Why Arthur Schlesinger’s ‘Disunited States of America’ Lives On – New York Times


The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who tackled the canon wars a generation ago.

Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

In contemporary debates that involve history and historical symbols like the controversies over the removal of Confederate statues from public parks or the place of Andrew Jackson and Alexander Hamilton on United States currency, it may seem impossible to find middle ground. But a generation ago in the 1990s the search for common ground in the history wars was undertaken by the leading liberal historian of his era, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society,” published in 1991 and in a revised edition in 1998. From 1949, when he published “The Vital Center,” Schlesinger, one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action and a confidant of the Kennedys, sought to defend his conception of centrist liberalism against the radical left as well as the right.

The title of “The Disuniting of America” might mislead contemporary readers into assuming that the book is about social polarization in general, which is the subject of more recent publications like Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.” Instead, Schlesinger’s polemic is an intervention in the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, when curriculums in history and literature courses became the source of passionate national debate. One defining event in that discussion was the publication in 1987 of “The Closing of the American Mind” by the philosopher Allan Bloom. Another occurred with the Jan. 18, 1995, vote by the United States Senate (99 to 1) condemning proposed “national history standards” promulgated by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles, for not showing “a decent respect for United States history’s roots in Western civilization,” in the words of the Senate resolution.

Amid what was becoming a debate among left-leaning academics and populist tribunes like Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney, Schlesinger sought to define a liberal alternative to what he described as militant multiculturalism on the left and bigoted monoculturalism on the right: “The monoculturalists are hyperpatriots, fundamentalists, evangelicals, laissez-faire doctrinaires, homophobes, anti-abortionists, pro-assault-gun people.” Of the two groups, Schlesinger considered the monoculturalists a greater threat: “Left-wing political correctness is an irritation and a nuisance. It becomes a threat to the young only when it invades the public schools.” In contrast: “Right-wing political correctness catches kids before they are old enough to take care of themselves and in environments where they are rarely exposed to clashes of opinion. It is a weapon with which small-town bigots, conducting pogroms against Darwin, Marx, J.D. Salinger, Judy Blume and other villains, seize control of school committees and library boards.”

According to Schlesinger, “Monoculturalists abuse history as flagrantly as multiculturalists. They sanitize the past and install their own set of patriotic heroes and myths.” In a chapter titled “History the Weapon,” Schlesinger acknowledges what he sees as the valid complaints of multiculturalists: “American history was long written in the interests of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males. My father, growing up in the 1890s in Xenia, a small Ohio town containing large contingents of Germans, Irish and blacks, one day asked his father, who had come from Germany as a child and whose hero was Carl Schurz, the American general, politician and reformer, why the schoolbooks portrayed England as the one and only mother country. My grandfather’s wry comment was that apparently the only Germans worth mentioning were ‘the Hessians who had fought on the wrong side in the War for Independence.’ Irish and blacks fared even less well in schoolbooks, and the only good Indians were dead Indians. Non-WASPs were the invisible men (and women) in the American past.”

Schlesinger notes one predictable response by minorities to their exclusion from mainstream historical texts and commemorations: “The ethnic enclaves thus developed a compensatory literature.” To illustrate this, he quotes from the Irish-American scholar John V. Kelleher about articles claiming “that the Continental Army was 76 percent Irish, or that many of George Washington’s closest friends were nuns or priests.” However badly the “white ethnics” suffered from Anglo-Saxon Protestant condescension, Schlesinger notes, blacks, Latinos and Native Americans suffered far worse: “The situation is radically different for nonwhite minorities facing not snobbism but racism.”

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Why Arthur Schlesinger’s ‘Disunited States of America’ Lives On – New York Times

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