Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

triumphalism and historical imagination

A great many of our social ills are caused, or at least intensified, by a lack of historical imagination. Imagination looks ahead to what might be, but is always informed, whether we realize it or not, by what we think has happened up to this point. Any image of what’s to come will necessarily trace a line that extends the vector of history — or history as it is perceived: which is where the problem lies.

Limited knowledge of history creates a kind of recency effect: people whose knowledge of the past extends only a few years back will perceive short-term trends as having more power and impetus than is warranted. And recency effects are amplified by prevailing ideologies: for many liberals and libertarians, belief in inevitable progress, and for social conservatives and apocalyptic Christians, belief in inevitable decline. But I think the most common and lamentable social result of this lack of historical imagination that results from ignorance is triumphalism.

Consider how, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, many advocates of capitalism came to believe that the only ideological alternative to their system was gone and gone for good. This confidence paved the way for a culture of indulgence and, yes, a “greed is good” mentality, in which CEO salaries skyrocket and finance companies still hand out extravagant bonuses when company performance is declining or even plummeting. But, thanks in part to such thoughtlessness, Marxism may be returning — or, more likely to win influence, a not-really-Marxist leftist critique of capitalism like that of Thomas Piketty.

Or consider school desegregation, a victory that many believe was won decades ago. But Jelani Cobb demonstrates that this is not at all true:

And so, sixty years after Brown, it is clear that the notion of segregation as a discrete phenomenon, an evil that could be flipped, like a switch, from on to off, by judicial edict, was deeply naïve. The intervening decades have shown, in large measure, the limits of what political efforts directed at desegregation alone could achieve, and the crumbling of both elements of “separate but equal” has left us at an ambivalent juncture. To the extent that desegregation becomes, once again, a pressing concern — and even that may be too grand a hope — it will have to involve the tax code, the minimum wage, and other efforts to redress income inequality. For the tragedy of this moment is not that black students still go to overwhelmingly black schools, long after segregation was banished by law, but that they do so for so many of the same reasons as in the days before Brown.

It turns out that victories are not always what they appear to be, and that without vigilance old habits and practices and prejudices can silently and slowly but powerfully reassert themselves.

It’s in the light of these examples that I’d like to look at a recent essay by J. Bryant Lowder on whether gays and lesbians and their supporters should use reason and persuasion to win over their opponents:

We will undoubtedly continue to employ that approach when we have the necessary energy and emotional reserves. But we also reserve the right to use the recent miracle of gradually improving public and corporate opinion to get a little nonviolent justice, even a little retributive succor, when we can. All’s fair in love and war, and until our love is no longer the subject of debate, reasonable or otherwise, this war isn’t over.

Hardly anybody takes this approach (whose goal is to punish and then extinguish dissent, by whatever means) unless they are absolutely confident that they are on “the right side of history” — which is to say, the winning side — the permanently winning side. In other words, Lowder believes exactly what the people who instituted legal discrimination against gays believed: that there will never be a time when those over whom we seek to exert power will have power over us.
Well, maybe. Maybe there will never again be anti-gay discrimination, in this country anyway, like that of the past. Maybe countries elsewhere in the world will follow the same path that the West has (recently) followed. Similarly, maybe the kind of people who become philosophers at Oxford will always be the ones deciding how convicted criminals get punished — rather than being themselves subject to state coercion. As Jake Barnes says in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

So let me close by suggesting one question: How would you act politically — what kinds of arguments would you make, what kinds of laws would you support, what means of persuasion would you use — if you knew that those whom you most despise will at some point hold the reins of political power in your country?


  • This is just the classic "prisoner's dilemma" in game theory. The interesting question is whether those who answer in the "defect" (vs. "cooperate") way for this would also answer "consistently" with regard to other such dilemmas, such as nuclear disarmament.

  • great great stuff

  • It's amazing that I've never heard the John Rawls Veil of Ignorance proposed not as a thought experiment but as a description of our actual circumstances given what you say here about our (historically justified) uncertainty of who will be wielding power tomorrow.

  • Since you retweeted this I'll comment. I probably should spend more time waiting and thinking, but here it goes.

    I'm not sure I buy your cause and effect argument, and especially because there's a certain vagueness in your terms. You write that Lowder--and others like him--are trying to "punish and extinguish dissent by any means" because they believe they are on the winning side of history.

    I think this argument hinges on what exactly you mean by "punish and extinguish", and "any means." Lowder himself uses the word "nonviolent." So clearly he doesn't really think anything goes. In a previous essay he makes a clear distinction between what's socially acceptable vs. legal proscriptions and personal conscience. So again, I suspect he would disagree with your characterization of his actions.

    Whatever side they "believe" they are on, I suspect groups will use all legal and culturally acceptable means necessary to achieve their goals. What you see as rash, ahistorical overreach, Lowder et al. would characterize as simply democratic activism. And they could counter that history shows democratic activism is exactly how you should achieve your goals.

    Keeping in mind I agree with you that what happened to Eich was wrong, the main issue I have with this post (and the related debates about religious freedom) is its lack of specificity. What, exactly, will happen if Republicans / social conservatives yield power in 2016 and 2020? Are they going to start outlawing gay marriage where it's been enacted? Are they going to go after all the yuppie, liberal tech companies that don't like Christians? And what does that mean? Is that why we should support open debate about gay marriage? How would you convince someone who might be inclined to agree with you beyond a vague hypothetical?

  • Praj, I'm puzzled by this response. You quote me as using the phrase "by any means" in relation to Lowder, but I didn't use that phrase; I wrote of all the people who take his general approach to punishing dissent, not all of whom agree about means (thus the phrase I actually used, "by whatever means," i.e., whatever means they happen to prefer).

    You say that I offer "vague hypotheticals," when I give actual historical examples of political battles that people wrongly believed were won.

    I also don't understand your point about "democratic activism." Sure it's democratic activism! The question I'm raising is what kinds of democratic activism are most appropriate to pursue: persuasive might well be better than punitive if your enemies stand a chance of getting back in power. Thus my encouragement to think historically.

    And finally, please note that I'm not thinking about the next election cycle. The examples I gave are of unexpected returns of supposedly-defeated ideas half-a-century after that supposed defeat. Thinking in terms of five or ten years before or after the current moment is exactly the kind of thinking that creates the problems I'm pointing to.

  • Hi Alan. Thanks for your comment. I clearly didn't articulate my idea properly. Shouldn't have been writing while on a conference call! Let me work on it and try to write more clearly next time.

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