Like many startups, America is so steeped in its founding mythology that it has trouble seeing the truth about its past, its future — and especially its present.
A nation founded on a constitutional bedrock of inequality cannot easily lay claim to being that Puritan ideal of a shining “city upon a hill.”
We end this year of podcasts with historian, author, and professor Jared Yates Sexton. He shares a contrarian history of the United States, which dismisses any notions of exceptionalism. He sees our foundational reality as one that traded a king for a new class of aristocrats. We witnessed this just this week, as we waited for a new president to be “chosen” by an Electoral College originally engineered by the Founders to bolster slaveholding states against fears of majority rule.
History, Sexton argues, tells us that nations that never reconcile with their mythology have usually collapsed or at best had to be rebuilt. Trump’s defeat at the polls is not the end of the forces that rallied ‘round the myth of triumphalism. That mythology is so pervasive that it’s routinely taught as part of the history curriculum in our schools.
A serious look at history, in Sexton’s view, shows that only intense anger can precipitate real change. However, more often than not, such change can’t help but beget violence. Sexton points out that we’ve been here before, with both the Civil War and our flirtation with fascism just prior to the Second World War.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Particularly in tech in the Silicon Valley, every company has its foundational myth, how its founders slayed the dragons of commerce and creativity to create an insanely great company that was going to change the world. From the beginning, it would become the basis of the company’s culture, its marketing, really its DNA. Although we don’t see it happening as frequently or as contemporaneously, the same is true of nations. And perhaps not surprisingly, no nation has done a better job of that mythology than the United States. From the ideas of manifest destiny to John Winthrop shining city on a hill, from freedom and equality to American exceptionalism, these stories are not only foundational for Americans, but they run in the American bloodstream. So what happens when it’s discovered that the myth and reality don’t match up, that the emperor has no clothes?|
|Jeff Schechtman:||To continue the analogy, in business we’ve seen the likes of what happens when people like Travis Kalanick and Adam Neumann are exposed. The wheels come off, the anger spreads, first internally, and then outside the company, and the enterprise usually collapses or dramatically morphs. Arguably that’s what we’ve been living through today with the exposure and crumbling of the American myth. It explains the populist anger that brought Trump to power as well as the anger that’s fueled Black Lives Matter. When the myth is stripped bare, the company or the nation must be reinvented or die.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||We’re going to talk about these ideas today with my guest, Jared Yates Sexton. He’s the author of several previous books, his political writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, Politico and Salon. He’s also the author of three collections of fiction and associate professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University. His latest work is American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People. It is my pleasure to welcome Jared Yates Sexton here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Jared, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Hey, thank you for having me.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s great to have you here. Is there this problem today that this American mythology is just so ingrained in the culture of the country that not unlike a company, it’s really impossible to change that culture even when the facts on the ground demand it?|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Yeah, I think this was one of the defining problems of the moment and I appreciated the way that you put that, the idea that this mythology is starting to come bare and I feel like a lot of us are starting to understand that maybe our conception of America wasn’t accurate or that maybe it was tainted by these mythologies or lies that we were told. And the problem is, and I think this is part of the mythology that you were talking about is it not only becomes ingrained in the way that we see the world, but it also becomes ingrained in the way that we see ourselves. And so what we’re having right now in America is a moment where I think most of us are starting to recognize that America was built on a grand inequalities, white supremacist and aristocratic concepts.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||While a lot of people are in angry denial about that fact and are so angry in that denial that they’re willing to go to war with other people in the country, which is unfortunately what you see in a lot of instances, both in America and around the world with previous civil wars. So we actually have a moment right now of reckoning. We either reconsider what America is or we have to live within that mythology and there are a lot of violent consequences to that.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||As in businesses, for example, or corporation, sometimes that mythology, that culture can’t change, and it really requires collapse and rebuilding in order to change that. Is that the precipice that we’re on now as you see it?|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Yeah, so the way that countries work and there is a track record of this throughout history is that countries that grow to a certain stature and size and influence in America, they’re built on an idea of exceptionalism. The idea that they have been chosen for some sort of grand crusade or grand purpose, particularly by whether it’s a Christian God or a divine power. And eventually when they reach this point of no return and the country starts to fail or decline or its influence starts to decline, it sort of has a moment of a precipice, right? And on one hand, it either reconsiders what it is and it changes the way that it interacts within itself and in the world and decides that maybe it will start to work in alliance with other countries, or maybe it will stop pursuing things like hegemony, or it can collapse into fascistic denial, which unfortunately fascism and its related ideologies of totalitarianism are based around trying to eat off of countries that are starting to decline and create this delusional fervor that things are totally fine, you’re subject of conspiracy theories and attacks from within and without.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||And so then you see countries that sort of explode in sort of an impotent rage. So we’re absolutely on the precipice of one or the other, but I still maintain hope that we can figure something out that will make a better, realer, more human future.