Jill Lepore on Traveling through Time (Ep. 24)
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / RSS
Is time like a line, a stretched out accordion, buried silos, or a flat circle? We concoct many ways to think about the relationship between the present and the past, but according to Jill Lepore one constant endures: “When you’re writing history, you’re always using your imagination.”
The historian and New Yorker writer joins Tyler for a conversation on the Tea Party, Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, growing up watching TV (the horror), Steve Bannon’s 19th-century visage, the importance of friendship, the subversiveness of Stuart Little, and much more.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: I’m here at Harvard University with Jill Lepore. She is one of the best-known American historians and also a columnist for the New Yorker. I’d like to give you my conceptual and indeed highly subjective introduction to how I think of her work.
The book of Jill’s that really made everything click for me is her book called A is for American, and that’s a book on communication. It studies Noah Webster, Samuel Morse, Gallaudet, Alexander Graham Bell, and I think of Jill’s works as being fundamentally concerned with communication.
It’s as if there’s information stored in silos around the country, around the world. They’re often distinct silos, and they’re somewhat hidden or encoded. The job of the historian — also the journalist, also the human being — is to unearth those silos, carry materials from one to another, deal with the impermanence of information.
So she is herself performing these multiple roles, and if I think of her different books, her columns, her book on Wonder Woman, is looking to comics as a silo, where there’s information about American history, unearthing truths about King Philip’s war in Native American history, realizing how much of the history of the 18th century, and indeed New York City, is in part a history of slavery. All of her books I’ve started viewing in this framework.
It turns out my favorite of her books is her latest one, that’s called Joe Gould’s Teeth. Joe Gould was a rather strange figure who at least claimed to be assembling a kind of definitive oral history of the United States, and it’s still debated to what extent this oral history actually existed. Jill writes that Gould suffered from graphomania, which is the desire to write and write and write.
I think of Jill, when she’s writing about Joe Gould, she’s actually writing about herself, that she herself has graphomania — doesn’t really suffer from it; it’s something we envy in her. It’s not just that she’s written a lot of pages, but the information density of those pages, the diversity of topics and perspectives, the different silos being brought together is so high. There’s so many features of Joe Gould’s life that in some way refer to Jill’s own life: the connection to New England, Joe Gould being at Harvard, Joe Gould being this outsider, that Joe Gould was made prominent by the New Yorker, that he was writing a history of America, and that he was obsessed with collecting materials.
So I think of Jill as, in a way, like a character in a Borges short story or her own obsession with Edgar Allan Poe and Poe’s short story, “The Gold Bug,” and encrypted messages. In essence, she’s writing all of these books that are deeply personal.
I read her book on Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s — until Jill’s book — not-very-well-known sister, who was largely an unrecorded figure in history, and I think of Jill when I read these books and that they’re all scattered with references and inside jokes and retellings of stories she’s been processing in her own mind. That’s my introduction to Jill, highly subjective.
But now she’s writing a book on the history of the United States. She’s been working on it two years, and I thought I would just toss out some topics. On any given topic you can comment on the topic, or you can tell us what it reminds you about in the 18th century, or you can just pass. How does that sound?
JILL LEPORE: OK, I’m in.
On stories of influential women
COWEN: OK, first topic. Since we’re here in New England, let’s start with Elizabeth Bishop.
LEPORE: Elizabeth Bishop, the poet.
LEPORE: What do you want to ask me about Elizabeth Bishop? [laughs]
COWEN: What does she mean to you? What’s her role in American history?
LEPORE: I don’t know that I have an answer about her role in American history, but I will tell a story.
When I was an undergraduate, I took a creative writing class at Tufts, which was a disaster in every conceivable way. One way in which it was a disaster is that one of the first short stories I wrote that semester featured a main character whose name was Elizabeth Bishop. I had no idea who Elizabeth Bishop was, and I got a terrible grade. Somehow, I think my creative writing instructor thought I was offering a meditation on the poetry and life of Elizabeth Bishop, and in fact I was offering no such thing.
I don’t have a “What does Elizabeth Bishop mean to us today?” She just is a kind of dark cloud over my own past. [laughs]
COWEN: You’re writing more and more on the issues of publicity and privacy. Today is the 125th birthday of a woman born under the name Gladys Louise Brooks, known as America’s sweetheart. We all know her as Mary Pickford. How does Mary Pickford fit into your vision of American history?
LEPORE: One of the things I find so interesting about our modern discussion of privacy is that the very notion historically comes out of the confinement of women. The big discussion about privacy — that began in the United States and influences our constitutional arguments today — starts in 1890 when Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, living both here in Cambridge together, write an article for the Harvard Law Review called “The Right to Privacy.”
What they’re animated by in doing that is, Warren, who’s married into a very influential Washington family, has been concerned about the way new technologies of photography — but this will then apply to film as well — have exposed people’s ordinary lives to public view in a new way. In particular, they have made women visible, and the private lives of families visible. Reporters with photographers come to Warren’s wedding, for instance, and his wife’s father’s funeral is covered in the paper with photographs.
So Warren and Brandeis, who write this article called “The Right to Privacy,” in which they argue that there inheres in the Bill of Rights a constitutional right to privacy — which later becomes resurrected, and since 1965, we use it to understand rights to reproductive privacy — is actually really about trying to hide women.
So much about Pickford and the early women of cinema and the controversial nature of their careers has to do with women becoming visible, more parts of women’s bodies becoming visible. The 1920s new woman and the flapper and the visibility of women incites a big public conversation that makes possible, eventually, the abolition of the Comstock laws. It’s the first federal law in 1873 that defines pornography, and it includes everything from discussion of contraception to discussion of homosexuality.
Those Comstock laws, the federal law and all the little state laws that follow, are really being contested in the 1920s as freedom of speech issues. So I guess I would put Pickford in that context and in that conversation because what I think the legacy interestingly is for, that our notion of the right to privacy historically has its roots in men’s interest in keeping women visible from public view, means that we have a really screwy understanding, constitutionally, of the right to privacy, and that reproductive rights, for instance, are grounded in a right that doesn’t, to me, make a lot of sense. Reproductive rights seems to me would’ve been much better grounded in claims for equal protection or claims for liberty than in claims for privacy, which I think turned out to have kind of backfired as a matter of legal discourse.
