A Great Disorder: National Myth and the Battle for America 
by Richard Slotkin.
Harvard, 512 pp., £29.95, March, 978 0 674 29238 3
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It hardly qualifies​ as news today that the United States, the world’s foremost economic and military power, suffers from a political and cultural malaise. Americans are deeply sceptical of once well-regarded institutions such as universities, the media and the public health system, and do not trust the functioning of democratic politics. The economy is characterised by entrenched inequality, and intense polarisation between the parties makes it all but impossible to address long-term problems such as climate change. In A Great Disorder, the historian Richard Slotkin argues that the crisis is, however, essentially cultural rather than economic or political. Among the contributors to the steadily intensifying ‘culture wars’ between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states, and between rural and urban communities, Slotkin identifies the banking crisis of 2007-8, the Covid pandemic and changes in the racial and ethnic make-up of the American population. To these familiar culprits he adds a deeper problem: a lack of unifying ‘national myths’ that embody shared views of the country’s history and future. ‘The loss of a common national story,’ Slotkin writes at the outset, ‘is central to the contemporary crisis.’ Myths that sought to explain American history and chart a path to the future once helped to bind the country together. Today, they are absorbed into the culture wars, reflecting divergent understandings of foundational American values and clashing definitions of which groups constitute ‘real’ Americans. Is it just a coincidence that one of this spring’s most popular films was called Civil War?

My dictionary defines ‘myth’ as both a popular tradition that embodies core social values and an ‘unfounded or false’ idea. The word hints at intentional distortion of the truth. But truth is more or less beside the point in Slotkin’s discussion of myths. He is neither asking Americans to embrace demonstrable falsehoods as a way of restoring a lost sense of national unity nor demanding that unifying narratives embody only verifiable facts about the country’s past. ‘As I use the term,’ he writes, ‘myths are the stories – true, untrue, half-true – that … provide an otherwise loosely affiliated people with models of patriotic action.’ Such common beliefs are more important in the US than elsewhere, since compared with other nations the country lacks traditional underpinnings of patriotic nationalism such as a shared ethnocultural identity, a long-established history and a powerful and threatening neighbour. In a more unified nation, people of different political persuasions would seize on myths as ready-made paradigms which help make sense of events. In A Great Disorder, Slotkin explores the emergence and evolution of the ‘foundational’ myths that have helped define American culture.

Slotkin is a prolific historian, best known for his trilogy of books on the ‘Myth of the Frontier’ (he always capitalises the names of the myths he analyses): Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973); The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialisation, 1800-1890 (1985); and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th-Century America (1992). Unusually, he has also written accounts of Civil War battles that have won praise for their command of military strategy. As these titles suggest, Slotkin is particularly interested in the way the frontier experience shaped American identity, citing, for example, a tendency to settle differences by violence. Over the course of the country’s history the conquest of the West was widely understood as a battle between civilisation and barbarism. ‘Savage war’ – combat via massacres that did not spare women, children and non-combatants – came to be seen as unavoidable. As Frederick Douglass pointed out, however, it was not always easy to discern which side was which. In view of the horrors of slavery, Douglass said in his speech on the meaning of the Fourth of July to Black Americans in 1852, the US could be said to be guilty of ‘crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages’.

Slotkin’s new book is a sequel to and extension of his earlier trilogy. The Myth of the Frontier remains central to his account, but other myths make an appearance, among them the Myth of the Founders, the belief that the American nation was created by a unique generation of statesmen, who produced a governing structure that enabled the US to balance liberty and order while mostly avoiding the ideological conflicts experienced by European nations. Impressively, he brings his discussion of national myths all the way to the present, exploring the visions of America’s history and future delineated by today’s radical right.

