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The Big Answer


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The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

a book by Jon Meacham

(our site's book review)

The Good News Is That We Have Come Through Such Darkness Before, Says Meacham

The Amazon blurb says that #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR

Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Meacham shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” have repeatedly won the day. Painting surprising portraits of Lincoln and other presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and illuminating the courage of such influential citizen activists as Martin Luther King, Jr., early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch, Meacham brings vividly to life turning points in American history.

Civil War
Civil War

He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the Lost Cause; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s; the fight for women’s rights; the demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of America First in the years before World War II; the anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Lyndon Johnson’s crusade against Jim Crow. Each of these dramatic hours in our national life have been shaped by the contest to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear—a struggle that continues even now.

The Soul of America: the battle for our better angels sees U.S. evolution as a constant war of good versus evil
The Soul of America: the battle for our better angels sees U.S. evolution as a constant war of good versus evil

While the American story has not always—or even often—been heroic, we have been sustained by a belief in progress even in the gloomiest of times. In this inspiring book, Meacham reassures us, “The good news is that we have come through such darkness before”—as, time and again, Lincoln’s better angels have found a way to prevail.

Here's an example of us "coming through such darkness before": "Corporate greed is nothing new in America. Anyone who has been the victim of restructuring, hostile takeovers, and other downsizing efforts can attest to this. In fact, some might say that the country was built on it. The term Robber Baron refers to individuals in the late 1800s and early 1900s who earned enormous amounts of money through often highly questionable practices. Some of these individuals were also philanthropists, especially upon retirement. . . . In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court found [John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company] in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered its breakup." (This happened with Ma Bell in 1982 to produce a bunch of Baby Bells.) See 6 Robber Barons From America's Past.

Here Robber Baron John D. Rockefeller wears a crown of wealth
Here Robber Baron John D. Rockefeller wears a crown of wealth. A few years later a boardgame Monopoly was created by stenographer, reporter, short story and poetry writer, comedian, stage actress, feminist, and engineer Elizabeth Magie. Ironically, people hated Robber Barons' greed, but loved simulating this greed in creating monopolies in the game!

Praise for The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

“Appalled by the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump, and shaken by the deadly white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in 2017, Meacham returns to other moments in our history when fear and division seemed rampant. He wants to remind us that the current political turmoil is not unprecedented, that as a nation we have survived times worse than this. . . . Meacham tries to summon the better angels by looking back at when America truly has been great. He is effective as ever at writing history for a broad readership.”—The New York Times Book Review

“This is a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book.”—Walter Isaacson

"Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, though it intends to uplift, nonetheless offers a necessary and sobering corrective. America’s past is 'more often tragic' than otherwise, the historian writes, 'full of broken hearts and broken promises, disappointed hopes and dreams delayed'. In times of fear, our leaders 'can be as often disappointing as they are heroic.' And if the soul of America is found in those attempts to expand the space for more people to live freely and pursue happiness, Meacham also points to a 'universal American inconsistency' — even as we uphold life and liberty for some, we hold back others deemed unworthy." (Source: Stop saying the Trump era is ‘not normal’ or ‘not who we are.’ We’ve been here before., Carlos Lozada, Washington Post)

"Meacham’s book arrives at a time when much about the American political system seems broken. People are angry, ambivalent, anxious. But Meacham, by chronicling the nation’s struggles from revolutionary times to current day, makes the resonant argument that America has faced division before — and not only survived it but thrived. 'This book,' Meacham writes, 'is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent — a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable.' A significant source of the current 'public dispiritedness,' Meacham argues, is Donald Trump." (Source: 'The Soul of America' review: Jon Meacham surveys the history of our political divisions, Paul Alexander, Newsday)


The Confederacy: an Experiment in Racial Supremacy

“I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president [Trump] so rarely does,” says Meacham.

Trump shows he has 'risen to the occasion'—hey, his base will buy it!
Trump shows he has 'risen to the occasion'—hey, his base will buy it!

"What’s troubling is the continuing history, amply if less fully documented in the book, of another abiding element of the American 'soul,' an authoritarian politics that is absolutist, oligarchic, anti-egalitarian, demagogic and almost always racist. This political strain emerged before Meacham fully begins his story, flowering in the Confederate States of America, the modern world’s first experiment in building a nation founded explicitly on racial supremacy. Although defeated in 1865, this dark strain was never destroyed; indeed, if the Confederacy lost the Civil War, Meacham remarks, in important ways it won the peace following the white South’s fitful overthrow of Reconstruction. . . . Not since 1861 has the authoritarian part of the American soul so damaged and endangered our democracy and the rule of law. It will not be overcome easily." (Source: A Battle for the ‘Soul of America’? It’s as Old as America, One Historian Notes, Sean Wilentz, NY Times)


Meacham Is Putting Way Too Much Faith in Changes Automatically Happening, Since the Ladder of Class Mobility Is Irrevocably Rigged to Prevent Use

"The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American," says Meacham.

A realist realizes that Meacham is putting way too much faith in changes automatically happening because they did in the past. An idealist believes Meacham when he puts faith in apple pie, the flag, and the American spirit. Said idealist also believes it is set up so that American citizens each get a piece of the American pie—with everyone sharing in the bountiful plentifulness that is the American Dream. A realist realizes that this sharing fantasy is a socialist wet dream and in a system based upon predatory capitalism like the USA, dog eat dog is the actuality, not dog share with dog. See the best book of the 21st century, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, which shows how the game is rigged so the nonrich cannot achieve successfully climbing the ladder of class mobility to become rich—the ladder is rigged. The changes that need to happen are prevented by the same oligarchs who rigged the ladder.

