By Martha Quillen
If anybody tries to tell you that the United States of America is no longer the greatest manufacturing nation of all time, you should remind them that this is the Information Age, and due to the Internet, information has gone viral and is out of control. Now, people are calling this a “post-truth” era, because there are so many conflicting stats, facts and figures being produced. And clearly the United States contributes plenty to those developments.
In 2016, Oxford dictionaries selected “post-truth” as their international word of the year because it’s usage had increased by approximately 2,000 percent since 2015. According to them, post-truth doesn’t merely imply that truth is lackin; it also indicates that emotionalism is trumping fact, which certainly makes it emblematic of our era and country. The word, however, evolved out of a growing trend to use the prefix “post” not just to indicate an event is in the past (as in post-war), but to imply something is losing its relevance (as in post-racial).
Truth, however, isn’t losing its relevance. Citizens are merely having trouble identifying it in the sheer enormity of information available today, but that’s only because people don’t necessarily like the truth or look for it. And that’s been a problem for ages. According to a time-honored adage, the victors get to tell the story, and their accounts are self-serving and seldom accurate.
In the 1970s and ’80s, historians produced “revisionist histories” about the American West in order to set some records straight. But a lot of people preferred the versions about courageous pioneers conquering a new world and establishing the greatest civilization of all time. And some even viewed revisionism as a liberal plot to make their ancestors look bad.
Histories have always undergone revision – because original chroniclers often fail to include people and events that later prove to be important. In fact, new takes on old history are introduced regularly, for all sorts of reasons. Note for example how Americans had never heard of ethnic Albanians before we sent troops.
By the time revisionists reexamined the Old West, traditional histories were already deemed wanting. In the 1960s, protest movements inspired an increasing body of literary and journalistic work about (and by) minorities, which made old scenarios about the West seem incomplete and dishonest. In 1987, when Patricia Limerick’s transformative history, Legacy of Conquest, was published, plenty of books already revealed tragic tales about broken treaties, ravished landscapes, violent labor disputes and the mistreatment of women, natives and immigrants.
Revisionists merely contributed their scholarship to the growing controversy. Yet people almost always blame all-powerful thems (be they historians, FOX News, MSNBC, government officials, lobbyists, billionaires or think tanks) for the unremitting conflict that tends to accompany major cultural shifts.
But what about us? What influence do we ordinary citizens assert? Could it be that what we read, think, talk about and believe matters more than what the rich and mighty want?
There’s certainly some evidence for that. The dominance of social issues in campaigns, such as gay marriage, health care, abortion and jobs – indicate our concerns matter. But stagnant wages for four decades indicate they don’t matter enough. Maybe that’s because the electorate is fractured and people are as likely to fight between themselves as they are to fight for one another.
Exactly how and why culture wars have become common in the United States is the subject of a new book, Exceptional America: What Divides Americans From the World and From Each Other, by Mugambi Jouet, who grew up in Paris. Jouet’s work is a compendium of stinging criticisms far more insulting than any revisionist assessments. He critiques our anti-intellectual stances, excessive religiosity, intolerance, sense of superiority, violent tendencies, cruel incarceration rates and illogical leadership with so much detail even I wanted to cry uncle (even though I love stats and political books). But Jouet’s encyclopedic appraisal is too much. What is the purpose of pointing out so many flaws and failures? Does Jouet think people will read his book and think, “Oh, of course, you’re right,” then start fixing everything?
Jouet is well-informed and his book is worth perusing for the astounding amount of history, quotes, polls, opinions and sources he gets into a comparatively short work. But I suspect his intent is to prod his fellow Americans into changing, just like Republicans want to reform Democrats, and liberals want to enlighten conservatives, and evangelicals want to correct sinners.
But is all of this disapproval helpful? In my view, our passion for fixing other citizens makes us forget our government’s constitutional responsibility to serve all of the people and not just ourselves.
According to Jouet, the Republicans are always coming up with draconian measures to legislate morality – such as nullifying gay marriages, insisting on abstinence-only sex education programs, and closing Planned Parenthood centers. And I agree. Do any of us really want the electorate to decide what we can think and believe? Or to determine who we can have sex with?
But Jouet also displays flagrant liberal bias when he contends too many Americans are anti-intellectual and willfully ignorant, and that’s especially true of evangelicals and Republicans who don’t understand how progressive programs could benefit them. Does Jouet really think people should support a party that denigrates what they cherish most: their freedom and religion? Or that Republicans should trust people who too often imply Republicans need to be reeducated in order to think and live more like Democrats?
Republicans try to control Democrats by trying to impose their moral standards with legislation. And Democrats try to control Republicans by insisting that they should think more like liberals – and also by imposing codes and restrictions that make traditional lifestyles difficult, and endanger hunting, small family farms, sawmills, mines, gravel pits, salvage yards and manufacturing operations.
Should people be free to build alternative dwellings without presenting expensive engineering plans? Or live in sod houses? Or drive old vehicles?
Isn’t it okay to live in insular enclaves? To be Amish? Or speak Urdu? Or live off the grid? Or perhaps even to be polygamous? Or celibate, like the Shakers?
I don’t know, but if you ask me, Americans keep making the same mistake: Civic-minded citizens and well-intentioned leaders too often insult and vilify people they should be trying to convince – and then everybody gets to arguing.
But Americans were contentious long before Palin, Obama and Trump were on the scene. It started with rebels and royalists in the 18th century, and was especially noteworthy here in Central Colorado in the 19th, when shootings occurred over water rights and rustling; local towns sported both red light districts and Victorian teas; and ethnic workers were bullied and occasionally even murdered. In 1883, an editor of The Salida Mail praised a local lynching of two men, which he regarded as necessary “to administer justice which courts deny …” And he rebuked the local courts because “not a legal hanging had ever taken place” in Chaffee County, which was a mere four years old then.
People hold to different truths. They always have and probably always will. But there’s one thing almost everybody agrees on, including the French: There is greatness in America, and it’s almost certainly due to this crazy, grand experiment to mix people with different faiths, beliefs, backgrounds, ideas and priorities and let them govern themselves as one people, with liberty and justice for all.
And yes, establishing a government that complies with such lofty ideals may be an impossible dream, which we are nowhere near accomplishing yet. But is there a more noble goal on the planet?
Martha Quillen follows politics in her living room, with a book in one hand and a remote in the other. Her favorite entry in the word competition was Brexodus followed by Brexiters. What a novelty: political choices you can smile about.