That’s a long departure from Mary Pickford, but when I look at — to get back to your silo question — when I look at something now, or in the past, it always appears to me on a timeline. Not all historians do this, but I’m really fascinated by timelines, so where did Pickford come from? And what’s Pickford’s legacy? I just sort of put things in that way.
COWEN: Of course, she’s also an immigrant from Canada.
But speaking of the visibility of women, Eleanor Roosevelt. You’ve just written a preface to a book by Eleanor Roosevelt, correct?
LEPORE: Yes, it was tricky because I’m writing this history of the United States, and I was working on parts of a chapter that are about the New Deal. And Eleanor Roosevelt says the real New Deal is a new civic role for women. And it’s really hard: One of the challenges of writing a textbook is how to fully integrate the story of women into the story of men, politically, over the centuries. Roosevelt is so interesting and so important in that era. The introduction I wrote is to this book that Roosevelt published, her first book, called It’s Up to the Women. It came out in 1933.
She had a very unhappy marriage, as you may know. FDR had an affair, a long-running affair. He was quite in love with another woman. Their marriage was sort of a disaster. She didn’t want him to run for president. She really didn’t want to become First Lady. She’d been very involved in the Democratic Party. After women get the right to vote in 1920, the parties have a fight about who can get women to join their parties, so they both form women’s divisions. Roosevelt is the head of the women’s division for the Democratic Party by 1920, and she’s been really involved in getting women to become engaged civically and politically and to run for office. And she’s disheartened by the idea of becoming a First Lady, which is essentially like being a caged bird, I think, to her.
COWEN: Still is.
LEPORE: [laughs] Still is, exactly. So she decides she wants to write a book. While her husband’s preparing for his inauguration, she writes this book called It’s Up to the Women. It’s actually a hilarious move, if you think about it. It’s a little nose-thumbing, in a way, like, “You know what? Good for you, you’re president. But really, to get out of this depression, it’s up to the women.” It’s a fascinating book and becomes controversial because she goes on a speaking tour.
In my class this week, I had my students read this incredibly funny document by H. L. Mencken from 1937. Right after the court-packing scandal, Mencken writes this constitution for the New Deal. It’s a fake constitution and just making fun of FDR’s abuses of power. And one of the clauses of the constitution in the executive part, is the president shall have the ability to appoint anyone in his family to any part of the administration to take on any role, and they shall not be prevented from touring the nation and making speeches. This is a not-very-sly attack on Eleanor Roosevelt.
But so interesting how, in the 1930s when Roosevelt was doing what she was doing, this question of whether women were too visible, too outspoken, whether women could speak in public, whether they could write on topics of interest to public affairs, remained a question. It remains a question today. This remains a surprisingly controversial question.
COWEN: If we think of the intensification of celebrity starting in the 1920s, and we compare figures such as, say, Charles Lindbergh to Amelia Earhart, who were two big early celebrities, a man and a woman doing some roughly comparable things, the unfairness meted out to women, say, being judged by their looks in particular ways that are unfair to them, has that really improved much since the 1920s, if you think about Pickford and Amelia Earhart and other women, who first hit that onslaught of celebrity publicity? Or do you think we’ve solved some problem we had back then through some means?
LEPORE: I don’t know if that’s improved. Women have a more visible role in realms other than entertainment. They’re more visible politically, for sure. But I think it remains quite a punishing thing to undertake, in many ways. The technological forces are suppressing women’s political speech in a new way. There are new technologies . . .
COWEN: Social media are more vicious.
LEPORE: The cost of speaking in public is different because there are new ways and more immediate ways of being shot down. So you might have said, even 15 years ago before the rise of social media, you might have said things were quite a bit better than in the 1920s or 1930s. But my guess would be, if you were to look at it empirically, I would suppose — and I could be wrong, I would really want to investigate this in a quantitative way — that the costs are more significant.
There would be people who are measuring that. Rutgers has this Center for American Women in Politics where they look at under what circumstances are women willing to run for office. Because it’s not that women don’t win when they run — they have a hard time raising money — but it has to do with a kind of reticence of the cost, often not only to one’s self but to one’s family, that women assess differently. And I wonder how chilling the discourse around social media has been for women who are considering.
On Charles Dickens the grump
COWEN: And from the book you haven’t written yet, Charles Dickens in His American Notes, why is he so grumpy about this country?
COWEN: What is it about the thought of Dickens that led him to under-appreciate our virtues, if indeed that’s what he was doing, and focus as much as he did, say, on the penal system here and other areas where very few people would defend America’s record?
LEPORE: For you listeners who don’t know the backstory, Dickens in 1842, late 1841, he decides to go to the United States. Partly he needs to earn some money. He wants to earn some money and he’s got a nice book contract. People tend to pop over to America, spend a few months and go back and write a little travel note. Dickens thought this would be a natural for him, and Americans thought of Dickens as a kind of honorary American because he wrote about the lowly. This is after Oliver Twist, so 1838, and The Pickwick Papers have been hugely popular in the United States.
He has this huge audience, he wants to meet his audience, and his audience is thrilled to meet him and honor him with their de facto citizenship. And Dickens thinks of himself as an honorary American in many ways. This is the land of democracy, and he’s a democratic writer. So he’s expecting it to be this incredible love fest, and the anticipation is huge. And yet, although he loves Boston — he lands first in Boston — and he quite loves Boston and is adored and finds it adorable. He becomes quite close with Longfellow and with Charles Sumner, really good friends with both of those guys.
The trip really falls apart when he goes to New York. He finds that Americans are, to him, garish and coarse. In a way, what Dickens finds traveling through the United States is that he really is an Englishman. [laughs] And he’s angry because — there are a lot of answers one could give to your question, why does he decide he doesn’t like the Unites States so much? He would have said, in a kind of pious way, because he was sickened by slavery. And although that’s true — he was indeed sickened by slavery, and he’s supposed to go on a tour of the South and he doesn’t. He gets as far as Richmond, and he just turns around. In the end he escapes and goes to Canada, where he’s very happy in Canada. [laughs]
But, more practically, he’s come partly because his work is generally pirated in the United States, and he goes to Washington to argue for copyright law, an international copyright law that would protect his work because he’s earning just pennies from the huge, vast, unprecedented sales of his work in the United States. And he finds that Americans are very — newspaper editors in particular — are quite contemptuous of him for having done this. Here he is, the poet of poverty, and he’s come here to make sure he’s paid for his work. The Americans find that to be ironic and to be hypocritical. And Dickens is like, “Well, I’m not working for free. I’m writing for a living here. You should be willing to pay me.” So it’s really as much that as anything else.
