“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”
—James Baldwin, “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel: An Address”
What can we do?
This question, often asked in a tone of desperation if not despair, is one that audiences around the United States over more than a decade have repeatedly asked, following the many lectures on religion and politics I’ve given at colleges and universities, religious and civic organizations, and other public gatherings. Needless to say, most people are not seeking easy answers so much as pleading aloud for ways to help improve the civic and political culture of the United States and end certain types of suffering or injustice. Whether our discussions have focused on religious intolerance, gender inequality, structural racism, regulations on sexuality, the country’s broken immigration system, the abuse of authority by political and religious elites, voter suppression, or court battles over abortion, American observers have shown themselves to be keenly concerned about the state of this nation, distraught over what they view as the horrors unleashed or exacerbated by Donald Trump’s presidential administration both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and eager to do something constructive to mitigate them. They acutely want, in other words, to make the world better. I expect other public speakers from a range of fields—academia, journalism, the legal profession, and more—have experienced the same longing from audience members fighting a sense of helplessness, some wrestling with their own naiveté or complicity. Knowing my own lecture hall answers have been halting and painfully insufficient, my new book of essays, Making the World Over, offers what I hope is a more articulate and viable response.
“Making the world better” is, however, a lofty goal, and projects that seem promising often prove to be paradoxical. No scene better illustrates the need for caution than one from The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s celebrated dystopian novel. Commander Fred Waterford—a man who helped establish the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theonomy founded on the ruthless subjugation of women—tries to explain to his captive and maltreated handmaid Offred why he worked to upend so brutally relations between women and men. In the televised adaption of this scene, he goes further to describe the savage mutilation of one handmaid discovered to be a lesbian—a grave crime in this patriarchal world. Seeing Offred’s anguish, he defends himself and his fellows for ousting American democracy in this new state, saying, “We only wanted to make the world better.” “Better?” Offred splutters in livid disbelief. Coldly, the commander rejoins, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”
U.S. history, it must be remembered, is filled with examples of ostensibly well-intentioned efforts to make the world better that, in retrospect, many judge to have been good only for the few and profoundly destructive to many others. The history of indigenous nations in this country is one looming example that is far too frequently buried below the ground from which non–Native Americans narrate the past. From the outset, we must acknowledge that the founding of the United States was not simply the product of the Revolutionary War, especially the war as romanticized in numberless books, paintings, and productions. The conditions leading up to that war could occur only after long years of settler colonialism became naturalized, part of the ongoing violent process of dispossessing native inhabitants of their land and assuming control over geographies and natural resources that were once home to untold numbers of indigenous people, many of whom the white settlers destroyed with disease, poverty, broken treaties, and war. Settlers no doubt believed they were making the world better for themselves and their kin and kind, but they either did not perceive or did not care about the awful price paid by others for white self-improvement.
Closer to our own time, other examples of mixed consequences abound: Urban renewal efforts to improve cities have displaced hundreds of thousands of people over the years, predominantly people of color. The GI Bill distributed benefits to veterans of World War II in radically unequal terms that also overwhelmingly affected African Americans, who were turned away from efforts to buy homes in suburbs redlined to be “whites only.” Humanitarian efforts of many kinds, including Christian missions, have had negative effects on many of the people they purportedly aimed to help. And U.S. military interventions into the Arab world premised on such notions as saving Muslim women from oppression have resulted in countless deaths of innocent people. All of these efforts, and many others, were backed by people claiming to improve the standing order and professing their own innocent good intentions, reminding us that any assertion about ways of “making the world better” demands scrutiny of the interested parties behind it and the lives they actually hope to improve. Whose lives, that is, matter?
No thinker has probed these problems more deeply than James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Throughout his astonishing oeuvre and public lectures, Baldwin called Americans to account for their long habit of forgetting inconvenient truths about the past. In particular, he called white Americans to account for the hypocrisy of what Baldwin’s latest interpreter, Eddie Glaude Jr., simply calls “the lie,” the myth white people have perpetually insisted upon that they are innocent and pure of heart and ever kind to others. The whitewashing of history to strip it from all unpleasantness and unjust, abusive violence toward others has created conditions that have worked to make the world better for a selection of the country’s inhabitants and worse for many others (far more than “some”). In a successfully whitewashed history, the past is quickly forgotten, both its beautiful parts and its evils. We Americans, Baldwin warned, are historical amnesiacs, suffering from a type of dementia that leaves white and Black people alike bereft of both past and future; all has been reduced to survival of the fittest in the now, and the nation will not long survive its own atrocities. Force yourselves to witness the consequences of complacent ignorance, he demanded: How will you now guard against history’s destruction and your own? The challenge, he wrote in one form or another over and over again, was “attempting to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” Only by facing the past as well as the present could a better world and future emerge.
