In the late 1970s, a little-known left-wing professor and activist decided to embark on a three-year-long project to balance the alleged patriotic bias in American historical writing.
His name was Howard Zinn, and his project became the book A People’s History of the United States, a desecration of American memory that is the single most destructive act in the annals of American historiography.
Not much was expected of the fiftysomething historian, whose prior books were out of print and whose work had largely consisted of attending protests. His agent sought a $20,000 advance, but Harper & Row coughed up only $10,000. The publisher initially printed just 5,000 copies. At first sales didn’t amount to much, although the book got a nomination for an American Book Award.
It gained renown from pop culture, and positive references in the movie Good Will Hunting and the HBO show The Sopranos. Its sales increased year over year, until it had sold more than 2 million copies and been translated into at least 20 languages.
The work is built on a tendentious or partial account of events, not to mention outright falsehoods. In his review, Harvard University professor Oscar Handlin noted that “Zinn is a stranger to evidence bearing upon the peoples about whom he purports to write” and slammed “the deranged quality of his fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no matter how intractable the evidence of American history.”
Evidence be damned. Zinn’s work is a go-to book on college campuses — for nearly everything. It shows up in courses not only in history but in political science, economics, literature, and — of course — women’s studies.
When Zinn died, the Guardian called him a great man and the Russian TV network RT gushed that he had “limitless depth.” The novelist Dave Eggers wrote in The New Yorker that he “was the embodiment of the term ‘living legend,’ and his effect on how we see and teach history is immeasurable.” True enough, to his and our shame.
Poets, novelists, lexicographers, and historians have, over the centuries, been central to excavating and delineating the identities of nations, toward the goal of establishing proud, self-governing peoples. In the United States, this class has turned its back on a nation-buttressing role and instead embraced a hostility to the American nation as such, to its cultural supports, its traditions, and its history.
The clerisy has often been abetted in this project by leaders of the country, including government mandarins who were robustly nationalist until the latter half of the 20th century. “Then in the 1960s and 1970s,” the late social scientist Samuel Huntington wrote, “they began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”
We live in their ongoing anti-national experiment.
Just as nationalism, or at least loyalty to the nation-state, is very old, so is the impulse to move beyond mere local or national attachments. The word “cosmopolitan” has its root in the Greek word “kosmopolites,” or citizen of the cosmos or world.
The fourth-century b.c. Cynic philosopher Diogenes lived in Athens after his exile from his native Sinope and rejected all convention in favor of a life of virtue, making a barrel into his home in the Athenian marketplace. He is the first recorded person to use what has now become a cosmopolitan cliché: It is reported that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” This was a radical, even senseless, statement, since the Greeks considered citizenship possible only through the polis, or city.
The Stoics took the cosmopolitan baton from the Cynics. We exist in a local community by an “accident of birth,” according to the first-century Roman philosopher Seneca, but the world beyond is “truly great and truly common.” We should “measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun.”
This tradition was recovered during the Enlightenment. In his 1753 work Le Cosmopolite, the widely traveled Louis-Charles Fougeret de Montbron maintained that “all the countries are the same to me” and boasted that he changed “my places of residence according to my whim.”
Cosmopolitanism came in different flavors, some more robust than others. It could refer merely to someone who traveled frequently and had a keen interest in the world. Or it could denote a desire for a world state. The 18th-century Prussian nobleman Anacharsis Cloots wanted to eliminate nations and establish a “republic of united individuals,” based on the principle of one sovereign for all people. He was fired by enthusiasm for the French Revolution, which he considered a step toward that glorious outcome. He led a delegation of foreigners to the French National Constituent Assembly to declare the world’s fealty to the Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. The self-styled citoyen de l’humanité, or citizen of mankind, was eventually guillotined by his fellow revolutionaries when they falsely accused him of being part of, yes, a foreign plot.
What’s behind all cosmopolitanism is what the British writer Paul Gilroy has called “the principled and methodical cultivation of a degree of estrangement from one’s own culture and history.” As a result, cosmopolitanism has always been open to the charge that — whatever its broad-mindedness or idealism — it cultivates a contempt for what’s near, immediate, and tangible, in favor of what’s far away.
Charles Dickens skewered the character Mrs. Jellyby in his novel Bleak House for being so consumed with a humanitarian project in Africa that she neglected all around her, including her own children. She “had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off,” as if she “could see nothing nearer than Africa!”
Getting at the same point, Rousseau commented that cosmopolitans “boast that they love everyone, to have the right to love no one.”
This is all the more important in the contemporary context. It used to be that cosmopolitanism was largely the attitude of philosophers and critics of society — outsiders. Diogenes, while he was eating and masturbating in public to outrage the bourgeoisie, never imagined governing Athens. Now a broadly cosmopolitan sensibility infuses our elite in government, academia, and business.