Slotkin devotes more attention than in his earlier work to the division of the US into distinct societies based on slave and free labour and the way national myths failed to prevent the country from plunging into internecine warfare. Each region, he shows, developed its own variant of the Myths of the Frontier and the Founding, making it difficult for these myths to smooth over the nation’s internal differences. The Civil War, he writes, ‘was above all a culture war’, and he presents a persuasive discussion of the part played by a clash of regional cultures in helping to bring about the conflict. Southern culture before the Civil War, Slotkin writes, rested primarily on racism, which he describes as ‘the division of Black and white, slave and free, into different orders of humanity’. What did this mean for the Myth of the Founding, which, as an aspiration if not in practice, took as its basic premise Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, ‘All men are created equal’? Eventually, Slotkin argues, leaders of the slave South concluded that Jefferson had simply been wrong, a conviction made plain by Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens in his ‘cornerstone speech’ of 1861, which insisted that inequality, not equality, was a ‘law of nature’ and the foundation of social order. Another expression of this revised Myth of the Founding could be found in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857, which, Slotkin points out, claimed to be an exercise in what today is called judicial ‘originalism’. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s infamous pronouncement in Dred Scott that Black persons had ‘no rights which the white man is bound to respect’ purported to reflect the founders’ racial views at the time the Constitution was written.

White Southerners’ efforts to redefine the Myth of the Founding along pro-slavery lines opened the door for the emergence of an anti-slavery movement which claimed its own descent from the revolutionary generation. Slotkin offers the examples of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In his 1852 speech, Douglass chastised the nation for failing to live up to the founders’ egalitarian creed. Eleven years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln began the Gettysburg Address by claiming that the founders had intended the nation to embody ‘the proposition that all men are created equal’.

The Civil War, Slotkin writes, gave rise to no fewer than three distinct myths: the Myth of Liberation, embodied in slave emancipation; the Myth of White Reunion, which depicted the war as a battle of brother against brother in which both sides could retrospectively take pride; and the Lost Cause, a glorification of the Old South and a legitimation of the system of segregation and disenfranchisement put in place, with northern acquiescence, in the 1890s. During Reconstruction, the US embarked on a remarkable, if short-lived, experiment in interracial democracy, an attempt to remake the body politic so as to bring to fruition the Myth of Liberation. The violent overthrow of Reconstruction put an end to this effort. The Lost Cause soon became deeply entrenched in American culture, North as well as South. As Slotkin points out, the Myths of the Frontier and the Lost Cause were ‘mutually reinforcing’. Both were premised on the necessity of rule by white Americans over non-white peoples, at home and overseas.

More than in his previous books, Slotkin in A Great Disorder sees national myths as contested, evolving and sometimes self-contradictory. Thus the nationwide dissemination of the Lost Cause in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left space for the emergence of a more egalitarian vision. This, however, didn’t take hold until during and after the Second World War. Before then, the New Deal generated widespread support for the idea of government promotion of economic security for ordinary Americans. But, Slotkin writes, partly because of the strength of Southern segregationists in the Democratic party, the New Deal failed to produce a myth powerful enough to overcome the idea that the nation was meant to be a ‘white man’s republic’, which had exerted a strong hold on American culture since the Gilded Age and Progressive era. Many developments in addition to the overthrow of Reconstruction contributed to this racialisation of nationhood, among them revulsion against the influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe; the final military defeat of the Plains Indians; and the acquisition of an overseas American empire as a result of the Spanish-American War. The list of ‘savage’ enemies who posed a danger to society came to include not only immigrants, Indians and emancipated slaves, but workers who engaged in strikes and, improbably, advocates of women’s suffrage.

Slotkin points to three crises in the years 1876 and 1877: the abandonment of the last Southern Reconstruction governments, a national railroad strike, and the annihilation of General George Armstrong Custer and his men by warriors of the Lakota Sioux and other Native American nations (Custer’s Last Stand). Each was seen as a battle in which more primitive people stood in the way of national progress. Increasingly, divisions along the lines of class, race and gender now defined American ‘ethnonationalism’. Although the conquest of the West was a collective endeavour, Slotkin discerns an individualist underpinning to the Myth of the Frontier. As evidence, he turns to Hollywood, describing films and television series in which a lone gunman imposes order on a chaotic community, echoing, perhaps, the self-appointed global role of the United States during much of the 20th century. (These echoes of the Myth of the Frontier in popular culture include the 1950s movies High Noon and Shane, and the television series The Lone Ranger and Have Gun, Will Travel.)

