Whigging Out: How I Kept Getting an Important Thing Wrong
So when did all the hating start? Farther back than I used to realize. Way back. In fact, the hatred of American on American is older than the country. Here’s an example: I never gave much thought to the Loyalists who stuck with Great Britain in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, then through the fighting, all the way to 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia. The war ended. Hostilities did not.
The Patriots were reviled by the Loyalists. The Loyalists were reviled by the Patriots. The Patriots talked about rights and independence, and freedom. The Loyalists talked about duty and honor and, well, loyalty. Specifically, they expressed their fidelity to the divinely sanctioned Crown in the person of George III.
Of course, until the war ended, nobody knew for sure which side would prevail. That meant years of volatile uncertainty in which bitter political hatreds blew up and intensified on both sides. One of the more dramatic antagonisms involved the legendary Patriot Benjamin Franklin. His son William turned out to be a thoroughgoing Loyalist. In fact, King George made William governor of New Jersey. Our tendency today would be to focus on the father-son psychodrama, and certainly, there is plenty of raw material to construct a case study. In earlier, happier times, father and son had been devoted to one another. But our infatuation with the domestic involves a kind of presentism that may lead us to give short shrift to the purely political disagreement between the two men. Years later, Benjamin and William effected a formal reconciliation, but the wounds went deep. They were never close again. Neither could entirely forgive the other his political transgressions.
So, start reading, and you will be unable to escape the conclusion that the hatred to which we are now so exquisitely susceptible goes farther back than the nation itself. Its persistence through decades and now centuries belies a sunny view of American history to which I unconsciously subscribed for many years. The academic term for my misapprehension is ‘Whig history.’ In both its original British political meaning and subsequent metaphorical extensions, Whig history assumes a triumphant forward march of people through history out of darkness and oppression into a liberating light. The march is inexorable. Progress is sometimes slowed by reaction and resistance, but it is ultimately inevitable. Like today? Tomorrow will be even better. The term is most often used pejoratively. It might well have been leveled as a criticism at, for example, Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which assumed just such a promising forward march toward a disconcertingly homogenous future in which the influence of ideology waned.
The question of how to read our history had more than an intellectual importance to me. I worked for eighteen years in the U.S. foreign service, doing what was known as public diplomacy. It was a Cold War phenomenon, one of whose contested battle spaces was the realm of ideas and, by extension, ideologies. The globe was divided raggedly but rigidly into communist and capitalist countries, with the nations of the non-aligned movement asserting their right to be different in what was consequently dubbed the ‘Third World.’
Central to the work of public diplomacy was outreach to and engagement with foreign publics. Under U.S. embassy auspices, dance troupes toured, musicians played concerts on foreign stages, scholars lectured in universities, and judges talked about the rule of law to their counterparts in host country judiciaries. Foreign students, teachers, and some members of the general public visited libraries affiliated with the U.S. mission in their country. Cultural centers, often known as binational centers, became venues for all sorts of engagement. (I once witnessed, in Bolivia, two long-time political enemies make public peace in a binational center. One, a general and former president, had pursued and persecuted the other, a leftist politician and future president. If the general had caught the politician at any time during their years of hostility, he might well have killed him. All the papers carried their handshake moment in the binational center, where they were attending an embassy-sponsored event.)
The work of public diplomacy was built on a foundation of beliefs, assumptions, and expectations. It did not include an uncritical embrace of capitalism as a totalizing ideology. (I only met one fire-breathing zealot in the cause of capital. He joined the service when I did, and time and experience tempered his initial pugnacity.) Rather, the consensus among public diplomacy professionals reflected a view that flowed into the mainstream of American political thought. We were powered by a conviction of the rightness, and the global relevance, of these things: representative government, free and fair elections, transparency in the economy, freedom of thought, religion, and expression, and the primacy of the rule of law.
We advocated these positions with the help of the U.S. specialists we invited to come abroad, along with books and magazines aimed at foreign readers and in thousands of conversations with journalists and think-tankers, sociologists and businesspeople, and activists of every description. The cultural presentations we hosted aimed to showcase a diverse country using its creative freedom to build a better polity. One small example: the U.S. Information Agency, charged with conducting public diplomacy, sent the noted Piedmont bluesman John Jackson, who made his living as a gravedigger, on tour.
It seems to me now that, as an active duty member of the foreign service conducting public diplomacy programs, I was engaged in promoting, if unwittingly, a kind of Whig history tailored to the American experience. Arbitrarily, I can assign dates to the period of my persistent misapprehension.
