Don't Know Much Good About America

One of the ways I like to pass the time on long drives (we went to San Diego this week with the kids) is to listen to audio books in the car.  For this trip, my wife picked out Kenneth Davis's Don't know much About History.  This particular version had been edited down to a quick 3-1/2 hours.

Its of course impossible to edit American history down to this short of a time, but we thought it might be enjoyable for the kids.  Also, I am used to the general "America sucks and its heros suck too" tone of most modern revisionist history, so I was kind of prepared for what I was going to get from a modern academician.   But my God, the whole history of this country had been edited down to only the bad stuff.  Columbus as a source of genocide -- the pettiness of American grievances in the revolution -- the notion that all the ideals of the Revolution were so much intellectual cover for rich men getting over on the masses -- the alien and sedition acts -- slavery -- massacre of Indians and trail of tears -- more slavery -- civil war -- mistreatment of the South after the war by the North -- more massacre of Indians -- Brown vs. board of education -- the great depression as the great failure of laissez faire economics -- did Roosevelt know about Pearl Harbor in advance -- McCarthyism -- racism and civil rights movement.   All of this with numerous snide remarks about evil corporations and rich people and the never-ending hosing of the poor and women/blacks/Indians (often in contexts entirely unrelated to what he is talking about, such that the remark is entirely gratuitous).

That's as far as we have gotten so far, but I am really giving you a pretty honest outline of the segments.   I have zero problem admitting that America's treatment of its native populations was shameful and worth some modern soul-searching.  Ditto slavery.  But to focus solely on this litany, with nothing about the rising tide of standard of living for even the poorest, of increasing health and longevity, of the intelligent ways we managed expansion (like the homestead act), of having the wealth and power to defeat fascism and later communism in the 20th century when no one else could do it.  Of creating, in fits and starts and with many long-delayed milestones, the freest country in the world.  Of a history where every other democratic revolution of the 18th and 19th century failed and fell into chaos and dictatorship but this one succeeded.  He begins the book by saying that he is bravely going to bust all the myths we have grown up with, but in essence helps to reinforce the #1 myth of our era:  That America is a bad actor on the world stage and less moral than the countries around us.

Which of course, is insane.  And remember, I am the first one to criticize our government over any number of issues, but the moral relativism that academics apply to America represents a shameless lack of correct context.  To borrow from a famous saying, I am willing to admit that America has the most shameful history, except for that of every other country in the world.

I don't even deny that a book with the premise that "schools and media often gloss over the bad stuff, so I want to let you know that America has a dark side too" would be a perfectly viable project.  However, this book represents itself as a general history text, and does not claim this particular mission as its context.  By the way, I am not sure what country he is living in if he thinks this stuff is not taught in schools.  My kids' schools totally wallow on all the bad stuff - the racism, the environmental problems, etc.  I would be willing to bet more graduates of public schools today could answer "Maintenance of slavery" to the question "what was the biggest failure of the Constitution" than they could answer the question "Why did the US Constitution succeed when so many other democratic revolutions failed?"  The latter is a much more interesting question.  Of course, in this audio book, predictably, Mr. Davis addresses the former in great depth and never even hints at the latter.


  1. dearieme:

    "Why did the US Constitution succeed when so many other democratic revolutions failed?" The answer is surely obvious but not entirely welcome to almost any school of American historians? (Being, that it was a British Constitution for a British people, and later immigrants assimilated to that template.)

  2. Duane Gran:

    "mistreatment of the South after the war by the North"

    I'm actually surprised and impressed to see that this issue was addressed. It is taboo in many circles to say that the North was not entirely noble and moral in its aims for unification.

    In a larger sense, you are right about the dismal and negative tone of much history lessons. It is perfectly possible to teach our failures and successes in a fair manner, but the recent negative tone seems to be over compensating for the pro-America slant throughout the cold war. I suspect we will achieve equilibrium in due time.

  3. markm:

    dearieme: I'd say that the biggest reason is that our Constitution was written by men who were deeply distrustful of governmental power - and then it went for ratification to men who were even more distrustful and demanded 10 changes right away to even further limit the government. And that's even more unwelcome to liberal historians than our roots in English culture and law.

  4. dearieme:

    markm: if we're going to go into detail, I'd attach key importance to that prattling spin doctor, Tom Jefferson, being away in Paris, leaving the task to better men. But that's all detail. Anyway, as for later immigrants assimilating to the template, how about "Less a mixing pot, more a jelly mould"? Please forgive the British spelling.

  5. dearieme:

    I should stop this teasing and ask a serious question. Given your admirable Constitution, why is it so hard to appoint judges to the Supreme Court who will abide by it?

  6. Frank N Stein:

    "why is it so hard to appoint judges to the Supreme Court who will abide by it?"

    For the same reason you don't let the foxes vote on who gets to guard the hen house.

    Considering that most humans see no moral issue with controlling other people, the principles of the Constitution were doomed from the start. But we gave it a good shot, and it lasted longer than some might have thought. It is somewhat depressing to realize we are living in the end stage, but I take some comfort in the thought that Europe will implode before we do.

  7. Matt:

    If your kids go to public schools, then the only difference between the edition of history you describe here and the official version they're getting at school is...well, no...there are a FEW differences. For example, the question of whether Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor could go either way, depending on the political leanings of your local school board. But in general, the only divergences will be in areas where the book doesn't "adequately" cover the evils of American government and especially of capitalism.

    Some silly people think we won the Cold War, despite the fact that the absolute last people left alive on Earth who still believe Soviet propaganda are all teaching "social studies" to American school children.

  8. dearieme:

    Well, if your Republic is, like Rome, morphing into an Empire, I guess if the second Bush were followed by the second Clinton, that would be suitably dynastic.

  9. Alina:

    Does anyone remember the 1980s miniseries Amerika? About a Soviet take-over of the US. My husband had never seen it, so we bought the DVD and have been slogging through it (16 hours; not a quick jaunt).

    When the kid stands up to deliver his revised American history ala Communism, my husband burst out laughing, "That's exactly the same thing that they're saying in public schools NOW!"

    (Our kids are in private school for a plethora of reasons, but that's one of them).

  10. Craig L:

    Even worse is "A People's History of America", which is full of outrageous claims, my favorite being that Wilson wanted to enter WWI to get America's share of the spoils. It also has a chapter called "The Carter-Reagan-Bush Era", since those three presidents were so similar.

  11. Josh:

    Note that in spite of the problems with this book, it has managed a 3.5 star Amazon reviewer average, and has several very positive reviews. I don't think this is because of some left-wing conspiracy, but rather because positive happy reviews make people feel better, so they say "this review helped me". I know of several real stinkers that have fairly good ratings in Amazon's system. A book has to be truly awful before its rating really dips. Amazon's reviewing system is for most purposes useless.