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Yet more than any other consensus historian, Daniel Boorstin counter-attacked radical New Left critiques. He was unabashedly patriotic, and his books are works of wonderment and curiosity in America, its land, and people.
In 1994, on the PBS program Think Tank, Ben Wattenberg hosted a debate on the topic “Who Owns History?” The impetus for the debate was the recent anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit on the dropping of atomic bombs during World War Two. Both ignited controversies, as new histories portrayed Columbus as initiating an era of brutal oppression and extermination and critics condemned the immorality of using atomic weapons. The debate rocked back and forth as contributors spoke of the practice of history in the United States. One of the participants was the historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin. “I think that we should take the opportunity to celebrate the possibilities of human nature, which is what we do when we celebrate a hero,” Boorstin declared. “And I think Columbus was a hero, because he had those qualities of human nature which made for greatness: opening the world, bringing the world together and showing courage; an ability to use the knowledge of his time, which he was well acquainted with; and applying it with the technology available to enlarge the experience and capabilities of the human race.” His opposing interlocutors vehemently disagreed and considered his portrayal simplistic in ignoring the great harm of European arrival in the Western Hemisphere and, more broadly, minimizing the role of women, African-Americans, and others in shaping American history. We have moved past that type of history practiced decades ago, the historian Eric Foner answered, where the “United States was the sort of onward march of progress and freedom for the world.”
What appeared a friendly television debate reflected a deeper divide within American historiography going back to the 1950s. Daniel Boorstin and other historians like Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter wrote post-World War Two “consensus history,” where unconscious assent among Americans about certain political, economic, and religious truths meant that European radicalisms never took root in the US. By the 1960s, this view was fiercely contested by “New Left” historians embedded in the anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, and counterculture movements. For these younger radical historians, the American story was not a consensus of values but the struggle for rights. The “conflict school” of history eventually won over the academy and by the 1990s the venerable Boorstin’s Custer-like performance on Think Tank aptly demonstrated the scale of victory.
Yet more than any other consensus historian, Daniel Boorstin counter-attacked radical New Left critiques. He was unabashedly patriotic, and his books are works of wonderment and curiosity in America, its land, and people. The United States was not flawless, he reminded critics, but the obsession with its inadequacies blinded us to its magnificence. “I think it’s important that we not be Utopians … The alternative to that is a perfect system in which everyone is equal to everyone else and everyone is flourishing in peace.” When New Left historians punched at his assertions, he punched back and satirized them savagely. One hears familiar melodies in his tilts with the New Left. They are the roots of today’s culture wars.
The son of a Jewish Georgia lawyer who fled to Oklahoma because of his unpopular role in the 1915 Leo Frank case, Daniel Boorstin studied at Harvard and Oxford, and by the late 1930s “became one of the few Americans to become a British barrister-at-law.” It was also in England where he first encountered Communism and briefly became a party member: “Nearly everyone I knew in those days who was interesting humanly or intellectually was ‘leftist’ and thought they had a duty to ‘do’ something about the state of the world.” He left the party in 1939 and through his teaching and scholarship became increasingly conservative. But his former Communist affiliations followed him and in 1953 he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Revolting against his Marxist past, like so many ex-communists in those years such as Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham, he insisted that no college or university should hire communists. Anyone who teaches should be “intellectually free” from ideological dogma and systems of thought. Party membership and his HUAC testimony was a defining moment for Boorstin (and his critics) and it deeply shaped his perception of American history.
The same year he appeared before HUAC, Boorstin’s published The Genius of American Politics and it remains a fascinating and controversial text assessing the American past. For Boorstin, America was pragmatic rather than ideological from its colonial birth, shaped by its land and history rather than European political and religious philosophies. Two basic ideas informed this understanding: “Givenness” and “Seamlessness.” The United States had a “givenness” in its unique geography and history that inhibited abstract dogmas from taking hold. North America was fruitful but perilous, and the realities of survival and settling communities gave to Americans a practical bent that adapted ideas to the environment, rather than attempting to mold the environment to a priori abstractions. “Independence, equality, and liberty, we like to believe, are breathed in with our very air,” Boorstin explained. “No nation has been readier to identify its values with the peculiar conditions of its landscape … Our belief in the mystical power of our land has in this roundabout way nourished an empirical point of view; and a naturalistic approach to values has thus, in the United States, been bound up with patriotism itself.” This pragmatic givenness became part of American history “as a gift from the past,” was embodied in present-day political institutions, and connected past and present through the continuity of experience. Thus, he explained, “It is the quality of our experience which makes us see our national past as an uninterrupted continuum of similar events, so that our past emerges indistinguishably into our present.”
