2020-12-31

Book Review: "These Truths" by Jill Lepore

I find it appropriate that to close a year that has been marked by personal highs & lows and by so much national political tumult, despair, and existential questioning, I should read the book These Truths by Jill Lepore. This is a book that I got as a birthday gift from my family within 12 months of the publication of this book, but I didn't get around to reading it until these winter holidays because I didn't want my busy schedule at work to lead me to start reading it and never finish, and because in truth I was intimidated by its length & subject matter to start it during the summer (even though I had a lot of time before starting my new job in the fall). As discussed in the preface, the book aims to be a comprehensive political history of the US, starting with the explorations & conquests by Christopher Columbus and then moving mostly chronologically forward from there, and frames this history with the overarching question of the extent to which the US has lived up to its founding ideals over the centuries. The author makes clear that the focus on political history, in conjunction of the length of the book, will require lessening focus from military & cultural history, but I felt that aspects of military & cultural history were adequately covered to support the main arguments, and I didn't feel like I missed those things so much. The author puts forth the ideal that history should be a form of inquiry that goes beyond record-keeping and her hope to be neither blindly praising nor blindly disparaging of the US, while acknowledging that her prioritization of available written records will bias the discussion toward the narrative told by people in power.

The book is rather long, spanning more than 800 pages (in the original hardbound edition) from the preface through 16 chapters and the epilogue. However, as this book is for laypeople as opposed to scholars (the latter exemplified by the book The Invention of Science by David Wootton, which I have reviewed here), the font is a little larger and has generous spacing, making it easier to read. Furthermore, the content of the writing itself flows smoothly, and this is a very engaging read. Thus, I was able to finish the book faster than I originally anticipated. Also, I initially wondered whether such a long book would be useful, because I usually like to seriously grapple with the ideas presented in a book like this, and I envisioned that every page of this book would be so chock-full of ideas that it would be too long; however, as I came to see that the narrative was a bit more fast-paced as opposed to dense, my concerns were allayed.

As I have understood, the main points of this book are as follows. In the opening statement of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal", there have been endless debates about who "we" are and to which "men" these "truths" should apply. The questions about "we" and "men" have been seen from the beginning through the conflicts about slavery and about the treatment of indigenous tribes, immigrants, and women, and in disputes since then. The questions about "truths" have been seen relatively more recently, since the 1890s, with the rise of political consultants who aim to shape public opinion to their own ends even if such actions lead to divisions that destabilize the country and lead to rejections of notions of objectivity; the author makes this point clear, drawing a straight line from the political consultants of the 1890s to the pollsters of the 1930s to the misguided idealistic computational social scientists of the 1960s to the cynical conservative political strategists of the 1970s to the conservative media personalities of the 1990s to companies like Facebook in the 2010s. Initially, I thought these points could have been made in a better way to form a more coherent narrative through the book. However, I am now more convinced by the book that further reduction of these ideas into a narrative that seems too neat would do a disservice to the complexity and dynamism of US history.

Although the author aims to stay ideologically neutral, it is clear that she writes from a more liberal perspective. This is of course obvious from the central thesis, framing issues of race, gender, and class as central to understanding US history, but it also becomes clear at various points through the text in which the author decries liberal electoral losses or things like that. While the author doesn't hesitate to criticize liberals for hyperbolically overreacting to certain conservative beliefs or public figures or for going so deep into identity politics as to reject the very notion of objectivity, the author's criticism of conservative politicians since the 1950s is more pointed, explicitly casting many such politicians & movement leaders as acting cynically even though many liberal politicians, movement leaders, and political consultants have acted in similarly hypocritical & cynical ways (giving the example of how many consultants for the Obama campaign have been hypocritical in their denunciations of Republican corruption & profit); perhaps it is true that since the 1960s, conservative politicians, movement leaders, and political consultants have behaved more cynically (in frequency and intensity) than their liberal counterparts, and I certainly learned a lot about how extensive Nixon's cynicism was, how early he developed such cynical instincts, and how much it influenced the Republican Party after his presidency, but I would still have preferred to see explicit characterizations as appropriate of certain liberal political actions as cynical. At the same time, the author's moderate stance on racial issues, decrying the ways that conservatives in the 1980s denounced "welfare queens" and the epidemic of police brutality against black people that only became broadly visible beyond black people in the 2010s while also decrying the ways that liberals sanctimoniously call conservatives racist buffoons and the splitting of racial justice movements into racial factionalism via identity politics, liberal stance on gender issues, decrying the ways that women were stymied by men in power in the quest for equality while also looking skeptically upon women who wanted to be free from male society altogether, and apparently progressive stance on economic issues, looking for real antitrust action as well as welfare, seems to align in many ways with my views; I don't know if that is due to real alignment or if that is because people of different political persuasions can feel like they align with the author, because the latter would be an act of genius on the part of the author, and in any case, it all adds up to a striking criticism of liberal politics from the 1950s onward (and especially in the 1990s).

