History, Top Stories

On Quasi-Religious Appeals to the Judgment of History

I was outside the Supreme Court the day that equal marriage was legalised in the US. My office at the Library of Congress next door enabled a swift venture to join in the celebrations. That sunny Friday I duly picked up my purple ally flag and wandered around the scenes of jubilation. For months leading up to the judgment, a mom-ish lady had stood out in front of the court, holding a bright red sign emblazoned with a biblical warning for homosexuals and their enablers. Morning and afternoon, she’d fielded the objections of woke kids on school trips, batting back their arguments with assurances that, tolerate this, and one day soon it would be legal for a man to marry his mother.

The day the court upheld equal marriage, I couldn’t see the red sign lady, but I found another clutching a cardboard banner scrawled with warnings that Obama was an undercover Muslim. I am British, but by this point I was used to seeing the infamous American culture wars up close, so I barely blinked. Nonetheless, like any simultaneously politically-minded and self-centred individual in the digital age, I had a sense of the significance of the moment—not just for the people it actually benefited, but for my own moral vanity as a person inhabiting history. Of course it occurred to me that one day I’d be able to tell my grandkids that I was actually there the day this almost impossibly-won thing was achieved by a group long beleaguered in the United States. I took pictures, of course; crying couples, raging culture warriors, smiling allies. But the banner that most caught my attention read: The arc of history bends toward justice. It’s a quote made famous by Martin Luther King Jr, adopted and adapted by Barack Obama (who funnily enough had some ‘evolving’ of his own to do around gay marriage).

However much one agrees or disagrees with this notion, a sense of ourselves as agents inhabiting history is consequential. It relates to our collective and individual projects; the way we interact with each other and the world. Outside the Supreme Court that day, the quote this lady clutched in her hand seemed perfectly fitting; the idea(l) of progress is not only a key Enlightenment tenet but one for which there are a number of empirical evidence markers that some of our sharpest minds have pointed to. And keep in mind, this was the summer of 2015; post-Great Recession but pre-Trump. The blowhard bandwagon had not long got on the move and it was all still something of a joke around the cocktail parties and beer bars of DC; a spectacle at which liberals and many conservatives alike shook their heads as an embarrassing fad that the political kids would soon grow out of. Unaware of what was to come, we were jubilant and confident that day. History is progress. Time pushes us forward. Another sign held by a couple of teenagers read: Unite these States. For a moment it seemed possible.

Perhaps every generation has felt they lived in momentous times. From end-days cultists to cultural innovators and inventors, surely each period has its prophets of doom and discovery. Even so, there would appear to be something about this epoch that is particularly amenable to a sense of historical significance. Most obviously, the technological advancements we are experiencing represent a speed of transformation unseen since the industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bound up with and crucial to all this is the frequency with which we receive and produce news; at a quantity and rate unseen before. And because this information is competing with a million other clickables, it is almost all—the genuinely momentous and the entirely frivolous—couched in the language of urgency.

Those who complain about the hyperbole that characterises public discourse these days must remember that it is not merely a cultural trend, but one underpinned by economic necessities. On the internet, heart-warming becomes life-changing, offence becomes trauma. Staring down the ruptures that AI will inevitably bring, contemplating significant climate change and a global population of displaced peoples larger than ever before, would it really be unfair to say we live in strange times? The rapid changes we are experiencing, coupled with the all-present language of urgency, compound a greater sense of the significance of ourselves as actors within history. Is it surprising then, to hear increasing references to ‘history’ wedged into the speech of individuals weighing their own choices?

To those who say it has always been this way, I’m not so sure. Eighteen years ago, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair was mocked mercilessly for commissioning a memo entitled ‘Getting the Right Place in History.’ Back then, such a sense of personal historical importance was considered laughable hubris, even for a head of government. Now though, the desire to ‘be on the right side of history,’ in some quarters is presumed to be a prerequisite for all sound moral reasoning. In Jonah Goldberg’s words: “People (mostly liberals) tend to say, ‘You’re on the wrong side of history’ about social issues that are breaking their way. It’s a handy phrase, loosely translated as, ‘You’re going to lose eventually, so why don’t you give up now?'”

One could go further. In fact, if it is indeed true, as has been argued, that we humans will always worship something, then I wonder if for many secularists, particularly those on the Left, the new god isn’t History herself. Warnings about the indictment of history frequently strike a quasi-religious tone, in diatribes that if one swapped the word ‘history’ for ‘God’, wouldn’t be out of place in a fire and brimstone pulpit. Prominent British leftist Owen Jones declares, after arguments with feminists who fret about some of the possible implications of proposals to institute gender self-identification: “Anti-trans zealots, know this:  history will judge you.” Selma Blair speaks of a determination to “be on the right side of history” that clinched her decision to speak up about sexual violence. In these times of constant commentary and panoptical digital reach, history becomes an all-seeing, all-knowing, unforgiving judge.

