Why I picked it up: My sister is angry. As a liberal, she is angry that conservatives have taken patriotism away from her. She's angry that the values that conservatives have imbued patriotism with are not, in her mind, easily reconciled with what she believes America can and should be … the values she associates with this country. She loves our country, but is angry that conservatives thinks liberals like her are trying to destroy it. And she wants to reclaim patriotism.
I understand how she feels. While I am not as angry as she is (despite being, if anything, even more liberal), I am grieved that the conservative/liberal divides have deepened so much that liberals feel they can't embrace patriotism … and that conservatives could even think that liberals don't love the ideas and ideals of this country.
Yet this assessment, both from other sources as well as in my research, generally holds true. In particular, my research has yielded evidence about how strongly some conservatives feel that liberals are anti-American … even going to so far at time as to explicitly say liberals are actively working to destroy this country. And liberals, on their part, feeling a bit of bewilderment that their positions come across as anti-American while at the same time calling out conservatives for clinging to a romanticized view of the founding of this country … a view that also excludes any history that disagrees with that romanticized view. After all, an America that isn't just to everyone isn't really living up to its ideals.*
While this divide in America is rooted in many things, one of the things my research indicates it is rooted in is history and the different ways people approach, and question, the past. But, when I look deeply, my research also indicates hints of common values that may bring us together … not to agree, but to perhaps find common ground and a common path forward.
Which brings me to why I picked up this book. I'm searching for insights, ideas, and hypotheses about the work that needs to be done to bridge our differences in productive ways … and the role of museums in being that bridge. I want to have hope. And I'm hoping that Eric Liu's "civic sermons" on the ideas and ideals of America, and our civic life, will help.
What you need to know
The focus of the book is civic religion, which Liu defines as "the creed of ideals stated at our nation's founding and restated at junctures of crises (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed."
The book is comprised of 19 civic "sermons," which are very much like a sermon you might find in a house of worship … except the texts are primary sources related to American founding and identity, and the sermons focus on what it really means to be an American.
Liu is a liberal, and many of his sermons spoke of his heartache at what he sees happening in this country -- not only the actions of our national leaders but also the implosion of civil discourse and responsibility. He wants Americans fight for what they know to be just and good through a context of American history and values, and to promote social justice as part of our American creed. I find that fascinating because history is such a crucial part of this. It is all about the relevance of history to today's public discourse and the social challenges facing us today.
The overriding emotion that comes out of the book, however, is fear. For Liu, a thoughtful fear, but still fear. And a diagnosis of a citizenry that is also full of fear.
I think the fear that Liu diagnoses is correct … I've seen it in my recent research on American attitudes towards inclusive history. Fear is real and palpable. This fear comes from both liberals and conservatives, is sometimes rational, and often isn't.
But if we are to find any common ground we have to use cognitive empathy to understand the fears that others have. Not necessarily agreeing, but understanding. We have to rehumanize American society, which begs the question of how we recognize our shared humanity in this polarized age. What can bring us together?
Implications for Museums:
Given how intertwined American identity is with history (and vice versa), and how conservatives and liberals thus approach history with different questions and ideas, it seems self-evident that history museums and historic sites are, whether they like it or not, political players in our current polarized society. And as trusted sources for history, that makes it incumbent on us to be a forum for civil discourse, whether the public explicitly wants us to do this or not (data on this forthcoming). We have a critical role to play in understanding what it means to be an American now and in the past … and bringing us all together through the shared values we do maintain, creating a future for us and this country.
This doesn't mean it will be easy. But if not, us, who?
Additional things of interest:
There are a number of themes that emerge that are relevant to history and American discourse today, including:
I also had three primary issues with this book:
Read or skip?
Read … slowly. If you want to practice being a American, and consider how your museum can be more proactive in helping visitors practice being an American, then you should pick it up. Just take your time reading it!
*As a liberal, of course I have a liberal bias in my beliefs. It is a bias I am aware of and try to mitigate in my research in order to present alternative viewpoints fairly. With that in mind, I have endeavored to fairly represent the research findings I share in this review … and to make clear when my opinion is being shared.
Full citation: Liu, Eric. Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books, 2019.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com