In a long list of majestic paragraphs in The Great Gatsby, towards the end of the novel F. Scott Fitzgerald imagines Dutch sailors first landing on America’s eastern seaboard in the sixteenth century, seeing “a fresh, green breast of the new world….for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood or desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Aspirant puritans wanted something pure, but the fresh green trees were destroyed for Gatsby’s house, a metaphor for America’s wider drive for wealth and economic ‘progress’ above all else.
This is not the story the US state wants you to hear. For there is a state driven story that is told, not just by the USA, but to varying degrees, all countries. Unlikely to meet the standard of actual history, it is a narrative that informs education curriculums and is presented to citizens and to the world. It is the narrative that politicians often claim their political creed best presents.
In democracies politicians or intellectuals can attempt to recast or challenge the official version. The 1619 Project by The New York Times saw the paper identify 1619 as the founding year of the country as is this is when slaves from Africa were first used on American land. The project received both acclaim and criticism. But no such challenge to state narratives is permissible in authoritarian states. Capitals are the geographical crucible of the story, and the story of the nation flows from one lucky individual, reflecting the singular nature of the political system.
In Moscow’s Red Square, Lenin’s tomb announces Lenin’s crucial role as leader of the Russian revolution and founder of the modern, post-monarchical state. I went into the mausoleum and saw the open tomb containing Lenin’s embalmed body. But is it even Lenin’s body you are looking at? There is no chance to stop and gaze. Armed guards clad in fur hats and heavy over coats shuffled me and others on before the enforced hagiography could be questioned.
In Tiananmen Square in Beijing, questions go unanswered. Mao’s large portrait menacingly watched on as I asked our young, wide-eyed tour guide: “What happened here in 1989?” Larger than Moscow’s Red Square, one individual still hangs dominant over the scene. The tour guide’s limp response to my question: “there were some protests.” She did not mention student protestors erecting the Goddess of Democracy opposite Mao’s portrait. This symbol of democracy and the people was incongruous to China’s deification of one man. Resistors – like ‘tank man’ who stood with shopping bags in front of tanks – were either killed or arrested. The People’s Liberation Army shot students at point blank range and tanks rolled over tents with students inside them. Some protests. I saw Mao nodding approvingly.
After Mao, his successor Deng allowed some scrutiny of recent Chinese history. A Chinese Communist Party report even condemned aspects of Mao’s rule, such as the Cultural Revolution. Current leader Xi is more controlling of history. Censors recently banned a book on the fall of the Ming dynasty, as comparisons were made between the emperor who oversaw the end of the empire and Xi. Xi is keen too to project himself as heir to Mao.
In Putin’s imperial Russia story, he compares himself to expansionist leaders like Peter the Great, or those who epitomised strength, like Stalin. The individual is the focus, the obsession. Putin has clamped down on the organisation Memorial, the brilliant history organisation that seeks to research, share and preserve the memory of those killed during the reign of Stalin. This challenge to the state’s historical narrative is a challenge to Putin’s rule.
In Washington DC however, the reverence focuses on ideas not individuals. The National Archives Museum contains originals of the key documents that accompanied America’s founding and early development. A humble but satisfying incrementalism is on display as the documents go from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, to the Bill of Rights. People from all walks of life and background can get up close and stare at the parchment as long as they want. There is no armed guard to ferry you on. I saw the paling ink and spotted the moments where the thicker ink denoted the writer lingering on the page that much longer. Where they were when they scrawled such simple words of immense power? The progress, achingly thought out, culminating in this codification. There is a reverential moving around the documents by onlookers. The attendants watch on with pride, encouraging more assertiveness from the deferential crowd: “y’all don’t have to wait in a queue, go up to them if they’re free!”
Of course, parts of Washington that do contain single figure idolatry. Gazing up at the ceiling of Congress, there is George Washington in a grand scene befitting of a cathedral dome. Our tour guide, Terence, quipped in his rich north Carolinian accent, “kind of looks Jesus, don’t it?” But there are many men not one. The Founding Fathers are known less on an individual basis and more as a collective.
The memorials on the mall have a singular focus, most typified by Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, sat down overlooking the triangular reflective pool. However, even this memorial and setting does not belong to Lincoln alone. The most recognisable photo of the memorial is of Martin Luther King, giving his famed ‘I have a Dream Speech’, 50 years ago this year. His argument for civil rights for black Americans was grounded in the belief that achieving this would best fulfil America’s founding ideals. He claimed to be carrying forward Lincoln’s mantle.
It is fashionable, especially among some on the left, to condemn the Founding Fathers as contemptible. From today’s standpoint, their holding and treatment of slaves was both morally repugnant and highly hypocritical given what they preached. But they were able to create something truly innovative. The documents embody the enlightenment belief that society and politics can be based on human reason. The documents stem from English political ideas and practices about liberty, presentation and power, but have a distinctly American sheen and interpretation, based on America’s experience of colonisation and revolution.
These ideals though are not sufficient to preserve democracy. The political philosopher Amartya Sen highlights that democracy’s success cannot rely on “perfect institutional structure”. It depends too on “our actual patterns of behaviour and our social and political interactions. There is no chance of resting the matter in the safe hands of purely institutional virtuosity.” Individuals in each new generation must uphold the sanctity of these historic institutions that enact ideals, and reform them where needed to keep them functioning in the current era. It is sobering to think that the newly elected Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the leaders of the US legislature, is Mike Johnson, who tried to facilitate the overturning of the 2020 US presidential election.
In a time when global surveys consistently show declining faith in democracy, it is heartening to reencounter such values and beliefs as shown by the documents in the National Archive Museum. Contrast this with current American adversaries, whose state narratives that glorify one individual nurture a system where heinous policies are enacted, whether China who has been accused of carrying out genocide against its Muslim population, or Russia who has launched its invasion of Ukraine. Even if they are all too rarely lived up to, at least America’s founding narrative has ideas worth aspiring to aspire to and goal posts against which citizens can hold its government to account.