The givenness of the American experience seamlessly and organically linked all of life and encompassed institutions and practices, so that few boundaries separated politics, culture, religion, and economics. All were infused with the American pragmatic ethos. This seamlessness was demonstrated across space, so that institutions were a reflection of the environment that birthed and sustained them. It was also expressed across time: “Most of what we see of our past reinforces our feeling of continuity and oneness with it.” This stood in dark contrast to European history with its bloody revolutionary breaks with the past, like the French Revolution. Frequent violent upheavals based on abstract ideologies mystified Americans, Boorstin suggested. Think of soldiers in World War Two facing German Nazism and Italian Fascism, or closer to home in the 1950s citizens opposing Soviet communism (of which Boorstin had intimate knowledge):
The American who goes to Europe cannot but be shocked by the casualness with which Frenchmen or Italians view the possibility of violent change in their society … For the European the past, and therefore the future, seems a kind of grab bag of extreme alternatives. Because for us the past is a solid stalk out of which our present seems to grow, the lines of our future seem clearer and more inevitable … Our history inclines us, then, to see fascism and nazism and communism not merely as bad philosophies but as violations of the essential nature of institutions. To us institutions have appeared as a natural continuum with the non-institutional environment and the historical past. From this point of view, the proper role of the citizen and the statesman here is one of conservation and reform rather than invention.
Therefore, Americans were natural conservatives, suspicious of grand ideological plans to remake humanity or society, and if change must come it should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
The result of American givenness and seamlessness was a broad consensus on American values and a belief in the essential goodness of its institutions. When Americans debated, it was not over fundamentals, but the application of given truths emanating from shared experience. Look at the 1952 election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. This was not a vibrant contest over essentials, but a civil disagreement over the interpretation of givens. “Both Democrats and Republicans have, on the whole, the same vision of the kind of society there ought to be in the United States,” wrote Boorstin. “They differ only over whether that kind of society is more likely to be attained by much or little aid to western Europe, by much of little regulation of labor unions, by one or another form of taxation – or by Republicans or Democrats holding office.” Revolution and violence were infrequent because Americans agreed upon so much.
How then did Boorstin explain the major conflicts of American history? In Genius, he tackled Puritan New England, the American Revolution, and the Civil War to illustrate his thesis. Puritans came to New England in 1620s and 1630s armed with the zealous religious certainty, but they did not make Massachusetts a Puritan paradise. The harsh New England environment and challenge of building permanent communities on a hostile fledgling frontier forced them to adapt. Historians traditionally look at American Puritanism across the seventeenth century as the story of decline, but it was instead assimilation to a new environment. It was never a battle with the Devil: “Puritanism in New England was not so much defeated by the dogmas of anti-Puritanism as it was simply assimilated to the conditions of life in America. Never was it blown away by the hurricane. It was gradually eroded by the American climate.” Similarly, the American Revolution was not the story of diametrically opposed sides, Patriots versus British, Revolutionaries versus Tories. “The American Revolution was no revolution but merely a colonial rebellion,” Boorstin wrote. Americans clung to traditional English liberties they believed were threatened by innovative parliamentary laws and raised a rebellion to protect them. “They were fighting not so much to establish new rights as to preserve old ones.” It was not a revolution and Americans wrote no important philosophical texts laying out a distinct new ideology. Boorstin’s understanding of the American Revolution mirrored that of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, published the same year. Indeed, Boorstin and Kirk developed a friendship after publication of Genius.
Fitting the Civil War into Boorstin’s consensus thesis took some contorting, not all of it convincing. It was an intra-federal dispute, he claimed, not over the rightness of the Constitution but over rights within a federal system. Just look at the wide areas of consensus between North and South: the Confederates accepted the Declaration, adopted the Philadelphia constitution almost in whole, and used the language of Jefferson and Madison to explain their course. Paradoxically and tragically, the War demonstrated more consensus than conflict: “The North and the South each considered that it was fighting primarily for its legal rights under the sacred federal Constitution.” Again, no great work of original political philosophy emerged either before or after the Civil War, a strong signal of American consensus. Calhoun came the closest to innovation in his Disquisition and Discourse, but he grounded both works in the American tradition without wandering dangerously into abstract European waters. For Boorstin, the Civil War “was unproductive of political theory. This, the bloodiest single civil war of the nineteenth century, was also perhaps the least theoretical.” Even in this moment of national immolation, the theme of consensus overwhelmed that of division and conflict.