We are, almost all of us, writers and commentators now; manufacturing opinions, judgments, sending out tweets and posts which live on to be reviewed at some future point at which history may judge us to have been insufficiently woke. The slew of historic-tweet scandals are a testament to this, and both Left and Right wield the past as a weapon. Every time there is a new political appointment on either the Left or Right, staffers or junior journalists are tasked with trawling social media for damning errors of judgment. When our culture simultaneously encourages us to broadcast every thought we have immediately and to leave it to live on for eternity, it is a strange, unforgiving landscape indeed.

It would be easy to say that only the Left wields history, since it is often progressives who use the kinds of phrases that imply a linear march forward. But clearly both conservatives and progressives hold a specific and important relationship to history, crucial enough for it to be implied in their very names. Both sides fear its condemnation, but for different reasons. During the Brexit campaign in Britain, there were pro-Leave memes being circulated that featured huddles of women in burqas, captioned: “Britain 2050: why didn’t you stop them, Grandad?” Conservatives fear a future in which all familiarity has been thrown on a bonfire. Progressives fear being the American southerners who resisted civil rights.

A sense of linearity, consequence, and moral vanity can push us beyond selfishness and short-termism. We all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing. In some ways the appeal to the god of history is an attempt to pre-empt hindsight. While thinking in this way can help us to reach beyond knee-jerk thinking, it may also create spasmodic responses of its own, because of an assumption that ever more ‘progress’ is always to the good, and those who resist it will bear the stain of moral shame. Not to mention the curious notion that the young are always right. What happens when the god of linear history acts tyrannically, rushing us past debate and due diligence? Indeed, the Chilcot Inquiry made clear that the ever-mindful-of-legacy Tony Blair took the decision to go to war in Iraq with “a certainty which was not justified”—as those who believe they are on the right side of history (and God) frequently do.

Finally, the irony in all this is that while we bang the drum of history’s judgment, few of us seem to have much of a sense of our own fragility within it; the sheer historical unlikelihood of living in a time and place of any relative security and material comfort at all. It is assumed that things must always get better, as if the god of history herself will simply carry us along to paradise. Let us remember that it was after the incredible achievements of Rome that the ‘Dark Ages’ arrived. Can one say that a prevailing assumption of Rome’s immortality helped prepare the ground for its own destruction? Progress is a contested ideal, not an inevitability.

 

Bonny Brooks is a former IPS Research Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., for her work on North Korea, and has written widely for The Berggruen Institute and The Huffington Post’WorldPost. She is currently writing a novel about North Korea activism and the new underground railroad. Follow her on Twitter @brooks_bonny 

24 Comments

  1. AC Harper says

    “Perhaps every generation has felt they lived in momentous times.”

    I was at university in 1968 (the time of student revolts) but as far as I know no-one from our university joined any rallies or marches. Our university was a ‘University of Technology’ covering mostly STEM subjects and perhaps not inclined to bathe in the new waters of identity and victimhood.

    So… did ‘history’ include all those people who didn’t man the barricades? No. If you look at modern events through a prism of ‘power’ you see what you are primed to see. Look at history through the prism of ‘long ago in a place far away’ and you will still see what you are primed to see but the view will be different.

  2. mattw06992014 says

    History is not linear. History is exponential because the future heavily builds on the past. That means there will always be crashes. And the crashes always follow long periods of stability. Economist Hyman Minsky tells us that “stability is destabilizing.”

    Marriage equality is just a sign of something much worse taking hold of the West: Equality. Not just any equality, but equality of outcome. This is another way of saying communism. Communism is lurking behind the banner of equality.

    Who is leading the charge for equality? Women. Women vote more than men and are less divided. That means in terms of government the ideas of women rule. There is really no stopping this movement, and it will destroy the West.

    The Tower of Babel is a lesson on equality. God didn’t punish the people by changing their language. He saved them. From what? From the bricks. People are represented by stones, and the leader at that time, Nimrod, was seeking to transform people from stones into bricks – everybody has an equal outcome. And the mortal holding the bricks together was materialism. God knew that this would destroy the people.

    • You are a fearful man, without good reason. I hope, and I’m also male, that the burgeoning confidence of women across the world will, indeed destroy “the West” as it seems you think it might. The male dominance that has bedevilled our cultures for so long is ripe for both mockery and for a mighty fall. Why shouldn’t women take on the many roles that we males have kept for ourselves?

