created equal.”
There they were, standing in front of a monument to the man who – leading the Union through a bloody Civil War – proclaimed a “new birth of freedom” and called on his fellow citizens to devote themselves to assuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
There they were, standing by a memorial to the man who – in the very toughest of times – articulated our grandest and most radical aspirations in terms of four essential freedoms: “Freedom of speech and expression… Freedom of worship… Freedom from want… Freedom from Fear…”
And closer in, there they were at a memorial to our parents and grandparents, Americans who, in their many millions, fought and labored for those Four Freedoms.
One could almost hear Marian Anderson singing God Bless America and Martin Luther King Jr., pronouncing “I Have a Dream,” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
And if that were not enough, we actually heard our new president essentially calling them all forth to stand with us. He spoke of our revolutionary and radical pasts. He spoke of America’s continuing purpose and promise. And he spoke of what we needed to do by reciting the words that Washington ordered read to his troops on that cold and fateful Christmas eve in 1776 – words of Thomas Paine from his revolutionary pamphlet, The Crisis: “Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
Again, I am not saying that Obama himself is a radical – Hell, he used Paine’s words, but never mentioned Paine’s name!
But really, the point isn’t whether Obama is or isn’t a radical. It’s that we ourselves need to be.
Only then might we make him the great democratic president that we require. And even more crucially, only then – in the best of our traditions – might we redeem America’s purpose and promise and make an even greater nation for ourselves and for those who follow us.
We have much to do. In addition to repairing the damage to the Constitution of the past eight years, we must enact the Employee Free Choice Act, establish universal health care, re-appropriate the wealth appropriated from working people, invest in new technologies, refurbish our public spaces and national infrastructure, democratize corporations and pursue a New Deal on immigration.
Propelled by the memory and legacy of those who came before us, the yearnings and aspirations we ourselves feel, and the responsibility we have to those yet to come, we can pursue not only recovery and reconstruction, but also the making of a freer, more equal, and more democratic America.
So – leaning into it, and saying it as I should have said it to begin with – I call on this House to join me in resolving that “We Americans SHOULD EMBRACE our radical history.”