Boorstin continued these themes in his three part The Americans series: The Colonial Experience (1958), The National Experience (1965), and The Democratic Experience (1973). As an elaboration on themes explored in Genius, they detailed Boorstin’s perception of what mattered in American history. Chapters brim, not with ideas, ideologies, philosophies, theologies, or political and religious doctrines, but with inventions, innovators, businessmen, products that improved the quality of life, technology, and the practical details of everyday life. It was social history in the cause of consensus. He was interested in the effects of condensed milk and air conditioning. Americans were a hard-headed, realistic, practical people, and Boorstin dispatched examples of discord and protest in their history. He had little patience for transcendentalists, abolitionists, cantankerous writers like Thoreau (whom he called “a vagrant”), socialists, or Marxists. They were outsiders who had little to say about the non-ideological main currents of American life, like middle-class Americans who got married, raised families, did their jobs, and improved their communities.
With the advent of the 1960s, a wave of rising young New Left historians revolted against consensus understandings of American history, picturing it as the historiographical equivalent of “Leave it to Beaver” – complacent, blinkered, and stultifying. Instead, they examined the past and saw violence and the struggle against oppression, a direct reflection of New Left historians political and social activism in protest movements of the decade. Consensus historians deliberately ignored the persistent strain of conflict in history to maintain systems of privilege and the status quo, they claimed. As historian David Donald observed in 1970, “The new generation of historians sweepingly condemns all Consensus scholars for accepting, and even eulogizing, a society where poverty is tolerated because it is presumed to be transient; where racial discrimination is permissible because it too will pass away; where political conflict is muted, since everybody agrees on everything; and where foreign adventurism is acceptable since politics stops at the water’s edge.”
For the New Left, the story of America was not Friday night at the Lions Club in some Midwestern town, but violent labor strikes, protests in the streets, and civil (or uncivil) disobedience against unjust laws. In the hands of these historians, the American historical narrative flipped. The American Revolution was now a world-historical event with radically egalitarian import, the Constitution cover for racist planters and the perpetuation of slavery, and the Jacksonian era a story of the political awakening of the working-class and courageous activism by abolitionists like Douglass and Brown. Boorstin’s peripheral outsiders became the center of attention. There was no consensus between Americans, only a continuous battle for rights and material goods. The culmination of this scholarship was in many ways Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (1980), which reads as a two-century chronicle of oppression and almost continual socio-economic war.
Attacks on Boorstin were pointed and successful. Consensus history was denounced as unserious “popular history,” more suited to the middle-class homes Boorstin lionized than the halls of academe. “Some critics viewed him as too conservative, morally complacent, content with the status quo,” New York Times journalist Robert D. McFadden wrote. “Dr. Boorstin’s curiosity, mental agility and inclination not to suffer fools led some associates to call him arrogant and elitist.” Anti-war protesters dogged him at the University of Chicago and radical students organized boycotts of his classes. They viewed his HUAC testimony as McCarthyism and treachery. When he condemned identity-based academic “studies” departments as divisive and unreflective of the American experience, calls of racism fell upon him. By the 1970s one historian remarked that “Boorstin is now passé among most professional historians.” Rather than accepting their barbs, he counter-attacked, defending his perspective and critiquing theirs. Fellow historian and friend Edmund Morgan recalled:
Boorstin’s scorn for ideologies and conformity may have owed something to his own brief flirtation with Marxism as a student at Oxford, where in the 1930s the Communist Party had been home to virtually every aspiring intellectual. His reaction against it extended to the neo-Marxist ideologies that drove many of the student organizations devoted to challenging established authority in the 1960s. But he was equally scornful of those who made a vocation out of discontent, without any concern beyond the taste of power that protests gave them.
His rejoinder came in three bursts, all in print: a 1969 article for Esquire “The New Barbarians,” The Decline of Radicalism (1969), and The Sociology of the Absurd, or The Application of Professor X (1970).