But there is a kind of general cultural coarseness that he doesn’t like, and he’s exhausted. Clearly his relationship with his wife is failing. There are a lot of other factors. I taught a research seminar with undergraduates about Dickens a few years ago, and the end product was, the students made a podcast. They wrote a radio drama, using only primary sources describing Dickens’s trip from Dickens’s letters home and newspaper reporters’ reports of Dickens as he goes from town to town. And they did a fantastic job, but it was hilarious because he comes with such high hopes, and the whole thing just unravels. The further he gets into the United States, the more he hates it, and the more Americans decide that they hate him.
I was going to write a book about it, and in the end I decided narratively it was too unsatisfying because you’re waiting for the redemptive moment and it just doesn’t come.
COWEN: If we go back to the 18th century, there’s Abbe Raynal from France, the philosopher George Berkeley from Ireland, arguably Jefferson: They think America will blossom as the new Athens and actually do so fairly soon. At best, they were 100 years too early with their forecast for when it would happen, arguably more.
What variable do you think they mis-estimated? Why were they so overly optimistic about the arts and letters in what was to become the United States? There’s much more alcoholism than they expected, more hooliganism, arguably more stupidity, badly polarized politics, and more violence. What was wrong with their model of this country, or country-to-be?
LEPORE: That’s an interesting question. I think that the flourishing that they anticipated rested on a misunderstanding of the basic premise of republican government as it was set up in the 18th century. They did not see what we would now think of as the original sin of the Constitution, the three-fifths clause and the continuation of slavery and that constitutional sanctioning of the institution, and could not see how the kind of decay that that would lead to in what was erected as this kind of shining city on a hill version of republicanism. That the first century of American history is engaged domestically, almost entirely with the struggle over that question. Every step westward that Americans make, is a step deeper into that problem.
LEPORE: And there’s no alleviating it before the war, and no real alleviation of it after the war. So, it seems naïve to suppose, looking back, that the flowering, the great flowering of culture, which is contingent in that notion on the ease of equality, could be possible.
COWEN: I’m not asking you to comment on Steve Bannon, but if you think of Steve Bannon, does that strike you as an unprecedented phenomenon in American history or something that reminds you of something earlier?
LEPORE: Bannon as a character or Bannon’s ideas?
COWEN: Either. Bannon as a role maybe. The mix of character and ideas in this weirdly unaccountable position.
LEPORE: I try really hard not to offer, “Here’s a historical analogy. This is a person somewhat similar at a different moment.” Because that logic generally makes no sense to me. There’s something, to me, very 1840s about Bannon, partly in the schlumpy . . . like you could see that guy wandering around a precinct on election day. And this is just going to seem unfair, but it’s something about his visage. You can completely picture him in an 1840s painting of American politics . . .
COWEN: Yes, you can.
LEPORE: . . . wearing the kind of baggy coat, and he’s got the bulbous red nose, and he’s a very Dickensian character in that sense. Dickens would have written him extremely well.
On how best to play the accordion of time
COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?
LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.
LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.
A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.
In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.
Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.
COWEN: You’ve written a book on the Tea Party as a modern phenomenon, and part of that book includes examples of how they’ve misinterpreted the Constitution. Are there aspects in which you would say the Tea Party was right about the Constitution, and we’ve neglected what they had to tell us, to our peril?
LEPORE: I think that constitutional interpretation is not as neat as that, like “These people were right, these people were wrong.” Historically, we can see certain decisions are, from our modern vantage, unequivocally wrong. They tended to be decisions that were extremely controversial at the time. Dred Scott in 1857, the worst decision the Court ever made. People of the time said it was the worst decision the court ever made. And then it becomes the measure of “This is the worst decision since Dred Scott.” FDR in the 1930s, when the court strikes down a lot of the New Deal, he says, “This is the worst thing since Dred Scott.” Or Lochner in 1905. People say, “This is the worst decision since Dred Scott.”
I don’t think we have that about, say, the Roberts court’s decision about the Affordable Care Act, which surprised people in the Tea Party by upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act under the broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause.
I don’t think that there’s some striking national consensus that that decision was either right or wrong. The people I spoke to in the Tea Party were most agitated about health care. The provisions that Obama was proposing and then later were passed by Congress — these were things that were not in the Constitution, and they would carry around signs saying, “These things are unconstitutional.” And the court made a different decision, and I don’t think that we have a vantage on that that would suggest, “Oh yes, the Tea Party was right and the court was wrong.” And that’s the chief constitutional question that the people I talked to are interested in arguing about.
COWEN: But isn’t it good to have a certain dogmatism about at least some aspects of the Constitution? If we look today at the Emoluments Clause, arguably it’s being violated in a fairly large number of ways right now. And as far as I can tell, the world doesn’t seem to mind that much. We’ll see how that develops, but if we were more originalist and more dogmatic about our own Constitution, would there not be a greater outrage right now about the Emoluments Clause in a way that would be productive?
LEPORE: Well, I don’t think that would require originalism; that would just be textualism.
COWEN: But textualism and originalism, they blend together, right?
LEPORE: Yeah, I don’t mean to avoid your question, but I guess one thing that became clear to a lot of people observing the Tea Party phenomenon, which is thought of as popular constitutionalism, or popular originalism, that is to say, rather than legal scholars offering these various interpretations, that the people would decide how to interpret the Constitution. It was a really, I thought, really fascinating and kind of exciting part of the Tea Party movement. You’d go to these rallies and people would be selling little books called The Constitution Made Easy, and people in the Tea Party would join study groups, or they would read the Constitution. And I’m all for reading the Constitution.
One of the reasons that that was illuminating was, you could see how entirely liberals had failed to talk in constitutional terms in making political arguments. That for as much as the decades in the middle of the 20th century having involved constitutional arguments made by minorities seeking rights — from Brown all the way through the same-sex marriage case — that liberals don’t talk about the Constitution as often. And it left a lot of room for that political argument to make it seem as though conservatives have the Constitution on their side, and liberals just think everything is made up and there’s a great deal of uncertainty. Structurally, that’s a completely unequal fight.
