A 'values intensive' view of history; America Born & Reborn, by Harvey Wasserman. New York: Collier Books. 304 pp.
Does the Republican landslide election victory signal a new mandate for Pre-sident Reagan? More to the point, does it mean history is on the side of the New Right?Skip to next paragraph
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Harvey Wasserman thinks not.
Wasserman is an ex-1960s activist who feels that the Republican platform is no antidote to the lack of motivating vision he finds among his own generation - those 76 million baby-boomers soon to inherit power.
This failing of the ''Big Chill'' generation, when set against the vast problems (of the environment, overpopulation, hunger, and energy) discussed in President Carter's ''Global 2000'' report, for instance, seem to have motivated his ''America Born & Reborn,'' a book historian Howard Zinn has called ''an imaginative reconstruction of American history.''
Wasserman hopes the book will offer those baby-boomers who have discarded rote patriotism and traditional moorings a simple, structured way of thinking about their heritage - one that is ''values intensive,'' a sort of ''Megatrends'' of history.
At bottom, ''America Born & Reborn'' makes the case that the forces for change at work today, including the rise of the baby-boom generation as well as the rise to greater power of women and ethnic groups, will result in a synthesis of what he sees as two long-conflicting American value systems: the ''native American tradition'' (feminine, ecological, cooperative), and the ''Puritan tradition'' (male, technological, competitive). The result, he says, will be a dramatic ''rebirth'' in America, and it will come in spite of - not because of - conservative policymakers.
The book is one most scholars would gag over, were they to pay it any attention. But amid his dogged efforts to systematize American history - to see it as a cycle of births and rebirths - Wasserman raises some excellent questions. For example: What factors have contributed to periods of growth and ''awakening'' in American history? Do they relate to the present? What dangerous tendencies in America's cultural history still need to be challenged?
For Wasserman, the life force of the American people, the need to ''make it new,'' is in constant strug-gle with the reigning status quo. That sounds axiomatic, but Was-ser-man tries to demonstrate that the tension between these two forces recurs in American history with cyclical regularity, and he argues the cycle is increasing in frequency. It is as if the almost negligible passage of time between Kitty Hawk and the smashing of the sound barrier in aeronautical development has its correlative in political and social development.
Unfortunately, Wasserman's thesis is severely flawed by a fashionable willingness to hold Calvinist Puritanism responsible for a lot of the evils America is heir to: repression, pollution, imperialism, and more. His history records only the rigid social surface of Puritan society. He pays little attention to the complex ideas and spiritual brilliance that so often lay beneath its surface.
Compare his viewpoint with the writings of historian Page Smith. Calvin's ''Institutes,'' Smith writes in his ''Dissenting Opinions,'' was ''the charter for a new kind of consciousness, a new way of looking at the world.'' Smith also notes that Calvin's idea of the new man ''meant an almost incalculable release of new human energy into the stream of history.''
Other problems, problems inherent in applying an idee fixe to history, appear in Was-ser-man's argument. For example, he sees the liberating ideals of a Thomas Jefferson, which found expression in the Declaration of Independence, as visionary and therefore ''good.'' The efforts of the Federalists to get the American enterprise working through the Constitution, however, are corporate, therefore ''bad.''
The author cites Henry David Thoreau (''an Indian in a white man's body'') as one example of the native American consciousness he admires. It is a fine example. Yet it can be argued that, given his time and place, Thoreau's deliberate act of going into the woods to transcend the petty corruptions of small New England minds is not unlike the original Puritan voyage, that ''errand into the wilderness'' in which the exemplary new community and new man could be born.
The Thoreau who asked to be ''melted'' in his militant search for truth had more than a bit of the Calvinist iron in him.