Book report #15 (2021)

These Truths, by Jill Lepore. Pub 2018

This book has been my Everest this year. I wish I had recorded when I started it, but am very glad to be recording that I finished it. It was very long (nearly 800 pages, plus nearly 100 pages of citations), but very good. I recall having read articles by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, but when I went back to look, I found none that were familiar. I had also started this book in 2020 as an audiobook (read by the author), but found her voice to be, um, difficult. So I opted for the hard copy.

It was a podcast I listened to (cannot remember which) that recommended this book as a good start-to-present history of the US, and they were not wrong. Starting in 1492 and running up to 2017ish, this book is dense with facts and stories and interesting pieces of information, as you can see from all the flags and markings I made.

The first ~300 pages cover 1492 to 1900, so the balance was the 20th and 21st centuries, with people and situations a bit more familiar (and likely where there is much more detailed historical record). Most interesting in the earlier parts were the struggles over the language to be used in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, the continual tension between the freedoms and the need for leadership and government, and the many missed opportunities to right the wrongs of slavery and suffrage. In the later sections, Lepore does an excellent job of linking current to past, showing how actions in past set the stage for things in the present.

Especially interesting is the thread about the roll of polling, public relations, technology, and media/journalists braided with the thread of the polarization of political parties. When polling became a “science” right at the time that radio became ubiquitous, providing a direct line of one-way communication (i.e. broadcasting) into every home, polling began its transition from assessing public opinion to influencing and it. With the advent of television, public relations and advertising, blended with polls, became an even bigger influence. And then with the internet, where anyone can be a journalist, facts are fluid, and memes are sticky, there was both too much information and not enough of it – too much to sort through for the average person, and not enough that could be relied upon as real or true. We saw the culmination of the problem with this in Brexit and in major elections in the US and UK in the last 5 years. The polls were dead wrong about what was happening, but were still being used by journalists and politicians to scare-monger and prognosticate. It is likely that much of the challenge of information and mis-information in the time of COVID is significantly influenced by these same problems.

While this openness of information is purported to represent even greater democracy, it in fact undermines it. The mechanism of democracy (esp. representative democracy as we have in most Western or modern lands) involves individual citizens expressing their opinions just once in a while by selecting someone to represent them and their interests in the democratic system. When everyone gets involved and has a say in everything, democracy cannot function and gets bogged down in rancour and division till nothing can be changed. As Lepore says, this form of government, designed by the framers in 1787, aims to protect the rights of minorities from the tyranny of the majority; when politicians chase after polling numbers as their chief means of decision making, they are abdicating their responsibilities as the designated representatives and become automatons responding to the daily temperature of the populace (who are fickle and easily influenced by those same polls). Alongside this is the questionable practice of media organizations conducting and reporting on their own polls as news – journalists are supposed to report the news, not make it, but by injecting their own polls into the news, they are becoming the story and are no longer a faithful chronicler (from a quote by Pulitzer).

Because people want relatively easy decision-making but are more and more bombarded by information and a requirement to become “involved” and “informed”, the increased polarization of politics is easier to understand – the average voter eventually just throws in their lot with one or the other party, who become more uni-dimensional and diametrically opposed in order to make that choice easier, et voila: the demonization of those from the other party not because their ideas are bad (not even knowing what those ideas are, just that they are different and therefore bad and wrong) but simply because they are “other”.

Being an American history book, there is much discussion about free speech (and the other freedoms, too).

  • Thomas Jefferson: Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle…If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
  • Frederick Douglass: Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.
  • Friedrich A. Hayak: Even that most precious possession of Western Man, freedom of thought and expression, is threatened by the spread of creeds which, claiming the privilege of tolerance when in the position of minority, seek only to establish a position of power in which they can suppress and obliterate all views but their own.
  • Lyndon Johnson: We’re living in a fast age, and all of us are rather impatient, and, more important, we’re rather intolerant of the opinions of our fellow man and his judgements and his conduct and his traditions and his way of life.
  • Benjamin Franklin: …when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.

Would that the rhetoric of past days could be understood and respected in modern times.

There is much more about equality, feminism, hate speech, racism, and the political tensions, dramas, and compromises and their consequences. There are also plenty of stories about resilience, persistence, tolerance, and victory. Throughout, Lepore holds up a mirror to American history and society to show where it comes from, and to hopefully illuminate the past so that it can be learned from. For the most part, she does so with a minimum of editorial comment and hectoring, staying mostly centre of her clearly left perspective; the last chapter about events from ~2014 onward is undermined by her own biases, with its clearly left-leaning language demonstrating almost exactly the opposite of the truths she expounded on earlier by suggesting “left always good if flawed, right always bad and evil”. Perhaps this was a deliberate satire, but I doubt it.

Ultimately, Lepore is asking: “Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?” After all that overwhelming evidence of history, the very fact that someone can ask this question would suggest that the answer is: maybe.

Fate: I will hang on to this one, as it will provide a good reference.

All my flags and markings in this dense book.
1 – a book with a murder in it (lots of them)
8 – female author
12 – a book I should read
25 – new author to me
31 – history and politics

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