But in fact Baldwin was not content with the aim of making the world better; he called us to do much more than that. “We made the world we’re living in,” he warned, “and we have to make it over.” Making the world over is a more audacious, more challenging, and possibly more foolhardy goal than making it moderately better. But our collective senility, exacerbated by a grossly underestimated and mishandled pandemic, has brought us to the brink of what seems to many a near collapse of American institutions, political stability, and societal life. Wait much longer, and it may be too late to rescue the norms and practices worth saving, much less improve them in piecemeal fashion. Frankly, I see little choice other than to commit what efforts we can to making our world over in the sense that Baldwin meant, starting with confronting the hardest truths of our own history.
How to discern and preserve the lessons of history is indeed a question of perennial importance and a strikingly urgent one today, as we see repeatedly in our era’s recurring conflicts over public monuments and historical statues: Who gets to be the hero in our shifting narrative of the country’s past? The very telling of history itself is routinely challenged by what has come to be called “fake news.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces that term back to an 1890 newspaper article, whereas the historian Sarah Churchwell associates it with President Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 “America First” speech and his warnings against “the rumors of irresponsible persons” and “coteries where sinister things are purposed” to undermine the nation. “Fake news” gained widespread usage during Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, in Churchwell’s words, “undergoing a remarkable reversal from a charge levied against him for his brazen lies, distortions and fabrications, to a complaint he turned on his accusers, claiming that any unflattering fact about him was just ‘fake news.’” Others, however, have seen a proliferation of “fake news” across mass media and the internet in some of the very sources Trump would claim to be true (Infowars, Rush Limbaugh, various personalities on Fox News, etc.). As an increasingly splintered digital media landscape has transformed the ways in which people absorb information about just about everything, finding reliable sources and voices to trust has become an exceedingly fraught venture.
Discerning history is, then, a more vital task than ever in the early decades of the twenty-first century, when much of the world’s population still lives under tyrannical government powers that censor their access to information about the past as well as the present. It is not only dictatorships or would-be dictatorships that enact such censorship, however; republics do it too, and if their methods must be subtler than dictatorial decrees and government-censored textbooks, they are greatly aided by the efforts of elites who gain advantage from the historical ignorance of the masses. These issues have been much on the minds of many Americans unnerved by the fact that the populace holds such contrary views about which sources peddle fake news. It’s confusing to sort out: As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wryly put it in his meditation on the subject, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
This, then, is the context in which I have tried to give one scholar’s partial answer to the pressing question shared by so many Americans: What can we do? While the American polarization so often decried in recent years is really not new— hostile disagreement and conflict have been part of our fabric from the start—Trump’s presidency truly bombarded us with an unusually dramatic series of crises, from whatever outlets we consult: immigrant parents and children separated from one another at the U.S.-Mexican border and caged in monstrous conditions, with little medical care and no plan for family reunification; restrictions on travelers and international visitors from Muslim-majority countries; Russian espionage and interference in U.S. elections, met with indifference by the Trump administration; systemic sexual abuse; an unconscionably high death toll from the coronavirus boosted by the administration’s greed and magical thinking; and more. But by no means is this the first era in U.S. history when the surrounding world felt perilous. One cannot name a decade over the past half century, or any time in the nation’s past, when some or many Americans did not fear for their safety and for the future of the country; fears of this nature have clouded many minds and pervaded people’s lives throughout history. Whether perceived threats from abroad or alleged internal threats to the nation, the terrors of violence against women and people of color or dread of the wholesale collapse of democracy, fear has been a perennial undercurrent of our history. Witness the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol by extremists claiming the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. President Biden inherited the legacy of these fears. So did we.