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||In your view, have we ever come close to this precipice before? Have we ever been at an inflection point like the one that we’re at now?|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||There’ve been a couple of instances in America’s history where we have sort of teetered on the brink. Of course the civil war is the first one that comes to mind. And we don’t spend a lot of time really talking about the civil war in our education or in our histories because to examine it means we would have to look at the history of white supremacy and the fact that the Confederate States of America was a proto-fascist nightmare dystopia, but there’s also another moment as well, and it was after the bank collapse of the 1930s. And this is another thing, we obviously have this very nifty idea of how World War II happened and we obviously went and fought fascism. But the truth is that we were linked with fascism. We inspired Nazi Germany through our eugenics programs, through our immigration laws.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||We traded intellectuals back and forth. Americans went over to Germany and helped them to construct their Nazi apparatus. And in America, in the lead up to World War II before Pearl Harbor, fascism gained incredible traction in this country. And you had a lot of young men who weren’t able to find work, obviously in the Depression, who were becoming radicalized and were coming under the sway of demagogues, including Charles Lindbergh, who is still held as a major American hero, but was a front runner for the presidency. And in his speeches and in his writings, was trying to convince Americans to align with Adolf Hitler to protect white supremacy against the rising cord of people of color. So we’ve been on this precipice before. We’ve simply looked away from it and forgotten those lessons.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The other aspect of this is this failure to ever acknowledge mistakes, to really hold on to that mythology so tightly that there’s this fear that to admit mistakes will make the whole thing crumble.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Absolutely. And the entire project is incredibly fragile. And if you actually look at things like how white supremacy works and propagates, it’s actually very brittle. And the moment that mythology gets troubled, the people start to read between the lines. And this is one of the reasons why Donald Trump is talking about patriotic education. Making sure that our schools teach that the founding fathers were perfect in every way. They never made mistakes, white supremacy wasn’t part of our founding. And the reason is because the truth is very obvious. If you just look at the documents, you talk to experts, you read the books, it’s all right there, and it needs this veneer, it needs this illusion. But the problem is that that veneer and that illusion are very, very fragile. And the moment that you start peeking behind them, you start realizing there’s a lot of truth that has to be hidden in order for these people to continue to hold power.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Where else can we look in history, not of our history, but the history of other nations to see similar kinds of constructs?|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||One of the things unfortunately is that the major nations of the world have all sort of gone through these waxings and wanings. One thing that I think we need to think about is whether we want to move into the future the way that Britain did or the way, of course, that Germany did. And so with Britain, you see that their influence over the world and of course the British Empire was the most powerful empire in the world for many, many years. And when it started to decline in influence, it decided that it would take a step back. It would have a reconsideration of how it interacted with the world, it would start engaging in alliances and working with other countries. And of course, going back to the idea of Germany, after World War I, after losing that particular war, fascism started to fill the void there and in Italy and trying to say, ‘You know what? We are exceptional. The only reason we lost the war, the only reason why we’re struggling is because there are all of these conspiracies against us.’|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||And that leads to these giant conspiracy theories that legitimize things like genocide, it legitimizes eugenics and legitimizes preemptive violence and oppression. And so we have a decision to make, we need to take a look at how these other powers have handled their moments of decline and understand that we have a really big choice that we need to make and that choice is coming to very soon.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And we look at those other examples of those other countries that have faced similar crisis, what can we learn? What is applicable to where we are today and what our next steps might be?|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Well, one of the bigger problems, and unfortunately, I think that the pandemic and this current economic crisis and the spate of disasters that go unanswered, I think we’re understanding that right now we’re failing as a nation. And one of the reasons that we’re failing as a nation is because so much of American power and wealth has gone towards the national security state. It’s the idea that the entire world needs to operate based on American interests and the American vision for the future. And so we are in nearly every country around the world. If you actually go back and look at the so-called War on Terror, we were operating in 60 plus countries. We were engaged in unbelievable amounts of conflict. We had trillions of dollars being moved for that purpose.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||We need to understand that we don’t have to control what every country is doing. We don’t need these massive military projects. We need to take that money, that redistributed wealth and start putting it towards things like education and healthcare and infrastructure, human projects that will make our lives better as opposed to trying to protect the economic and political interest of the people who control our government. So we need to step back from that and start relying on the international community and start trusting that other people aren’t necessarily going to do evil just because they’re not doing what we want them to do.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||In your view, is that even possible? Is the culture of what we were talking about at the outset here just so ingrained that it can’t be changed?