Thursday, July 13, 2017

Competing views of history

I belong to a private facebook page that was created to discuss issues relating to generational theory.  It has a fairly broad range of opinion, including a few Trump acolytes.  The other day we got into a discussion of the nature of p.c. One poster, a bright young man who has just graduated from college, made the following comment to explain the modern leftism to which he has been exposed in college--but clearly without adopting it fully.  Keep in mind that the author is only 23, I believe, and probably has only some dim memories of Bill Clinton.  I have edited slightly just for readability. 

"Many view the progression from slavery -> Jim Crow -> what people call "New Jim Crow", as an all-around trajectory of progress.
Ta-Nehisi Coates views it as the culmination of an intentionally subtle and insidious web of formal and informal institutions descendant from slavery. Same with people who view crony capitalism and income inequality as more sophisticated incarnations of aristocratic and/or oligarchic systems from the past, designed to entrap citizens. Same with a Glenn Greenwald or Oliver Stone, who look at the military industrial complex + surveillance state + multilateral institutional architecture, and see an intentionally complex web of systems and institutions that entrench (what they call) Western imperialism and make it hard to step away from.

"A lot of it is based in Critical Theory/Marxism, which we discussed a ~month ago. Left philosophy/ideology is based in a goal of emancipation from old exploitative systems. Thus leftists (Coates, Stone, Greenwald) have far more cynical perspectives of America that say we're simply moving into more inconspicuous--thus unseen and difficult to prove to well-to-do decision-makers far away from issues of the underclasses-- incarnations of slavery in the social realm, an oligarchic + crony aristocracy in the economic realm, and imperialism in the foreign realm. You're right, it isn't the full story/perspective of history, but it is one side of the coin that we have to be aware of. It's why people on the left view incremental change as a non-starter. It's viewed as preserving or further entrenching descendant systems of: slavery, oligarchy, and imperialism.

"Imo, the tricky part is that those views of our social, economic, and foreign paradigms are more true than false. The part I've grown to criticize, is the inherent cynicism that accompanies this view of history. Coates says, we still have significant forms of oppression, inequality, and imperialism entrenched complex institutions; it's a tragedy that says exploitation is both feasible and profitable without much consequence. On one end, leftists may be driven to activism. On the other hand, leftists may say, "America is hopeless" while only despairing about our society without getting politically involved because the system is too icky to reformulate from the inside.

"Ideally for me, we'd recognize how complex and dichotomous America is, being conscious of our institutional history while not neglecting how we overcame/evolved beyond certain paradigms and behaviors. To me it's as simple as, positive and negative exists; it's part of life. In my more romantic view, challenges create stronger people and societies if we confront them without fear, but rather with an interest in creating success stories and improving life."

What struck me is that John had grasped the essential belief of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Oliver Stone, Glenn Greenwald, and many others: that the system is hopelessly rigged and always has been.  That is a slight oversimplification in Stone's case, at least, since he has made clear at various times that he thinks American history might have been very different if Henry Wallace had remained  Vice President in 1945, or if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated. (For the record, I think things would have been quite different had JFK served out two terms in the short run but that we would probably be in about the same place now anyway.)  Coates, whose father was a Black Panther in the 1960s, has emerged as the Generation X's leading spokesman for black rage, in the tradition of James Baldwin (GI), Eldridge Cleaver (Silent), and Nathan MacCall (Boomer.)  Fame and fortune have if anything made him more shrill, and at a recent event on Harvard and slavery, he said,
“We talk about enslavement as though it were a bump in the road,” nd I tell people it’s the road, it’s the actual road.”  The idea that the United States is fatally flawed by original sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia is extremely popular in academia and has been eagerly embraced by many young protesters on campus.

My own view is close to John's, but I would put it differently.  Yes, racism has always existed in the United States and had terrible consequences, beginning with the introduction of slavery and continuing to this day.  Yes, corporate power has posed a potential or actual danger to liberty, as recognized by Presidents including Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.  Yes, women could not vote until 1920 and did not begin to secure equal rights in the workplace until the 1960s.  Yet I would always keep two things in mind.

The first and most important is to take a broader historical perspective to place US history in the context of world history.  White males in Europe and the US did not invent racism, economic oppression, racism, homophobia, or imperialism.  All those phenomena have characterized all the major civilization that we have been aware of since the beginning of time.  Few, if any major ethic groups now live on land which they did not take from some one else. Economic inequality has been the norm, not the exception, for most of human history, especially among developed civilizations.  To get specific, in the context of western civilization, Ta-Nehisi Coates is wrong: slavery in North and South America was a detour from the road. It had been abolished in western Europe well before the 16th and 17th centuries, when settlers introduced it into the Americas.  They did not bring their slaves form Europe, but bought them in the very active slave markets of West Africa, where different tribes continually enslaved one another.  The United States fought a successful and very bloody war to abolish it, after most of the Latin American nations and the colonial powers in the Americas had already done so.

