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Stranger in a Strange Land

America the Ugly

There were two icons on the near wall of the bedroom my brother and I shared. One was a plaque showing Jesus knocking at the door; the other was a photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Both were dear to me as a boy. Years later, when I first heard Bach's cello suites, I thought of that picture of Jesus: the dark browns of the painting and the almost unbearably beautiful notes seemed to blend, expressing Jesus' sadness and love. MacArthur I admired for his heroism, his patriotism, and his stubborn integrity. "Admired" isn't the right word, though, insofar as it suggests a disinterested connoisseurship. I was a boy without a father (except the cold one whose weekly, then monthly visits I dreaded). MacArthur was one image of the ideal Man, the father I would have wished for. He was, I knew, a devout Christian. I loved the flinty set of his jaw; maybe also a certain cockiness in his look. The way I heard the story, he had been betrayed by President Truman, a perfidious Democrat, who prevented MacArthur from winning the Korean War.

That was a theme that came up often in the informal history lessons I received from my mother and grandmother. I was taught to love America—a lesson that came easily, and that I haven't forgotten—but to recognize that those in power were often not to be trusted. (Consider the arch-fiend Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had done his best to bring the nation to ruin!) Received opinion in general, in fact, whether in textbooks or in newspapers or on the tv news, was to be regarded with a healthy skepticism. And there were many old hymns, subversive of any conflation of God and country: "This world is not my home."

Those early lessons were good. They prepared me to acknowledge the complexity and tragedy of American history, past and present, in ways that sometimes conflicted with the verities of my childhood. (MacArthur, for instance, wasn't an unambiguous hero, and I can recover my boyish sense of him—embarrassing now—only by inadvertence.) I am thankful for the work of historians like Mark Noll (see "Cracks in the Liberty Bell,"), who refuse to settle for rousing tales of the Founding Fathers.

When we celebrate Independence Day again this year, with profound gratitude, we are not thereby endorsing the historical whitewashers—those who, for instance, try to explain away our policies in Central America, who seek to swathe brazen evil in talk of "hard political realities." We are not impatiently dismissing the consequences of more than three hundred years of slavery. America the Beautiful is also America the Ugly.

In praise of objectivity

What we need, in short, is objectivity. That's become an unfashionable goal in many quarters, where it is held to be incompatible with the recognition that each of us writes from a particular "social location." But there is no contradiction, as long as we acknowledge the many-sidedness of the Real. Strangely, even such modest praise of objectivity is unwelcome in many academic circles today, including—stranger yet!—the discipline of history. That explains why the historian Eugene Genovese and a number of other scholars have founded a new organization, the Historical Society, in part because of dissatisfaction with the established scholarly societies. "We are pleased," the Historical Society's prospectus states,

to announce the formation of a new and genuinely "diverse" organization. The Historical Society is open to all who want to do serious history, whatever part of the political and ideological spectrum they come from. It will be a place in which significant historical subjects are discussed and debated sharply and frankly in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and common courtesy. All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises; reason according to the canons of logic; appeal to evidence; and prepare to exchange criticism with those who hold different points of view.

Pretty wild stuff, huh? You should check out the coverage of the Historical Society's first press conference in the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 8, 1998, pp. A12-A13), where some critics of the new association hint darkly that it is driven by a "conservative" agenda. Never mind that Genovese and his colleagues have assiduously recruited scholars from all over the ideological map.

What struck me, in reading the prospectus, was how closely the goals of the society resemble those of Books & Culture. They are, of course, the priorities that are supposed to govern academic discourse and indeed provide its distinctive character. Yet increasingly, our colleges and universities—Christian as well as secular—are failing to live up to their charter.

That failure is not limited to academic settings, nor to adherents of any one ideology (though the academic scene is clearly dominated by the pc gang). In a review of two books on the role of radio in the Cold War, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., remarks that "even President Reagan's underlings" at times failed to support Radio Free Europe: "In the heat of battle, it was easy to doubt [RFE's] strategy of 'evenhanded dispensation of information.'"

What about us? Are we fulfilling our charter in this respect? Please let us know what you think.

—John Wilson, Editor

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