An idealist believes it is set up so that American citizens each gets a piece of the American pie—with everyone sharing in the bountiful plentifulness that is the American Dream
An idealist believes it is set up so that American citizens each gets a piece of the American pie—with everyone sharing in the bountiful plentifulness that is the American Dream


A realist realizes that this sharing fantasy is a socialist wet dream and in a system based upon predatory capitalism like the USA, dog eat dog is the actuality, not dog share with dog
A realist realizes that this sharing fantasy is a socialist wet dream and in a system based upon predatory capitalism like the USA, dog eat dog is the actuality, not dog share with dog


The nonrich cannot achieve successfully climbing the ladder of class mobility to become rich—the ladder is rigged
The nonrich cannot achieve successfully climbing the ladder of class mobility to become rich—the ladder is rigged

Trump Is Determined to Take Us Backwards and Wipe Out the Gains That Have Been Made

One of the greatest achievements of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels is to pull American discourse out of the muck, and to focus on the eloquence of the American vision. This book reminds us Americans that, historically, we have always tried to be a force for the most positive human aspirations and values. That may be our history, but whether it is to be our future depends on whether we remember it, since those who are unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

Trump is determined to take us backwards and wipe out the gains that have been made, in the name of enriching oligarchs; but driving backwards has created a mess, as you can see
Trump is determined to take us backwards and wipe out the gains that have been made, in the name of enriching oligarchs; but driving backwards has created a mess, as you can see

The root cause for why we are in the state of despair and polarization in the USA does not trace back to our alleged political or cultural leaders. It isn't President Trump, per se. It is, as Jon Meachum pretty much sums up by the end of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, the people who continue to elect, re-elect, and support these silly fools and scammers, on both sides of the aisle. As the comic strip character Pogo would say, "We have met the enemy and he is us." The search for our better angels begins with us. Meacham also addresses the duty of American citizens to elect their government, including a president, who reflects America’s soul. He points to failed national revolutions that descended into dictatorship and persecution. As Meachum says, "A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with the forces of reaction."

Although progress has been made in the USA, we are presently facing another crisis with the Presidency of Donald Trump and his determination to take us backwards and wipe out the gains that have been made in the name of enriching oligarchs and taking from the nonrich to give to the rich. A reverse Robin Hood.

Here Robin Hood takes from the rich and gives to the poor
Here Robin Hood takes from the rich and gives to the poor


Here a burglar that has just robbed some poor people gives his loot to the rich oligarchs; in Russia, it's their Putin-led kleptocracy; in the U.S., it's the corporatocracy and the oligarchs like the Koch brothers who get the loot
Here a burglar that has just robbed some poor people gives his loot to the rich oligarchs; in Russia, it's their Putin-led kleptocracy; in the U.S., it's the corporatocracy and the oligarchs like the Koch brothers who get the loot

To Pull Out of Our National Backsliding, We Must Get Control of Our Government

One cannot be anything but dismayed with the commonality of the current administration's rhetoric with that of the new KKK, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and other demagogues and hatemongers in our ongoing experiment in democracy. But 43% of our citizens want Trump impeached, so we just have to empower such an end before he creates a catastrophe. Meacham underscores that emerging triumphant after a crisis has not happened because we hope for it or yearn for it but because we have done the hard work to ensure that it does. Meacham concludes The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels with some concrete actions each and every citizen can take to forestall fear and instill hope to ensure our nation honors the values upon which it was founded.

If you love this country, you must resist Trump's regressive backsliding and dismantling of our democracy
If you love this country, you must resist Trump's regressive backsliding and dismantling of our democracy

Liberals are right to want to offer the freedom and hope that is America to all citizens of this country and to deserving immigrants. But they unwisely have opened their arms a bit too wide so that violent gangs from other countries are finding it too easy to send gang members into the U.S. to set up residence here and begin to murder, threaten, extort, push drugs, engage in human trafficking and prostitution, and steal, wrecking communities. They do indeed see this as the land of opportunity—the opportunity to victimize our citizens and get rich off the efforts of others, making no effort themselves for gainful employment.

Our country is too crowded already—we are not in need of further overcrowding, we cannot afford to take care of the world's deplorables, nor do we wish to
Our country is too crowded already—we are not in need of further overcrowding, we cannot afford to take care of the world's deplorables, nor do we wish to

Trump errs when he sides with racists and xenophobes. He needs to side with those who wish to stop criminal immigrants in their tracks, both at our borders and in our cities. Siding with anti-black, anti-brown, anti-Jewish folks is immoral and a sad throwback to KKK forces from the last two centuries. Would a wall help to keep out undesirables? Probably not—there are too many ways over, under, around, and through our borders. But liberals and conservatives need to join in the effort to repel undesirables both at borders and through deportations. Liberals need to stop acting like we wish to accept refugees from anywhere with a hard luck story. Caravans rushing our borders should be rejected by all means needed. There is a process in place for immigrants. Is the U.S. to become the dumping ground for the world's undesirables? Our country is too crowded already—we are not in need of further overcrowding, we cannot afford to take care of the world's deplorables, nor do we wish to.

Trump needs to side with those who wish to stop criminal immigrants in their tracks, both at our borders and in our cities, but siding with anti-black, anti-brown, anti-Jewish folks is immoral and a sad throwback to KKK forces from the last two centuries
Trump needs to side with those who wish to stop criminal immigrants in their tracks, both at our borders and in our cities, but siding with anti-black, anti-brown, anti-Jewish folks is immoral and a sad throwback to KKK forces from the last two centuries