George Packer: Historians Need to Stop with the FatalismHistorians in the News
When i was in school, American history was taught as a series of triumphs over wrongs that belonged to the past. Slavery was evil, but the Civil War ended it; then the civil-rights movement ended segregation. The vote was extended to more and more Americans—starting with white men, then women, Black people, and finally even 18-year-olds—thus fulfilling the promise of democracy. There was no atoning for the near elimination of Native Americans, but somehow it didn’t invalidate the story of progress. Abroad, the U.S. led the cause of freedom against fascism and communism; Japanese internment, McCarthyism, and Vietnam were mistakes that didn’t erase the larger picture. It was an optimistic narrative, reassuring, shallow, and badly in need of a corrective.
We’re now living in a golden age of fatalism. American culture—movies and museums, fiction and journalism—is consumed with the most terrible subjects of the country’s history: slavery, Native American removal, continental conquest, the betrayal of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, colonialism, militarism. In scholarship, works whose objective is to puncture our hopeful but misguided myths dominate, and titles such as Unworthy Republic, The End of the Myth, Illusions of Emancipation, and Stamped From the Beginning claim prestigious prizes. This mode of analysis doesn’t just revise our understanding of American history, illuminating areas of darkness that most people don’t know and perhaps would rather not. It also draws a straight line from past to present.
In a country world-famous for constant transformation, historical fatalism believes that nothing ever really changes. Mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow”; modern police departments are the heirs of slave patrols. Historical fatalism combines inevitability and essentialism: The present is forever trapped in the past and defined by the worst of it. The arrival of the first slave ship on these shores in 1619 marked, according to The New York Times Magazine, “the country’s true birth date” and “the foundation on which this country is built.” Cruelty, inequity, and oppression endure in the American character not only as elements of a complex whole but as its very essence. Any more ambiguous view—one that sees the United States as a flawed experiment, marked by slow, fitful progress—is an illusion, and a dangerous one.
The new fatalism has its own historical causes, and they’re not hard to see: the failures of the War on Terror and the neoliberal economy, stubborn inequality, the disappointments of the Obama presidency, videos of police brutality, global warming, the rise of Donald Trump. There is no shortage of evidence to justify a dark interpretation of American history. But what’s striking is how eagerly the new fatalism crosses from empiricism into metaphysics. In search of original facts, historians and journalists go digging where the ugliest facts are buried, and what begins in research ends in dogma. They aren’t just looking to fill in gaps of knowledge, or going where the historical evidence leads them. Instead they replace one myth with another one, as powerful and even attractive in its way as the naive story of July 4, 1776, being the fountain of liberty and equality for all. Disillusionment is as appealing to some temperaments as wishful thinking is to others.
Freedom’s dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, by Jefferson Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt University, is a gem of the new fatalism. Synthesizing brilliant research in fluent prose, and writing with an indignation that’s all the more damning for being understated, Cowie explores the history of Barbour County, in Alabama’s Black Belt, at the southeastern corner of the state. Here, white settlers drove out Creek Indians in the early 19th century; white planters made cotton fortunes on the seized land with Black slave labor; defeated white Confederates restored their wealth and power using Black convict labor and a Jim Crow constitution; white mobs enforced their racist social order with lynchings. When the civil-rights movement eventually reached Barbour County, in the mid-1960s, white politicians kept Black voters out of power with intimidation and chicanery. By then, a native son of Barbour County named George Wallace was ruling Alabama as its arch-segregationist governor and taking the cause of white resistance national.