A Detente over History?

A Shared Sense of our Past, a Shared Vision of our Future

This is a commentary on the need for a shared sense of American History, first posted on February 15, 2021 in Between Hell and High Water.

The author, Michael Koetting, writes a regular column, Between Hell and High Water, and is an advisor to Civic Way. Michael holds a PhD in Sociology from Harvard and served as VP of Planning at the University of Chicago Medical Center and Deputy Director for Planning at the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services, among other public sector positions. Michael also created and taught “American Democracy and You” in the Honors College at the University of Illinois-Chicago.


The release of the Trump 1776 curriculum once again puts the interpretation of our history on the front burner. Of course, these squabbles are less about history and more about what people hope—or fear—for the future.

But wouldn’t we have a better shot at more productive arguments about the future if we could come to some common understandings about the past?  I propose a few basic organizing principles that are so correct that it is hard to dispute them in good faith.

American History Includes Evidence of Fundamental Flaws

There is no serious argument about the despicable nature of some parts of American history. Indian genocide, slavery, stunning Jim Crow attitudes and laws, exclusion of women and propping-up dictators around the world are indisputably part of our history. Although people can argue about the underlying causes, serious people can’t argue about whether they happened.

The evidence is strong that the causes of these events are fundamentally white racism, male privilege and the sometimes reckless accumulation of wealth. It would be easier to go forward if we recognized that these fundamental imperfections were built into some of the core fibers of America. But maybe that debate doesn’t have to be so acrimonious as long as we admit the things that happened and recognize they have serious consequences that continue to shape the present.

All Issues Need to Be Judged with Some Degree of Relativism

It is anti-historic to think every culture at every time saw things the same way. There are few pieces of land anywhere that were not conquered by some invading tribe, often in ways every bit as brutal as was the conquering of the Indians by the white European tribes. Likewise, slavery has been relatively universal, as has discrimination based on race, gender, creed, or other characteristics.

This does not justify these things. It merely recognizes that these issues are wide-ranging from an historical perspective. Invalidating the entire American experience based on these actions, morally objectional as they are, doesn’t make sense in the global historical context.

America Has Been Remarkable on Some Issues

The idea that American “exceptionalism” should become a litmus test for patriotism is absurd. But neither is it historically accurate to deny the places where it is true. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for all their flaws, changed the world.

America has also been remarkable in our ability to take people from all over the world and assimilate them into a single country. Part of this was simply that this vast real estate initially offered more resources than people. And while this process has always worked better for Whites, especially Christian Whites, one could look far and wide and not find a country that attracted more people from more places than the USA.

It is also the case that American culture, fueled in large part by capitalism and economic resources, has proven a particularly fertile environment for innovation of all kinds. “American ingenuity” is part marketing, but based on some reality.

Balance Is the Key Ingredient

Taken together, the above constitutes a reasonable framework for a view of American history that people across most of the political spectrum could agree on. It won’t resolve all the disputes in the interpretation of our history. It doesn’t, for instance, help us determine how exactly to teach the history of Blacks (or Whites, for that matter) or whether there should be reparations.

But there is great value in a country embracing a common intellectual and moral heritage to serve as a rough guide to approaching the future. We can cast America not as a country that could do no wrong, nor as a country that could do no right, but as a country that created itself with great aspirations. From the very beginning we have imperfectly lived-up to them, but we have repeatedly, even if irregularly, returned to these principles.

Part of this framework must also be to accept that the struggle to realize our aspirations has never had a foregone conclusion. Simply articulating aspirations did not make them a reality, then or in the future. We have traveled our “arc of the moral universe” only because certain founding thoughts have won out in hard struggles over other thoughts that were also there from the beginning. We should neither take that arc for granted nor deny the potential of what we have started. Failing to put the past in context —or worse yet, denying its reality—won’t get us there.

However, a shared framework about our past might help us focus better on our shared future.