This book illustrates how US history rhymes, even if it doesn't repeat exactly. I found myself surprised at many junctures to see how even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so many of the debates about the nature of facts, polling, partisanship, economic inequality, civil rights, and things like that are echoed in current affairs. For example, I was surprised to see how so many court cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment in the 1870s involved questions about the extent to which corporations can legally be considered to be persons, and to see how the Republican Party of the 1880s supported trickle-down theories of economics (using almost the same terminology). In this way, there were a lot of things that I learned about US history that reaffirmed my view that arguments based on history must go beyond the last 7 decades and must properly contextualize the circumstances of the last 7 decades within the full 244 years of this country's history. Plus, the author seems to have written this book in a way that makes clear to laypeople with even a passing interest in current affairs how so many past events resemble current affairs. With respect to the point about proper contextualization, the author also does a good job of avoiding common traps of simplistic conventional wisdom. For example, the author clearly shows how the supposed consensus from people watching the same TV news sources in the 1950s & 1960s was an artifact of the Cold War and of lack of racial & ideological diversity, because the first decade of the Cold War largely forced both major political parties to become essentially indistinguishable, preserved a status quo in which positions of power in politics & the media would be held by old white men, and thereby ensured in practice that any deviation from these norms would be implicitly censored. However, the author isn't perfect in this regard, and I think the author's lapses in this way could have been solved by more explicitly connecting discussions of later events to previous discussions in the book of earlier events. Using the same example as before, the author contrasts the partisan media fragmentation of the cable TV environment of the 1990s with the unified network TV environment of the 1950s but fails to connect this with the earlier discussion of why the supposed consensus of the 1950s was actually artificial to a large degree.

There are some bigger problems that I have with this book given its central thesis, and these are all about what the book doesn't discuss in sufficient detail. First, the book doesn't properly discuss the electoral college of relevance to electing the president. There are mentions of electoral shenanigans in the elections of 1796, 1800, 1876, 2000, and 2016, but given how the author clearly shows the expansion of the president's powers and the growing dysfunction of the political system at the federal level in the US, I think there should have been much more discussion of when, why, and how the electoral college shifted from an meaningful body of electors selected by state legislators to a winner-take-all (except in Maine & Nebraska) accounting of the presidential winner & congressional representation in each state. Second, there isn't much mention of Native American affairs following the ratification of the Constitution, nor of the systems of government by Native American tribes before then. Perhaps it can be argued that Native American systems of government didn't really inform and therefore weren't really relevant to the system of government laid out in the US Constitution, or that Native American affairs weren't central to US political disputes after that because those tribes' populations were already so small after the genocides & pandemics committed by & following Christopher Columbus, but this should have been made clearer. Perhaps the relatively small number of extant written records by Native Americans influenced the author's focus, as the author herself admitted could be a possible source of bias, but if the author anticipated that, then she should have consulted other Native American sources too as is evident from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in DC. Third, there could have been a much more thorough discussion of race in the context of immigration from Europe, treatment of Native Americans, and slavery: I've already read about many of these subtleties in the book The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist (which I have reviewed here), and read on Wikipedia about how even Native Americans owned black slaves, so I think at least a bit more discussion of these issues would have greatly strengthened the central thesis of this book.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, and I learned a lot about US history from it, even as I felt that it reinforced some of the facts that I already learned as well as some of the views that I already held. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in current affairs & US history.

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