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Another American Beginning?

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books and culture

Another American Beginning?

Bruno Maçães’s fascinating book takes a highly original view of the country’s current dislocations. February 5, 2021
Arts and Culture

History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America, by Bruno Maçães (Oxford University Press, 248 pp., $29.95)

Seldom do I wish a book longer, but I did with Bruno Maçães’s remarkable History Has Begun. His thesis is subtle and does not yield well to summary, but here is my take. Maçães begins with a criticism of teleological views of history. Each of these perspectives sees history traveling along a predetermined path. But history, Maçães contends, has no particular direction; it changes course as each society confronts the problems it faces.

America, Maçães tells us, is in this way pioneering a new path for itself. American society long ago moved beyond the “bourgeois belief in objective reality” and now is stepping even further away from the European thought that has dominated America for most of its history and toward a “new indigenous society”—what will become a “post-truth state.” That new America, he warns, may be inconsistent with many of the nation’s founding principles and even the Constitution under which the United States has lived for 230 years.

Maçães finds the roots of this new American direction in two places: in the late-nineteenth-century pragmatic philosophy of William James and in the early-twentieth-century writings of Sinclair Lewis, particularly his classic novel, Babbitt. The relevant part of James’s philosophy is his stress on whatever works for people. On religion, for instance, James insists that people embrace belief more because it enriches their lives than because they are certain of some objective truth about God. This and similar decisions determine what people notice, and consequently what they experience.

Sinclair Lewis’s character Babbitt starts out as a stereotypical American businessman, focused on little else besides growing his business and making money. He eventually starts to find a way out of the oppressive conformity demanded by such a life. He does not seek to revolutionize society—that would be a European response, as Maçães sees it. Instead, through Babbitt’s character, Lewis argues in favor of leaving society intact but encouraging each person to dream in everything he does, whether one is a businessman who imagines himself as an empire builder or a former banker who creates a bohemian lifestyle for himself.

With television, film, and the Internet, Americans have carried these approaches to extremes, Maçães maintains. People fashion personas for themselves and then conduct their lives to promote the image they have created—if not permanently, then at least for the time being. This approach answers the need to cope with the cynicism that otherwise dominates modern life. The rise of political correctness, Maçães writes, is one example of this process. To adhere to political correctness is clearly to demonstrate a preference for how one portrays one’s life rather than how one lives it. Similarly, socialism is enjoying renewed popularity, precisely because it is no longer a vital, active political program, and so offers people more room to create imagery around it. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Maçães sums up the effect by playing on the old Marxist demand to “control the means of production.” Today, he says, the important thing is to control the “memes of production.”

Fascinating as all this is, I’m resistant to Maçães’s contention that it is new. One does not need to be a literary critic or a social historian to see evidence from the sometimes-distant past of people weaving fantasies about their place in the world and then acting on them. Nor do I see such practices as uniquely American. The costuming so prevalent in European street protests suggests that such fantasy worlds go well beyond America’s shores. Perhaps Maçães would respond by saying that television and the Web have made the image-making of the past more widespread, such that, instead of captivating only a few individuals, it has determined a path for the whole society. He might further argue that European street performers are less consumed by the images they have selected and more aware than their American cousins of where the image ends and they, as people, begin.

Maçães’s contention that these fantasies are mostly harmless raises a more serious objection. He claims that they minimize danger by allowing people to try things out in their heads instead of imposing them on society. It’s easy enough to accept that thinking generally. Certainly, the businessman who entertains fantasies of being an empire builder is harmless (except perhaps for those seated next to him at dinner). But real harm can occur when his acting out of that fantasy clashes with reality, or with other people’s competing fantasies. In response to the recent rioting around the U.S. Capitol, Maçães described the crowd as less interested in a coup—at least in the way that the word is usually understood—than in working out their dreams about themselves. That might be true of many people there that day, and even of many who entered the Capitol, but the reality remains that a precious American institution was threatened, and several people died. These are not harmless events.

Perhaps some of these questions and objections arise from my struggles with Maçães’s thesis. He might have offered more explanation for his description of this new American path. Still, the perspective Maçães offers and the imagination he demonstrates makes his book a fascinating, genuinely mind-opening read.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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