In “The New Barbarism,” Boorstin excoriated 1960s student protestors as falling outside the American tradition. Radicalism in the 1930s – the Old Left, which he once joined – at least had a partially positive impact on American life by focusing attention on genuine economic problems in the midst of the Great Depression. This was a radicalism that made coherent arguments. If misguided in its socialism, the Old Left searched for meaning, discussed social and political fundamentals, and offered plans for new foundations. “Every radicalism is a way of asserting what are the roots,” he explained. “Radicalism, therefore, involves affirmation … The radical must affirm that this is more fundamental than that.” Genuine radicalism also defends community: “It affirms that we all share the same root problems, that we are all in the same boat, though the radical may see the boat very differently than do others.” Boorstin suggested that real radicalism is sometimes helpful in the long run, backpedaling from his earlier dismissals of radicals in American history.
Today’s student movement had none of these characteristics, Boorstin wrote. Instead, 1960s protestors were self-regarding barbarian nihilists, more interested in performance and power than reform. Their basic impulses leaned toward destruction for destruction’s sake: “What makes a radical radical is not that he discomfits others but how he does it. A drunk is not a radical, neither is a psychotic, though both can make us feel uncomfortable.” In this sense, they were not radical at all, but barbarians – invaders bent on sacking the establishment and its institutions rather than changing them for the better. Real radicals meditated on ideas; the barbarians replaced meditation over Marx with the “direct action” of Mao and Che Guevara: “They find nothing so enchanting as the sound of their own voices, and their bibliography consists of the products of their own mimeographing. They seem to think they can be radicals without portfolio.” To use a familiar phrase from today’s debates over liberalism, 1960s radicals didn’t do the reading.
The young “New Barbarians” demanded everything revolve around them. This was not an expression of American individualism, it was an adolescent need for attention and a “spiritual Ptolemaism.” For all their rhetoric, they were not egalitarians, but “egolitarians, preening the egotism of the isolated self … A movement from the community-centered to the self-centered.” Since everything orbited around the self, the barbarians neglected reason and preferred emotivism. Now, the best ideas were not rationally argued but shouted the loudest. Their preferred punctuation was not a question mark, but the exclamation point.
This emotivism felt good – “if it feels good, do it” – and the barbarian sought individual sensation rather than shared experience. In other words, recalling Boorstin’s emphasis on experience in his earlier work, there was something essentially un-American about these 1960s protest movements. We share experiences and those shared moments are our history. “When we have an experience, we enter into the continuum of society.” But individual sensations are “personal, private, confined, and incommunicable,” merely inward-looking feeling that “affirms and emphasizes the self.” This flight from experience and community represented a fundamentally fearful impulse, a paranoid unwillingness to surrender the self for others. “The search for sensation is a search for some way of reminding oneself that one is alive – but without becoming entangled with others or with a community.” Barbarians believed that community was the death of individual identity and a source of tyranny.
There are times when Boorstin anticipated twenty-first century realities. He saw in 1960s emotivism and the search for new sensations the growing need for instantaneousness. Every urge must be met immediately with no waiting required. It was hardly a surprise, he observed, that in an age of hallucinogenic narcotics giving individuals immediate gratification, the political impulse was one of impatience. “[The New Barbarians] deny the existence of time, since Sensation is instantaneous and not cumulative. They herald the age of Instant Everything … Every program must be instantaneous, every demand must be an ultimatum.” The New Left – its political activists and academics – was “the LSD of the intellectuals.”
“The New Barbarians” was reprinted in Boorstin’s Decline of Radicalism, also in 1969. In that volume, he also reprinted an October 1967 speech entitled “Dissent, Dissension, and the News” given to an Associated Press meeting at the height of Vietnam protests. Here again, he attacked the 1960s student movement as outside the American tradition. Americans welcomed disagreement and the nation’s democratic structures institutionalized this in elections and free speech rights, he said. But these protest movements were not those of disagreement, but dissent. Disagreement is a sign of national health because it is based on shared assumptions. Dissent is a sign of national illness because it signifies existential power battles over the meaning of the nation itself. “Disagreers ask, what about the war in Vietnam? Dissenters ask, what about me? … Disagreers seeks solutions to common problems, dissenters seek power for themselves.” Much like he suggested in “Barbarians,” 1960s protesters were something new and dangerous.
