Myth America review: superb group history of the lies that built a nation | Books
This collection of essays by 21 distinguished historians has an ambitious mission: to re-educate Americans attacked by lies more systematically than any previous generation.
The editors are two Princeton history professors, Kevin M. Cruz and Julian E. Zelizer. They begin with a brief history of how we reached the zenith of disinformation.
The attack on the truth by the right-wing “media ecosystem” began with Rupert Murdoch’s invention of Fox News, to which even fancier cable networks such as Newsmax and One America News have been added in recent years.
The lack of conscience of these bogus journalists was best summed up by the lawyers who defended the most successful of them, Tucker Carlson, in a lawsuit accusing him of defamation. According to them, the tidy host’s statements “cannot reasonably be interpreted as facts” because he is so obviously engaged in “non-literal comments”.
Another cause of the crisis of disinformation was the deregulation of broadcasting by the Reagan administration, which abolished the doctrine of fairness in 1987. This simple change ensured that radio waves were contaminated by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, creating the first echo chamber.
Of course, the Internet has allowed these waves of lies to reach warp speed, more destructive than anything humanity has experienced. In the volume’s understated description, “the conservative media ecosystem has been augmented by… Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, where the tendency to find like-minded people and freedom from fact-checking have taken disinformation to new depths.”
These locations gave “far-right liars unprecedented access to significant numbers of Americans” and allowed “ordinary Americans to instantly spread lies about each other.” “As a result, disinformation and disinformation have permeated our debates on almost every topical political issue.”
The enormity of the challenge is underlined by the fact that Fox News Digital ended 2022 as the “top performing news brand” with over 18 billion cross-platform views and an average of 82.7 million unique monthly visitors across platforms. Not to mention 3.4 billion Fox News views on YouTube. Fox surpassed CNN in these categories for the first time since 2019.
Essays in Myth America attack right-wing myths about everything from immigration to Reagan. The authors were chosen in part because they already “actively engage the general public through short forms of contemporary media”.
In one of the best chapters, Ari Kelman, a professor at the University of California, Davis, discusses a foundational American myth: the Vanishing Indians. He starts with former Republican Senator Rick Santorum’s 2021 assertion that the colonists arrived with a “blank slate” because “there was nothing here.” (Santorum said he was misunderstood, but was dropped from CNN nonetheless.)
Kelman documents how such remarks can be traced back to myths created by New England colonists who “systematically erased evidence of long-standing indigenous cultures … as a way to legitimize Euro-American land claims.” By portraying Native Americans as hopelessly primitive, they “transformed imperial violence into an innocent virtue.”
The alliance of some native tribes with the British during the War of 1812 further facilitated their marginalization. “That the indigenous peoples might disappear” became “like a desert”.
The opposite narrative began in the 1880s, when Helen Hunt Jackson published The Age of Infamy, which described “robbery” and “cruelty… committed under the guise” of 100 years of “treaty making and breaking.” Hunt described white settler guilt in what we now understand to be genocide: “This history of repeated breaches of faith by the United States government against the Indians .
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s 1970 million-selling book, did more than any other contemporary work to explain that the conquest of the West was possible only because Americans assumed that “treaties could be torn apart” and the massacre of Native Americans was simply part of the natural order of things.
The book describes a vanished Native American culture at a time when Native Americans experienced enough of a revival to become “the fastest growing minority in the country”. As a result, “a book written to debunk one pernicious myth unwittingly materializes another, conveying to the mind the idea that by the beginning of the 20th century the Indians had disappeared.”
Another compelling chapter, “Southern Strategy,” refutes conservative political scientist Carol Swain’s assertion “that this story of a two-party shift in identities is a myth… fabricated by leftist academic elites and journalists.”
Written by Cruz, the chapter traces the Republican Party’s decision to embrace racism to a 1951 national tour of South Dakota Senator Carl Mundt, who first proposed a merger between Republicans and segregationist Southern “Dixiecrat” Democrats. . In 1952, the Republican platform affirmed the right of each state to “order and control its own domestic institutions.”
The election of Republican John Tower to the Senate seat of Lyndon Johnson in 1961 made him the first Republican to enter the Senate from the South since the end of Reconstruction and showed that “the segregationist vote had been captured.”
Republican strategy changed so rapidly that by the time the party met in 1964 to nominate Barry Goldwater for president, for the first time in 50 years, no southern delegation had any black delegates. One of the few black delegates who actually attended had his “suit set on fire.” Baseball black star Jackie Robinson, longtime Republican announced that he knew “what it was like to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany”.
Goldwater was crushed by Johnson, but in addition to his native Arizona, he swept away South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
There is a much more amazing, fact-based story in those 390 pages. In an era infamous for the internet wiping out her attention, it’s really reassuring that a book of this gravity spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.