Insert the opening bracket here: on September 2, 1945, President Truman announced the surrender of the Japanese to U.S. forces, bringing the Second World War to an end. (My father, aboard the USS Hancock, a Navy destroyer then in China, turned 21 that same day. What a fool I am not to have asked him what he felt, what he thought when he heard the announcement.) The Nazis had already capitulated. V-J Day signified U.S. global ascendancy. Now insert the closing bracket: on January 6, 2021, a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., intent on disrupting the process of certifying Joe Biden as the duly elected 46th President. From the evidence roiling in plain sight, it looked as though the U.S. was no longer ascendant.
When thinking about American events that transpired between those brackets, I consistently got important things wrong. Start at the end, with the January 6 insurrection. During those frenzied hours of violence and vitriol, I received a frantic email from a Paraguayan friend. He was alarmed at what he thought must be a coup taking place in the capital city of democracy’s cradle. José Luis knew about coups. He had lived through a couple of them, including an attempted golpe de Estado by a Paraguayan general that brought him out into the streets armed, absurdly, with a pistol. As though a .22 caliber bullet could pierce the hide of a tank. The restive general, Lino Oviedo, had holed up in his headquarters on the edge of Asunción, threatening to roll the army’s tanks against Mburuvicha Róga, the official residence of the Paraguayan president. This was in 1996, and I was working in the U.S. embassy in the capital. I saw my friend that night. He was beside himself with anger, dismay, foreboding. His sense of history sat like a stone in the pit of his stomach. He had seen the golpe coming and was ready to make good on his legendary bluster, ready to make the ultimate stand.
This is no coup, I wrote back to José Luis on the afternoon of January 6, 2021. My tone was meant to be reassuring. Only later did I hear the complacency echo in the words. It’s just a bunch of misguided jerks. Wrong. Although we do not yet know the full extent of the planning and orchestration that went into the insurrection, we do know a considerable amount about the militias and other right-wing groups that played a part, about the coordinating role played by bad actors in the Trump orbit, and about the then-president’s actions and inactions that bore on what went down.
So. I was wrong. Again.
What follows is a thumbnail summary of the Whiggish gloss I put on events from the end of World War Two up through the Trump-inspired insurrection: America was far from a sinless power. Think about Vietnam in the 1960s, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, Iraq in…. Nevertheless, after World War Two, not only did we work to rebuild our enemies’ economies, we encouraged the rethinking and rebuilding of their societies as well. We established a global trading system. We bolstered the United Nations as a legitimate forum for dispute resolution despite nativist suspicions against internationalist activism, a.k.a. FOBH (fear of black helicopters). We negotiated with the Soviet Union and ultimately prevailed in the Cold War, although opinions continue to vary on why and who gets the credit, if credit enters into the historical record.
None of those assertions is false. But the picture they present has holes in it. The holes change the picture’s shape in a fundamental way. Go back to where we began, with the Loyalists and the Patriots. Some Loyalists uprooted their families and moved to Canada, which had not rebelled against British rule. Others stayed. Like their former enemies, they became fledgling citizens in a fledgling nation. They were probably circumspect in their public utterances, but quite likely, their views, like those of William Franklin, remained what they had been through the war.
So the hatreds went on. A case could be made that they intensified as things shook out in the young, rapidly developing country. George Washington saw it coming. He worried about what he called ‘factions,’ by which he meant political parties, and the likelihood of their playing a destructive role in politics. Luckily for him, he served as president before the hatreds congealed completely into opposing parties. As the hero of the war and a man generally conceded to be the greatest American of his age–nobody was really in second place–he was able to keep the worst of the hate at bay. His prestige was infrequently challenged. But his successors in the presidency, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were not so lucky. The Federalists under Adams and the Republicans under Jefferson disliked each other, played dirty political tricks on each other, regularly and systematically accused each other of selling out or destroying the new country. Vituperation in conversation, letters, and newspapers was a developed art form among the partisans of both sides.
In their older age, Adams and Jefferson became pen pals, writing frequent letters back and forth from Monticello and Quincy. They came to see each other’s virtues, whereas before, they only had eyes (and tongue) for their vices. The rapprochement was personal. It was in part a function of their increasing age, as well as their shared revolutionary past. And it was limited to the two Founding Fathers themselves. Members of the parties that crystallized under their leadership continued to mistrust, curse, and even despise their adversaries. The way they saw it, nothing less was at stake than the very existence of America.