So I hear what you’re saying — you see that now — the degree to which thinking about the travel ban or the Emoluments Clause, or the many different ways in which the early acts of the Trump administration might be challenged on constitutional grounds, that liberals are citing the Constitution more often, but it becomes problematic when you only look to constitutional argument when you’re out of power.
On time travel, Doctor Who, and Adam Smith
COWEN: In addition to your work reminding me of Poe and Borges, someone else it also reminds me of is Connie Willis. She writes about the difficulties of time travel in her novels. There are stories of researchers being caught with not enough information, or having conflicting pieces of information and not exactly knowing what to do, but then in response to that, compiling or assembling more information, so something like Doomsday Book. Do you have a take on Connie Willis, or it’s something outside of your purview?
LEPORE: No, I haven’t read Connie Willis. I have a take on time travel and Doctor Who. [laughs]
COWEN: Tell us that. [laughs]
LEPORE: I’m totally fascinated by time travel.
COWEN: You should read Connie Willis, then.
LEPORE: OK, maybe I should.
COWEN: That’s her main theme. And a historical understanding of time travel.
LEPORE: Yeah, and I love thinking about how Wells, H. G. Wells, thinks about time. I find that really, really interesting. And I think what happens at the end of the 19th century, which is when modern science fiction is being born, among other things, there is this really dramatic sense that the pace in which we lead our lives is changing, and industrialism has accelerated our lives. A lot of historians have written about this, this new attention to time. You get this whole world of science fiction that’s interested in going back through time and especially going back to a time before industrialization, working out what would be the nature of our politics and our economics without industrialization.
I think that’s really, really interesting. I wrote a long piece once about Doctor Who because I happened to have watched a ton of it, both as a kid and as a grown-up, with my own kids, and as a kid, and with my in-laws, who are British. And I got really interested in how, by the time Doctor Who starts, which I think is 1961 — it just had its 50th anniversary a few years ago — the way that Doctor Who works is to use that sort of H. G. Wells critique of the widening inequality of industrial and post-industrial life, attaching it to nostalgia for the British Empire. What Doctor Who is all about is traveling through time so that Britain can be the world’s policeman instead of just one of the members of the Security Council.
It’s actually a really, really interesting way to reimagine imperialism. You could be the lord of time; Doctor Who is a time lord. It’s a kind of longing for Britain being the imperial power of the whole world. And what it means to then think about time as something that you could colonize. I think that all that is really, really profitable, intellectually, to puzzle through when and why people have fantasies about moving through time.
COWEN: And Brexit is arguable another example of that.
LEPORE: Is another example. People want to just, “Could we just turn back?”
COWEN: Can’t we trade more with New Zealand, what about India? Can we join NAFTA, maybe?
COWEN: To go back before industrialization, in your novel, Blindspot — which is yet another way of assembling and interpreting broadly historical materials — you mentioned Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1734. What’s your take on that book? Is it overrated, underrated? What do you pull from that?
LEPORE: I wrote this novel, Blindspot, with a friend of mine who is a colleague here, Jane Kamensky, and we had a whole lot of fun doing it. The reason that we wrote it and tossed in a lot of Adam Smith and everybody else was, we’d become really frustrated that we were really interested in telling stories that weren’t biographies of the founding fathers, 18th-century stories that weren’t another biography of Benjamin Franklin or another biography of John Adams. It’s very frustrating, as a historian who studies other sorts of people, that you just don’t have characters to drive a story like that.
We know a great deal quantitatively and aggregate about, say, poor widows in Boston in the 18th century, because we have the records of the overseers of the poor. We know how old people were when they entered the poor house, how old they were when they died there. How many days they spent there, how much their food cost. But we just didn’t have a story to tell about those people.
So, Jane and I decided to write this novel in order to animate the 18th century, the lives of ordinary people in the 18th century. But then, we also wanted to show how important 18th-century thought was to ordinary people, that for Smith, ideas about sensibility and the moral imagination, and the degree to which we form ourselves in relation to one another through the act of empathy and sympathy, were ideas that suffused the whole culture. That, for Smith, came out of his experience of the culture as much as they were him injecting something into the culture.
So that’s why [laughs] that stuff is all over Blindspot. We were ultimately, I think, two didactic professors just, “Here would be an occasion where we could allude to the Wealth of Nations now.” And “Here would be an occasion where we could bring in Locke.” We wanted to show that ordinary people were bound up in the world of ideas.
We were ultimately, I think, two didactic professors just, “Here would be an occasion where we could allude to the Wealth of Nations now.” And “Here would be an occasion where we could bring in Locke.” We wanted to show that ordinary people were bound up in the world of ideas.
On coming in from the outside
COWEN: Even though you’re famous and teaching at Harvard, I think of you in some ways as an outsider historian, much as we have outsider artists in American culture. So you have a background in ROTC, in field hockey, and you also, for a while, were a secretary at Harvard Business School. How do you think those experiences have made you different as a historian and also a writer, compared to, say, your colleagues in American history?
LEPORE: I don’t know. I think I might be romanticizing myself to believe myself to be an outsider in the way that you’ve described.
COWEN: But I’ve done it for you, you don’t have to do it.
LEPORE: I do think I come from a different place than a lot of academics. I would say a large number of my colleagues are faculty brats. They were raised in academic households in one degree or another. I think that’s a common experience of contemporary academics. That was so entirely not where I came from. And I cherish that, I guess I do have a kind of fascination with the experience of ordinary people. The way that our contemporary politics is organized around hostility to intellectuals on the part of “the people” is something that’s familiar to me, that’s absolutely the world in which I grew up.
COWEN: And what town did you grow up in?
LEPORE: I grew up outside of Worcester, and we came into Boston to see the Red Sox when we could get bleacher-seat tickets. We never did anything else in Boston. The Boston Globe was “that communist rag,” and Harvard was an embarrassment, which all made sense to me at the time. And I think that’s an important background to have, having the experience of going back and trying to write this history textbook. Where that comes from, and how that intersects with my own biography, has been really illuminating to me.
In the 1930s, the Left really romanticized ordinary people, right? There’s the great passion for the folk. And in the 1950s, the Left intellectuals decided that the folk had terrible taste, right? And then there’s this incredible cultural contempt for mass culture and television in particular. I remember when I went to college, meeting a lot of people like, “Oh, yes, we didn’t have a television at home.” Because that was the kind of intellectual move of a certain kind of cultural elite . . .