In Slotkin’s account, after a long period in which it shaped national identity, the racist ethnonationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave way to an egalitarian Myth of the Good War. Partly to heighten the distinction between the United States and Nazi tyranny, partly as a way of generating support for the war among the descendants of recent immigrants, the federal government promoted the idea that the US stood for pluralism and democracy. Racism was the enemy’s philosophy and Allied victory would lead to a peace in which FDR’s ‘four freedoms’ were enjoyed throughout the world. The Myth of the Good War received its most influential articulation, according to Slotkin, in what he calls ‘platoon movies’. These depicted multicultural American fighting units as harmonious cross-sections of society (even though the actual army, indeed society at large, remained rigidly segregated). However much these movies were divorced from reality, Slotkin believes that they promoted racial and religious toleration and helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of the Myth of the Movement, an outgrowth of the triumph of the non-violent civil rights revolution and the mobilisation of other groups inspired by its success. According to this myth, the nation’s purpose lay not so much in what had been accomplished as in the agendas based on different versions of equality that had yet to be fulfilled. In official rhetoric and Hollywood’s myth-making machine, tolerance succeeded white supremacy as the defining quality of American culture and politics.

Meanwhile, during the Cold War, the Myth of the Frontier was refashioned, so that the frontier was now seen as a gateway to world power and economic abundance. (John F. Kennedy’s reference to a ‘new frontier’ in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1960 carried this implication.) The myth of a West dominated by small family farms (Jefferson’s vision of the future) had already given way to the idea that the region was home to what Slotkin calls ‘bonanza capitalism’, the possibility of instant riches derived from successive gold rushes, a burgeoning oil industry and railroad construction. Slotkin makes the interesting point that the eastern press reported on Custer’s Last Stand by invoking the ready-made paradigm of a battle for the defence of civilisation, leaving virtually unmentioned the corporate economic interests that had drawn the army into the Black Hills where Custer met his death – railroad development and the discovery of gold on land guaranteed in perpetuity to Indigenous peoples. As always, the Myth of the West carried with it intimations of violence. Slotkin does not beat about the bush: he calls Indian removal an example of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Slotkin is, of course, hardly the first to identify the presence of the frontier and westward expansion more generally as key dynamics in the evolution of American culture. Over a century ago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner insisted that the experience of exerting control over the frontier fundamentally shaped the American character. I vividly recall Richard Hofstadter’s remark in a graduate seminar at Columbia University that Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’ was the only truly original idea ever developed by a historian of the United States. (Hofstadter, however, a confirmed urbanite, did not think much of what he called the Western ‘agrarian myth’, which he identified with less than praiseworthy elements of American culture including antisemitism and a penchant for conspiratorial thinking.) But Slotkin’s West is different from Turner’s. Those influenced by the latter often left the impression – sometimes expressed in quasi-sexual imagery – that the West was an empty space waiting to be conquered and exploited. Compare with Slotkin’s trilogy, for example, the titles of influential works on this theme such as Virgin Land by Henry Nash Smith and Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness. Slotkin makes clear that the conquest of the West resulted from violence, not persuasion.

In the Cold War years, many scholars aligned with the emerging discipline of American studies sought to ascertain what was distinctive about American culture and history. Daniel Boorstin pointed to a pragmatic temperament that led Americans to reject ideological debates and get down to the business of scientific and economic advancement. Louis Hartz and Hofstadter wrote about an all-encompassing liberal consensus. Boorstin celebrated that consensus; both Hofstadter and Hartz deplored it, believing it made it impossible for the society to develop new ideas.

Scholars of American studies anticipated Slotkin in pointing to the importance of ‘myths and symbols’ in the shaping of American culture and in homing in on the West as the foundation of American development. What makes American studies distinctive is the wide range of source material it deploys, including films, novels, music, artefacts of popular culture and the like. As in other disciplines, the Vietnam War and civil rights movement threw into question the quest for a single ‘American mind’ (the title of an influential book by Henry Steele Commager). The field fragmented, as society itself seemed to be doing. Under these circumstances, younger, more politically active American studies scholars asked whether ‘myth’ was a sufficient framework for understanding American culture. Some turned to political economy to understand the American past and present. Today, countless universities are home to ‘studies’ departments of all kinds: American studies, African American studies, women’s studies, Native American studies, cultural studies – the list goes on. The word ‘studies’ is a way of announcing an interdisciplinary approach. Slotkin’s work foresaw and influenced these developments.

