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Historians fact-check our country’s foundational stories in ‘Myth America’

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Public Domain images, book image courtesy of Basic Books, illustration by Raul Alonzo / Texas Standard

Every society has a set of myths that it tells about itself. America is no different. These stories we tell shape public debate, and our lives.

Now, a new book called ‘Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past,’ takes a hard look at some of the tall tales that have taken root in this country. Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, is one of the book’s co-editors. He spoke to the Texas Standard about ‘Myth America.’

Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about your decision to put this book together, co-edited with Kevin Kruse, a fellow historian at Princeton. Before we get into the myths themselves, what sort of criteria did you use as a co-editor to select what got into the book? 

Julian Zelizer: Well, part of it were things that we hear in the media about American history, arguments that gained a lot of currency in the last few years. So we listened, we read, and we tried to pick some of the major themes and find very good historians who could address them. And second, we looked for historians – rather than just topics – who wrote well, who were seriously immersed in scholarship, but who had something to say about issues like immigration or the role of government or race relations that Americans are concerned about these days.

Are we talking about, broadly speaking, the mythology of America or are we talking about specific fact-finding about issues that are related to the present – the here and now?

A little of both. We have broad myths, such as the idea of American exceptionalism – the notion that America is fundamentally different from all other comparable countries. And we have a historian who takes on that myth. But we also have specific pieces. So there’s a piece on the New Deal taking on the idea that it wasn’t the New Deal but World War II that got us out of the Depression. And he shows through facts and figures that that’s actually not true.

What did you and your Princeton colleagues set out to do with this book? Are you trying to get people all on the same page? There’s been so much written about how facts don’t matter anymore in the modern political discourse. You don’t seem to buy that.

Yeah, I mean, I think facts do matter. I think scholarship and research matters. And I don’t think we want everyone on the same page, but we at least wanted debate to be happening based on the reality of what we know based on something that’s grounded in actual research. So you could have a very robust debate about “is government a good thing or a bad thing?,” but we should at least have our facts straight about what government has been able to do in the past. So that was our ambition. And we also just wanted to showcase some really good historians who write in ways the public finds accessible and to have them put together in short, snappy pieces what generations of historians have found on a given issue, like immigration. 

This issue of “presentism” – taking history and sort of making it relevant, or at least underscoring its relevance to the present – has become a really big, almost existential part of the conversation among historians. And I’m wondering where you fit in on this. It sounds like you’re suggesting that there is a role for history in this modern conversation, but there are a lot of people who feel like presentism has captured the field and that it may actually sow more distrust among some people who feel like, “well, this is something that I believed in. This is part of who I am and I’m invested. Call it a myth if you want.” But in what it means to be American, for example. 

Yeah. I mean, two separate issues. I think this whole debate on should historians be writing work or thinking of their work as it relates to current times… It’s an old debate. It’s been brought up again by the president of the profession. I think there is a role for those who want to connect those two dots. And so presentism is simply one part of the mix of what historians do. And they have to be careful. They have to focus on the research. They have to focus on the data. But I’m comfortable with historians who want to think about those connections. And in terms of myth, that’s a separate issue. I mean, some myths have a value. They can be aspirational. They can be about things that unite us. But we have to understand when they are myths. We don’t want to pretend they are reality and then have a skewed conversation about things that didn’t actually happen.

Well, professor, one of the things that was notable, especially noteworthy for a lot of Americans is how historians brought to the table this notion that knowledge, what we call the truth, that this is often the result of the silencing of others – of dispossession, of extraction, other things. And that in fact, it is historians who sort of said, “wait a minute, wait a minute, we have to challenge dominant historical narratives that facts are not just neutral, they’re not self-evident or unassailable.” And now what it seems like, in these essays, is that there is an attempt to pin down those facts as “this is what they really are.” How do you square that?

Well, I think part of what you’re doing is broadening your analysis and broadening your data, meaning it’s not to say, well, the American Revolution didn’t happen or the American Civil War didn’t happen. The point is, we have to understand a lot more of what took place in a given period. We have to study the voices who are not recorded in a lot of the history books. And then we get a much more complete picture. And at the same time, we can have real good debates over how do you analyze all of the facts that we have. So I don’t find it hard to square. I think it’s more about just broadening the kinds of issues that we study and we get a much more robust understanding of American history rather than a weaker one.

Where do these myths tend to come from? Do they form organically or are they product of some kind of intentional effort as you see it?

Some are organic, some have been with us for decades, and they just are part of how we think of the country. Some are intentional. I mean, I think part of what we argue is, in the last few years, you’ve seen more efforts, especially in the conservative media, to push very partisan interpretations. I think our authors take both on, but they are the kinds of things that historians need to either push back on or provide a better argument so we understand what’s happened.

You know, there are some people who make the case, and this has been reinforced in scientific studies, that at the biological level, we aren’t hard wired to look for facts that we process. We may actually dig in our heels when we are presented with facts that contradict our own beliefs. What ultimately do you hope emerges after people read this book? And do you think that the people who are not on the side of fact-based information are even going to take the time to dig? 

Well, there’s some people who won’t and there’s some readers, I’m sure, who we can’t persuade, who will never pick up the book. But I am an optimist, and I still feel that there are a lot of people out there – readers and otherwise – who want to just know more about the history. They might not agree on what to think of it. They might have a different take on what happened. But they do want to have these debates based on real stuff. And I think with this book, we’re trying to be part of that way of debating American history.

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