      And if you invoke your personal, favourite deity from amongst the millions humans have worshipped to support your argument, you lose it.

      • WM says

        What are you talking about? What male dominance has bedevilled our culture? What roles have men kept for themselves?

        Where are women more free than the west? Do You have a specific example, or just generic virtue signaling?

      • ADM64 says

        So male behavior and roles are okay provided they’re held by women?

        The overwhelming bulk of Western civilization, the greatest, richest, freest and most humane societies in human history owes itself to men. Women have achieved equal rights. No one is stopping them from contributing. If they can’t or haven’t the fault is in them, not in men.

        No one need invoke a deity to criticize the absurd and self-contradictory notions that characterize modern feminism. The argument that the most empowering thing women can do is think and act like men (or at least feminists’ view of men) virtually mocks itself.

        It’s too bad that you hate your own sex. In this day and age, though, you have alternatives.

    • mattw06992014 Interesting analysis. What else have you written?

    • I wouldn’t say Communism, but Authoritarianism. And as far as the Tower story, You could read it as the Demiurge, Yahweh, didn’t like human ingenuity. After all, he and his co-gods designed humans to be their uneducated garden slaves. Remember, in human history, it is only politicians that sought to control people, but ministers and priest too in the name of what ever god. Authoritarianism runs deep in our species.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Depends upon which medievalists you speak to and their political orientation. The historical record reinforced by archaeological records and the quality and quantity of art and writing that was produced clearly state otherwise. Vast tracts of land reverted to depopulated wilderness.

  3. Jack B. Nimble says

    ‘………clearly both conservatives and progressives hold a specific and important relationship to history……’

    Two big problems with this article.

    First, as in most discussions of MLK Jr., the author fails to distinguish between aspirational goals (‘I have a dream….’) and practical goals. Here are more examples:

    Aspirational goals: bringing democracy to the Middle East, building a permanent human colony in space, ending racism and sexism, etc.

    Practical goals: toppling Saddam Hussein, putting a man on the moon before 1970, US Civil Rights Acts, etc.

    Aspirational goals are intended to motivate action and boost morale, without necessarily being realistic or feasible, so are very easy for outsiders to mock or criticize. The Left and Right both use aspirational goals as a motivator. See, e.g., The Great Commission (Matt. 28).

    Second, and perhaps more important, the author unwisely downplays end-days believers as ‘cultists’, with the unspoken assumption that these fanatics can be safely ignored. In fact, the most important model of history among US conservatives right now is the idea that history is purposeful, short and bracketed by Creation about 6000 years ago and Armageddon (which could be coming soon to a neighborhood near you).

    For example, even some Republicans in Congress have said that God promised after the Flood that the world would never experience another catastrophic weather event, so how could climate change possibly be real?

    And what about the eschatological belief among some Christians and Jews that building the third temple in Jerusalem will usher in the End Times? Sure, a lot of progressives support Israel, but not with the same motivation as the dispensationalist conservative Christians.

    Look, I know that the author focused her attention on quasi-religious appeals to history, but interest among US conservatives in the judgment of history pales next to their intense interest in God’s Judgment.

    • Bill says

      Wow, just a bit of hyperbolic labeling there. “the most important model of history among US conservatives right now” is the 6000 year old Earth theory? Really? A small segment of the population that considers itself conservative believes that, yet it’s “the most important model?” So I guess the most important model of economics among US liberals right now is a minimum wage of $1000 / hour will solve everything?

      “…some Republicans in Congress have said that God promised after the Flood that the world would never experience another catastrophic weather event, so how could climate change possibly be real?” Well, a Democrat on the open floor of Congress expressed worry that the island of Guam would tip over too due to overpopulation.

      Here’s a tip — “US conservatives” is a voting bloc much much larger than the religious extremes to the same extent that the “US liberals” voting bloc is likely a lot larger than Communists.

      • Bill says

        FYI, a vast number of US conservatives who have issues with “climate change” as the dogma is currently defined is simply that the mathematical models that stipulate that it’s all “evil CO2!” are fraught with error, have been shown to have mathematical formula errors in the past, fail to extrapolate to actual results, and gee…many scientists have issues with the historical temperature record of actual MEASURED results from locations being altered under the guise of “normalizing” to show an increase in temperature. Oh, and let’s not forget the problem other scientists have with significant digits such as saying temperature rose 0.2 degrees without nothing that the instrument of measure has an accuracy of +- 2 degrees. How about how we’re reverting to less accurate means of measure because the more accurate do not validate the prior hypothesis? In fields of true science, invalidating theories is not heresy, it’s science. Climate “science” is the one field where publishing a finding that calls into question the validity a theory is heresy and demands you be burned at the stake.

