Enter Lepore. The Whites of their Eyes is, as much of anything, a meditation of the uses of history and an objection to the uses to which the Tea Party movement has put the American past. Lepore objects to their "antihistory" that conflates the past with the present and ultimately leads to "historical fundamentalism." This, I think, is the ultimate source of conflict between Lepore and Wood. Lepore spends most of the book offering various stories of the late eighteenth century that undermine a triumphant view of the period--the ways in which slaves, women, the insane, and the poor struggled in a frankly illiberal era--in order to show the strangeness of the past and the limitations that that strangeness imposes when trying to put the past to work in a nationalist celebration or a political movement. But Wood is, in fact, engaged in the nationalist celebration as a central component of his intellectual project. He believes that the United States is in some sense unique in providing a model of liberty for the world, and he looks to the founding moment, much as the Tea Partiers do, in a way that Smith calls "transhistorical."
His review bears out this tension. Wood begins by claiming that "Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures [such as Washington or Jefferson] in the here and now." But instead of taking this need seriously, Wood complains that Lepore, "an expert at mocking," does what academic historians do by "making fun of the Tea party." In her criticism of the movement's historical malapropisms and strained political gestures, Wood suggests that the book's implicit question is: "Don't these people realize just how silly they are?" This academic elitism further suggests to Wood a misunderstanding of history for "ordinary Americans" that someone like Lepore just can't seem to get.
This is where his review gets really weird. He never quite admits that the Tea Party's history is bad, or that their stance toward it is wrong-headed. Instead, Wood shifts into a discussion of memory, as opposed to history, and the emotional requirement of memory for, again, "ordinary Americans." As opposed to critical history, Wood asserts that ordinary Americans need a variety of mythical interpretations by which "humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny." At one point Wood suggests that "Lepore is correct in believing that historians have a professional obligation to dispel myths and legends," but then he spends the next eight paragraphs trying to show the emotional thinness of critical history, which seems to suggest that professional obligations run contrary to human need--a somewhat bizarre stance for an intellectual and an educator. Since I've just published a book that seeks to dispel a myth (The Myth of Religious Freedom) I read this section of the review with great interest, but the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. It seems to be nothing so much as an intellectual defense of anti-intellectualism. He seems, against all protestations to the contrary, to be faulting the historian Jill Lepore for being (wait for it) . . . a historian!
Text emphasis my doing…