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Sunday, 28 February 2021

‘A product more than a cause’

Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at Pennsylvania University in the US, talks about changes in America’s self-understanding and the importance of American history in an interview with Manal Lofty in Washington

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 27 Oct 2020
‘A product more than a cause’
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Anger is a powerful emotion in politics, and amidst almost unprecedented anger, American voters are going to vote for a new president of their country on 3 November.

At his recent election rallies, US President Donald Trump has spoken frequently of anger, something which led him to a surprise victory in the presidential elections in 2016. At the time, some psychologists commented that “Trump understands anger better than any other politician, and that will make voters feel good.” In 2020, America is as angry as ever.

For Jonathan Zimmerman, a prominent professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, America today is facing political polarisation overlapping with ethnic tensions and class divisions.

Zimmerman, author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools among other books, is driven by the fundamental question of how Americans can debate things better. For him, education is the starting point.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Zimmerman warned that in the last few decades there has been an increase in “isolation” and “entrenchment” in every camp. In his opinion, this could be a major threat to American democracy.

 

America looks angry. Why?

Yes, America is angry, and it is angry because we are so polarised and because this election has underscored fundamental differences between us. And I think what is really different about this election is that on both sides there is a feeling that the victory of the other side would have existential consequences for the country. So, it is not just that you do not want the other side to win because you do not like their tax policy or their policy on healthcare; it is more fundamental than that. In these elections, you do not want the other side to win because you believe that that will lead to the destruction of the Republic. When you have a situation like that, people are going to be angry. And yes, they are angry because they are afraid of the other team. It is not just that they disagree with the other team.

 

Is this anger a result of US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, or is it the legacy of the past, ie class divisions and racial tensions?

It is all of these things. You can say that Trump himself is a product more than a cause. But at the same time, there is no question that he has accelerated these divisions. So, you cannot blame it all on him, but he has also accelerated the anger.

 

Are the current tensions between black Americans and white Americans related to how history is taught in schools?

The reckoning we are having right now is about race, that is really what it is. It was a long time coming, and as a historian, I think it is great! And let me clarify what I mean. I do not think it is great that there is so much racism in America. But I do think it is great that we are actually debating issues like why we fought a Civil War, and how we should commemorate that war, and what we should tell our schoolchildren about Christopher Columbus.

I think these are complicated questions. But I think that for most of our history we have swept them under the carpet. And I think, ironically, that because of the rise of Trump, these questions have been exposed. And the irony of course is that Trump certainly did not set out to do that. And Trump has made it very clear that he does not want these questions addressed in schools. But he is not going to have a choice. And it is in many ways because of his bellicose and racist rhetoric that we cannot avoid these questions anymore. So, I think in the long term, that is going to be a very good outcome. Let us just say a silver lining to some awful events.

 

Is real American history taught to the American people in schools?

I think the best way to summarise this, and it is a very complicated question that I could talk to you for three hours about, would go like this: before the 1960s, the question you describe was entirely ignored in our classrooms.

So, slavery, for example, was not even addressed. Believe it or not, in my early childhood it was still being described as a beneficent institution that white people developed to civilise savage Africans. Now, no textbook says that anymore. And the reason is the 1960s protests and the civil rights movement. We came to de-segregate the schools, and also de-segregate the curriculum. And so, more and more voices that had not been on the curriculum were added. So now American history is not all about white men, which is what it was. Now it is about everybody, and that is why the textbook is about 800 pages long and the kids get back problems carrying the textbook around because the textbooks now talk about Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

But here is the problem: when we added these groups, which by the way was a very important reform, we didn’t actually use this moment to ask the hard questions about what the inclusion of those groups should do to the bigger story of America or the bigger narrative. So, the textbook became 800 pages, but the title was still the same “quest for liberty. Rise of the American nation.” And I think what is happening now is that for the first time really as a country we are asking ourselves the questions about the inclusion of other groups and ties to the bigger story. So, we have included these groups in the same story. But now we need to ask about the story itself.

 

Considering your diagnosis of the current racial tensions, are we any closer to some sort of normality?

I hope the answer is yes. But one of the very troubling things is that president Trump himself has refused to distance himself from extreme right-wing groups like the “Proud Boys” or other white nationalist organisations. But what is important is that there are a lot of Republicans in the Senate who have said that groups like the “Proud Boys” and the “QAnon” conspiracy theory group are unacceptable.

 

US democracy is not perfect: for the Senate elections, for example, the constitution gives California, a state with 40 million people, the same two seats as Wyoming or Vermont, which have about half a million.

I think that just like history has come under scrutiny, the way we elect a president is also coming under scrutiny. Trump and former president George Bush Jr in his first election were both elected with minority support. And that is a big problem. But I also think that it is good that there be more discussion about it. Because I think that is the first step to try to solve the problem.  

 

Do you think the American Constitution could be revised?

I think we are getting closer to it – there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the way we conduct our government, and it may require some changes in the constitution. Let us remember the constitution is not a piece of Scripture, and it has been changed many times, almost 27 times in fact.  

After the Civil War we had to change it to abolish slavery; then we changed it to guarantee equal rights for all citizens, and we changed it to guarantee the right to vote. Now, that does not mean that we have always held true to those amendments. But they are important. You know, the whole basis of racial equality in this country comes from the amendments we added to the constitution after the Civil War. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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