American History Is A Mixed Bag

Like Athenae, I’m fascinated with the NYT’s 1619 project and appalled by some of the wingnuttier online responses to it. An exchange I was involved in this morning inspired this post:

This particular Benny should cool his jets. I think President* Pennywise is doing an excellent job of delegitimizing, dividing, and demoralizing our citizenry. In his case, I would add a third D: dumbing down, dammit.

People have a hard time with complexity. It’s just more obvious (oblivious?) in the social media era. Ronald Reagan was a master oversimplifier. It was one reason he defeated the overcomplicator, Jimmy Carter. Reagan was a creature of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and his vision of our history was impacted by the movies he’d seen. In fact, the man Gore Vidal dubbed “the old TV president” was known to conflate movie plots with real life. Reagan also believed in the World War II slogan, KISS or “Keep It Simple Stupid.” In 1980 Reagan ran circles around Carter who thought and spoke like an engineer.

Life is complicated, American history even more so. Thomas Jefferson co-wrote the Declaration of Independence and was an unrepentant slave owner. The greatest liberal president of them all, Franklin Roosevelt, went along with the internment of Japanese-Americans without due process. There are thousands of similar examples but those are the best examples of our history at its worst and its finest.

Our history has involved a constant tension between our highest ideals and our worst impulses. It’s why I cannot stand with either the “America is pure evil” or “America: love it or leave it” crowds. They’re both wrong and guilty of egregious oversimplification.

Repeat after me: American history is a mixed bag. It’s what makes our national story so damned interesting as well as maddening.

The last word goes to Elton John:

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