For a people so committed to the ending of cultural and political divergence, you would think fanatics everywhere would at least pay attention to the failure of all the other times they attempted the same project. If the definition of madness is endlessly repeating the same project again and again and expecting different results, then the universal idealists among us are truly the maddest of the mad. Perhaps this is why they despise the value of history so much. Because the message of history is that there is no message in history, save perhaps never to ignore your resource base and never to trust the pledges of fanatics claiming to be ‘on the right side’ of history. And it is very telling that an obviously ridiculous phrase like ‘right side of history’ is so commonly used in progressive politics today.
We have seen more than our fair share of the use and abuse of history by conservatives. Usually in the form of some kind of pundit with a superficial Wikipedia-level knowledge of key events and an uncritical and uninterrogated sense of the past derived from high school education that they desperately wish to affirm from further scrutiny. I have written here about that specific phenomena many times before. But the problem is that most non-conservatives, of all stripes, effectively cede the field to the right entirely because they themselves have a deeply diseased relationship with the past.
This relationship can be found everywhere now, with the de facto merger of the neoliberal establishment in the Anglosphere countries with postmodern academia and far left rhetoric (if usually not actual far left policies). The past is bad to them. People in the past had attitudes different than people today and therefore were also bad. Works of literature and philosophy from anytime before the rise of post-colonial and post-modern thought are therefore haram and must be expunged. The university, supposed to at least be the place meant to encourage atypical and norm-questioning thought, has become a giant H.R. department meant to ensure the imposition of a presentist monoculture on the next generation of downwardly mobile administrators and media people. The media itself has mostly given up all pretense at journalistic muckraking and has merged subservient stenography with declarations of religious faith in the church of social justice. If present trends continue, the majority of Generation Z and no small amounts of my own generation of Millennials seem to be well on track to carry out this mission of building a monoculture that pervades the public square. Those who know their future prospects are bleak are often those most likely to lash out moralistically as this is a socially acceptable way to ‘rebel’ without actually taking risks or digging deeper into the root (material) causes of societal decline. It is striking that, in an era where climate change represents our most clear and omnipresent threat, so many of the supposedly educated adopt culture war instead. Once seen as the domain of ignorant rural evangelicals, culture war is now the plaything of the social elite. Even if one wishes to prioritize culture war, one cannot ignore how the counter-culture trends on social issues of the last few decades before the 2010s actually delivered more measurable gains in a more hostile environment than the present top-down attempts at cultural engineering do, something I wrote more about here. If one is not a reactionary, one would be wise to feel what the backlash to this will be if this continues.
While its true that to glorify the past is ridiculous (and also implies a weak understanding of how events and eras actually work) it is surely just as ridiculous to castigate it from the point of view of present day trends. There is a lot of knowledge and wisdom to be found in taking the long view, and it is impossible to take such a view with knowledge based only around the time one was alive or even based only around a century or two. One can always be surprised by how many fellow travelers one can find hidden in long gone eras. Even in civilizations which are since departed. There were once cultures with widely different concepts of intellectualism and cultural expression than those which exist today. They are all fascinating. Some, I would contend, were even preferable in many ways. Especially on the cultural front. With the destruction of polytheism in Europe in the Middle East being the most clear breaking point from a more vibrant and interesting culture to the start of the monolith many Arab, Spanish, and Germanic societies have since sought to force on everyone else. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was an attempt to bring this type of brain dead political historiography into a new region, but fortunately it was brief and had limited effect (though enough for Chinese history lovers like myself to still rue). The PRC, a state which once carried out this state sponsored campaign of cultural terrorism, soon came to officially recognize these policies as a mistake.