LEPORE: . . . at that moment. And I’m sorry, but I spent my entire childhood watching Get Smart and Gilligan’s Island. I will not apologize for that. I had a totally lower-middle-class experience growing up.
COWEN: Same shows I watched, by the way. The exact same.
LEPORE: Yeah, I learned a lot from those shows.
COWEN: I Dream of Jeannie?
LEPORE: I Dream of Jeannie. Six Million Dollar Man. When I went to interview people for the Tea Party book, I went to talk to people who were involved in the Boston Tea Party. And they were exactly like my family. My family is completely sympathetic to all those political arguments.
So the weird sorting, where people are like, “Oh, when I go home, I don’t know how to have a conversation at the Thanksgiving table with my family.” I’m like, “I don’t even know, what are you talking about?” These are people you love. We are not enemies with one another.
That whole piece of having been sorted out at the worst moment, historically, in the 20th century for tensions between different groups of people, I think serves a lot of people very poorly in how they can lead their lives. I by no means escape that, right? I teach here, it’s a different world, I get that, but . . . When I went to college, I’d never been to a restaurant.
LEPORE: We’d get pizza sometimes, and I had been to Friendly’s. And that was my experience of restaurants. I remember freshman year, people were like, “Let’s go out” and “We’re going to go get nachos down at Teele Square.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? With what money?” We have a meal plan. I’m working three jobs to pay for my frickin’ meal plan. People had no idea about that.
What’s difficult for undergraduates who are first-generation college students now — I don’t get that. I didn’t come from nothing. I don’t get that. I don’t mean to give myself some kind of street cred or something, but I do get having a sense that you don’t belong in a place. And there’s so many ways that elite institutions communicate to you that you don’t belong. And I’ve never really shed that.
COWEN: So when you were a secretary at Harvard Business School, what were you thinking? Was it like, “Hey, I can do this” or “I’m about to make my escape; I’m just putting up with this for now”?
COWEN: Or “Being a secretary is more fun than people realize; this is an input into what I’m going to do later” or what? How was that for you?
LEPORE: It was actually a good time. They were demolishing the building that I was working in that summer, and they were throwing away all the stuff in it, and I was like, “Can I have my desk?” They let me take my desk, and I had that desk all through graduate school. It was trash, it was a piece of trash to the Harvard Business School. I was like, “It’s a beautiful desk. This is the nicest piece of furniture I have ever had.”
LEPORE: I graduated from college early because I ran out of money, and then I worked a number of secretarial jobs because I really wanted to be a writer, and I could not figure out how to do that. In the same way I had never been to a restaurant, I didn’t know any writers. I had no idea how you would . . . I went through the classified ads and tried to get an editorial job at a local paper, but I needed to pay my student loans and so, whatever. I worked for a temporary service called Man Power for a long time. I worked at all the . . . we would call them startups, but they weren’t called startups then. But they were all falling apart. I worked at these big companies that were falling apart, like Polaroid and Unisys. I worked at Unisys for a long time. It was great because they had great computers. And the thing is, if you were working at a company that’s falling apart and they have you hired as a temp, it means they basically don’t have any workers, like they fired their secretarial staff.
COWEN: Yes and they need someone, but you don’t have to work much.
LEPORE: And they need somebody to answer the phone, but they have nothing for you to do because the company is about to close. So I did a lot of writing at those places. And I found that very fun. I lived with a bunch of friends, I had a pretty good paycheck, I could meet all my loan obligations, was fun writing all day, I’d read all night. It was nice, I didn’t have a plan.
But when I was working at the business school, the business school was a little bit tougher because the money was just shocking. The amount of money that was there, the amount of money that people were making, and a lot of this passed over my desk.
LEPORE: It was really shocking. Really, really shocking to me. Maybe it was before then or after then, but I also worked at Radcliffe at the Bunting Institute. I had seen academic life in other ways, and it’s not the same thing. Academic life in a college is like maybe a mom-and-pop grocery store on the corner, and academic life at a business school is, I don’t know, it’s like being the CEO of Whole Foods or something. It’s just a completely different scale of endeavor.
So I was pretty shocked by it. I really did feel I’d spent enough time doing this. I needed to make some kind of a move. And I still couldn’t figure out how to become a writer. I’d written all of these stories, and I wrote a novel [laughs], and so I decided to apply to graduate school. It was the only thing I could really think of doing. I figured if I went to graduate school to get a PhD, I’d be able to write a book and somewhere along the line in graduate school, I would learn how you would publish a book. This was my incredibly lame . . .
LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.
On AA and lifetime friendship
COWEN: In the end material of your novel, Blindspot, you refer to Adrianna Alty as one of your muses, and then Joe Gould’s Teeth, I see the dedication is to simply AA — possibly that’s her. What did you learn from Adrianna Alty, who was your best friend in high school, correct?
LEPORE: Yeah, yeah. I did a three-part story for the New Yorker Radio Hour about Adrianna, or Adrianna and I did a story together.
COWEN: Which I’ve heard, but what did you learn from her?
LEPORE: Yeah, what did I learn from Adrianna? I learn from Adrianna all the time. I was [laughs] just texting Adrianna yesterday, because I was trying to write about the civil rights movement in the early 1960s for the chapter of this crazy book that I’m writing. While I was writing — because I’m so far behind schedule — I was trying to watch this PBS documentary about the freedom riders while I was writing a chapter and just listened to it in the background. And I texted Adrianna [laughs], I was like, “OK, this is a whole different kind of courage than I have ever really thought about, those people going into those bus stations in 1961 and knowing that they were just going to be beaten.”
LEPORE: And Adrianna texts me back, “Yes, obviously. Next question?”
She’s just the person I’ve known the longest in my life, with whom I’ve been the closest. I was very close with my mother; both my parents are dead. But she’s the person who . . . We play this role for each other. I don’t know if you have a friend from that early in your life.
COWEN: Yes, I do; two high school friends that I’m still in contact with.
LEPORE: Yeah. We are each other’s eyewitness to history. I know who she was when she was still a brain stem. And that is really important because Adrianna is, for me, the person who often will reflect that maybe what I’m doing isn’t consistent with who she thinks I am. And that’s a really helpful correction. We don’t all get that in life. I don’t know, I guess there’s a long trajectory of that.