An American version of cosmopolitanism began to go off the rails in the early 20th century. In a 1915 essay in The Nation, the scholar Horace Kallen attacked standard notions of assimilation as a plot by the Anglo-Saxons for continued dominance. “The ‘American race’ is a totally unknown thing,” he wrote, arguing instead for “a democracy of nationalities.” The common tongue of this democracy is still English, “but each nationality expresses its emotional and voluntary life in its own language.” The country merely serves as a platform for multiple nations living within its borders: “as the foundation and background for the realization of the distinctive individuality of each natio that composes it.”
Randolph Bourne picked up the theme in The Atlantic in a 1916 essay titled “Trans-national America.” He saw immigration as an opportunity to create “the first international nation,” a “cosmopolitan federation of national colonies.”
Radical at the time, this point of view steadily insinuated itself into the mainstream. Horace Kallen took a bow in 1972 as a 90-year-old, with multiculturalism on the rise. “It takes about 50 years for an idea to break through and become vogue,” he stated. “No one likes an intruder, particularly when he is upsetting the commonplace.”
Fueled by the rise of ethnic-pride movements in the 1960s and critiques of America as fundamentally racist and corrupt, the intellectual tide of multiculturalism swelled in the 1990s. In a typical expression of the worldview, the academic Amy Gutmann, who eventually became president of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in favor of “public recognition and preservation” of “discrete ethnic, linguistic, and other cultural groups.” She insisted that our schools “must move beyond the morally misguided and politically dangerous idea of asking us to choose between being, above all, citizens of our own society or, above all, citizens of the world. We are, above all, none of the above.”
It became in vogue — as John Fonte explains in his book Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others? — for curricula and standards to refer to the American “peoples.”
The liberal political philosopher Richard Rorty argued in the mid 1990s that there was much to admire in the academic Left’s focus on underrepresented groups. “But there is a problem,” he wrote, “with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of ‘the politics of difference,’ it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride.”
Relatedly, the end of the Cold War engendered a newly potent transnationalism, contemptuous of national boundaries and supportive of institutions of global governance. In this view, old loyalties were not just anachronistic but morally unsupportable. The social critic Richard Sennett wrote of “the evil of a shared national identity.” Professor of law and ethics Martha Nussbaum warned of the “morally dangerous” dictates of “patriotic pride,” commending instead a commitment to the “worldwide community of human beings.”
It’s not just the intellectuals. American elites are enmeshed in the world of globalization — the enhanced travel and contacts, the multinational corporations, the NGOs. This inclines them to the view that the world is and should be ever more interconnected, and they are often fired by a near-messianic certitude that this trend is associated with the spread of all that is true and good. As Huntington points out, in the 19th century the growing sophistication and continental scale of American business promoted the nationalism of American elites over and against localism; now they promote the transnationalism of American elites over and against nationalism.
Globalization is real and the market a powerful force, but utopianism about trade and technology — supposedly driving us toward a borderless world and inevitable progress — has proven as facile and wrong as any other utopianism.
No, trade with China didn’t radically transform its regime. The general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, has effectively made himself president for life, centralizing power and writing authoritarian “Xi Jinping thought” into the constitution.
No, social media haven’t promoted liberalization. Once upon a time, leaders in tech boasted that, in the words of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, the Internet is a “force for peace” in the world. That was before it became clear that tech was a powerful tool in the arsenal of Russia and China, that Facebook had played a role in ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and that white nationalists and other extremists use social-media platforms as a tool of radicalization.
And no, the nation isn’t fading away, contrary to what has been constantly predicted by observers who wish it were.
The people who write down and teach our country’s story share these anti-national attitudes. They have reversed the traditional role of historiography. For the longest time, the bounds of historical writing were set by the nation, which was the natural subject of historians. The modern nation-state and professional historiography grew up together.
In America, as the New York University historian Thomas Bender remarks, the very first histories focused on localities and states. The first national work, The History of the American Revolution, didn’t appear until 1789, the year the Constitution went into effect. Americans still struck most observers as not very historically minded.
John Adams plaintively asked a correspondent in 1813, “Can you account for the Apathy, the Antipathy of this Nation to their own History? Is there not a repugnance to the thought of looking back? While thousands of frivolous Novels are read with eagerness and got by heart, the History of our own native Country is not only neglected, but despized and abhorred?”
In a couple of decades, a more rigorous effort to document the country’s founding and history would get underway. Key debates and documents were published, including in a series of books called “American Archives.” It proudly announced, “The undertaking in which we have embarked is, emphatically, a National one: National in its scope and object, its end and aim.”
And then there was George Bancroft. A prodigious scholar and politically active Democratic statesman, he wrote the magisterial History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent, published beginning in 1844.
The work stretched across ten volumes, written over the course of four decades, and eventually covered the years 1492 to 1789. Bancroft started his research by devoting a page of a blank book to each day of a year, and then, from his extensive reading, filled the page with every possible event that occurred on that date. His volumes became best sellers and earned him a fortune.
