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Eric Foner | The Nation

Eric Foner

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Eric Foner

Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton), was awarded the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Lincoln prizes.

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SHIITES, SUNNIS & IVINS

Washington, DC

Few traditions are more American than freedom of speech and the right to
dissent.

Editor's Note: One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.

All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People
instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events
draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The
second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women's
history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history
of US conservatism.

Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about
history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder
this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of
polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of
recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne
Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the
world amounted to blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for
the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach
the "truth" that civilization itself "is best exemplified in the West
and indeed in America."

In What's So Great About America, Dinesh D'Souza contends that
freedom and religious toleration are uniquely "Western" beliefs. The
publisher's ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views
as "people who provide a rationale for terrorism." With funding from
conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such
commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.

Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be
one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The
self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not
enable students to make sense of either their own society or our
increasingly interconnected world.

Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own
experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the
forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their
implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of
patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden
awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
motives.

The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War
witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the
American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust
causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of
these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national
community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an
"invention," rather than a habit of the heart.

Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American
past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race,
ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of
American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut
across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common
purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after
September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote
new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences
Americans share as well as those that divide them.

All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive
drawing of boundaries between "loyal" Americans and those stigmatized as
aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and
disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September
11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury,
the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless
of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.

Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of
crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American
internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past
episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another
such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.

We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties
not as a timeless feature of our "civilization" but as a recent and
fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle.
We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases--Fong Yue
Ting
(1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century,
Korematsu during World War II--in which the Justices allowed the
government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in
suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of
military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized
the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David
Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a
people many Americans found "obnoxious." But, he warned, "who shall say
it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other
people?"

September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more
closely the history of the country's relationship with the larger world.
Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of
other peoples' grievances against the United States. A study of our
history in its international context might help to explain why there is
widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is
motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly
unequal world.

Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the
American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a
"nation of chauvinists"--a danger worth remembering when considering the
drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from
its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit
as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful
not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.

September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced
by Samuel Huntington's mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington's paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single
characteristic--race, religion or geography--that remains forever
static, divorced from historical development or change through
interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss
divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West
is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently
such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates
over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that
commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of "Western
civilization" is highly selective--it includes the Enlightenment but not
the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but
not the Salem witch trials.

Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless
characteristics or innate pathologies of "Islamic civilization." From
the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time,
our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism
springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one
or another civilization.

The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce
or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more
imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own
society's strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in
self-celebration--a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent
dialogue with ourselves.

The drumbeat now begins, as it always does in time of war: We must accept limitations on our liberties. The FBI and CIA should be "unleashed" in the name of national security. Patriotism means uncritical support of whatever actions the President deems appropriate. Arab-Americans, followers of Islam, people with Middle Eastern names or ancestors, should be subject to special scrutiny by the government and their fellow citizens. With liberal members of Congress silent and the Administration promising a war on terrorism lasting "years, not days," such sentiments are likely to be with us for some time to come.

Of the many lessons of American history, this is among the most basic. Our civil rights and civil liberties--freedom of expression, the right to criticize the government, equality before the law, restraints on the exercise of police powers--are not gifts from the state that can be rescinded when it desires. They are the inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face of mob violence; by labor leaders for the power to organize unions, picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists for the right to disseminate birth-control information without being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial inequality.

The history of freedom in this country is not, as is often thought, the logical working out of ideas immanent in our founding documents or a straight-line trajectory of continual progress. It is a story of countless disagreements and battles in which victories sometimes prove temporary and retrogression often follows progress.

When critics of the original Constitution complained about the absence of a Bill of Rights, the Constitution's "father," James Madison, replied that no list of liberties could ever anticipate the ways government might act in the future. "Parchment barriers" to the abuse of authority, he wrote, would be least effective when most needed. Thankfully, the Bill of Rights was eventually adopted. But Madison's observation was amply borne out at moments of popular hysteria when freedom of expression was trampled in the name of patriotism and national unity.

Americans have notoriously short historical memories. But it is worth recalling some of those moments to understand how liberty has been endangered in the past. During the "quasi war" with France in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts allowed deportation of immigrants deemed dangerous by federal authorities and made it illegal to criticize the federal government. During the Civil War, both sides jailed critics and suppressed opposition newspapers.

In World War I German-Americans, socialists, labor leaders and critics of US involvement were subjected to severe government repression and assault by private vigilante groups. Publications critical of the war were banned from the mails, individuals were jailed for antiwar statements and in the Red Scare that followed the war thousands of radicals were arrested and numerous aliens deported. During World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them US citizens, were removed to internment camps. Sanctioned by the Supreme Court, this was the greatest violation of Americans' civil liberties, apart from slavery, in our history.

No one objects to more stringent security at airports. But current restrictions on the FBI and CIA limiting surveillance, wiretapping, infiltration of political groups at home and assassinations abroad do not arise from an irrational desire for liberty at the expense of security. They are the response to real abuses of authority, which should not be forgotten in the zeal to sweep them aside as "handcuffs" on law enforcement.

