“What? The idea of American exceptionalism is a myth? Well, you just burst my bubble.”
Well, maybe, a little bubble burst.
William J. Novak, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago, intends to “burst bubbles” in his essay entitled “The Myth of the “Weak” American State.” In the article, Novak contends that America is not a “weak” country and that, at this time in history, it is an historical anachronism to consider her as such. His argument is compelling.
Due to the idea of American exceptionalism, America is viewed as a polity that is novel and young, a new world, a place of rebirth where individualism, private rights and a free economy prevail. In this conception, even the idea of state in and of itself, becomes a mostly European invention and America is seen and perceived, according to Novak, as “free, unregulated and stateless,” (755) where individual initiative trumps collective action, private enterprise trumps state direction, non-coercive voluntarism trumps public regulation.
Novak, the historian, sets out to debunk these ideas. Using the work of theorists and historians such as Judith Butler and Richard John as a framework, Novak argues that the very structure of the constitution does not limit power but creates power and then ‘hides’ it in it’s distribution of power, a highly complex matrix of institutions, jurisdictions, government offices, national, state and local government and so on. According to Novak, this sprawl of power is both America’s distinctive strength and it’s elusive nature. (765) Thus, America is a strong and not weak state and historical revision on the topic needs to be undertaken.
But wait, historical revision? History is history, right?
Well, Ranke might say that. He might encourage his students to go find the primary sources, put themselves in the time period and get down to work. While this may be better than a strict recording of events, is it short-sighted? What about the role of society, culture and economics in history? Or when a historian opens up a field of study that includes society and culture and obtaining an understanding of them, does that, by it’s very nature, become too complex? And what is the role of science in history? Can we quantify history? Or if historians go too far on the empirical/science side of things, do they risk becoming irrelevant?
The study of history, historiography, is dynamic and not static. It can be different from one continent to another. Lamprecht’s work in social and cultural history was denounced by fellow German historians, but “Progressive Historians” in the United States proved to be more open to his ideas of social history. It can march through time towards an end, as Marx theorized. Historical articles show the change as portrayed in articles about Christopher Columbus. Early historical articles portray Christopher Columbus as benevolent savior while later ones portray Columbus as a villain bringing death, forced labor and disease to the indigenous population. One thing is for sure, the study of history certainly will continue to be in flux and change over time.
And what about the why? Why do we study history in the first place? John Tosh in his book, The Pursuit of History, suggests history as being predictive, socially relevant, elucidative, and insightful. But how about just studying history for its own sake?
Well, to answer these questions, the authors of our reading present multi-faceted, but rather obtuse and opaque dichotomies fashioned to engender didactic…Oh I’m sorry,… I guess too much theory, too much Iggers, too little sleep. In honesty, I don’t know the answers to all the questions I’ve posed in this post.
In fact, I’m a lowly first year graduate student with blood shot eyes and big words dancing in my head looking just to talk about it a bit.