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?