Before unleashing these agencies, let us recall the FBI's persistent harassment of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and its efforts to disrupt the civil rights and antiwar movements, and the CIA's history of cooperation with some of the world's most egregious violators of human rights. The principle that no group of Americans should be stigmatized as disloyal or criminal because of race or national origin is too recent and too fragile an achievement to be abandoned now.

Every war in American history, from the Revolution to the Gulf War, with the exception of World War II, inspired vigorous internal dissent. Self-imposed silence is as debilitating to a democracy as censorship. If questioning an ill-defined, open-ended "war on terrorism" is to be deemed unpatriotic, the same label will have to be applied to Abraham Lincoln at the time of the Mexican War, Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs during World War I, and Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, who had the courage and foresight to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.

All of us today share a feeling of grief and outrage over the events of September 11 and a desire that those responsible for mass murder be brought to justice. But at times of crisis the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for all Americans.

For ten days in mid-May, I lectured in Italy promoting the translated version of my recent book, The Story of American Freedom. Among other things, the book relates how in the past generation US conservatives have "captured" the idea of freedom, identifying it ever more closely with low taxes, limited government and the ability to choose among a cornucopia of goods in an unregulated global marketplace. Little did I anticipate that on the day I arrived, Silvio Berlusconi's coalition of right-wing parties, calling itself La Casa delle Libert (the House of Freedoms), would triumph in Italy's national elections.

Berlusconi's victory was good for me in that it inspired a flurry of interest in the history of the idea of freedom and larger-than-expected audiences for my talks. But it is very bad for Italy. Berlusconi is one of Europe's richest men, with a history of corruption, conflicts of interest and alliance with some of the most retrograde elements in Italian life. For the first time since World War II the country's governing coalition will include parties that consider themselves the heirs of Fascism. But to Americans, what may be most striking is how his campaign's program, tactics and imagery were consciously borrowed from this side of the Atlantic.

Like Ronald Reagan, Berlusconi described himself as a "great communicator" and promised to "revolutionize" Italy by liberating the power of free enterprise. Like Newt Gingrich, he announced with much fanfare a Contract With Italians, which boiled down his campaign to a few simple points, including tax cuts, privatizing state enterprises and law and order (a thinly veiled appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment). And like George W. Bush, he portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative. Berlusconi's contract, unlike Gingrich's, promised to raise state pensions and combat unemployment through highway construction and other public works.

Berlusconi "Americanized" Italian politics in other ways as well. He poured his personal fortune into the campaign, outspending the incumbent center-left Olive Tree coalition ten to one. He mailed a brief autobiography to every family in Italy (some 12 million copies in all). Titled An Italian Story, it was a quintessentially American rags-to-riches tale. Every Italian, he insisted, could follow in his footsteps; his wealth should be an inspiration to others, not a source of concern. But more than specific programs and electoral tactics, Berlusconi brought to Italy the moral-political outlook of American populist conservatism, something quite different from the traditional European right oriented toward state, church and social hierarchy. Like Reagan, Berlusconi rooted his appeal in broadly shared images and values derived from the mass media and consumer capitalism.

It is significant that Berlusconi's wealth rests in large part on ownership of television networks, shopping malls and a major soccer team. For his is a politics that identifies freedom with the private realm of personal wish fulfillment without any sense of public participation or collective empowerment. Far better than his opponents, Berlusconi understands the political dynamics of a society knit together not by traditional organizations like unions and churches rooted in local communities but the dream world of mass culture and mass consumption.

If the Italian right has emulated America, the left in this country might well learn from the problems of its Italian counterpart. Since the end of the cold war, the European left has been almost obsessively concerned to demonstrate its legitimacy and respectability. It has become suspicious of idealism of any kind, considering it naïve, old-fashioned and politically dangerous. In response to Berlusconi's utopia of private freedom, the Olive Tree coalition offered little more than an image of competent, corruption-free administration. The left's aura of managerial competence appealed to middle-class voters in Italy's prosperous northwest, and the Olive Tree did well in the old (and aging) communist strongholds of central Italy. But Berlusconi swept the less economically developed south and did especially well among young voters, who found his vision of a new, privatized Italy more appealing than the left's promise of good government. Young Berlusconi supporters interviewed by the newspaper La Repubblica described the left as old, even "geriatric," and Berlusconi as young and dynamic. "He's one of us," declared an unemployed youth, of Italy's richest man.

As in the United States, the defeated coalition has directed much recrimination toward a small group of independent voters, in this case the Refounded Communists, which remained outside the Olive Tree umbrella and whose 5 percent of the vote exceeded Berlusconi's margin of victory. But in both countries, it is far easier to blame a tiny cadre of voters for the defeat than to look candidly at the weaknesses of campaigns characterized by an absence of courage, vision and idealism or to think creatively about how to regain the political initiative. A good place to start would be to try to recapture the language of freedom--linking it, as it has been in the past, with ideals of participatory democracy, social justice and the willingness to combat the depredations of the unregulated capitalist market. The idea of freedom is too important to be surrendered to the Berlusconis of the world.

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