|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||I would say that it is possible. It’s incredibly difficult. And part of the reason it’s difficult is because a lot of these mythologies that we’re talking about, the history of that isn’t real is what’s taught in our schools. If you actually go into the curricula of a lot of these schools and particularly in red states and in the South, you see that history and the way that America works is taught in a very specific way to give people a reality in order for this to function. But I do think in recent years, and I think Black Lives Matter showed us this with the protest, is that American opinion and the reality we live in is very malleable. And when you start having conversations about inequality and the truth of history, that illusion starts to lift, and I do believe that more Americans than ever are ready to have these conversations, because I think they’re very frustrated with our politics and they’re very frustrated with the inequality. So I think there’s a possibility, but there is a lot of work to be done.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the other problems is really the institutional structure of our government. There’s a lot of talk and there has been during this presidency that the institutions are what was going to save us. The institutions needed to hold. In fact, in many cases, it’s those very institutions that are reinforcing the worst of this.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Absolutely. And if you actually go back through American history, what you find is that from the very founding, and this is unfortunately, it’s in the notes of James Madison who was the main architect of the Constitution. It’s all there in black and white if you read it, which is that the way that our country was structured was intentionally to protect the wealthy and powerful and white supremacist institutions while making sure that the common people were controlled. The founding fathers didn’t trust common people, people who weren’t wealthy and powerful. And so they created a system and a structure that intentionally disadvantaged them and kept them from getting anywhere near the levers of power. So what we’re actually watching right now is a lot of our government is working the way it is supposed to work and we have a president who unfortunately has nowhere near the patriotism or duty that I think the founding fathers expected a man of wealth and power to have. So they’ve been corroded and perverted, and they’ve been used as a means of protecting this self-interested, self-dealing government.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And does it require more anger, more violence, in order to make these changes, do you think? Does that what history tells us?|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||History tells us it’s going to take anger. The violence is a different thing altogether. And what American history actually shows us is that moments of change are predicated on violence. Violence actually creates the firewall against change. And what you actually see is that when the power structure is challenged, it replies with violence. So what we’ve actually seen is that there are these pendulum moments in American history, where there are moments where Americans feel like they have no power, they have no agency. The government is bought and sold by the wealthy and corporations. And then they remember that they have agency and that through solidarity and organization, mass protest, labor unions, civic community groups, that they start realizing that when they are involved in politics, things can change in a massive way. So the question now is whether or not Americans will remember that they have power and agency, or will continue to treat politics like a spectacle, something that we watch on television.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||There is also the overlay of information to all of this, that this is all happening in a world that is always on 24/7 with…we’ve all had the conversations about social media, the impact of that, et cetera, but those kind of divisions, this kind of anger, this stuff that we’ve been talking about overlaid with the information environment we have today, takes all the problems we’ve been talking about and puts them on steroids.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Absolutely it does. And it also has a problematic effect of making it to where we can’t necessarily focus on anything for very long, because the next piece of information comes out. And if you actually go back, and I wrote about this in American Rule, if you go back and look at the history of technology and particularly the invention of the internet, a lot of people thought that the internet was going to be a technological utopia that would lead to more organization, more free speech, and would radically change the world. The problem is that the internet was corrupted by capitalistic interest. And they figured out that they could make more money by making people addicted to it, overwhelmed by it and by throwing all this misinformation around and not really caring about democracy. And in effect it has broken our political system and all the broken realities.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||So, one of the things that we have to do is remember, again, the initial promise of the internet, that utopic vision, the idea it might make society better. And whether it’s through regulation or major sea change, we need to get back to the point where it’s a force for good and information and democracy, as opposed to something that destroys democracy.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Of course it’s easy to say, how that happens is a whole other issue, obviously.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Oh, for sure. But again, history gives us a guide. This moment that we’re in right now, really in an unsettling way, is very reminiscent of what happened at the turn of the 20th century, with the robber barons in the Gilded Age, where you had all of these technological companies. And at that time, it was about telegraphs and railroads and oil. And all of these companies started to gain such control and such power that they actually took over our politics, they took over our daily lives. They made sure of course, that children were working in factories, that people never got any relief from their jobs. They were paid practically nothing and a vast system of inequality grew. But again, we look back at that time period and all of a sudden Americans grew tired of it. And they got together, they organized, they acted through solidarity and they made America change. They made the way that our businesses work and those corporations’ function completely change.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||And so if we realize that we can affect these things, I think that we could be looking at a future where big tech, massive international corporations could be brought to act within people’s best interests, but it’s going to take again, just a ton of organization and a ton of work.