When we were working on Blindspot — Adrianna is an artist; she paints and she’s also a sculptor. Blindspot is about artists, and so I sent her a thousand questions about how to understand 18th-century art and how to make it, and that was super fun.
On being a product of New England
COWEN: I’m often fond of saying, most thinkers are what I call regional thinkers. They’re really deeply shaped by the region they grew up in. I am myself, for better or worse, a mid-Atlantic suburban thinker. Now, you grew up near Worcester in Massachusetts, you’re now at Harvard, you’ve been at Boston University. A big chunk of your life has been spent in New England, indeed in one state in New England. I hesitate to use the word bias, but how do you think that is shaping this history of the United States that you’re writing, that you are so much a product of New England?
LEPORE: Yeah. I think it’s a big problem, honestly. I lived in California; my first academic job was in California. I did a master’s degree in Michigan, and then I was in Connecticut, but no . . . Nor have I ever lived abroad. I’m not the most well-traveled person, and there’s a whole foreign policy, US in the world part of the story of the United States. So I’ve just tried to be conscious of that parochialism.
COWEN: If we take the cliches about New England — they may or may not be true — but a certain kind of civic culture, a certain kind of blue-blood moralizing. Do you see that in your own perspectives? Or do you think you’re some other New England? Maybe all of New England is some other New England.
LEPORE: My world is a little bit more Manchester by the Sea New England.
LEPORE: That’s not William James. I think when people think of that New England bias, they’re thinking of a William James character, or of a New Yorker version, like Lionel Trilling, kind of that, and that I don’t have.
COWEN: What’s the part of this country you understand least well?
LEPORE: I would think the Southwest, honestly. I’ve been trying to think through that emergence of the Sun Belt story.
LEPORE: And how dramatically it reshapes American political arrangements. I am absolutely impaired by not having spent enough time in that part of the country and know what it is now or what it was 20 years ago. That said, I also didn’t live in Boston in the 1820s or in Philadelphia in the 1780s or in Georgia in the 1730s. So when you’re writing history, you’re always using your imagination.
I am absolutely impaired by not having spent enough time in that part of the country and know what it is now or what it was 20 years ago. That said, I also didn’t live in Boston in the 1820s or in Philadelphia in the 1780s or in Georgia in the 1730s. So when you’re writing history, you’re always using your imagination.
And having a greater vantage on the present day, in some ways, can be another kind of distorting force in your work because you’re always trying to gather together what you believe of the world today, and make it come out that way. Do you know what I mean? Like when you write history to make it come out the way you think it’s supposed to come out?
LEPORE: And that’s tough; I find that really hard; I find that is a challenge altogether. On the one hand, it’s definitely a problem for me, as a citizen frankly, that I haven’t spent more time in more parts of the country. As a historian, I’m not sure it’s the liability that it might, at first, appear.
COWEN: I’ve seen data that indicate that literally every county in Connecticut right now is depopulating, and Connecticut is not exactly a complete economic trainwreck, though some parts have their problems. Do you think America as a whole, as a country, is in some way rejecting New England? Because, Boston aside, it doesn’t seem to be on the rise, and in terms of cultural centrality, at least superficially, it seems to be on the decline.
LEPORE: I think that’s a long-term trend. I don’t think that’s something new. If you think about . . . [laughs] I’m so sorry, I’m so stuck in the moment that I’m writing about.
COWEN: Great, great.
LEPORE: But the 1964 Nelson Rockefeller versus Barry Goldwater in the Republican party — here’s the East Coast moderate Republican establishment, and here’s the Arizona senator that represents the rising tide of conservatism in American life. And Goldwater wins the nomination, [laughs] and he’s defeated resoundingly, and it’s a crisis. But in the long run, it’s that move that wins out. So you can say, “Yeah, but Mitt Romney didn’t run as a governor of Massachusetts. Mitt Romney ran as a guy from Utah.”
LEPORE: The train that you think is just leaving the station left the station 20, 30 years ago.
COWEN: And what is wrong with New England, so to speak? Why is it not retaining the loyalty of people who were born here? Why are they leaving?
LEPORE: Oh, other New Englanders who’re not ashamed of New England would say, “What’s wrong with the rest of the country? New England is where it’s at.”
But the vacuum that was left in terms of the liberal East Coast establishment, I guess I would contest that it’s doomed, completely doomed. But Silicon Valley — that’s the plug that fills up that vacuum, right?
LEPORE: And I think the question is not what’s wrong with New England, but what’s wrong with why we’ve put people in Silicon Valley on such a pedestal. Why there’s so little criticism of what is being offered by way of technology and its consequences, especially for our politics. So, if I had to choose between John Dewey and Mark Zuckerberg, I would pick Dewey every time.
On the subversiveness of Stuart Little
COWEN: OK. Let’s say you know someone from China. They’re highly intelligent, quite literate, but they don’t know much about the history of the United States. And they ask you to recommend to them a book to read — but not your own — and a visual artist to look at or study to get a better understanding for their first trip. They’re going to come here and drive across country. Where would you direct them?
LEPORE: A book I’ve really loved reading, which is published in, I think, 1954 — so it misses the last half century and more — is called Out of Our Past, and it’s a history of the United States. Really one of the last attempts to synthesize the entire story, and it’s a short book.
COWEN: It’s funny. I just ordered this book on Amazon yesterday. Someone wrote me and said, “You need to read Out of Our Past,” and I haven’t, so I just bought it. But why is that interesting?
LEPORE: What I like about it is, it doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story. It’s not textbook-y, like, “Now we must address the war of 1812.” Its premise is, “Here’s my . . .” — I found this really helpful in thinking about my attempt to write this synthetic history — “We’re not trying to justify present-day arrangements, but let’s use as our tool in determining what should be in this book and what should not be in this book, “What are things that are still big questions?”
It’s 1954 and 1955, and he says, “Well, there’s going to be a lot in this book about the Negro in America. But you know what there’s not going to be a lot about? Most presidential administrations of the 19th century. And I’m not going to pay as much attention as I should to the fates of the various colonies and American Indians.” And it has this kind of decision about selectivity that means that it works as a book. It’s a coherent story without being a highly ideological story. And that’s a tough bed to make, tucking in each of those corners and making it flat on top, but yet it would be comfortable to lie down in. It’s a tough job.
