The Whites of Their Eyes, by Jill Lepore

The Whites of Their Eyes

There are things to like about The Whites of Their Eyes, but for me it doesn’t live up to its promise. I have the sense that when I describe it or summarize it, it’ll sound like a better and more interesting book than it is.

The subject of the book is the contemporary Right’s tendentious use of history to bolster its policy preferences, or more specifically the way self-identifying “Tea Partiers” insist that the Founders would agree with them on all political issues, and that the Left isn’t just wrong but is in violation of the principles upon which the country was built and with the Constitution that was established by the Founders as its highest law.

The book is quite short: 165 pages, not counting endnotes and such. It feels thin, like Lepore could have said a lot more about the topics she touches on.

She moves back and forth among three main areas. One is the contemporary tea party’s political use of history. A second is the 1976 bicentennial celebration. A third is the actual history of the 18th century period when the country was founded.

It’s an essay style I suspect many will praise for its inventiveness, for its avoidance of dry, chronological, straightforward prose. I, on the other hand, found the jumping about distracting and unsatisfying.

I enjoyed some of the revisionist history tidbits, for example that John Hancock made a fortune smuggling Dutch tea. She avoids taking the iconoclasm to an extreme, though, which is a fault I’ve seen in some revisionist historians, who are as apt to spin, oversimplify, and take things out of context in their bashing and supposed mythbusting as do the more hagiographic folks they oppose. Lepore stays in the middle ground between those fallacious and one-sided extremes. I like her description of history, and I think in this book she largely remains true to it:

The study of history requires investigation, imagination, empathy, and respect. Reverence just doesn’t enter into it.

One of the author’s main points is that throughout history people have sought to associate their views with the Founders, often with little evidential grounds. The Tea Party people though, she says, are unusually ludicrous in their disregard of evidence and their treatment of the Founders as analogous to the figures of the Bible for fundamentalists.

The Tea Partiers are indeed easy targets, since they consist largely of liars and dupes.

But even if they were right about the Founders, in what sense does it matter what the people back then would have thought about, say, Obamacare?

Their opinions have some relevance to interpreting things they actually wrote, like the original Constitution. But even there, the actual words matter a lot more. If a law is passed making it illegal for beings from any non-Earth planet to become citizens, but really most of the people who wrote the law had only Martians in mind but wrote it more generally out of sloppiness or political calculation or whatever, the law still applies to Venusians. What it says counts far more than what the people who wrote it believed or intended.

But the connection between the Founders’ opinions and any contemporary political controversy other than applying what they put in the Constitution is even more tenuous. I suppose one could say that since they were wise folks whom we admire, we should give some weight to their opinions in making our policy decisions, but how much?

Presumably very, very minimal weight, since the world they lived in was vastly different from our world. Even if I could somehow accurately surmise what they would have thought of the current policies of the Federal Reserve, so what? One might just as well surmise their likely opinions about hip hop music. I don’t think citing either gets one very far in defending one’s own opinion.

But what’s happened is some people have indeed taken to treating the Founders as if they were divine figures, and treating their (supposed) opinions as absolute truth. Interpreting their writings has become like interpreting the Bible—people overconfidently (or dishonestly) insist they know precisely how to interpret the works of the Founders and how to infer from that what they would have thought of everything else, and they treat it as self-evident that that’s binding on us, at least if we want to be patriotic Americans.

So I think the relevance of the Founders’ opinions is routinely overrated even if we could accurately ascertain them, but on top of that the Tea Partiers attribute some pretty silly positions to them. Not just that they favored religion (dubious), but that they’d favor fundamentalist Christianity. Not just that they favored guns as part of a well-regulated militia, but that they’d favor there being no restrictions on any kind of weaponry in private hands. Not just that they opposed taxation without representation, but that they’d oppose taxation of rich people and corporations and all redistributive policies other than those that further concentrate wealth and power at the top.

The Whites of Their Eyes is a worthwhile book, but not one that lives up to its blurbs.

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