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Changing the Metaphor | The Nation

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Changing the Metaphor

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But even as Progressives abandoned utopian visions and millennial dreams at home, Lears argues, they sought them abroad. Their longing for new markets and their conviction that such markets would ensure continued progress and regeneration "defined consumer demand as the engine of human improvement." For Lears, the Spanish-American War was a tool to heal social divisions and a drug to purge the nation of the weakening consequences of commerce. The war was "wholesome," and enthusiasts like Roosevelt equated it with not only physical toughening but "psychological healing" of "fragmented selves." If this sounds familiar, it's because the Bush administration and its supporters used similar language in the wake of 9/11. Both periods teemed with God talk, divine mandates and "the triumphalist inanities of empire." And many Americans accepted the inanities, Lears argues, because they depended on empire "for their prosperity, for their racial, social, and even moral identity as a people, and for the power that undergirded their dreams of personal and national regeneration." The parade of history has swung so that George Bush and Theodore Roosevelt seem to be marching shoulder to shoulder. "TR," Lears insists, "was Bush's ideological ancestor."

About the Author

Richard White
Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is the author, most recently,...

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But as the argument proceeds, Theodore Roosevelt disrupts it. The problem is a simple one. Lears is perfectly right to say that the chief purveyor of militarist and imperial inanities at the turn of the twentieth century was Theodore Roosevelt. The problem is that while Bush actually did lead us into disastrous wars, during his two terms as president Roosevelt did not. (He was assistant secretary of the Navy during the Spanish-American War.) But Woodrow Wilson did, and although Lears is hardly interested in sparing Wilson, he sympathizes with him in a way he does not with Roosevelt. Sometimes the lash best suited for Wilson--who was rigid, moralistic, racist, repressive, hypocritical--lands instead on Roosevelt merely for the sake of historical symmetry.

Lears tries to redeem Wilson even while acknowledging his faults, because he sees him as a tragic figure in ways Roosevelt was not. The recognition of tragedy--or at least its possibility--is the moral lodestone of Lears's narrative. Any book that begins with Abraham Lincoln has set the bar impossibly high for evaluating how leaders of the Republic should think and behave. Wilson was a soft imperialist who, Lears writes, "preached a gospel of cultural uplift through consumption." And even though Wilson's "moralism always seemed to bring militarism in its wake," at least--or so Lears sometimes seems to argue--Wilson "was not a mystic militarist like Roosevelt." Lears lends credence to Wilson's anticolonial impulses rather than his acts of colonialism (such as occupying Haiti in 1915 and invading Mexico), and to his highflying rhetoric of peace without victory despite his acquiescence to French and British demands for harsh reparations from Germany. Lears is willing to moderate his distaste for Wilson's having led the United States into World War I because he did so full of foreboding. And even though until the end Wilson remained a purveyor of regeneration, he ended up a tragic figure. Lears cites his last speech at Pueblo, Colorado, in September 1919, as evidence of the deep religious longings that lay behind his dream of war: "There is one thing that the American people always rise to and extend their hand to," Wilson exclaimed, "and that is the truth of justice and of liberty and of peace. We have accepted that truth, and we are going to be led by it, and it is going to lead us, and through us the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world never dreamed of before." A few weeks later Wilson suffered a cerebral thrombosis. He "shuffled off the stage a ruined man. The age of regeneration was over."

For Lears, as for Randolph Bourne, "the Western Front was the graveyard of the politics of regeneration." But if that politics died in World War I, it has risen like a zombie. With the Reagan administration, militarist posturing returned. And after 9/11 it was not just neoconservatives but also Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens and other liberal hawks who brandished like a cutlass the old Progressive preaching of "national renewal through righteous war." The casualties of millennialism and regeneration prompt Lears to champion a "politics of restraint," which recognizes the pluralism of both American society and the world, and which is alert to the dangers of any politics based in the search for purity and perfection. But such a politics is hard to sustain, and political evaluation by historical analogy is always tricky terrain. I would prefer that George Bush be Woodrow Wilson rather than Theodore Roosevelt, if only because if Bush is Roosevelt, then Obama might be Wilson, which makes me fear for my country.

But good historians, at least on their best days, do not want to be agreed with; they want to change the terms of the argument. Jackson Lears has written a wonderful history that has done just that. The longevity of Rebirth of a Nation might not rival that of The Search for Order, but then few histories have or will. Lears has written a book to be reckoned with. Wherever the history of this period goes from here, it will have to go through Jackson Lears.

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