        I’m one of those “stupid conservatives who doesn’t believe in climate change” who recognizes that the models which demand the zealot’s belief in the evils of CO2 are wrong. Does mankind effect climate? Yep. Do cows? Yep. Do honey bees? Yep. Do fish farts? Yep. Does the sun? Yep. Does volcanic activity? Yep. Are you a science denier? Do you deny any of the above has an impact on climate? I’m guessing not, so then what percentage attribution do each of those play and what is the driver? Maybe climate change is driven by volcanic activity induced by the overpopulation of Guam pressing down on the Earth’s core and causing the volcano in Hawaii to erupt! Guam wasn’t tipping, it’s pressing down!

    • Su says

      Jack, any chance you can name names? Which Republicans? Which “end-days” conservatives?

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        Su, that’s a reasonable question to ask. Unfortunately, Quillette limits commenters to two links, after that the comment gets thrown in the moderation bin. Below, I have excerpted from several online articles; the originals can be found by Googling the words in CAPS.

        In the US, Republicans and Democrats each have their moderate wing and their extreme wing–that’s not my original observation! The extreme conservative wing of the GOP goes by several names–Tea Party conservatives, religious conservatives, etc. Recent special election results in the US show that extreme conservatives still have the electoral power to get their candidates nominated in the GOP primaries, if not to actually win the general election. A good recent example is Roy Moore in Alabama, a classic anti-evolution conservative.

        My original claim was that religious conservatism is the most IMPORTANT faction in today’s GOP, not necessarily that it dominates numerically. The extremist wing of the GOP is populist, angry and anti-elitist, and rejection of evolution has been a central tenet of this faction for decades. [Disclaimer: prior to Reagan, many of these populists were Democrats, especially in the South. Most of them moved over to the GOP, or died out].

        The importance of anti-evolution to national Republican politics can be seen in the 2016 presidential primaries. Hint: no candidate was pro-evolution. From salon.com:

        ‘EVOLUTION AND THE GOP’S 2016 CANDIDATES: A COMPLETE GUIDE BY LUKE BRINKER
        From climate change to vaccines to the theory of evolution, much of the Republican Party has made clear that it’s not exactly enamored of modern science……..’

        Also, the views of the rank-and-file can be obtained from public opinion surveys:

        From news.gallup.com:

        ‘REPUBLICANS, DEMOCRATS DIFFER ON CREATIONISM BY FRANK NEWPORT
        Republicans much more likely than Democrats to believe humans created as-is 10,000 years ago

        PRINCETON, NJ — There is a significant political divide in beliefs about the origin of human beings, with 60% of Republicans saying humans were created in their present form by God 10,000 years ago, a belief shared by only 40% of independents and 38% of Democrats…….’

        Also, from pewforum.org:

        PUBLIC’S VIEWS ON HUMAN EVOLUTION

        ‘But many Americans believe that God or a supreme being played a role in the process of evolution. Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

        These beliefs differ strongly by religious group. White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Roughly two-thirds (64%) express this view, as do half of black Protestants (50%). By comparison, only 15% of white mainline Protestants share this opinion.

        There also are sizable differences by party affiliation in beliefs about evolution, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved, a 24-point gap…..’

        As for naming names, here are two links describing GOP Congressmen who cited the Biblical Flood in relation to climate change. These are not back-benchers; Shimkus and Barton were both running for the chairmanship of the powerful US House Energy & Commerce Committee.

        https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2013/apr/11/republican-biblical-flood-climate-change

        https://www.politico.com/story/2010/11/shimkus-cites-genesis-on-climate-044958

    • “In fact, the most important model of history among US conservatives right now is the idea that history is purposeful, short and bracketed by Creation about 6000 years ago and Armageddon (which could be coming soon to a neighborhood near you).”

      What conservatives do *you* know? According to slate, 26 percent of Americans even vaguely concur with creationism and only 15 person are very confident about young earth creationism. This number is still far too high, IMO, but it makes a poor framework for asserting, absent of any real evidence, that the most important model of history among US conservatives right now is young earth Creationism.

      “For example, even some Republicans in Congress have said that God promised after the Flood that the world would never experience another catastrophic weather event, so how could climate change possibly be real?”

      They say lots of things. If you judge them by their actions, their primary model seems to be building their personal fiefdoms in DC, not “young earth Creationism”.

      BTW, conservatism ≠ evangelical Christianity, let alone young-earth Creationism.