In his final chapters, Slotkin enters the current era. He presents a well-informed analysis of the origins of today’s culture war politics, focused on disputes over immigration. The electoral success of Barack Obama, despite the radical right’s denial of his status as an American citizen, helped to propel the Myth of the Movement forwards. At the same time, it inspired a resurgence of racialised nationalism. This was exemplified in hostility to the idea, written into the Constitution during Reconstruction, of birthright citizenship, and in the spread among conservatives of the ‘great replacement’ theory, which warns of a liberal conspiracy to flood the country with immigrants unfit for participation in democratic politics. Slotkin examines in detail the ideas of figures who represent various strands – cultural, racial, economic – of today’s conservatism, including the Koch brothers, who seem determined to repeal the New Deal; the anti-immigrant extremists Peter Brimelow and Stephen Miller; climate change deniers; adherents of gun culture; and Donald Trump’s former attorney general William Barr, who has blamed increased toleration of gay men and lesbians for the supposed moral decay of Western civilisation (channelling Pat Buchanan, who in a speech in 1992 helped to launch the modern culture wars). Given his fixation on a border wall, Trump can be associated with the Myth of the Frontier, although his idea of a frontier seems to begin at Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s rise, Slotkin suggests, reflects a merger of the Lost Cause with contemporary ethnonationalism. These ideas must, he insists, be taken seriously. Trump’s movement has become the vehicle for an ‘authentically American fascism’. ‘There is always a feedback loop,’ he warns, ‘between the dehumanisation of foreign enemies and the dehumanisation of some classes of fellow citizens.’

Where do national myths originate? They do not emerge by happenstance. Rather their creation and spread are an exercise of power. Influential historical actors, from antebellum slaveholders to the moguls of Hollywood and those Slotkin calls the ‘political classes’, have attempted to develop and disseminate broadly acceptable myths to serve their own interests. Then there are historians, seemingly well positioned to invent and develop new national stories. Each side in the culture war, Slotkin writes, appeals to American history. But historians have not taken on the task of devising a coherent national mythology that can bring unity to a fractured republic. Instead, Slotkin notes with dismay, students in red and blue states are being taught radically different versions of the nation’s past. All this, he writes, reflects not simply divergent opinions on specific issues, but ‘disagreements about the fundamental character’ of American institutions and ‘the purposes of the American nation-state’.

Slotkin credits recent ‘revisionist historians’ for directing attention to the role of racial, class and gender inequalities in the development of American culture. But one gets the impression that he feels the revisionist wave has gone too far. Despite the fact that his own account of the country’s history hardly seems overly celebratory, Slotkin chides current historians for failing to recognise that no modern nation-state is lacking in social injustice and for devoting too little attention to American accomplishments, such as persistent – and sometimes successful – efforts to combat inequality. These, he suggests, could become the basis for a new liberal national myth that would underpin the enactment of measures that have been on our national agenda for many decades, among them national health insurance, the right to employment and vigorous public regulation of corporate behemoths, coupled with a tolerant approach to racial and ethnic diversity. In effect, he proposes uniting the politics of the New Deal with the Myth of the Movement. He turns American exceptionalism on its head, pointing out that the same social and political developments that have spawned an authoritarian reaction in the United States have had much the same impact in Europe. In that sense, the US isn’t all that different from other countries. Slotkin acknowledges that his proposed ‘pluralist national myth’ will require ignoring some dark parts of the American experience. But, he believes, a myth focused on the struggles for equality of labour, African Americans and other groups could inspire a renewed sense of national purpose.

Historians, however, do not seem to be heeding Slotkin’s call. Instead, having long since abandoned the quest for an elusive liberal consensus, they have published in the past year or so important books that trace the rise of reactionary conservatism. These include Illiberal America by Steven Hahn, Democracy Awakening by Heather Cox Richardson and Jefferson Cowie’s Freedom’s Dominion.* Scholars, these historians seem to be saying, should now devote themselves to identifying the origins of the current moment, not charting a path to an uncertain future.

The current crisis, according to Slotkin, provides the conditions for emergence of a new national myth. He identifies two possibilities. One, which would turn the clock back to reconstitute the ‘cultural Lost Cause’, would be a disaster. The second, whose elements have not yet coalesced, would unite the country in favour of a tolerant, more equal tomorrow, in effect linking racial justice with greater economic equality. There is something disarming about Slotkin’s optimism that a new national myth can help to provide a solution to our current divisions. But readers may wonder if the role of the historian today is not so much to devise new myths as to piece together a candid appraisal, no matter how alarming, of the fraught moment in which we live.

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