Review: ‘The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels’ by Jon Meacham

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️☆

Before reading this book, my knowledge of American history was scant at best, and to be honest, my interest in it negligible. Historical and political works are not my preferred genre, but this one came recommended by a friend with a good track record (thanks, Kerry 😊), so I thought it worth a try.

After a couple of false starts, I determined to persist through the early chapters and plough on to the end. And I’m very glad I did. It’s a thoroughly researched and, in my opinion, balanced narrative that is reassuring and empowering in its optimism.

… In this timely and revealing book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning […] author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in [its] history when hope overcame division and fear. With clarity and purpose, Meacham explores contentious periods and how presidents and citizens came together to defeat the forces of anger, intolerance, and extremism.

… He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the Lost Cause; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s; the fight for women’s rights; the demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of America First in the years before World War II; the anti-Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Lyndon Johnson’s crusade against Jim Crow.

[He paints] surprising portraits of Lincoln and other presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and [illuminates] the courage of such influential citizen activists as Martin Luther King Jr., early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch …

Meacham shows us that the current climate of fear and division, of blaming other ethnic groups and minorities, is not new. History offers up many examples of demagogues who thrived because a significant proportion of the population wanted them to. In the late 1940s and early 1950s for instance, Senator Joseph R McCarthy, a ‘provocateur’, ‘opportunist’ and ‘freelance performer’, ‘… grasped what many ordinary Americans feared and […] had direct access to the media of the day. He exploited the privileges of power and prominence without regard to its responsibilities; to him politics was not about the substantive but the sensational. The country feared Communism, and McCarthy knew it, and he fed those fears with years of headlines and hearings. A master of false charges, of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, and of calculated disrespect for conventional figures …, McCarthy could distract the public, play the press, and change the subject – all while keeping himself center stage.’ [1]

Mmmm … sound familiar? 🤔

It is natural, in uncertain and troubled times, for fear to reign. When we are afraid of losing what we have, when we believe we are teetering on a precipice, it is difficult to be clear-headed and rational. But as Meacham points out, ‘… the opposite of fear is hope, defined as the expectation of good fortune not only for ourselves but for the group to which we belong. Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger; hope, particularly in a political sense, breeds optimism and feelings of well-being. Fear is about limits; hope is about growth. Fear casts its eye warily, even shiftily, across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon. Fear points at others, assigning blame; hope points ahead, working for a common good. Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides; hope unifies.’ [2]

And never has the world needed hope more than it does right now.

Supporters of the incumbent President of the United States may well dismiss this as a ‘Dump Trump’ book. But for those of us across the Pacific, observing with incredulity the political spin, social media garbage, sound bites and fake news emanating from a White House and a president determined to undermine the rule of law and a free press, it provides context and hope.

Americans ‘… have come through such darkness before’ because, time and again, what Abraham Lincoln called the ‘better angels of [their] nature’ have repeatedly won the day. And the lessons of American history are as relevant to us in Australia, or in fact any democratic nation, as they are to the people of the United States.

So, how do we look forward rather than back, assert hope over fear, believe in progress even in the darkest of times?

Meacham offers us these suggestions:

  1. Enter the arena. Become politically engaged. Pay attention. Express an opinion. Cast your ballot. Resist with integrity, informed by fact. Live up to your obligations as a citizen. Demand the leadership and the government you deserve.
  1. Resist tribalism. Initiate political discussion with those whose opinions differ from your own. Check your ideas by enquiring about and listening to what others are saying, thinking, believing. ‘Wisdom generally comes from [such] a free exchange of ideas.’ [3]

Assume, in the first instance, that we all want to do the right thing; we simply have different ideas about what the right thing is. Be flexible and willing to relinquish outdated opinions or those that are no longer relevant to our modern society.

A wise man changes his mind; a fool never will. ~ Spanish Proverb

  1. Respect facts and deploy reason. Choose a view or perspective that is based on conclusive proof or verifiable evidence, not one that is simply endorsed and repeated by a leader you follow. Use logic to critically analyse political messages. Learn to distinguish between fact and rhetoric or fake news.
  1. Find a critical balance. Recognise that no single person or camp has a monopoly on virtue or wisdom. Politicians ‘… are human beings, with good days and bad days, flashes of genius and the occasional dumb idea, alternately articulate and tongue-tied.’ [4] Inevitably, they will disappoint, but from time to time, they will also make us proud. So be sympathetic rather than blindly condemnatory or celebratory.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming … ~ Theodore Roosevelt (April 13, 1910) [5]

  1. Keep history in mind, because knowing it and understanding it helps us deal with our present issues and crises.

When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. ~ Senator Daniel Webster (1830) [6]

Every generation thinks that the challenges it faces are unique, greater, more urgent and more important than those faced by their forebears. This is natural given that lives are saturated with and shaped by the crises du jour. But in truth, just as the good times are seldom as good as we remember, the bad times are rarely as hopeless as they seem at the time. And all things move on, good and bad.

Meacham encourages us to learn from the past. ‘That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. That compromise is the oxygen of democracy.’ [7] That we will stumble from time to time, but the choices we make, grounded in the goodness of our fundamental ideas, beliefs, values and dreams, will ensure we rise and move forward. And that ultimately, ‘our better angels’ will find a way to prevail.

[1]  Meacham, Jon. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. New York: Random House, 2018 p 185
[2]  Ibid., p 16
[3]  Ibid., p 268
[4]  Ibid., p 269
[5] Citizenship in a Republic. Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt.

[6]  Pollard, Edward A. The Lost Cause Regained. New York: GW Carleton, 1868, p 159
[7] Meacham. The Soul of America, p 259

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