Even if we came fully to understand all of our cultural and social rifts and why they feel so bitter in the early decades of the twenty-first century, as so many experts across a range of fields have tried to do, it is a tall order to imagine inducements for reacting productively in the hope of making the world better for more than just a very small “some.” But it’s crucial to make the effort nonetheless. As the political scientist Danielle Allen so eloquently writes in Talking to Strangers, “We are all always awash in each other’s lives”: so how can we think more purposefully about that shared life and how to live it? In the end, I have tried to address some of what appear to be the most critical issues dividing Americans over time, consider the imperative to confront them, and deliberate on a few of the values we might cultivate in purposeful ways so as to address these issues most usefully.
To be clear, I am not an ethicist or a philosopher or a theologian or clergyperson, nor any other sort of moral theorizer from whom we more typically hear about the values I discuss in these pages. Rather, I am a historian of American religion who has for some years dug into various conflicts within our country’s past, especially those pertaining to gender, sexuality, and religion, and who has tried to think deeply about why these conflicts and others— particularly race and, if less visibly, class—remain so unresolved and bitter today. There are most assuredly vast literatures on all of the subjects I cover, and numerous thinkers who have influenced my own thinking, highlighting the fact that whatever contributions I make here are part of a wide-ranging conversation that long predates me and will far outlive me too. I’m also aware that most Americans outside of small intellectual circles do not read those literatures and may not have access to many of them, nor are they primarily interested in scholarly arguments about them. My aim with my latest book is not so much to engage in debate with my tribe of scholars (though I’ll certainly be pleased if it is of interest to them) but to analyze some of the burning conflicts that, while rooted in much older historical encounters, events, and legal rulings, today seem ripe to inspire revolt and tear the country asunder. It is to speak candidly to students, nonspecialists, and general readers who care about the state of the United States and the world in the twenty-first century and who may be fighting a sense of helplessness about how to make things better.
In my book, I take readers through four contentious issues in our public life. The first chapter reflects on the legacies of slavery in the United States and perennial conflicts over telling that history and teaching it to new generations of students. Then I turn to immigration policy and our nation’s long series of arguments over which foreigners should be welcomed across our borders. Next I explore the nation’s long struggle over gender roles and the persistent entrenchment of misogyny in culture and politics. The fourth chapter shifts direction to examine the country’s protracted debates over women’s reproductive rights and abortion. A conclusion tries to offer a way forward and addresses the “what can we do?” question that so many people are grappling with today. It is my belief and hope that facing these difficult issues in U.S. history is a first step in making our world over.
Gilead is not a world I ever want to live in. But as philosophers and historians have warned for centuries, it only takes a small army to bring about a totalitarian social order, so long as the majority of the public is indifferent to or ignorant of its possibility. Both The Handmaid’s Tale and the sequel that followed 35 years later, The Testaments, repeatedly illuminate this truth as well. And reading Baldwin alongside the story of Gilead reminds me that, while I may feel a deep kinship with Offred and the other handmaids in this story, I am a comfortably situated middle-class white woman who surely looks much more like the commander’s complicitous, enslaving, sadistic wife to those with less privilege and fewer social advantages than I have, those whose lives have been injured by evils my eyes have missed or have refused to see. There are most certainly authoritarian features to my own world from which I am largely exempt, but which have deeply damaging effects on others. Ultimately, then, these reflections on history are intended to be ethical in nature, to suggest some ways of addressing the questions that many are already asking in striving to understand the conflicts driving the United States today and the past that has brought us to this present.
“Better” should not have to mean “worse for some,” whatever Commander Waterford says and however much social and political programs of alleged betterment have incorporated savagery toward those perceived to be standing in the way. At the very least, it is wrong to be so complacently nonchalant about, much less complicit in, such barbarity. An indispensable part of defeating both complacence and complicity is cultivating the steady habit of facing history and telling “as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more,” in service to trying to make the world over. Innumerable people from countless walks of life are attempting to do just that, and with my small book of essays I make my latest effort to join them.
Marie Griffith is the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the editor of Religion & Politics. Her latest book is Making the World Over: Confronting Racism, Misogyny, and Xenophobia in U.S. History, from which this excerpt was adapted and reprinted by permission of the University of Virginia Press, copyright 2021.