"A nation born in revolution will always eye its history warily, and with anxiety," writes Jill Lepore in "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History". That anxiety, and the worst of its ancillary effects–overcompensation, deception, and manipulation—are the subject of the author's new book. Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer at the New Yorker, organises this volume into five short chapters, each beginning in present-day Boston and moving back in time to examine the historical rhetoric associated with the American Revolution.
Lepore offers two compelling reasons for her book. First, where American political tradition is concerned, "nothing trumps the Revolution"; and second, the assumptions made about the past by today's tea-party activists are, in Lepore’s mind, slipshod and anti-intellectual. "Every generation tells its own story about what the Revolution was about, of course, since no one is alive who remembers it anymore," she writes. The tea-party's version of the Revolution, however, shades far beyond kookiness and into the meretricious realm of "antihistory". (The Economist similarly finds the tea-party view of the constitution to be a "strangely ahistorical" one.)
When Jill Lepore finds herself at a tea-party rally aflutter with "Don't Tread On Me" flags, for example, she can't help but note the irony in the crowd's recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by Francis Bellamy, the vice president of the Society of Christian Socialists. She also raises an eyebrow at Glenn Beck's claim that George Washington was opposed to socialism—and when Fox News compares Scott Brown's senate win to the Boston Massacre? Well, let’s just say she exercises commendable restraint. In Lepore's eyes, there's nothing wrong with invoking the Revolution—Lyndon Johnson's forceful comparison of Lexington and Concord to Selma in 1965, for one, was an inspired bit of speechwriting. But fictionalising history is quite another matter.
Indeed, the problem Lepore identifies is not one of faulty interpretation—the author concedes that history is endlessly reinterpretable—but rather a lack of the rudimentary knowledge required to form any viable interpretation at all; and, even worse, a seeming disinterest in acquiring it. Still, "The Whites of Their Eyes" isn't a
screed of any kind, and the text is refreshingly free of ire. It is, instead, a warning shot across the bow. To tea-party activists of today, Lepore seems to be saying, "Tighten up your game." In its current iteration, the tea-party is a feat of storytelling. But in order to gain a foothold in American politics, it must aspire to more than that.
"The Whites of Their Eyes", by Jill Lepore, is published by Princeton University Press.