That mutual antipathy continued through the first half of the nineteenth century. In great part because of slavery, over those decades, the antagonisms shifted geography, allegiances, and party names as the country got bigger. South and North developed identities and ideologies at odds with one another and the political rhetoric to go with them. As the nation expanded westward, the stakes got higher. Slave state or free? The decision had economic, political, social, and moral consequences for the whole nation.
Some politicians, like Andrew Jackson, knew how to exploit the bad feeling and resentment, which typically had a class component as well as a regional one. Others, like the Brahmin John Quincy Adams, were less adept. Still others, like Henry Clay, worked hard to forge compromises that would hold the Union together, desperately faithful to its original shining promise.
It didn’t work. Nothing worked. As President James Buchanan twiddled his pudgy thumbs, the country slid toward war. Citizens on both sides of the slavery divide sensed an inevitability, and war finally broke out in December 1860 with the secession of South Carolina. Civil war is nothing if not a running high fever of hatred. One recent estimate of the casualties on both sides is 750,000. That’s a lot of hate.
And, of course, the hating did not stop with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in southcentral Virginia in 1865. Popular mythology emphasizes the magnanimity of General Grant, counterposed by Lee’s courtly acknowledgment of defeat. Grant, we read, permitted the defeated Confederate soldiers to take their horses home with them so they could use them to farm, beginning the process of rebuilding the war-ravaged South. And he gave orders to his own troops to feed their famished enemies, who had run out of provisions during Lee’s final march from Petersburg, on the run from Grant’s forces. (Today, when one enters Appomattox County on any of the principal roads, she is met by a billboard proclaiming it to be the spot “where our country reunited.”)
Despite the exhaustion on both sides, despite the huge number of war dead, despite the limping legions of maimed and crippled veterans, despite the physical and mental and emotional detritus of prolonged civil war, the hating did not stop. Frederick Douglas is the keenest chronicler of the abuses that continued to take place in a nation whose Congress had given African American men the vote in 1870. His stentorian voice rang with denunciations of the downhill slide as Reconstruction failed, Jim Crow laws codified racial hatred, and the hagiography of the Lost Cause found its Confederate saints and erected statues to them. All of this is more familiar to us than it might be since the struggle to take down those statues took on prominence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police officers with guns and entrenched attitudes.
Here is the point: the mutual antipathy Americans feel toward one another has never really let up. Pick any period that interests you, read, read some more, and you’ll find the clash of deep antagonisms. Sometimes they are expressed in inflamed rhetoric; sometimes, they build to violence and murder. Sometimes a political accommodation is reached, and the hate becomes a banked fire. The fierce struggles of the 1930s, between workers and owners, in the worst of the suffering the Depression brought to millions, is one obvious example. God bless the child that’s got his own. Pick a century, pick a decade in that century, and you’ll discover hate that won’t give up or give way and conflicting interests that don’t stop butting heads. You’ll discover gloating winners and embittered losers.
Focusing on the hate does not detract from the progress the nation has achieved since adopting the Articles of Confederation in 1781. The progress is as real as the antagonisms within which it was forged. For me, what that focus does is obliterate any trace of triumphalism in my thinking. The progress we make as a society does not cancel Americans’ hatred of other Americans. There are no guarantees that tomorrow will be better than today, next year better than last year. Martin Luther King’s recasting of Theodore Parker’s assertion that the arc of history bends toward justice is an article of faith, and it’s a good faith to hold. But there are no guarantees. There is no lasting truce.
Focusing on the hate also forces me to think hard about those on the far side of my sympathies. Call them, for shorthand’s sake, the conservatives. The pundit class has come up with a long list of reasons why Donald Trump was able to get as many votes as he did in two presidential elections. The recrudescence of racism related to the election of Barack Obama. Economic decline, cultural resentment, and contempt for the secular and profane America that has flamboyantly emerged since the 1960s. Democratic politicians’ inability to connect. A pronounced divide between those who work with their hands, taking coffee breaks by the clock, and those who drink their coffee while staring at screens. A divide, just as pronounced, between urban and rural experiences, norms, and expectations. Evangelical horror of the society that surrounds a certain kind of Christian. Fear and dislike of change, and the pace of change.
The list goes on, but it’s sociology, it’s speculation, and it’s a bit abstract. All its parts and pieces do not add up to a satisfactory whole. The list does not get me, for one, any closer to understanding the deep why. It turns out the truths we hold to be self-evident are not, or not to everybody, or not in the same uncontested way. For example, not everybody sees the loosening of strictures on gender identity as the next logical step forward in America’s drive to let freedom ring. But why?
