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Americans Aren't Just Divided Politically, They're Divided Over History Too


We've been talking about our disorienting era of change and what got us to this point. It's a series of discussions we call the History of Our Time. Last week, Christian conservative Peter Wehner talked about what he sees as the moral fracturing of our society, and he outlined one cause.


PETER WEHNER: There's been a rather sustained assault on truth. What's happened is that that has now spread to the wider society and including political society. And I think when you lose that, you lose the ability to reason together.

MARTIN: The question of how societies arrive at truth preoccupies our next guest because historian Jill Lepore says today's truth is shaped in part by an understanding of yesterday. And she's chronicled how Americans have been fighting over that for a long time. Jill Lepore has written numerous books and articles exploring American history, and she joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

JILL LEPORE: Hey, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Jill, you've written a lot about how we see our history and how that defines us. And the problem, as you see it, is we don't actually share a common understanding of our history. How so?

LEPORE: One reason is the way our politics works, and all politics works this way to one degree or another, but there's something particularly unstable about the way it works in the United States. Politics is really an argument about how we got to be where we are making that argument in order to convince people that you know how to get them to where we ought to be. So all politics is really an argument about the relationship between the past and the future. And the more polarized our politics has become, the more polarized our past.

MARTIN: Can you point to some moments in American history where the story we tell about ourselves has diverged?

LEPORE: The one that I've been really struck by over the last few years in thinking about it is the mid-1970s during and in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, which are eras that we go back to all the time because we know that there was a fracture there. But if you were to go back and look at Richard Nixon's inaugural address in January of 1973, he actually - he actually makes this argument. He says our children have been taught to be ashamed of their country. And there's this really interesting move that the Nixon administration has quite purposefully made, which is to reject the account to the American past that's coming out of universities, that's coming out of the academic world.

MARTIN: New ways of looking at history plus previously undiscovered or unreported history were emerging. That increased the unease some people felt, some of it stoked by politicians after a turbulent era. But Lepore sees irony in those reactions.

LEPORE: One of the things I think is so fascinating is that there's no country in the world that is so deeply founded on the very nature of inquiry, that we let facts speak to a candid world Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence. And there are moments in American history where there's just been an extraordinary amount of cynicism about that claim. It also is in real tension with the universal truths of revealed religion, and a lot of the kind of cultural wars of the 1990s were about kind of these competing notions of where we get our truth from.

MARTIN: I mean, you mention the inevitable truths, one of which is all men are created equal, except that wasn't true (laughter) except the United States enslaved a large portion of the population. How does that dark chapter in our history play out in this conversation about interpreting our American story?

LEPORE: It absolutely took on a new cast in the academy in the 1960s and 1970s because if you think about it, in the 1960s and 1970s, women started becoming historians. African-Americans became historians. They founded black studies departments. Ethnic studies departments were founded. And the story of American history itself began to fracture.

MARTIN: Battles over the content of school history textbooks were one result. Lepore says Christian conservatives sought to diminish the role of Thomas Jefferson because he had argued for the separation of church and state. And around that time, she says a new style of media figure with a new take on history entered the picture. One example - Glenn Beck.

LEPORE: What Beck's message was the teaching of history is a conspiracy. The way your children have been taught American history is that there are things to be ashamed of in the American past, and that's wrong. We need to be proud of these founders. I found that really fascinating because what it does is it makes history a religion in some way. So the very political tolerance on which the nation was founded, which comes from religious tolerance, that allows people to have tolerance for political parties, that our very notion of political tolerance is founded in a tolerance of religious difference. But then if you make your history essentially a kind of religion, then you take it out of the realm of debate and inquiry.

MARTIN: But when you say people are craving in their history the same thing they get out of their religion - and what that sounds like to me is people are craving something definitive - that if all of a sudden history is malleable and history is subjective according to the narrator, that's unsettling.

LEPORE: We shouldn't ask historians to write a simple history. The past is not a comic book. It is a rich canvas of struggle. And people can understand that and want to appreciate that. I just think it's not really been available to them.

MARTIN: So what do we do with this? I mean, we've talked about the unsettling nature of a history that can never be complete and is open to interpretation. Do we just live with that, or are we required to finally get on the same page about where we came from in order to move forward?

LEPORE: I think we are required to argue with one another about it face to face.

MARTIN: So not necessarily to settle on the answer.

LEPORE: I don't think actually, frankly, it's even in the spirit of the idea of the founding of the United States to settle on the answer. The United States was founded as a political experiment. Now, there's this great essay that Alexander Hamilton writes in the very first of The Federalist Papers when he says it has fallen to the people of the United States to answer the great question of human history, which is are people capable of writing a constitution in which they can live justly and fairly by reason? Or are we all fated inevitably to be ruled by force and accident? And that's the question. And we - each generation has to answer it. And that has to be answered candidly.

MARTIN: Jill Lepore is the author of many works of American history. She is the David Woods Kemper professor of American history at Harvard. Jill, thanks so much for talking with us.

LEPORE: Hey, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.