The American myth also relies heavily on a distorted history of the westward expansion.
"The mythology of the West is deeply rooted in our culture," Foner said, "whether it's in Western movies or the idea of the lone pioneer, the individual roughing it out in the West, and of course, the main lie is that the West was kind of empty before white settlers and hunters and trappers and farmers came from the East to settle it. In fact, the West has been populated since forever. The real story of the West is the clash of all these different peoples, Native Americans, Asians in California, settlers coming in from the East, Mexicans. The West was a very multicultural place. There are a lot of histories there. Many of those histories are ignored or subordinated in this one story of the westward movement."
"Racism is certainly a part of Western history," Foner said. "But you're not going to get that from a John Wayne movie [or] the paintings by [Frederic] Remington and others. It's a history that doesn't help you understand the present."
Remington's racism, displayed in paintings of noble white settlers and cowboys battling "savages," was pronounced. "Jews -- inguns -- chinamen -- Italians -- Huns," he wrote, were "the rubbish of the earth I hate." In the same letter he added, "I've got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins ... I can get my share of 'em and whats more I will."
Nietzsche identified three approaches to history: monumental, antiquarian and critical, the last being "the history that judges and condemns."
"The monumental is the history that glorifies the nation-state that is represented in monuments that do not question anything about the society," Foner said. "A lot of history is like that. The rise of history as a discipline coincided with the rise of the nation-state. Every nation needs a set of myths to justify its own existence. Another one of my favorite writers, Ernest Renan, the French historian, wrote, 'The historian is the enemy of the nation.' It's an interesting thing to say. He doesn't mean they're spies or anything. The historian comes along and takes apart the mythologies that are helping to underpin the legitimacy of the nation. That's why people don't like them very often. They don't want to hear these things.
"Antiquarian is what a lot of people are. That's fine. They're looking for their personal roots, their family history. They're going on ancestry.com to find out where their DNA came from. That's not really history exactly. They don't have much of a historical context. But it stimulates people to think about the past. Then there's what Nietzsche calls critical history -- the history that judges and condemns. It takes a moral stance. It doesn't just relate the facts. It tells you what is good and what is evil. A lot of historians don't like to do that. But to me, it's important. It's important for the historian, having done the research, having presented the history, to say here's where I stand in relation to all these important issues in our history."
"Whether it's Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King Jr., those are the people who were trying to make America a better place," Foner said. "King, in particular, was a very radical guy."
Yet, as Foner points out, King is effectively "frozen in one speech, one sentence: I want my children to be judged by the content of their character, not just the color of their skin. [But] that's not what the whole civil rights movement was about. People forget, he died leading a poor people's march, leading a strike of sanitation workers. He wasn't just out there talking about civil rights. He had moved to economic equality as a fundamental issue."
Max Weber wrote, "What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible."
Foner, like Weber, argues that it is the visionaries and utopian reformers such as Debs and the abolitionists who brought about real social change, not the "practical" politicians. The abolitionists destroyed what Foner calls the "conspiracy of silence by which political parties, churches and other institutions sought to exclude slavery from public debate." He writes:
"For much of the 1850s and the first two years of the Civil War, Lincoln -- widely considered the model of a pragmatic politician -- advocated a plan to end slavery that involved gradual emancipation, monetary compensation for slave owners, and setting up colonies of freed blacks outside the United States. The harebrained scheme had no possibility of enactment. It was the abolitionists, still viewed by some historians as irresponsible fanatics, who put forward the program -- an immediate and uncompensated end to slavery, with black people becoming US citizens--that came to pass (with Lincoln's eventual help, of course)."
The political squabbles that dominate public discourse almost never question the sanctity of private property, individualism, capitalism or imperialism. They hold as sacrosanct American "virtues." They insist that Americans are a "good" people steadily overcoming any prejudices and injustices that may have occurred in the past. The debates between the Democrats and the Whigs, or today's Republicans and Democrats, have roots in the same allegiance to the dominant structures of power, myth of American exceptionalism and white supremacy.
"It's all a family quarrel without any genuine, serious disagreements," Foner said.
Those who challenge these structures, who reach for the impossible, who dare to speak the truth, have been, throughout American history, dismissed as "fanatics." But, as Foner points out, it is often the "fanatics" who make history.
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