Rather than summarize the scope of Nell Painter’s book, I ask you to read this review by a sympathetic colleague. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Gordon-t.html?pagewanted=all.
As Linda Gordon’s NYT review makes clear, Nell Irvin Painter, a much honored historian, has written The History of White People (Norton, 2010), directing this synoptic intellectual/cultural history to a popular audience, hence biting off too big a chunk of history. Not so surprisingly, Professor Gordon, a well-known left-feminist, does not launch an ideological critique, for she shares the same social democratic/New Deal belief system. Gordon is a noted historian of the welfare state and feminist issues, but since she is of the same faction as Painter, she could not identify the slant of Painter’s book, which mocks the notion of cultural syncretism and the melting pot in favor of a salad bowl or multiplicity of American identities, defined in terms that rooted cosmopolitans would recognize: see http://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/, and http://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/).
Briefly, Painter reiterates the left-progressive (but not Marxist*) story of American identity, one defined in racial terms: American identity, the echt example of Manifest Destiny masquerading as universal messianic liberator, was in fact racist, imperialist, classist, sexist, etc. Howard Zinn could have written this book, and did. American identity is nowhere related to the revolutionary character of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or to the uniqueness of the conception of popular sovereignty—a notion of popular participation that would require several centuries and bitterly fought conflicts to be worked out, and even then, thanks to the unhelpful interventions of many progressives like Painter and Gordon, was undermined by boundaries to education established by corporatist liberal elites and their allies and pets, the teachers unions. For a chronology see http://clarespark.com/2011/10/24/turning-points-in-the-ascentdecline-of-the-west/.
The corporatist liberals are a movement of patricians who attached themselves to “intercultural understanding” as a solution to looming class politics from 1900 on, and who were especially threatened in the 1930s, when materialist analyses were prominent and popular. (See my blog http://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. Ralph Bunche and other anti-racist blacks—especially Abram L. Harris–writing in the materialist tradition and in opposition to German Idealism, are absent from her book, along with such as white antiracists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and many abolitionists, also Anglophiles in the sense that they celebrated libertarian ideals.)
In Painter’s account, New England Puritans were the bad guys whose ancestors framed the Magna Charta (dissed by Painter), and whose descendants were (with the exception of Ruth Benedict) nativists associated with the Republican Party. All other Americans (obviously blacks, but also non-Aryans) were their victims. But recent trends in intermarriage have blurred the sharp racial lines that were established by “scientific racism.” The latter is an ideology forged in Germany and England, and then eagerly taken up by American Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and those she associates with him, Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant [although Zangwill dedicated his The Melting Pot to TR]. Into the brew add a host of American eugenicists and evil statisticians, who not only persecuted Appalachian whites and ethnic groups from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, arbitrarily designating themselves (the WASPS) as the natural elite and true white people, but originated, avant la lettre, some of the most repellent Nazi practices and beliefs.
Along the way, Professor Painter, like other social democrats, presents herself as a sympathizer to the working class and to anarchists and communists absurdly hounded by the proto-Nazi Republicans in the riotous and strike-ridden year of 1919. (Readers of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism will find some of the same miscreants, e.g., Margaret Sanger, only in his widely admired book, it is progressives who are the fascists and Nazis.) And yet, Painter does not recognize or acknowledge the German Romantic predecessors to multiculturalism and Nazism alike. Nor does the term “organic conservative” darken her palette. (See these take shape in the interwar period in numerous venues as I laid out in several blogs: http://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/, http://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, http://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/. In other words, the progressives and Southern Agrarians were as enamored of “Anglo-Saxon” collectivist/corporatist categories as the uniformly racist Republicans she taunts throughout.
I do not know why Painter wrote this book unless it was meant to lure Reagan Democrats away from the Republican Party, back to the Democratic Party as it has evolved under President Obama. Her work reminds me of a common designation by 1930s Stalinists whereby all Republicans were Fascists, whereas the multicultural Soviet Union was the home to the most amply realized freedom of the individual.
One or two last words: Although Painter is hostile to antisemitism, she is not sympathetic to Israel, or to “Jews” who insist on “having the last word.” I did find her description of Hiram Powers’s “The White Slave” to be a useful key to identifying the erotic appeal of Katherine McPhee’s big number in the last episode of Smash. Dressed in white drapery, country mouse McPhee as Marilyn Monroe, is hounded to death and caged by her [Jewish?] masked promoters/fans, with her allure defined by whiteness and the chains (bars of the cage) that link purity, sex, and submission. But any hip feminist would have seen through that one.
*Marx admired the American Civil War as one of the great world revolutions. His communist supporters, writing in The New Masses during the 1930s, admired America for having developed the productive forces that would make the transcendence of capitalism a practical possibility. In those days, one could find radicals who admired the bourgeoisie as a progressive class. The New Left, mesmerized by black nationalist militants and Afro-centrists like Nell Painter, scrubbed away that interpretation of U.S. history. I rather like her paintings however.