In Edward Rothstein’s recent review of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, he argues that in being more inclusive in its subject matter – or “politically correct,” as the headline states – the museum erodes the sacred nature of the independence movement, its power as a symbol to present-day Americans. He fully admits that the museum does better history by thinking critically about gender, race, slavery, and a dozen other things, but argues that the inclusion of these groups is disproportionate, and shaped by the present-day concerns of the Left.
There is, in fact, a recurring tilt leftward here. Thus, while the closing film properly treats the Revolution as a continuing project, finding extensions in civil-rights movements for African-Americans, gay people and women (and less properly in associating “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations with “the fire of the Revolution’s promise”), it doesn’t recognize other aspects of that tradition: the importance of individual liberties, the inevitable messiness of the democratic process, and the exceptionalism that yet remains.
This analysis has been frustrating and baffling to many historians of Early America:
Despite these claims about the overarching ideology, Rothstein’s real problem is with representation of people he sees as “less important” to the story. Over and over, he argues that inclusion of women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and even Loyalists is “disproportionate,” having “less to do with the war’s significance than with today’s preoccupations with identity-based tensions.” These addition of these groups “strengthens the history but weakens the event’s symbolic power.”
Rothstein argues that only present-day identity politics could shape this sort of argument and inflate the presence of these people and groups whose stories ultimately distract us from understanding the “war’s significance.” Museums make arguments, and Rothstein is not just uncomfortable with the argument the museum is making, he’s uncomfortable with what the museum thinks its role is. He doesn’t dispute the history, he just doesn’t like that it doesn’t fill him with the reverence and awe he thinks he deserves. He pays lip service to the important “messiness” of the democratic process, but in general, he wants a museum that will let him revel in the ideas of the Revolution completely abstracted from their historical realities.
Rothstein’s discomfort seems to stem from the way that the museum refuses to allow the ideology of the Revolution to be sacrosanct, even for a moment. He’s willing to acknowledge that over time, many groups fought to broaden its scope, demanding inclusion and individual liberties. But he wants to be able to hold this ideology outside of space and time for just a moment, to make it sacred at its inception. If it was only later that these other groups all of a sudden realized this ideology could include them, the ideology itself can be sacred, and the mission of those who fought for independence can be pure.
Instead, the museum forced him to recognize that the ideology itself was contested as it was being formed, and that the holes and inconsistencies weren’t just there from the beginning, but also that people saw them and pointed them out from the beginning. The ideology was never sacred and uncontested, not even for a moment. That is as much the war’s significance as anything else.
What can we take from this episode? If nothing else, if you visit a museum or historic house and never feel any discomfort, think about why, and think about who is being asked to endure discomfort for your comfort.