“In a worldview that prizes purity above progress, the flawed and erroneous are stains to be expunged. Their remembrance is not only deplorable but damning by association.”
“Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes. History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.”
e are at war with the past. What began as a stand against state-sponsored violence has metastasized; it has spread to every facet of politics and culture and has spiraled to the brink of complete moral frenzy. The anti-racism Left—still well in the throes of George Floyd’s death—has moved away from the police, politicians, and partisan prejudice towards a new (or, rather, not-so-new) nemesis: the pages of history themselves.
In its crusade against racial and social injustice, Black Lives Matter and its ideological peers are making no exceptions for neither the ancient nor the antiquated. They make no distinctions among those who lived 50, 100, or even 1,000 years ago. Indeed, from the indignant throngs of recent weeks, we have stood witness to a second wave of statue removals—ranging from democratic campaigns to criminal defenestrations—across the United States and beyond, in what can only be described as some desperate attempt at historical redaction. In a worldview that prizes purity above progress, the flawed and erroneous are stains to be expunged. Their remembrance is not only deplorable but damning by association.
It is this latter sentiment that should have us most concerned. While it is the nature of cynical traditions to deny progress and its many achievements, it is an entirely new form of pessimism to deplore its very existence. If one’s worldview is a mixture of mistrust and misanthropy, it should come as no surprise that one’s past appears populated by villains and reprobates. It should come as no surprise in principle—as we shall see—but it is a novel and enfeebling mistake to bear such wickedness as one’s own. In reaching so deep into the gutters of the past, we are finding ourselves sullied with regard to the present. We find ourselves sickened by the legacies of evil. In merely perceiving the long-since departed, we find ourselves shackled—and, in many cases, sentenced—by the sins of our fathers.
The war against history is a philosophical mistake bordering on existential threat not because “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”—but because it was never really about history in the first place.
Such is the nature of our new, historical masochism. It is a fallacy that owes, in large part, to presentism: the tendency to judge the past by today’s morality. It is a mistake that centers on days gone by, but it threatens everything that we have achieved and stand for in the future. This is not hyperbole: The war against history is a philosophical mistake bordering on existential threat not because “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”—but because it was never really about history in the first place. It is about progress. The presentism paradox is all about how we can only perceive past evils from a position of virtue. Its mistake is to conflate the two. The result is a war not against those historical failures we deplore—but against their corrections. We are at war with our achievements.
As a society, we stand at a unique perspective throughout history. We exist at the pinnacle of all scientific, technological, and moral understanding after a long and distinguished career of misery. Fans of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature will be familiar with this position, as well as his trademark brand of quantitative optimism. Those who are not may think it perverse to even suggest. How could a society racked with injustice, plagued with war, and all but enthralled by the specter of power be anything but detestable? How could a civilization poised to destroy itself be anything other than falling apart?
The answers are, in part, factual and, in part, philosophical. The short version is: It is not true. It is not true that we have reached new heights of death and despair. It is not true that our destruction is imminent. Indeed, Pinker’s work remains as our greatest rebuke of such despondency. He shows us how the opposite is true; he shows us all the ways in which we are healthier, happier, more wealthy, more peaceful, more compassionate, and more loving than ever before. By every metric, material and meaning-filled, we are leading the way to a better tomorrow. We have known this for some time now—ever since the Enlightenment and its exceptional achievements, heretical visionaries have dared to honor an unprecedented success. Pinker is just the latest in a long line of heroic optimists, building upon the sentiments of such Enlightenment figures as William Godwin, Anthony Ashley-Cooper and, some centuries later, the philosopher Karl Popper. In his 1963 book Conjectures and Refutations, it was Popper who wrote:
“In spite of our great and serious troubles, and in spite of the fact that ours is surely not the best possible society, I assert that our own free world is by far the best society which has come into existence during the course of human history.”
Not quite convinced? That is okay. In any other argument of this type, contemporary optimism would require further defense. There is more to be said about destitution, climate change, existential risk, “Our Final Hour,” and “Superintelligence”; there is more to be discussed if one hopes to dispel an adored desperation. But it is the miraculous irony of our newest affliction—standing in the face of such a robust and wistful gloom—that the fight against history is itself optimistic. In order to admonish with righteous authority, one must first assume some measure of moral advantage. One must first contend some basis by which abolition supplants enslavement.
Concealed within the logic of our new-found presentism is a commitment to moral realism. After all, crimes are only so much if we are correct in our convictions. This stands in stark contrast to the moral and epistemological relativism so treasured by the Left: a relativism from which many derive contempt towards a uniquely Western hubris. However, as we have seen, it is a hubris shared across oceans of time if not water, against those less fortunate in wisdom. I am sure that the relativist-Left, alerted to their spatial and temporal hypocrisy, shall be quick to renounce such bigotry: one they so selectively despise.
But probably not—it is foundational to their cherished masochism. They have arrived at a contemporary optimism by accident; they subvert it to pessimistic ends. This is the error I am referring to: a bizarre new form of moral and historical inversion that holds solutions accountable for their problems, progress accountable for its obstacles, and the present accountable for its past. In their view, our superior vantage is merely a window into damnation. In 2020, hindsight is blinding.
But there is another way! Despite its seductive nature, historical pessimism is a surprisingly easy mistake to correct for—if you know how. The answer is gratitude. The correct response to fortune is thanks and compassion to those with less—not guilt and hatred of those with more. And if history is the shadow cast by progress, then we should feel grateful that it is cast behind us—not forward, or downwards—and be careful not to heed its familiar call. As Pinker urges us to recall:
“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away.”
It is easy to forget just how far we have come. It is easy to forget just how mistaken we can be, and have been, and are; and we should be thankful. We should be thankful that in place of past monsters we have only their monuments, that in place of old slavers we have only their memory. The shadow of progress is an illusion cast by self-doubt. It is a mistake. When we do look towards the past, towards those figures less privileged than ourselves, we should do so with compassion, and forgiveness, for the right to condemn is, itself, a sign of good fortune. We should embrace our privileges as gifts—not sins. And we must understand that—more than any other—our greatest privilege is the time in which we find ourselves. Our greatest privilege is today. We should be quick to salute it.
Tom Hyde is a graduate of University College London and a freelance writer. He is primarily interested in how science and philosophy influence cultural trends.