American public history—in magazines and books, television documentaries, and museums—tends to celebrate its subject at all costs, even to the point of denial and distortion. This does us a great disservice, argues William Hogeland in Inventing American History. Looking at details glossed over in three examples of public history—the Alexander Hamilton revival, tributes to Pete Seeger and William F. Buckley, and the Constitution Center in Philadelphia—Hogeland considers what we lose when history is written to conform to political aims.
The shocking statistic is that forty-seven million Americans have no health insurance. When uninsured Americans go to the emergency room for treatment, however, they do receive care—and a bill. Many hospitals now require uninsured patients to put their treatment on a credit card—which can saddle a low-income household with unpayably high balances that can lead to personal bankruptcy. Why don't these people just buy health insurance? Because the cost of coverage that doesn't come through an employer is more than many low- and middle-income households make in a year.
To be involved in politics without aspiring to govern, without seeking to be governed by the best leaders, without desiring to abolish all forms of government: such is the condition common to practitioners of nongovernmental politics. Whether these activists concern themselves with providing humanitarian aid, monitoring human rights violations, protecting the environment, educating consumers, or improving the safety of workers, the legitimacy and efficacy of their initiatives demand that they forsake conventional political ambitions.