We notice an interesting habit in people’s analyses of the past: in the past, everything is absolute; while in the present, everything is conditional.
In the U.S. today, there are many fraught issues that divide and subdivide the nation. There is no one opinion on Social Security, climate change, the war in Iraq, NSA surveillance, how to intervene in Ukraine, birth control, affirmative action, prison reform, or every other issue facing Americans. We know that there is no single national opinion on these issues. When we hear our own politicians, or foreign observers, describe America as united in their opinion on one of these issues (the BBC World News saying recently that “the majority of Americans dismiss climate change” comes to mind), we immediately reject it, and feel the frustration and irritation of having our complexity misrepresented.
Yet we do not extend this courtesy to the past. When we talk about history, suddenly “the United States” and “Americans” are all one thing:
—Americans supported black slavery before the Civil War.
—Americans believed they had a right to Native Americans’ lands.
—Americans considered Native Americans to be savages.
—Americans were isolationists who did not want to enter WWII.
—Americans hated Prohibition and did not obey it.
—Americans have always been a God-fearing people.
—Americans did not think women should be educated.
—Americans accepted child labor in factories.
—Americans were caught up in the Red Scare of the 1950s.
—Americans believed in their Manifest Destiny to settle the West.
You’ve read these statements in textbooks, magazine and journal articles, and heard them on countless historical programs and documentaries. You, like the rest of us, probably wrote them yourself in early school papers. These blanket statements are not only laughably incorrect, they are damaging. They are uniformly negative, and reinforce the stereotype that America claims to stand for liberty and justice for all, but in reality, America is a hypocritical sham. Each of these statement can be easily taken apart and discounted by the most cursory historical investigation. Each of the issues they address were just as conflicted and complex as any of the ones we face today. In reality, Americans had a wide variety of opinions on the issues above, and debated them with the same vehemence we debate with now. Most of them were never fully resolved.
Even the positive lies of uniformity are harmful: “Americans were always self-reliant”, “Americans believed in the value of hard work”, “Americans were always innovative”, “Americans did not trust big government”—each bit of boosterism was crafted, even at the time, to promote a certain worldview, a certain political stance. We can hardly read them now without thinking of their current purposes, which are generally to reject federal social spending, remove federal programs in schools and the workplace, get rid of taxation, and discourage alliances with other nations for any liberal purpose (such as fighting climate change). We independent, hard-working Americans don’t want… fill in the campaign-season blank.
Let’s go forward cutting the past as much slack as we cut the present. Let’s drop the inflexible history and allow it to be as flexible as the present. If we don’t buck the trend of the uniform past, imagine how we will find ourselves misrepresented 100 years from now, to our chagrin—“Americans in 2014 happily accepted NSA surveillance because they valued the convenience of technology more than their right to privacy.”