COWEN: Another book from that era I quite like is John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A., which is written at a very superficial level, but state by state, I find one of the most insightful treatments of what this country is about.
LEPORE: [laughs] I wrote a long article, an investigative piece, about Stuart Little years ago because — this often happens to me — I just fall into a hole in the ground, and I can’t get out until I have gotten to the very, very bottom of it. I was asked to write a book review of a new history of children’s literature. So I read the book, and then I read a couple of other books about children’s literature and they all, in this kind of throwaway line, said, “Stuart Little, published in 1945, was of course banned.” And there’s no footnote, no explanation, no nothing.
So I read the book, and then I read a couple of other books about children’s literature and they all, in this kind of throwaway line, said, “Stuart Little, published in 1945, was of course banned.” And there’s no footnote, no explanation, no nothing.
At the time, one of my kids was six, and he was reading Stuart Little, we were reading at night together, and I was like, “Wait, the story about the mouse who drives the little car and rides a sailboat across the pond in Central Park, that was a banned book? What do I not know about 1945 or this book? What am I missing?”
And I was shocked. I really was shocked. And I was staggered that these histories of children’s literature couldn’t even identify the story. I got really interested in that question, and I did what I do when I get a little too curious about something, is I become obsessive about finding out everything that could possibly be found out.
So, I began by reading E. B. White’s papers. His wife, Katharine Angell White, was a fiction editor at the New Yorker. She edited Nabokov, and she was an incredibly powerful fiction editor, but she also, for a time when her children were young, had a column in the magazine called “The Children’s Shelf,” where she would review children’s literature. So, I started looking at her papers. It was very clear, very early on, that it was the first librarian of the children’s room at the New York Public Library, Anne Carroll Moore — very formidable woman — who had decided that Stuart Little ought to be banned. Which was interesting, because it was she who tried to convince E. B. White to write for children in the first place.
So I started reading Anne Carroll Moore’s papers. And then it was clear, there was elaborate drama among these three people, Anne Carroll Moore, Katharine White, and E. B. White, about what books should be for children and should not be for children. Anne Carroll Moore was part of a generation of women who became librarians and who segmented out literature and built these children’s rooms, where there would be the books that children were allowed to read.
COWEN: But why ban it? Is it because procreation is such a mystery? You would think that would decrease the need to ban it. But the main characters, you’re always wondering where they come from. When Stuart is with Harriet, he has no idea what to do. Is Stuart gay? Is Stuart autistic? All of the above? What’s really going on in the story in your take?
LEPORE: What’s really going on in the story is that E. B. White and Katharine White didn’t really believe in children’s literature as an endeavor.
COWEN: Yes, this is obvious.
LEPORE: So, when Stuart Little, the mouse, is adopted by the Littles . . . He’s not adopted in the original edition, he’s born.
LEPORE: And the fact that children are asked to imagine a little mouse coming out a woman’s vagina was too shocking to Anne Carroll Moore, so that’s one thing. But also, then his parents set about bowdlerizing children’s literature. So, when the night before the Christmas . . . “T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” They think that might hurt Stuart Little’s feelings, so they change it to “a louse.” His parents go through everything they’re going to share with him, and take out all the bad things that happen to mice because they want to protect their little one. What E. B. White and Katharine White were hugely upset about was the juvenilization of children’s literature.
In the 1930s there was this Life magazine exposé called “The Birth of a Baby,” and it was a photo essay, centerpiece photo essay, that Life magazine made this huge fuss about. They sent out a mailing to all their subscribers in advance, saying, “Next week’s issue is going to be scandalous. You might not want to show it to your children.” They put it in a wrapper. And it was just photographs of a woman giving birth, and they weren’t even explicit. You certainly did not see the head coming out of her body. But it was this huge hubbub, and it was a huge success for Life’s subscription.
Henry Luce, who published Life, and Harold Ross, who published New Yorker, were big rivals. E. B. White wrote a parody of it, called “The Birth of an Adult.” Very, very funny. In other words, Stuart Little is an extension of that project. E. B. White had written the book in the 1920s, called Is Sex Necessary?, which was a parody of facts-of-life books for kids and how silly they were. So, Stuart Little is a continuation of these forms of satire and parody that are making fun of the juvenilization of American culture and the Golden Age of Children’s Literature.
COWEN: So, it’s really about sex education then?
LEPORE: Well, it is really about sex education. But in the letters between Anne Carroll Moore and E. B. White and Katharine White, they kept referring to this letter that Anne Carroll Moore had sent after she read the galleys, before the book came out. She apparently sent this letter to E. B. White, telling him not to publish it, and that she would stand in its way. I couldn’t find the letter anywhere. It was like the smoking gun of the great suppression of this book about a mouse. Katharine White said she was so upset by it, she had destroyed it.
I eventually found it at UCLA in the papers of Anne Carroll Moore’s successor, who had done an oral history. Anyway, I found the letter; it was a total find. But she talks about how monstrous it is and how children won’t be able to understand this.
It was one of the most fun research benders I’ve ever been on. I remember I was driving one day, I got up at 5:00 in the morning. My kids were too little to be taking on these trips, but a friend of Katharine Angell White, her papers were at Vassar, and I got in the car, and I drove to Vassar. And there were these incredible letters about Stuart Little and about Anne Carroll Moore, and this woman who was a children’s editor at Macmillan had these letters. It was incredibly fun to track down.
A student who went to see E. B. White’s papers, which were at Cornell recently, and he says, “Is there anything you really want to see?” And I said, “Yeah, you know what I want to see? Box 251, folder 12. It says, according to the finding guide, Stuart Little’s roadster is in that box.” And he said, “Are you kidding?” So he went and he got it. The curators hadn’t seen it since the papers had been catalogued, and they all pulled it out and looked at it, and it’s still there. I’m very jealous I didn’t get to go hold the roadster in my hand.
On photography as America’s art form
COWEN: Oh, and we had skipped over the question, for your imaginary Chinese friend: What painter or visual artist would you recommend they take a look at for their visit here?
