"These things are old":

Choosing our better history

posted by Todd Gitlin


Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Obama performed some imperative, long overdue work in bidding us “to choose our better history.”  In doing so, he recognized the complexity of our history, for if there is a better history, there is also a worse.  There is the George Washington who owned slaves and the George Washington who opposed torture.  The worse history, Obama didn’t dwell on—an Inaugural Address was not the place for that.  Rather, he invited a new beginning, though without amnesia or false innocence.  He invited us as a nation to perform a necessary twist on the seventeenth-century notion that we were divinely elected, “God’s new Israel,” entitled to establish dominion.  In Obama’s version, Americans get to choose—to choose perennially—from among multiple and intertangled strands.  We were, from the beginning (in fact, from before the beginning) a people of more than one history—freedom and slavery, cooperation and savagery, republic and empire—not easily disentangled.  That is why the choosing has to be intricate, deliberate, subtle, ongoing.

Is it possible to parse American virtues and values into distinct categories of “the religious” and “the secular”?  I think not, and am not particularly interested in trying.  Were Emerson, Whitman, and William James “religious” or “secular”?  Or, for that matter, Norman Thomas and Martin Luther King?  My exploration of eighteenth-century American history, as I work on a book about chosen peoples, teaches me how entangled these traditions already were as America was becoming a nation and a republic.  Even in 1776, there was more than one way to construe that certain truths were self-evident.  Indeed, at an early stage, the debate about what it meant to be an American was already an American tradition, even as there have often—usually—been Americans who claimed that Americans must, in Ari Fleischer’s notorious reduction, “watch what they say.”

“To carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”—I take this to presuppose that a gift that has to be “passed on” is not a solid object but a work in progress, something to be renewed and, in the process, its meaning fought over.  A “God-given promise” is one-half of a covenant, as Robert Bellah, among others, has taught us, but the other half is the free choice of a people to define itself.  Entailed in that ideal of a generation’s choice is Jefferson’s radical ideal of revolutionary renewals.  As he wrote his secret sharer John Adams in 1823:  “The generation which commences a revolution rarely complete it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides [referring to the Mexican royalist-loyalist of 1810] to defeat their own rights and purposes.”

The virtues Obama went on to mention—“honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—are both individual and collective.  They must be cultivated both in personal character and in institutions.  There is a crazy notion abroad that stand-alone individuals can do all this work on their own, that Americans are currently justly rewarded for their “hard work,” that society ought to stand aside and let the failures wither, that the janitor who comes up short of health insurance must not have worked hard enough.  When Obama beats the drums for national service, he reminds us that there are social and personal gains that matter more than capital gains, and deserve energy and reward.  He invites honest conservatives to recognize that infrastructure is not just a four-syllable word, but also an American tradition.  He invites honest liberals to claim patriotism, not renounce it, in the spirit of Mark Twain:  “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

In this spirit, it behooves us to honor an American lineage of opposition to conquest, which has frequently (not always) been a seedbed for the virtues of honesty, courage, fair play, curiosity, and, yes, loyalty.  This is a tradition!  One could do worse than beginning by acknowledging an honor roll including Lincoln on the Mexican War; James and Twain among others on the Spanish-American War; Debs and Bourne during World War I; many, many during the American war in Vietnam, and many too, including Obama himself, face to face with the misbegotten Iraq adventure.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

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2 Responses to “Choosing our better history”

  1. avatar Justin O'Shea says:

    Gitlin concentrates on Obama’s encouragement “to choose our better history.” He is stressing that Obama wants us to recognize the complexities within our history, and acknowledge both the good and the bad aspects of it. He rather wants us to “choose perennially- from among multiple and intertangled strands,” essentially meaning that we are a country of more than one history, of “freedom and slavery, cooperation and savagery, republic and empire.” Gitlin is emphasizing these broad types of histories, ones that envelope the whole country. However, one significant point he leaves out is the vast other types of history America holds—the unique and distinct histories of its citizens. The United States of America inherently has a complicated history of such concepts as freedom and slavery, as Gitlin states. Within these concepts there are a myriad of other histories, such as within freedom or slavery. Here there is a history of Africans, African Americans, Christians, individuals of African Tribal Religions. And within freedom there is a history of Europeans and Christians, Africans and African Americans, as well as many others. These categories are too specific to truly encompass all that freedom and slavery denote. Gitlin concentrates too much on the history of the United States of America as a single entity—the country went through cooperation and republic, as well as savagery and empire. I believe it is much more important to break down these different aspects of America’s past, and try to understand the myriad of different cultural and religious groups that benefited and suffered within these categories. Yes America has a history of freedom, a history of slavery. It also has a history of Europeans, Asians, Africans, Latinos and more; of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and more. Each one of these groups has experienced the freedom and the slavery, the cooperation and the savagery, and the republic and the empire. Therefore, it is erroneous to continually group America’s histories into groups of two homogenous categories.

  2. avatar Liza Carens says:

    Commenter Justin O’Shea brings up a valid point missing from Gitlin’s posting. Americans do pride themselves on their diverse heritages if speaking of their past does not risk marginalization. One’s past is at the center of his/her American identity because our nation is a “melting pot,” which all people may enter seamlessly. We know that this is not the case, but this ideal illustrates the importance of Obama’s election in American life. Obama was different from other candidates because of his past. His past is not the past of most Americans. …But it is. His father was an immigrant. Obama is of a racial minority within America. These are truths that many before him have faced and often tried to disregard. However, his presidency also carries the hope that this mentality will change.

    Gitlin also suggests that Obama calls the nation to embrace Bellah’s notion of civil religion, the American people should value their nation like their faiths. During his campaign this could be seen by the women crying during his speeches and his supporters gripping their Obama gear tightly to ensure it would not be ripped a way in the crowds. The true test regarding his influence and presence within American civil religion will be his efforts to motivate the American people. If he can motivate them in the White House as he did on the campaign trail, Americans will embrace nationalism as the new civil religion. Gitlin takes Obama’s words if “”honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism” which were themes throughout his campaign. The way people accept or reject these principles will demonstrate the influence Obama has over American civil religion.

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