Rereading Simon Schama

Back in June 2009 I posted:

star30 star30star30star30star30 1. Simon Schama, The American Future: A History(2008).

Rather snooty review by David Brooks in The New York Times: “His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.” When you actually read the book you do get the title: historically “The American Dream” (the phrase itself, if not the idea, first appeared in 1931) has been very much about possibility and the future – witness the ending of The Great Gatsby. Beginning each chapter with vignettes of the 2008 Presidential Election, Schama traces a series of themes back through a number of intelocked and fascinating profiles. The result, in my view, is one of the most subtle portraits of the USA and its evolution that I have ever read. Nothing puerile about the title or the book.

Much nearer the mark is Carmela Ciuraru in The Christian Science Monitor.

William Faulkner once famously wrote that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” a quote that aptly describes the perspective of Simon Schama’s latest book. In The American Future: A History, the eminent British historian and Columbia University professor offers a kaleidoscopic view of our national identity – by way of examining war, immigration, religion, and prosperity.

He sets off these themes with the 2008 presidential election, “impregnated with history,” an event that Schama likens to Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural in 1801, when Jefferson similarly spoke out against divisive rhetoric, proclaiming that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Weaving in original reportage, analysis, and historical events, Schama investigates where our nation of boundless appetite and ambition might be headed. The book (a companion to his BBC documentary series) is both a celebration and a wake-up call. “The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation,” he writes. “The American past is baggy with sobering truth.” The author is particularly harsh about our country’s recent past, notably “the woeful performance of [former president George W. Bush] and his hapless maladministration.” …

He isn’t striving for objectivity; this book is part history, part polemic. As a scholar and an outsider in his adopted country, he views the Bush administration as an unmitigated disaster. Yet the author is smart enough to (mostly) keep his opinions to himself, and let others do the talking – whether through contemporary interviews or quotes from historical figures…

He’s especially adroit at studying our historical ambivalence toward immigrants, and how religious ideology has shaped our identity. (He notes that American evangelism has always puzzled “habitually secular, skeptical Europeans.”)

American history is endlessly rich and fascinating, but Schama’s travelogue makes it come alive in a wonderfully accessible way. Sure, some of his pronouncements seem a bit obvious, but he includes so many surprising moments (an amusingly candid off-the-cuff encounter with George W. Bush, for instance) that all is forgiven. Schama happens to be a marvelous storyteller, too. Never condescending, his portrait of America’s complexities and contradictions is entertaining, provocative, and above all, hopeful.

The chapter on religion — “American Fervour” – is particularly valuable. It is a nuanced corrective to the polarised and polarising views of the subject one so often sees.* Let’s face it, too much we see and hear about the USA is at the level of cartoon thought, whether it be mindless patriotism on the one hand or subscription to the idea that the USA is at the bottom of all that is wrong with the world on the other.

You can read Chapter One here. Some idea of the TV series may be seen here. A definite Best Read of 2009!

* See also Caspar Melville “Free Market Faith”, New Humanist May/June 2009.

Lately I have been rereading The American Future with mixed enjoyment and sorrow.  Right now I have been revisiting the 1850s and the Know-Nothings.  Deja vu indeed.


See Lorraine Boissoneault, How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics.

America fought the Civil War over slavery, and the devastation of that conflict pushed nativist concerns to the back of the American psyche. But nativism never left, and the legacy of the Know Nothings has been apparent in policies aimed at each new wave of immigrants. In 1912, the House Committee on Immigration debated over whether Italians could be considered “full-blooded Caucasians” and immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe were considered “biologically and culturally less intelligent.”

From the end of the 19th century to the first third of the 20th, Asian immigrants were excluded from naturalization based on their non-white status. “People from a variety of groups and affiliations, ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Progressive movement, old-line New England aristocrats and the eugenics movement, were among the strange bedfellows in the campaign to stop immigration that was deemed undesirable by old-stock white Americans,” writes sociologist Charles Hirschman of the early 20th century. “The passage of immigration restrictions in the early 1920s ended virtually all immigration except from northwestern Europe.”

Those debates and regulations continue today, over refugees from the Middle East and immigrants from Latin America.

Phillips’s conclusion is that those bewildered by current political affairs simply haven’t looked far enough back into history. “One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” he says. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent. The actors are still the same, but with different names.”

Then read Laura Reston’s 2015 article Donald Trump Isn’t The First Know Nothing to Capture American Hearts.

Pundits have been trying for weeks to explain why Donald Trump has continued to lead Republican polls, drawing massive crowds and attracting a media circus, despite stepping in it time and again on camera. But the Donald tweeted something yesterday that may help answer all their questions.

So many people who know nothing about me are commenting all over T.V. and the media as though they have great D.J.T. insight. Know NOTHING!

While the tweet reads as nothing more than Trump’s typical bombast—more bluster than substance—the Republican frontrunner seems to be invoking a secretive political organization that dates back to the first days of the Republican Party: The Know Nothings

The Know Nothings were rabidly xenophobic. Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy had flooded the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. This was the first time that Americans had to confront an immigrant class whose origin stories, last names, and religious beliefs set them apart from the British settlers who had cleared her forests and populated her first towns centuries earlier. The Know Nothings claimed that Catholics immigrants owed their allegiance, not to the burgeoning American government, but to the Pope, whose autocratic ruling style was antithetical to American democratic values (the same argument that was trotted out when John F. Kennedy was campaigning for president). And for a country whose founding fathers had written about religious tolerance only a few decades earlier, the message was surprisingly effective…

Like his predecessors the Know Nothings, Trump faces a challenge: how to win supporters from an electorate that, for the last eight years, has seemed to gravitate more and more toward the Democratic Party. Like the Know Nothings, Trump has chosen to denigrate immigrants, playing up the xenophobic idea that they are stealing jobs and resources from American citizens. He even went so far as to accuse Mexican immigrants of raping American women.

The rise of the Know Nothings, an episode in American history often brushed under the rug or simply forgotten, demonstrates that Trump is a part of a tradition dating to the earliest days of the Republican Party.

Did you watch THAT press conference? Strange indeed. Donald Tweet replies:

Thank you for all of the nice statements on the Press Conference yesterday. Rush Limbaugh said one of greatest ever. Fake media not happy!

On Breitbart of course. Really, Trump is such a fool!

See ‘I’m not ranting and raving.’ Trump on defensive in first solo news conference.

FEBRUARY 16, 2017 The first gripe came three minutes into President Donald Trump’s first solo news conference on Thursday, when he accused reporters of ignoring a poll showing him with a 55 percent approval rating – a figure at odds with most other surveys.

From there, the president’s criticism of the media went from barbed to personal in a cutting assessment of what he viewed as unfair coverage of his first few weeks in office – a period that has seen a succession of crises.

On a day when he ceded a loss over a signature policy in a federal appeals court, had to replace his labor secretary pick and faced questions over the resignation of his national security adviser, Mr. Trump chose to make the media a central focus of an unusually long and combative presidential news conference…

And here is something not fake:

Personal trust is in question amidst swirling, competing narratives. But institutional trust, that sense of what is believable, reliable and true that underpins a democracy, is taking a hammering in the President’s relentless attacks on the institutions that, despite their various shortcomings, are still the keepers of a holy grail – the media, the courts, colleges and the intelligence services.