I saw Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham give a lecture at Northrup Auditorium this month, as part of the Humphrey School’s Distinguished Carlson Lecture series. It was a packed house. The median age easily cleared 40 or 50 years old. I came a little late, so I had to sit high up on the fourth floor in those seats that make you feel like you’re watching whatever is on stage from a helicopter.
Meacham has the intellect of a man who has spent many nights in the depths of some library parsing through dusty old books and documents, but also the charisma of a man who has spent a lot of time with a president or two. A Southern white, Anglo-Saxon protestant — and the first actual Episcopalian I’ve ever seen in person and not read about in a history book. Meacham’s talk balanced humorous historical anecdotes with a deeply sobering look back into American history.
What was so deeply sobering is that our current treacherous era of Donald Trump — racial intolerance, alternative facts and immigrant children in cages — is perfectly in line with much of American history. Meacham reminded us that for four long years, Joseph McCarthy seized the nation’s attention with his phantom communists and incessant lies. The demagogue and rabid segregationist George Wallace was a credible and dangerous presidential candidate at one point.
But, as Meacham reminded the audience, the American public eventually saw through McCarthy’s lies. Wallace won five states in the 1968 election, but major politicians of both parties took up anti-segregation. Not without some stumbles, the good side of America eventually prevailed. Meacham painted a picture of American history that was full of many steps back, but ultimately followed by taking larger steps forward.
It’s a comforting vision of American history and very nice to think the good will prevail, especially in our current time. As Mecham told MinnPost, “So, progress is possible. The lesson of history is that there are very few great leaps forward without a corresponding leap back.”
Yet, our seas still rise. Hurricanes will ravish our coasts with greater intensity every year. Larger and larger wildfires reset our Western landscape every summer. Pretty much anyone will agree that America is taking a step back right now. But will the step forward that Meacham reassures us America will take ever come?
Meacham’s blind spot are these leaps back. He never mentions who bears the brunt of these detours in America’s supposedly inevitable march toward progress. As a man born into and living in immense privilege, his aerial view of American history too easily glosses over immense suffering. When America finally does the right thing, Meacham seems to ignore what’s still left to work on. Electing a black president was a step in the right direction for America, but it didn’t really put a dent in racism. Jamar Clark and Laquan McDonald can attest to that.
To borrow from the writings of Philip Roth, Meacham too easily paints an American pastoral. What we really have on our hands is the “indigenous American berserk,” or what The New Republic book reviewer Robert Boyers described as Roth’s fundamental American spirit: “a propensity to violence, conspiracy and irrationality.” It ebbs and flows and we often forget or ignore it because it does not touch our lives. But it always remains under the surface of American life, and all signs are pointing toward it being here to stay. What’s surprising about it is that it surprises us.