Nonfiction – audiobook. Read by Jon Meacham and Fred Sanders. Random House Audio, 2018. 10 hours, 56 minutes. Library copy.
Subtitled “The Battle for Our Better Angels”, Meacham’s book draws on history to document how times of great trouble in America (i.e. racist policies, disenfranchisement of voters, marginalization of women and people of color) have occurred simultaneously with great progress. With Americans ultimately finding the “better angels of our nature”, as Lincoln stated in his first inaugural address, despite the bleak and tumultuous outlook.
Meacham’s book was clearly written in response to Donald Trump, and he often includes a thinly veiled dig at the current US President using the words and actions of past presidents, including men like Lyndon B. Johnson who championed civil rights despite being a Texas Democrat. The ultimate message is a reminder to readers that while the arc of American history is long, it has always bent towards justice.
To push this message, the book employs a ‘yin-and-yang’ view of American history where each time period’s push to exclude or marginalize certain groups is met by progress for another group. For example, when discussing the 1910s, Meacham buttresses the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws in the South with the granting of women’s suffrage, a fulfillment of Abigail Adams’ enjoiner to her husband to remember the ladies.
In some ways, this presentation of American history worked quite well. It was comforting to think that while Trump’s election has shown the darker side of Americans, there may be a “yang” response where Americans refuse to accept the policies of his administration and the demands of his base. (And, in fact, we have seen this reaction in real-time with the Women’s March and the rallies against the Muslim ban.)
I also appreciated how Meacham offered up details about events I was familiar with that were new to me, and he directed my attention to areas of American history that have often been overlooked. When my dad suggested we listen to this audiobook on our road trip, I worried neither of us would gleam new facts or details from the book since we both have a keen interest in history. Thankfully, that was not the case.
On the other hand, I felt like his yin-and-yang presentation failed to make clear how arduously marginalized people in American have had to demand their rights. This presentation also lends itself to the idea that one group must suffer so another can advance their cause – an idea that has been championed by some in Trump’s base who believe the advancement of black Americans or immigrants has come at the expense of white Americans, as explained in detail in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.
I doubt Meacham intended to give credence to this idea; unfortunately, I could see how someone might read this succinct overview of American history and come away feeling even stronger in their belief that the pie is not big enough for all to have a slice.
That said, I still enjoyed listening to Meacham’s overview of American history and greatly appreciated his reminder that we, as a country, have ultimately chosen to reject racism, xenophobia, and marginalization. I wish the book had covered American history after LBJ, but I suppose it may be too early to say if our current bend away from justice will have the historically-accurate bend back towards it.