Would that it was so in the Anglosphere. Here, the Christian sentiment that damaged European art and philosophy for centuries never seems to die, but only gets perpetually reborn under new forms. From the obvious sequels of the Great Awakening and the evangelical revival, to the less obvious such as militarized human rights foreign policy, American Exceptionalism, critical race theory, queer theory, the quest for ever expanding realms of ‘safe spaces’, and the present day pro-censorship trend, the tribes change but the underlying psychology does not. All of these adopt the very monotheist view that to come into contact with something you don’t like infects your soul like a virus, and affirms the idea that what is good or bad for you must be good or bad for everyone else. And always, it comes a deeply disturbing affirmation that the past is sinful, and that ones soul can only be immaculate by rejecting all things contrary to what the good people of the present do. We can stop the tragicomedy of history, these people propose, by simply rejecting it outright. And by also contending that to engage with any figure’s opinion, past or present, is to affirm all of them. No nuance in this brave new world. And nothing fills me with more concern than this growing trend I see of the hard left, already prone to sanctimonious preaching, reconciling itself with Christianity, the inventor of universal scolding and messianism. Should such a convergence fully occur, it will create the most insufferable and absolutist outgrowths of philosophy and culture of all time. I think we can now safely say what the one thing to make me see the right as the lesser evil would be, should such a wretched alliance occur.
The most ridiculous aspect of this argument is also the one that is most telling as to why fanatics despise a nuanced and contextual understanding of history: that we have it right now unlike before. If there is one thing a thorough study of history should tell everyone, it is that morality is as faddish and ephemeral a concept as fashion is. And much of it always dates poorly. Eugenics was once a progressive cause, as was prohibition. The inference is obvious: if so much that seemed obvious and good once now looks so terrible…what things that look good today will seem terrible tomorrow?
Quite a bit of it, I would be willing to bet.
If big picture issues matter to you, it is best to be above and beyond trendy moralism in the first place. Understanding structural forces in politics you want to change is good. But don’t ever get it conflated with these tent-revivalist trends that periodically sweep the Christian and Islamic worlds. In order to see the future more clearly, it becomes necessary to see the past clearly first. And that will also give you insight into the present beyond that of your more intellectually challenged and fad-chasing peers.
It becomes important to set up informal networks for those of us who, despite this ever growing monoculture by and for moralistic simpletons, plan, network and discuss as a proper counter-culture. No longer interested in trying to change this bizarre and periodic rising of anti-history anti-context people, we should break into a separate but parallel group. Occupying the same society but offering alternatives. This is not just for our own sanity, but also a useful community service. Monocultures, be it of crops, bureaucratic hierarchies or ideologies, create blind spots and thus increase the odds of society-wide failure due to an inability to adapt. Evolution cannot work without constant differentiation. A society that seeks to expunge intellectual and cultural diversity is a society digging its own grave. One thing ignored by many radicals today as inconvenient is that the Islamic State’s very destruction of ancient works of art was motivated not just by Islam’s proscriptions on the human form in artwork, but also by a hatred of divergent societies and separate states preventing their religion from being universal. The Palmyrene Empire, so notable for its brief but spectacular challenge to Roman hegemony, pre-dated Islam and differentiated Syria from the rest of the region. And Allah forbid anyone acknowledge their local context might matter more than a universal ideology. We saw in contemporary history in Iraq and Syria just what a danger to any kind of minority or even culture of critical inquiry such people represent. And what it must have been like to live in various times in the past when such people were dominant.
Well, I suppose we got what conservatives in the U.S. always wanted: a workable Rome analogy. Too bad its one that shows that the religion they treasure was the past equivalent to the wokes they hate so much today. Even I can admit there are some things not worth conserving. The Galilean Ideology has to be at the top of that list.
It is up to us to create a counter-culture alliance that one day could set up escape valves in society for when these hysterical moments all to common to the Anglosphere arise. Not just so that people can tune out of greater society if they wish, but also receive education and training from an outsider perspective in order to better understand and critique it.
This will be the topic of a future writing project of mine. One which, if short, may appear here and, if long, may become a short book or pamphlet-like work I would try to publish. I think that increasingly just as the H.R.-Neoliberal-Academia alliance pushes harder and harder for monopoly, there will have to be a backlash. Such a backlash would inevitably be diverse but it should also have some degree of coordination. Someone has to stand against the new dark age of the meek inheriting the Earth.
In the meantime…