      While there are numerous end-days believers on both the right and left, end-timers—like the poor—have always been and will always be with us, irrespective of the trifling details of their respective religions.

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        In my earlier comment, the word ‘important’ was doing ambiguous work. I meant that end-timers were increasingly influential within the GOP and within religious conservatism. After I wrote that comment, I happened to read an article in the Washington Examiner that provides some support for this notion:

        “Rep. Massie’s theory: Voters who voted for libertarians and then Trump were always just seeking the ‘craziest son of a bitch in the race’ “by Emily Jashinsky, March 15, 2017.

        The title of the article pretty much says it all, but the whole thing is here: https://washex.am/2FXJMAv

        Fundamentalists and end-timers have been the craziest SOBs in America for the last 100 years. As a result, they were well-positioned to take advantage of the recent preference of GOP primary voters for crazy-talking candidates [Roy Moore, Christine O’Donnell, etc.].

        I waited until after Tuesday’s primary elections to write this reply. It seems that most GOP candidates who positioned themselves as ‘Trumpier than Trump’ lost, so maybe we have passed the point of Peak Crazy in the GOP. At least I hope so.

  4. The way you have to see it: The Left announces itself using its own epithets: Racists! (are here! You have to think a certain way or we can’t use the color we want to hide behind and accuse you of hating!) Transphobes! (are here! If they were FOR these people, they’d credit these people’s OWN INDIVIDUAL voices and their OWN CHOICES, including that of seeking psychiatric help; including that of having causes and intellectual interests and pursuits besides their sexual identities) Fascists! (are here! Let us beat you in Fascist-like style) Homophobes! (are here – they’re scared of MILO!!!)

    They arrive, calling US what THEY are. They are screaming into a mirror, breaking it, and using the bloody shards to kill all involved, even themselves. They are insane, and as dangerous as rabid dogs.

    They are the Zombies, and as one said to me in a dream I had 40 years ago, “Your….[struggles to use human speech to communicate, something with which they are deeply unfamiliar] Your BEING is not needed with us.”

  5. This fine article ends, “Progress is a contested ideal, not an inevitability.”

    When the great (greatest?) Soviet-era poet, Osip Mandelstam, inquired and was told what “progress” meant, his widow Nadezhda writes that he broke down weeping inconsolably.

    Leo Strauss had a certain “take” on Progress per his essay, “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization” – “The title of this lecture indicates that progress has become a problem…”

    Full Straussian musings here
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/1396371?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    • defmn says

      Any mention of Leo Strauss deserves acknowledgement. One of the great minds of the 20th century.

  6. markbul says

    “Barack Obama (who funnily enough had some ‘evolving’ of his own to do around gay marriage).”

    Yeah, funnily enough. Let’s explore that. Obama came out explicitly against gay marriage. At least when to do otherwise might have kept him from willing an election. He also didn’t touch ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military. When he was barred by constitutional amendment from running for another term, THEN he was touched by the spirit, and saw the light. So, do you believe a word of this, or did Obama have a double-top secret meeting with the Gay Inner Council, and promise to deliver in his second term?

    As to the Clintons? Does the Defense of Marriage Act ring a bell? Just how is it that Gay And Pissed became lapdogs for Hillary? If you thought you had to wait forever for Obama to come along, Hillary’s ‘evolution’ was like watching the Alps turn into a sandy plain.

  7. “. . . the appeal to the god of history is an attempt to pre-empt hindsight.”

    I’ve been saying this for several years now – though now quite so succinctly.

    This is the defect inherent to all progressive ideology – the conceit that one can act as if the verdict of history has already been delivered because that future verdict is both obvious and inevitable. But there is always a degree of circularity in progressive reasoning: It is not clear whether they believe the verdict is inevitable because it is good, or good because it is inevitable. Progressives will argue this in either direction, depending on the rhetorical needs of the moment.

  8. Nate D. says

    Were feminists “on the right side of history” when they were cheering for the ‘free love’ movement of the 1970’s? Women were so certain that the loosing of archaic marital bonds would usher in a better world for women. Kay S. Hymowitz’s recent article in the NYT smacks of some serious buyer’s remorse. The #MeToo movement is the rotten bloom of ‘free love’ ideas come full flower.

    Progress is not inherently good. Forward motion is only as good as the destination. I can’t help but think some progressives will rue the society they helped to create.

    I’ve always been open to new ideas and pushing boundaries, but many (most) of today’s progressive ideas feel less like a reasoned, intentional march towards a better society, and much more like a runaway train headed for a grisly pileup.

  9. Janet Boyer says

    May I ask why Tarot cards are used with this article?

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