Thursday, April 16, 2009

Providing a usable past

Mike Lux speaking at a book promotion in San Francisco.

We all read history through the lens of our own time. That's not a criticism; it is just a fact. If we work very, very hard at it, we can sometimes imagine that people in other times and places genuinely responded to events and people differently than we do -- but only if we invest disciplined effort at cutting through our assumptions and broadening our perceptions. When we work at, the study of history then becomes the study of how and why people moved from the ways they were to become the people we are. Discerning how societies and individuals change is exciting, but it must start from a dispassionate apprehension that then -- material circumstances and people's consciousnesses -- was not the same as now.

I really hoped to love Mike Lux's new book, The Progressive Revolution: How the best in America came to be. Lux is one the founders and proprietors of the progressive blog Open Left, one of the more sophisticated places on the web to discuss progressive politics. I like his sensible commentaries on that site. He's also a long time Democratic Party guy -- an experienced political operative and policy wonk who knows how things actually get done. It's an unusual combination and I've enjoyed reading him.

"The Progressive Revolution" is an attempt to offer the current generation of newbie Democratic activists a usable past, a retelling of U.S. history as a long struggle between "progressives" and "conservatives" along lines that pre-figure contemporary struggles. Unhappily, I don't think it quite works. Lux too often slips too easily into writing as if contemporary categories were universals that could be read back into history, a method that takes the intellectual friction out of looking at the past.

I don't want to nitpick this effort -- he's attempting a sweeping picture and will inevitably be vulnerable to small inaccuracies. So I'll try point out what disappoints me from the example of one of his major set pieces. In describing the U.S. revolutionary period and subsequent adoption of the Constitution, he sets up John Adams as the elitist conservative and Thomas Jefferson as the popular democratic progressive. And certainly that's a way to frame the political behavior of these two gentlemen. But it is a way that erases the nuances that make the period more than a backdrop on which to fight current battles. After all, in 1776, Adams was a vigorous proponent of declaring independence who maneuvered strenuously in the Continental Congress to get his supposed opponent Jefferson the job of drafting the Declaration. And while Jefferson's stance in the early days of national politics was the populist one, personally he was the rich plantation owning aristocrat, while Adams was much closer in his life experience to being the sturdy self-made yeoman that Jeffersonian politics claimed to empower. History is complicated.

History also sometimes reveals unpleasant truths about the shallowness of current posturing, especially when we get closer to our own time. Lux writes

...Republicans rolled back the Glass-Steagall in 1999, exposing our economic system to more risk.

Come on, Mike -- admit it. At the end of the Clinton era, many Democrats in Congress were nearly as enamored of "deregulation" -- letting the financial barons play fast and loose -- as the Republicans. They gave Republicans veto-proof margins for the repeal. Engaged citizenship has to include calling out your own leaders and your own party when they are wrong as well as beating up on the other side.

I've written enough here to show why "The Progressive Revolution" wouldn't be my candidate to fill the very great need for a usable past for contemporary activists. Interestingly, we are seeing another prominent exponent of creating a story of the past to build our future in the President. He's darn good at it, a subtle interpreter of a very mixed bag, as a Black man almost has to be.

For an historian's effort along the same lines, many in my older generation of progressive activists turned to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. This is not as neat as Lux's effort, but no concerned reader will come away without gaining fresh insight into how we got to where we are.

One more reason I have to like Lux: while doing the book talk where I photographed him in the image at the top, this is what he had on below. Not a pretentious guy!

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