Boorstin directly challenged New Left “conflict” historians and their representation of the past. Recent scholarly attention to violence, revolts, and episodes of dissent in US History distorted that history: “There never is quite as much dissent as there seems.” He called this scholarly tendency “The Law of the Conspicuousness of Dissent.” We focus on the few hundred who dissent and overlook the millions who assent, seeing celestial significance in the former and insignificance in the latter. This gives an entirely unrepresentative picture of the past and plays up the ephemeral at the expense of the central: “Carry Nation smashing up a bar makes much more interesting reading and is more likely to enter the record than the peaceable activity of the bartender mixing drinks. But this may lead us to a perverse emphasis … Out interest tends to be focused on the cataracts, the eddies, the waterfalls, and the whirlpools. But what of the main stream?” Two years before President Nixon gave his ‘Silent Majority” speech, Boorstin was making the case for “Silent Majority” scholarship. Pay attention to the middle-class bartender, not the obnoxious prohibitionist.
Media changes in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged the coverage of dissent. Newspapers and television competition led to a focus on conflict, amplified bad news, and gave the impression of constant turmoil. “It is an easier job to make a news story of men who are fighting one another than it is to describe their peaceful living together,” he chastised AP editors. The new media was biased towards the “good shot,” “breaking news,” and “this just in.” The hourly news cycle of constant reporting began, journalists looked for stories to fill space, newspapers published more opinion columns and pursued opinion polling (impressing upon people the necessity of having an opinion about everything), all of this hardly conducive to reflecting the general quiescence of most Americans. It is hard to imagine Boorstin’s reaction to today’s social media-driven/cable news cycle, which was only beginning to proliferate when he died in 2004. The media and the 1960s New Left told the same story: that conflict rather than consensus was the American story.
At the heart of New Left scholarship was the issue of identity, Boorstin wrote, “the right to retain your differences,” and that the good American was partly immigrant, partly foreign, or partly “other.” This tendency became increasingly common after World War Two, particularly in politics. Witness, for example, John F. Kennedy’s emphasis on his “Irishness.” New Left scholars pushed further and placed emphasis on “minorities” over “majorities,” difference, and separateness, and soon a whole humanities and social science literature rose to expand upon this. “People in small groups were reminded that they had a power and a locale which they had not so precisely known before.” They began to deliberately try to sound different, to dress different, to act different from other Americans, and to demonstrate they were part of a separate group. Changes in technology like the concentration and computerization of information allowed small groups to effect outsized change – one tiny but well-located protest could shut down a university. What he called “minority-veto psychology” altered the relationship between individuals and between individuals and institutions. Democracy itself was redefined. “Small groups have more power than ever before. In small numbers there is strength. And this, in turn, results in the quest for minority identity.” To be identified with a minority outside the American consensus was now highly desirable and a sign of authenticity.
This “desperate quest” for identity and difference was a primary part of New Left dissent. Yet the rage to be different was meaningless. The belief in “the intrinsic virtue of dissent” was, in reality, “Dissent for dissent’s sake.” This “conformity of non-conformity” answered no questions, solved no problems, nor made complexity more understandable. It lived on dissension alone. Dissent was a type of internal secession tearing apart societies and making it impossible for people to live with one another.
In 1970, Boorstin turned from commentary to satire in Sociology of the Absurd. This small book reads as a failed grant application at the “Institute for Democratic Studies” by a group of sociologists collectively named “Professor X.” Boorstin mockingly wrote it to illustrate where New Left activist scholarship was inevitably leading.
The application proposed a new social measurement called the “Ethnic Quotient,” or EQ for short, to reflect the growing awareness of the importance of one’s ancestors to our individual situation. “As our social scientists have shown, the more remote the time and place the more deeply and permanently have their influence become ingrained in the ‘soul’ (in the new ethnic sense). And the more essential it is then that each person’s ethnic origins be marked off and measured by the best available quantitative techniques.” True, this new sense of identity could be solved by each ethnic and racial group having entirely segregated social spaces, but the complications were too great, like “a near-insoluble problem in finding enough Belgian teachers for young Belgo-Americans” and the difficulties of people with complicated mixed ethnic backgrounds. “It would be a violation of the integral personality of a child to require him to attend a school whose ethnic makeup was not the same as his own,” Boorstin added wryly.