When people who do not themselves tend conservative ask that question, they set themselves up for a charge of bad faith, of condescension, of cultural smugness. They are asking, in effect, why don’t these unprogressive people see what I see? Behind that frustration, real or put on, lurks another, more unseemly question: what’s wrong with these people? Despite the best of intentions, the askers ‘why’ fall back on assumptions of superior understanding that taint the inquiry and muddle what they get from it.
Etymonline.com locates the root of our word ‘conservative’ in an Old French mot, derived from Medieval Latin, as “tending to preserve or protect.” Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? We all have things we would go to great lengths to protect; compile your own compendium. Here, I think, beats the heart of the matter.
Forget for a moment the corruptions of political affiliation, the odious compromises, the reduction to the ugliest common denominator that have had such an obvious impact on what today’s conservatives themselves feel and believe, as well as what their adversaries feel and believe about them. There is a basic impulse to conserve in the human spirit; to keep, to hold, to have; to cherish; to protect, to save. Its force, its persistency, its practical application vary enormously from individual to individual. But it’s there. It cannot be eradicated. Push it, and it digs in its heels. Call it fear of change if you want to, but what does that get you? It’s not going away. Better, maybe, is to acknowledge it. Think about it. Understand it. Possibly, to respect it.
In the early 1970s, I was working in the warehouse of a juice factory outside Seneca in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. My job involved slugging cardboard cases of grape and other fruit juices from one place to another. From shelves to pallets, from pallets to shelves, for the most part, sometimes with a forklift intermediary. One of the men on the crew was a soft-spoken guy in his late thirties. He wore his sandy hair cut short. That, along with his traditional work pants, boots, and heavy-rimmed safety glasses, gave him a look that stood out in the age of freakery. Jim.
I liked Jim. I think he liked me. Once, on a break, he told me about a trifling encounter he’d had with a guy who was on his way to the Summer Jam Festival at Watkins Glen in the summer of 1973. My workmate was on the street in downtown Seneca. Walking past him, the concert-goer let fly with something along the lines of, “Life is hell for the working man, ain’t it?” The comment deeply offended Jim. He did not use words like “egregious condescension” to describe it. He simply said, “Why did he have to say something like that to me?” It rankled. I didn’t blame him for being rankled. What I heard in his voice was not so much resentment as exasperation.
As it happened, I had gone to Summer Jam myself. The bands were big-time: The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. People who were at the concert had high hopes, as it were, of expanding on what Woodstock had achieved in 1969. In one measurable way, Summer Jam succeeded. An estimated 600,000 people showed up, notably more than the number who went to Woodstock. But Summer Jam did not rise to become anything like the cultural watershed that Woodstock was deemed from the beginning to be. It was a concert. Lots of people went. There were traffic jams and a strain on local services, and a haze of dope smoke that may have been visible from spy satellites orbiting the planet. More than that, it wasn’t.
Crowded, it definitely was. A friend and I set up a small tent on a spot well removed from the throngs of people already occupying the prime real estate near the stage. This was the night before the music began. The next morning when we woke, our tent was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people packed so densely together that it took us thirty minutes and some ingenuity to get out of the tent and make our way a hundred and fifty yards or so to buy something to eat.
Looking around, I thought I saw the future of America. If it was not the Age of Aquarius–an insipid phrase even when freshly minted–it was nevertheless hundreds of thousands of people who belonged to the new. Style was the badge of belonging. Nobody present dressed or looked like Jim from the grape juice factory. Freak flags flew. Everywhere. People at Summer Jam knew about getting high; some knew more than others and were willing to share their knowledge and practical skills. They knew in at least inchoate fashion that America included Black America. They knew that Mother Earth was under assault, and tax money was building warplanes that bombed innocents in far-off places America had no business being. They knew that greed drove corporate decisions in capitalist economies, and Allen Ginsberg, putting his queer shoulder to the wheel, had good reason to howl.
It was a worldview emerging piecemeal from the spirit and the events of the time. Some insights, some platitudes, some earned beliefs, some casually appropriated slogans. I was not then capable of analyzing or criticizing what was going on; I scarcely understood it. I did feel sympathy with what I thought the concert-goers believed and wanted, although I felt myself to be more witness than participant. I was a guest, not a member.
Certainly, I was aware of the massing hostility to what Summer Jam represented in the broader American culture of the day. Outside Watkins Glen, I saw this bumper sticker: next to a peace sign, the legend ‘Footprint of an American Chicken.’ Working a different factory job, electro-plating lightning rods, I had painted silver peace signs on the ankles of my work boots and was ready to go out to the parking lot and fight the guy who was offended by my fashion statement. (The fight didn’t happen; I can’t remember why.) And I had been incensed when a woman at the grocery store in my hometown, Niagara Falls, rammed her shopping cart into mine. Upon colliding, looking at my long hair, she sneered, “Excuse me, ma’am.”