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk about it from the point of view of both generational change and demographic change.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||For sure. And this is one of those things in America, and you go back throughout history and you actually see that we’ve continually had these generational moments where one generation pushes against another. And of course, the demographics have changed. Right now, we’re talking about people of color becoming an ascending demographic group, right? We’re talking about the end of a white majority, which is one of the reasons why we’re in such a moment of tumult and why there is rising fascism in this country. But if you actually go back to past immigration moments and demographic changes, you see that there have always been these perils, right? For a while, it was Italian immigrants, it was Irish immigrants. And then eventually what ended up happening after moments of terrible upheaval and violence and immigration acts that were xenophobic and racist in nature, you ended up seeing that eventually the idea of what a white person, it ended up growing and encompassing the Irish and the Italian, and they were brought in to the majority.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||So right now, this is one of those moments of tumult. We don’t exactly know where we’re going or what we’re becoming, but we’ve always had these moments accompanied with these fascistic movements. And so now we have to have a question, which is, do we assimilate? Do we become the so-called mythical melting pot? Do we allow pluralism to take hold and make this country better? Or do we embrace those fascistic elements that have always sort of been at the fringe of society?|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Of course all of this is happening to us not in a vacuum. There’s a lot of global change going on as well that clearly has an impact on what happens here.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Absolutely. And this is a really upsetting and disturbing trend, but the white supremacist, white terrorism problem that we have in America right now, and I would argue rising fascism in America is mirrored in other countries, particularly in Western countries. You have a lot of this in Greece, a lot of this in Britain and this has actually taken hold and taken power in Russia. What you actually see is you see a lot of white organizations, white terrorist organizations and nostalgic organizations. Vladimir Putin has promised to bring back the glories of the Soviet Union. And in many ways what’s playing out in America right now has been playing out in countries all around the world. We have more dictators right now than we’ve had since the 20th century.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||And if you actually look at this thing, a lot of them are in communication with each other. A lot of them share information, radicalization tips. We’ve actually seen here in America, we have terrorist organizations that have been learning from things like ISIS and Al-Qaeda on how to radicalize. And so we’re at this moment of change. The question is what that change will be, and whether those people will determine the change, or if the people will determine the change.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And of course, fear is such a driving force because the one thing human beings don’t do well is really big change.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Oh, absolutely. It’s a terrifying thing. I was actually talking with Mary Trump. I was interviewing her the other day on my podcast, and we were having a conversation about what the future holds and right now particularly it’s really hard to imagine whether or not Donald Trump accepts the loss, if he leaves. It’s kind of hard to envision the future. But the problem is that we have to start thinking about the future. We have to start thinking about large system change, because other people are fighting for that change. And the visions for the future that we have right now are either fascistic, which are about rewinding the clock and taking back individual rights, or of course you have big tech where a lot of the people who are now worth billions upon billions of dollars want to get away from the laws and not have oversight whatsoever, we have some people who want to go to Mars where they’re not going to have any laws that are overseeing them, but we have to come up with a better vision.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||That’s the sad truth about this is as long as we’re facing this and we’re afraid of it and we’re afraid of coming up with an idea of what the future will look like, we’re allowing malevolent self-dealing actors to make up that future.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things that’s come of all this though, and we’re seeing this play out electorally right now, is the sense of people being exhausted, that replacing one set of gigantic problems with another is not necessarily what people seem to want, they want to rest or some kind of interregnum in-between.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Oh, I know I’m exhausted. I’ve been aging in dog years since Trump took over as president. And the thing about it is politics right now are exhausting. And they’re exhausting for a purpose. You make a lot of money off of anxiety. I’m talking about the media, I’m talking about politicians. They fundraise, they have incredible ratings, retweets, clicks, likes, eyes, all of that. The system that we have right now is based off of a dysfunctional life. It’s based off of constantly being terrified and being petrified of what the future might have. And therefore you’re addicted to the news, you’re addicted to the TV, your phone, all of that stuff, and nothing, by the way, embodies that more than Donald Trump.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||I think we need to get back to the point where politics is something that we play a part in. We’re going to our city council meetings, we’re running for state Senate, where normal people are doing those things and engaging in it as part of their civic duty. But right now it’s treated as spectacle. And because it’s spectacle, it’s a television show. It’s something to watch. It’s something to react to, but we need to get back to the point where it’s actually about representation versus entertainment or terror.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Jared Yates Sexton. Jared, I thank you so much for spending time with us.|
|Jared Yates Sexton:||Hey, thank you.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from The White House / Flickr.
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