The solution was “Ethnic Proportionalism.” A complicated social scientific formula would give each American an EQ number to be placed on their Social Security card, a permanent number since ancestry never changes. It is expressed in initials and percentages, like G75:IT15:EN10, meaning German 75%, Italian 15%, and English 10%. EQ values could be put to many practical uses, the application suggested, like the division of education time among an individual’s ethnic makeup, revision of school lunch programs along appropriate ethnic lines, and the personal enjoyment of various ethnic-appropriate holidays.
Along with the EQ, there was also the Merit Quotient, or MQ. Think of this as “intergenerational bookkeeping” to more effectively address historical injustices, Boorstin explained. An MQ number (also on your Social Security card) reverses the Christian idea that justice lies in the future, that your just reward will come in heaven, and instead asserts that justice lies in the past as a kind of “Progress Through Regression.”
All the past injustices (in our ‘Pre-Life’) must be balanced by adequate present compensations … Therefore, the persons who (in their ancestors) most suffered or were most disadvantaged in the past, must be specially privileged and advantaged in the present. Contrariwise, those who were overprivileged in the past (in the persons of their ancestors) must have their historical balance rectified by being made underprivileged in the present.
MQ is on a simple 0-100 scale. “To have an M.Q. of 100 it would be necessary for all a person’s ancestors to be victims of genocide, and presumably even before any of them had had the pleasure of procreating children.” One could, however, have a minus MQ: “That simply means that the person’s ancestors have, totally speaking, accumulated more pleasure and privilege than pain and suffering.” Pains and sufferings are a plus, pleasures and privileges are a minus, and the “dominant purpose is simply to see how much merit has been acquired by the individual in this way, so we can assess his fair and proper special claim now to the goods, services, and honors of our present-day society.”
MQ was a complex total ancestor calculation and Boorstin actually presented readers with the equation. It accommodated both man-made oppression and natural disasters, as well as all the benefits felt by the wealthy and privileged throughout time. Like EQ, MQ never changes since the experiences of one’s ancestors never change, nor can present-day intelligence or hard work alter it. MQ “cannot be altered one iota by ‘other’ personal qualities of talent, education, or character, by ‘achievements’ or ‘crimes.’ All these later items, as we know, are anyway nothing but the product of all those past forces.” MQ could also find many practical uses, like college entrance and job applications. “A single handy precalculated M.Q. will save time, money, paperwork, and red tape. It will also remove the bases of the old accusations of unfair discrimination, partisan patronage, and racial and religious prejudice, which characterized the mid-century so-called ‘merit’ system.” EQ and MQ will help destroy status and hierarchy (“Social Non-Differentiation”) in all institutions like universities. In fact, we need to create a new “Universal University” with the slogan “All Things to All Men – Including Women and Children!” It would be universal in that it performed new social functions, like “settlement house (in the Jane Addams tradition), employment agency, sexual experimentation laboratory, remedial-reading clinic, psychiatric ward, and, of course, training area for revolutionary strategy and tactics.”
Boorstin’s criticism and satire of the New Left earned him lasting scorn. Fed up with student harassment at the University of Chicago, he left academia in 1969 and worked for the Smithsonian. In 1975, President Ford nominated him for Librarian of Congress and although some academics and Library employees protested his appointment, he was confirmed and served until 1987.
David Boorstin appeared on Think Tank in 1994 as an aging unrepentant war horse of historiographical battles almost a half century old. When pressed on the state of history in the 1990s and his own older consensus interpretation, he reiterated the message of his entire professional life:
I think what we should aim at is a human history. And I think that, insofar as the champions of different minority histories have set up their own departments and their own lectureships and courses, they have tended to divide history – to separate us from one another … I think what I would call the divisive or so-called minority approach – what Arthur Schlesinger calls the disuniting of America by the rewriting of our history. I think that … moves in the wrong direction … I think that to take a proportional representation approach to history seems to be, to me, misguided … If we’re concerned with civilization and culture and [the] tradition of rights embodied in the common law and in our Constitution, we cannot apportion the role of people according to the number of them who exist. It’s not a demographic question. It’s a cultural question.
Consensus history is well and truly dead in academic scholarship, although some have argued convincingly that the fruits of “conflict history” are the new consensus. But Boorstin is still worth reading and if he too often simplified complexities in American history, there is nonetheless a good measure of prescience in his works.
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The featured image is a photograph of Daniel Boorstin, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.