I knew, of course, that Richard Nixon had gotten himself elected by conjuring and appealing to a “Moral Majority,” to whom he ascribed a wholesale rejection of what must be, by the terms of applied Nixonian logic, an immoral minority. The Summer Jam crowd was part of that minority. But I thought Nixon was wrong. Faster than Tricky Dick could imagine, the minority would become a dominant majority, overwhelming those who clung to the past, its bloody errors and rank inequities, its sterile hatreds. If you opened your eyes, you couldn’t help but see that history’s arc was indeed bending in the correct direction.
It’s obvious now that the Cold War dichotomies–of communists versus capitalists, of godless versus godfearing, of planned economies versus free-wheeling private enterprise–played a shaping role in the simplistic version of twentieth-century American history that I rather uncritically adopted when I worked in the foreign service. In all those conversations with reporters who were simultaneously repelled by and drawn to the American model of democracy, I was absolutely sincere making the case in favor of, for instance, the sovereign rule of law, never mind how hard it was to get there. And I wasn’t wrong, perhaps, so much as naïve. I thought we were already there or so close as to be able to describe the landscape in detail, to make a map, to give guided tours. Do as I say, and do as I do.
Despite our recent disappointments, or perhaps because of them, we still want a national story. We crave one, dream of one. We need one. After January 6, 2021, after a harder look at the decades following the Second World War, the simplified version I once relied on no longer stands up to analysis. If we set about writing one, our American story ought to locate itself in the grand tradition of American realism. Genre writing, be it in the fantasy, Gothic, or horror vein, won’t do long term. Experimental, you say? We would be well advised to include elements of experimental unpredictability to keep the story fresh, keep it intriguing, keep challenging our own narrative assumptions. But by and large, we will find success in the realist mode.
How do we get there? That’s more question than I have answer for. But I know how I’d start, and I know where. Probably most people would like to be able to go back in time and fix their mistakes. The big ones, for sure, the catastrophic bad decisions, the intentional and unintentional hurts they have caused, the miscalculations with evil consequences, the thoughtless cruelties whose author they were. My own checklist is long and will remain private.
But not everything I’d like to do or undo in my past life is huge. There are plenty of smaller things as well that I’d change or redo if I could. I would like, for example, to go back to the warehouse in the grape juice factory in the Finger Lakes in the early 1970s. I’d look up Jim. I’d invite him to go have a cup of coffee somewhere away from work.
It would be a long talk. Two coffees’ worth, at least. We might have to go on to dinner somewhere, and then beer in a bar. If it went as well as I hoped, at some point in the conversation, Jim would call home and tell his wife he was going to be late. We would be on a wavelength. Polemics would be irrelevant; our ears would be scoured for listening, our defenses would be like those decrepit barbed wire fences you see on old farms, posts askew, strands of wire lying low on the ground such that you can easily step over them. Into the woods. Always into the woods.
I would have plenty of questions. So would Jim. Mine would try to get at the deep why. What is it that he wants to conserve? How does a person incorporate change into that which he conserves while still holding fast? What does he value? What does he spurn? What is his idea of being an American? Is it extensible? How far? How does he think about work? What does he think about money, and how often does he think about both of them?
How would he address–on a good day, on his best day–a person whose beliefs and politics he knew to be antithetical to his own? How would he hope to be addressed? What are the most important things he might convey to his kids? Are there examples? What would he tell his kids never to do, never to be? How does he define a successful life? What bugs him the most about progressives and their rhetoric? How come? Can he imagine finding common ground? Where might it lie?
I don’t presume to know what Jim’s questions for me would be, but I have a hunch they would be, in part at least, similar to the ones I asked him, although put to me from what might be called an obverse perspective. I’m guessing that if we fused the two perspectives together, we would have something that looked like an authentic coin of the realm. With luck, it could be spent. But this, yes. On this, I insist: regardless of the questions asked, the questions answered, for as long as the conversation went on, I would do my damnedest to let Jim know that, in some fraught and fundamental way, we were on the same American side.
About the Author
Mark Jacobs has published more than 180 stories in a wide range of magazines, including The Hudson Review. His sixth book, a novel entitled Silent Light that takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is forthcoming from OR Books. A complete list of his publications can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.