Jill Lepore Exploring National Identity Amidst Divisions

[photo courtesy Dari Michele]
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 If you think our nation is more divided over political issues than it has been in a long time, Jill Lepore says you are right.

“There’s a great deal of political science research that attempts to quantify this question that looks at ways to measure political polarization and those suggest that it is the greatest level of polarization since the Great Depression,” Lepore said.

Lepore is professor of American History at Harvard University, best-selling author of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” and “Book of Ages” and a longtime contributor to “The New Yorker.”

When a nation is divided, can it reach agreement on at least some areas of a shared past? That’s one of the major questions Lepore addresses in her forthcoming book, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (Norton) and at an upcoming talk in Cleveland.

“I think there can be and there certainly should be. Every country is a story about its own past, that’s what a national identity is. We have a past that isn’t about a common ancestry, language or even a common attachment to the land. That we are a nation of immigrants really is true, so what that means is what brings us together is a set of ideas. When we no longer share those ideas or even agree on what those ideas are, we are in a bit of trouble. That has happened a lot over American history, that is not a new thing,” Lepore said.

Lepore says while people might disagree on our nation’s history, they are quite interested in it.

“I’m always really struck by how curious people are about the past, how deeply they want to know and understand better. They want to know where ideas came from, who originated them, who contested them, how they advanced and why they retreated.”

Lepore says coming to perfect agreement on our past isn’t really the goal.

“We shouldn’t have a uniform account of the past. That would be kind of fascist state if we were required to believe “this” about the past our nation. I think if you understand that people have good intentions and goodwill and expect people to rise to good intentions, then there can be, if not a shared history because that’s an elusive goal, but at least a fascinating and illuminating conversation about the past. “

Wednesday at 6 p.m., Jill Lepore explores the question “Can a divided nation have a shared past?” as part of the Case Western Reserve University “Think Forum.” The event which is free and open to the public takes place in the Maltz Performing Arts Center on the CWRU campus. Reserve tickets online at https://case.edu/events/thinkforum/ or call 216-368-6062.

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