Public Media Arts Hub

New book 'Myth America' examines misinformation in U.S. history


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Nick Schifrin: In recent years, there has been a steady increase of misinformation. Two historians have assembled a team to push back on what they call myths surrounding some of the country's most pressing issues and defining moments.

They recently spoke with Geoff Bennett about their new collection, "Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past."

Geoff Bennett: Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, welcome to the "NewsHour."

Kevin Kruse, Co-Editor, "Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past": Thanks for having us.

Julian Zelizer, Co-Editor, "Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past": Great to be here.

Geoff Bennett: The book's essays take on everything from feminism, to white backlash over the removal of Confederate monuments, to American exceptionalism, to Trump's America first approach.

Kevin, what for you was the organizing principle behind this book of essays?

Kevin Kruse: Well, our main purpose was to push back against some of the lies and myths that are out there in public discourse today.

So, certain topics presented themselves as obvious ones, but the more we got into it, we wanted to give a full picture of the range of American history and the misrepresentations about them.

Geoff Bennett: And, Julian, why publish a book like this now?

Julian Zelizer: Well, part of it was us listening and hearing and reading ideas about American history that were really disconnected from what academic historians have been writing about and finding in the archives.

And we wanted it to try to share with the public what we know that's so different than what you hear. And a part of it is also how politicized history has become in the classrooms. And we wanted to bring some of the best and brightest scholars, scholars who write well, to tackle big questions that Americans have been wrestling with, not just over the last few years, but over the last few decades.

Geoff Bennett: Well, let's talk about some of the essays, starting with Sarah Churchwell's essay titled "America First."

She writes up the phrase, of the world view revived by Donald Trump. She says: "America first has never been and was never intended to be a simple statement of patriotic self-interest. And it has certainly never worked as a unifying national motto. On the contrary, it has consistently served as a divisive code camouflaged by its ostensible harmlessness, a frequently conspiratorial cover story for internal power struggles."

Julian, tell me more about the origins of this myth of America first and how it has evolved.

Julian Zelizer: Well, look, America first really became part of the national lexicon in the last few years when the former president used it as one of his mottoes.

But it's a term that's been around for a long time. Certainly, in the World War II period and in the period leading up to World War II, it was a term embraced not just by those who supported isolationism, but many who are connected to the right.

And Sarah, in her essay, really shows a long history of how this term, it's not just a patriotic motto. It's really a concept, a phrase that's been connected to many elements of reactionary politics from the World War II period right through today.

Geoff Bennett: And Glenda Gilmore, Kevin, writes about the myth of the so-called good protest, which she posits is based on the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement.

And she says: "The narrative rests on four misconceptions, that the demonstrations from 1955 to 1968 were the first of their kind, that most Americans gave their support to the protests and their leaders, that they quickly exposed and vanquished hatred, and that they ended happily by bringing racial equality to America."

Why is the myth of the good protest so dangerous, as you see it, Kevin?

Kevin Kruse: Well, it's dangerous because it presents a false split between the past and the present.

There are those who held up this false idea that the civil rights movement was one that wasn't controversial, that settled things easily, that Martin Luther King was universally adored for what he did. All things were false at the time. It was deeply contested and contentious in the 1960s.

But if you have a view of the civil rights movement in the '60s as being kind of anodyne, without any stakes to it, without any opponents to it, then it makes other protests pale in comparison, right? And so the Black Lives Matter protest were constantly contrasted against this false image of the civil rights struggle, when, as Glenda notes in her essay, there's actually a great deal of continuum between them.

Geoff Bennett: Historian David Bell writes about the perceived myth of American exceptionalism. He is dismissive of the term.

And his rationale seems to be that most nations can be considered exceptional in one sense or another. I think people might read that and take issue with it. How do you defend the position that he takes, Julian?

Julian Zelizer: Well, the idea of American exceptionalism has been around for a long time. It's been embraced by the left and the right.

It's a real bipartisan argument, the idea that America, it's not simply better than other nations; it's fundamentally different, that we have avoided all the problems that face other comparable countries with regard to class relations, race relations, and more.

And what he is trying to argue is, that really skews our understanding of how the United States evolved. It's better to have a realistic understanding, to know some of the similarities between our — other — our country and comparable nations in Western Europe, for example, because then we get a deeper knowledge about how we as a country have wrestled with those problems, sometimes differently than others and sometimes the same.

So, I think what David argues is very important, and he shows there's a history to the concept. It's been deployed politically. And, often, it takes our eye away from issues that we need to address as a nation.

Geoff Bennett: The book, its essays isolate members of the conservative movement as the main culprits of misinformation, of disinformation, and of mythmaking.

There are people who will read the book, there are people who will watch this interview and wonder what exists of the lies and legends, to use the phrase I read in the book, promulgated by the political left.

Kevin Kruse: Well, it's a fair question.

And I'd say that the reason there's so much emphasis in the book on myths and misrepresentations of history coming from the right is that they have been actively engaged with history in the last few years. I mean, President Trump led the way, and not just in terms of his claims to have been the best or the biggest or the first to do such and such, but even in the last days of his presidency putting forth this 1776 Commission report, which tried to inculcate a patriotic education, they called it.

So, the right has been very engaged in this project. And that's why I think you have seen historians pushing back more against lies from the right. I think, if we had a — if Biden tries to push a patriotic education, we will see certainly historians try to push back against that as well.

Julian Zelizer: And I would add that we frame the book around the moment we're living in and where really a lot of this is most pronounced.

Geoff Bennett: You are both historians with significant public profiles.

Do you feel like the moment in which we're living, rife with misinformation, requires historians to venture outside of academia into the mainstream to combat some of this stuff head on?

Kevin Kruse: Yes, absolutely.

Historians have a special set of expertise. And there's a hunger in the public to understand this nation's history and its meaning for the present. And historians have an ability to fill that gap. And, luckily, we live in an era of social media, which has, unfortunately, helped a lot of these myths and lies spread.

But it's also given every historian, every political scientist, every scholar out there an ability, a platform to push back against them.

Geoff Bennett: Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse, thanks so much for your time.

Appreciate it.

Julian Zelizer: Thanks. Thanks for having.

Kevin Kruse: Thanks for having us.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.