LEPORE: I got really interested in Jacob Lawrence when I was working on Joe Gould’s Teeth, and thinking about what was so exciting representationally about Harlem artists in the ’30s and ’40s. I’ve often thought about what it would mean for Lawrence to be your introduction in the kind of swan song piece of what American art is representationally. So, I don’t know. If I had an endless amount of time to think about it, I don’t know that I’d settle on Lawrence, but in my mind at the moment . . .
COWEN: If we think about the 18th-century American painting, it’s so portrait-intensive, as you’ve observed yourself. Today, income inequality is fairly high. Andy Warhol silkscreens aside, there’s Chuck Close. But for the most part, it’s not very portrait-intensive. And even Chuck Close, very often, is not painting the people who are paying him to do the painting. Given that celebrity has so intensified, why have we so much moved away from portraits?
LEPORE: There’s this lovely series of lectures that Frederick Douglass gives in the 1860s. They have different titles, but one of them is called “Pictures in Progress.” Douglass, when he escaped from slavery, 1838, he was 20, the year before the daguerreotype comes to the United States. He sits for a daguerreotype in 1841, and he’s really transformed by what it is to see himself in a photograph.
In the 1860s, he writes all these essays about photography in which he argues that photography is the most democratic art. And he means portrait photography. And that no white man will ever make a true likeness of a black man because he’s been represented in caricature — the kind of runaway slave ad with the guy, the little figure, silhouette of the black figure carrying a sack. And, as historians have recently demonstrated, he’s the most photographed man in the 19th century. Douglass just makes a big commitment to being photographed.
COWEN: More than Lincoln?
LEPORE: Yeah, he is really obsessed with photography because what it means to have a black man represented is the kind of “I am a man” speech that you know from the 1960s, these kind of black protests, that slogan “I am a man. I’m not a caricature; I’m not less than a man.” And he writes this essay about photography, why it’s so important, and why it’s basically, although not a natively American art, is the sort of de facto American art form because even the poorest servant, even the poorest cook-maid, can afford a photograph of herself and of the people that she loves.
In previous ages, when it would be kings and bishops who were portrayed, that everybody can see themselves and can see one another and, therefore, we can understand our equality. He has this whole technologically deterministic argument about photography and progress, and it’s very much bound up in 19th-century fantasy, notions of progress. But it’s a little heartbreaking to read because that’s not what happens with photography, right?
On effects of social media, democratizing or otherwise
COWEN: If photography was initially a democratizing art, if you think about Silicon Valley JPEGs today, and Instagram, also Snapchat, is that as well a democratizing art, or somehow the opposite? And if so, why the difference?
LEPORE: I ask my students that question all the time. I ask them how they understand what the political consequences are of the technological tools that we use day to day. Because I myself, I’m really puzzled by that.
COWEN: You’re puzzled that people do it, or you’re puzzled as to what its effects are?
LEPORE: [laughs] Oh, I’m definitely puzzled that people do it. But as to what its effects are . . . You know, there’s this great section in Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, where he talks about the guys who invent the personal computer. He argues that it comes out of the beat movement.
LEPORE: That there’s the big-business mainframe world of IBM and UNIVAC. And then there’s the idea of liberation through a personal computer…
COWEN: And networking.
LEPORE: …as a kind of Ken Kesey.
Well, networking, yes, to some degree.
COWEN: San Francisco had networking. LA had the broadcast model, which in a sense failed. And San Francisco outpaces — or the Bay Area — probably the rest of this country.
LEPORE: Yeah, and that’s where the whole digital democracy notion comes from. That this is the leftover of a ’60s utopianism, a new Left utopianism. And that, to me, is just a very tragic story because the research that has been done that got to me — like that book, The Myth of a Digital Democracy — what people expected digitization and the rise of the Internet to do politically, those expectations have not been met. And I think it’s not an exertion intellectually to be dystopic about the consequences of these technologies. I think the exertion is actually trying to steer a middle course, and see what’s working and what’s not working, and what effect things are having, and what are the ways that those things could be measured.
But when I ask my students to read Frederick Douglass’s “Pictures in Progress” from 1861, and I ask them “What’s your answer for Snapchat?” I think they generally have a dark answer.
COWEN: Explain a little more.
LEPORE: I wish I could best represent the student who would make the strongest argument in favor of what’s good about these tools . . .
COWEN: What if I were to say, well, they are truly democratizing. So Brexit, the British people actually wanted. I thought it was a mistake personally, but it may not have happened or won without social media. But it did represent the popular will. And once it was voted through, there’s been remarkably little regret.
So what if someone argued the problem is democracy and not social media? Yes or no?
LEPORE: Yeah. Myself, I suspect that the problem is that we have a representative system of government, but we no longer believe in representation. We actually believe in direct democracy.
And most of these tools that allow us to represent our own views, we are constantly representing our own views. Instant polling and even the rise of the referendum or growing reliance on a referendum — something as big as Brexit — that we don’t actually subscribe to the idea that we elect someone like our congresswoman, say, to represent the views of a large constituency of people. That that is an act of faith, and it is an act of community, and that we instead — and this is re-inscribed for us in our technologies — we instead believe that her job is to tally up our individual views and then act accordingly.
Previous generations said that that was robotic. That would be the language of the 1950s that people would talk about. People who are elected to represent you, they’re not delegated to do what you tell them to do. You elect them to represent the views of the community.
I think there’s a mismatch between what we think happens and what the system is set up to happen. People could decide, “You know what? Direct democracy is the right thing. We should get rid of the Electoral College, say. We should have instant polling so that if your congresswoman’s going to vote on an act of legislation, she should be able to get feed from every constituent and then just do what she’s told.” We might decide that that’s a way to reframe our system of government, but that’s not actually how it was built.
COWEN: Final question. The world of social media, we all know it’s not going away. Maybe it has some problems, but if you were to give a student or a person some piece of advice or intellectual ammunition to carry with them through this world — some book, some essay, some thought — so as to make it marginally better rather than marginally worse, what would that be?
LEPORE: Read this E. B. White essay called “Death of a Pig.”
COWEN: And what does he tell us in “Death of a Pig”?
LEPORE: A pig dies on his . . . He was in Maine. He’s trying to understand what it means when something dies when you didn’t expect it to die and you couldn’t save it, and I just find it a very beautiful essay. But I think something is dying, and we can’t save it, and that’s a good place to start, to figure out how to feel about that.
COWEN: Jill Lepore, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure and an honor.
LEPORE: Thank you. Thanks.