The scholar of nationalism Hans Kohn situated him within the great tradition of nationalist historians: “Bancroft, who occupies the same place in the development of American historiography and of the American national consciousness as Palacký does among the Czechs, Michelet among the French, Munch among the Norwegians, and Treitschke among the Germans, was a national historian not only because he saw national history in as favorable a light as possible but because he tried to formulate and document some of the most prominent traits of American national self-identification. He helped delineate the image that Americans formed of themselves.”
Bancroft was unembarrassingly, unabashedly pro-American. He had a providential view of America that infused his History, and he believed in the essential beneficence of the American project.
His work may not meet contemporary professional standards, but America’s historians have eschewed his approach and point of view entirely. They have turned their backs on the nation as a subject and, to the extent they take account of it, portray it as a vehicle of rapacity and misrule, as Howard Zinn did.
“If love of the nation is what drove American historians to the study of the past in the nineteenth century,” the Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes, “hatred for nationalism drove American historians away from it in the second half of the twentieth century.” The discipline became obsessed with micro-topics dictated by identity politics, dismissive of the lay reader, and, of course, hostile to the nation as such.
Our schools have run the same course. In the nationalist period after the Civil War, the teaching of American history flourished after a sustained push to emphasize it in curricula. Before the war, only a handful of states required history instruction; by the turn of the century, a majority of states did. And it was explicitly patriotic.
According to the historian Merle Curti, the schools “emphasized the importance of presenting vividly and attractively to children the glorious deeds of American heroes, the sacrifices and bravery of our soldiers and sailors in wartime, the personalities of presidents, who might properly be regarded as symbols of the nation in the manner in which royal personages of Europe were regarded. By the 1890s, state after state was requiring by law that subjects deemed peculiarly fitted to inculcating patriotism, such as American history and civics, be taught on every educational level below the college.”
As the long nationalist era after the Civil War faded, so did the emphasis on patriotism in instruction. Patriotic themes disappeared from school readers steadily throughout the 20th century, and history itself has begun to vanish from our education system.
Less than a fifth of colleges and universities require their students to take an American-history or -government course. Of the top colleges and universities in the country, only a fraction require even history majors to take a course in American history, although they often have geographic distribution requirements (which helpfully exclude the United States). Gender, racial, class, and environmental history have captured the heart of the academy.
Worse, of course, there has been a deliberate effort to trash America’s statesmen and heroes as exemplars of racism, sexism, and classism.
In 2014, a firestorm erupted over the College Board’s new curriculum for Advanced Placement United States History. It didn’t mention James Madison or Martin Luther King Jr. but did manage to name-check Chief Little Turtle and Mercy Otis Warren. It had a hostile view of the American experience, noting, for instance, that the British legacy here was “a rigid racial hierarchy” and minimizing the importance of the American Revolution.
A group of more than a hundred scholars wrote a letter complaining that the new framework imposed “an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history,” in addition to downplaying “American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective.” In sum, they wrote, the curriculum was “so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be.”
After denouncing its critics as chauvinistic hacks, the College Board reversed course and modified the curriculum. But the spirit that animated the effort in the first place is dominant in U.S. education and eating away at the foundations of our national project.
Memory is what gives a nation its self-image and its sense of unity and coherence. It plays the same role in a country as it does in an individual, providing, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the cement, the bitumen, the matrix in which the other faculties are embedded.”
The great historian William H. McNeill puts it well: “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.”
McNeill cites the example of the British in World War II, who were fortified by what they had learned from their schoolbooks, namely that they had lost the initial battles in European conflicts but always prevailed in the end.
Arthur Schlesinger explains, “As the means of defining national identity, history becomes a means of shaping history.”
What historic challenges do the race, gender, and class obsessions of American historiographers prepare us for today? To win a campaign against heteronormativity? To beat ourselves up endlessly and dethrone historical figure after historical figure over white privilege? To be constantly watchful for the baleful effects of toxic masculinity?
An anti-national history is, on top of everything, profoundly ungrateful. It fails to credit our ancestors for achievements on an epic scale. It denies the continuities of our history and our dependence on men and women who didn’t know us but bequeathed us the marvel of America. It runs counter to the inscription that John Adams wrote on the tombstone of his forebear Henry Adams: “This stone and several others have been placed in this yard, by a great great grandson from a veneration of the piety, humility, simplicity, prudence, patience, temperance, frugality, industry and perseverance of his Ancestors, in hopes of recommending an imitation of their virtues to their Posterity.”
We have traveled a long way down from that sentiment, which is impossible to improve on more than two centuries later. If centuries of adventure, drama, striving, and achievement aren’t to be wiped away in a “great forgetting,” the country needs an Americanizing campaign of civic and history education, suffused with a belief in the country’s uniqueness and greatness and buttressed by its wayward elites.
–This essay has been adapted from The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free, due from Broadside Books in November.