Friday, June 12, 2009

Thoughts on history

This one is apropos of nothing hot or current, but when I was reading something (who knows what?) the other day, a liberal blogger made a statement something to the effect of civilization naturally evolving toward a progressive, secular society.

And [ignoring the fact that this is a misuse of the verb evolving, since we're pretty damn sure that natural selection, as a mindless process, is not heading anywhere in particular], that statement made me think about evangelical Christianity and students in a course I teach called Introduction to Historical Methods.

Koan for the students: what does my liberal/progressive blogger quoted above and an evangelical Christian have in common?

Answer: both believe that history is going somewhere specific.

This is easier to explain with the Evangelical. If you believe in Biblical inerrancy, then you believe that the end of the world has already been laid out in detail in the Book of Revelation. That's going to happen, it is the end point of history. Everything that has or will happen is consistent with it, and if an event appears to be not consistent with it, that's only because we do not know enough. History is headed toward the Rapture.

The secular version of that conception, held by the blogger I referenced above, is something that historians usually refer to as the "Whig theory of history," which is that human progress is pretty much the driving force behind history, and that things continue to get better and better, and that things turned out like they did because it was necessary for the existence of the present, which is necessary for the existence of the future. Places where history takes what you might call a wrong turn into barbarism or war or whatever, are--as for evangelicals--events about which we don't know enough to place into the contxt of the pattern. History is headed toward an economically and socially just society.

What's interesting is that both of these developments are essentially anti-Enlightenment. While Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo were busy moving us scientifically from the center of the universe, the philosophes began grappling with the idea that history is not going anywhere particular, it is just the sum of human choices, natural phenomena, and random chance. The Muslims could have won either time at Vienna and conquered Europe. Christopher Columbus could have turned south rather than north right before he made landfall (and therefore met the Caribs instead of the Arawaks, after which the bones of his crew would have littered the beach following an especially good feast).

In fact, it can be argued that the Enlightenment view of history not being headed anywhere was a necessary cultural and philosophical precursor to Darwin's understanding of natural selection and the origin of species. If human society, with all its complexity, could be trundling through the years as the result of non-mystical forces, then maybe the way in which nature operated might be similar.

Curiously, however, the combination of modern politics and the rather rigid and mechanistic philosophies coming out of the industrial revolution [think carefully: Marxism is as historically determinist as Evangelical Christianity, just headed for a different place] have led us to an unconscious rejection of the Enlightenment view of history. History today, in common parlance, as become a tool rather than a study.

There is a wonderful book about Columbus that explains the obvious problems with his diary in terms of his expectations. Columbus was not an explorer checking out what was on the other side of the ocean; Columbus was an evangelical Christian who knew he was in the Indies off the coast of Asia, and so kept interpreting everything he saw as being consistent with what he already knew to be true. He was impervious to data that challenged his basic assumptions.

I tell my students that there is a difference between history and the past. The past is what happened before now. Our knowledge of it may change, our interpretation of it may change, but the past does not change. [I will spare you the journey into quantum theory which suggests that this may not be completely correct; close enough for blogging.]

I then tell them that there are four different kinds of past:

1) The remembered past: your life, the life your grandparents related to you, etc. etc. This is very personal and very subjective.

2) The recovered past: this is when you use documents and other information to build a pretty complete picture of a past event, person, or phenomenon. [A well-researched biography.]

3) The reconstructed past: this is when, in the absence of documents, you use an interdisciplinary approach through archaeology, the social sciences, and the sciences to recreate an image consistent with the past, if not precisely convergent with the past [think National Geographic reconstructions of life in ancient Egypt/KMT].

4) A useable past: this is a past intentionally created to serve a political or social purpose by cherrypicking certain pieces of data and ignoring all contradictory evidence. [Think of almost any declarative statement about the past or history by a politician or blogger that is prefaced by some version of history tells us that....

Over the past few weeks I have read a much higher than normal selection of pontificating statements by bloggers and commenters on the lessons of history, from Paul Krugman's blithe assurances that the situation now is completely comparable to that faced by FDR in the New Deal to a local commenter who blandly assured everybody that there was no American heartland, that all American culture always had been and would continue to be centered in the great cities of the Northeast.

I have also been perpetually bemused and then sobered by all my friends from all political persuasions who will read one book, one article, or one blog post written (90% of the time) by someone who is not a professional historian and suddenly decide that they now understand everything about the topic, and that the last word has been said. So they go out and triumphantly quote that historian, that columnist, or that politician--and can never quite figure out why it doesn't convince everybody else immediately that they are the smartest person in the room.

Here's a clue: the guys in the Enlightenment, as near as we can tell after years of study both in the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities (history is part of the humanities, not the social sciences), got it right.

History is not going anywhere in particular.

History is not on your side.

History, like evolution, doesn't give a shit about your political or social preferences.

Live with it.


Anonymous said...

Great "Just for the hell of it" post, Steve!

Reminded me of this:

"And while the future's there for anyone to change,
Don't you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past."

From Jackson Browne's "Fountain of Sorrow"


Miko said...

I'll agree in principle. However, there are certain places we know that we can't go, since just as a genetic change that kills the host won't stay in the gene pool, certain very destructive social policies that lead to the collapse of any civilization which practices them will likewise be weeded out. They may get tried again periodically, but they'll never last long-term.

Steven H. Newton said...

Curious, which specific social policies will invariably lead to the collapse of a civilization?

Serious inquiry.

Anonymous said...

Geez, this is a great post. One I'm printing out. As I get older, and watch the college kids at the table burp back canned analysis of what I lived through, I absolutely hate history now. You have put thoughts to clarity and position effectively. Thank you. And I bet my dead grandmother would thank you too. I came to her about Japanese internment and was shocked. Absolutely shocked. She was in agreement, stating the time then at hand. And I was in the 60's. All back at me now huh?

Anonymous said...

BTW-I can answer your collapse of a civilization post.
How about those Shakers? Great neighbors huh?