What distinguishes western civilization in general and the United States in particular is that they were the first civilization to develop a doctrine of equal rights, and to design institutions based upon it.  Of course their original application of the doctrine was limited to free men, but they did not state it in that way--certainly not in the US Constitution--and inevitably, excluded groups were going to demand the rights proclaimed in founding documents. The same drama played out rather rapidly in the European colonies elsewhere, as soon as South Asians, Vietnamese and Africans were educated in the principles of British and French liberty.  Unfortunately, very few young people learn much about the true history of civilizations before the modern era nowadays, and are more likely to learn about the hopeless defects of the West.  In the last 30 years colleges and universities have usually replaced Western Civ with World History, which often turns into the story of the west's exploitation of the rest of the world.

The history of the United States has in fact been divided into periods tending towards more democracy (1801-1836, 1861-1876, and 1901-1980) and those tending towards oligarchy and corporate power (1787-1800, 1877-1900, 1981 to the present.)  An understanding of those different periods would allow young people today to see where the wretched state of the nation is coming from and how it truly could be improved.  Instead, young people are being taught a Manichean view of a society based upon oppression, faced with a vision of a world free of all evil which colleges are trying to bring to life on their own campuses.  It is not surprising that so many young people (although not my young friend) are completely disillusioned with politics in general and politicians in particular, and even hope for a kind of Democratic Donald Trump--Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Zuckerberg--as a presidential candidate.

My young friend, whose opinions I have learned to respect over several years, has not given up hope for the US, although he thinks today's leftist view is "more true than false."  I agree that inequality and imperialism have been on the rise again, although I'm not so sure about racial inequality.  What he seems to understand, however, is that the pessimistic left wing view simply can't be the basis for an effective political movement.  Having seen it first emerge in the late 1960s, take over academia, and now become mainstream within a good deal of the media and the Democratic party, I think that that is true.  Liberalism has declined as leftists have lost all faith in it.  My friend does have some ideas of pursuing a career in politics and government, and I hope he does--armed with a true sense of the place of the US in world history and the possibilities for change its history offers.


Bozon said...


Thanks for this from the private facebook site.

I have been reluctant to indulge in the all absorbing facebook experience...

My limited contacts with it from the beginning have proven my suspicions correct.

What a nightmare it is for so many millions, who end up spending their days mostly doing this and that on facebook.

What a horror that Zuckerberg was allowed to foist such an institution on all people.

Anyway, I should have said something about your post, but failed.

All the best

ed boyle said...

Having just read Joseph Tainter's Decline of Complex Societies from a free download I have gotten a more general perspective than most of this, which is positive, even better than generational theory. He says that a decline in marginal return on investment dooms all civilizations. Western Europe found America and so got an expanded life span. Coal powerthen oil was adopted. Now all these subsidies are gone. Imperialism, oppression arejust ways of extracting work or net positive energy to keep a civilizational system on its feet. Tainter discusses the two opposing theories of organization. One side sees oppression to explain everything and others see rganic development, leaders are needed, come to the fore. At any rate the ebb and flow is as you say, cyclical. Nowadays debt is high, markets overvalued, US military overstretched, democracy trampled by cynical elite. In Tainter's discussion of why Rome collapsed and Western Europe did not he says that Rome had no competitors of equal staus, polities, like greece, italy so it took a long time to collapse. In Western Europe competition between France, Germany, English forced organizational, technological development. In mycenaean Greece all collapsed parallel. Nowadays Russia,China have adapted American,Western democratic, capitalistic, technological, military tactics with generally less cost structure in many points surpassing results, as in military of Russia. This is typical. Soviet collapse was a long term positive. USA collapse would also be as the military industrial complex, security state(CIA,etc.),banking elite, are all sucking blood out of citizenry to no benefit. Implode the system, start smaller, morelocally, perhaps with a new constitution , no globalpower, perhaps autonomous regions and planned on post fossil fuel dependency atlower population levels and democracy could be better quality of life and sustainabilty. China is obviously unsustainable vis-a-vis debt levels, population, destruction of environment, resources. Russia has a better chance in all regards being less populated, more virgin territory, less indebted. Mid term the alternative Eurasian system will challenge Western dominance. A big recession, oil shortages could crash Western debt pyramid forcing bankuptcy, end of US military abroad, US dollar. This will open way for multipolar system. Russian revolution 1917 was followed quarter century by Western Crisis. The cycle is obviously repeating itself and Russians are preparing to weather the storm. Meanwhile US MSM, politicians are navel gazing, blaming others(russia, trump) for a cyclical decline in marginal return on investment(low growth as technology matures, population ages, imperial military concept brings costs more than gains unlike with conquest of germany, japan).

The ultimate expansion in Tainter's sense would be taking virgin russia soil for energy, subjugating asia politically. This is overreach of course, would be too costly and is what hubris is bringing American system to its knees.

Bruce Wilder said...

I really appreciate your analysis.

Rightly or wrongly, I identify this political phenomenon with a desire for a transformation of consciousness, that echoes ideas common in the 1960s. Though I don't know that there is any connection, it reminds me, too, of the attitude of many communists and revolutionary socialists in the 1930s who sat out reform movements, cooperative organizing and even labor union collective bargaining, waiting for The Revolution.

Attaching a heavy, pejorative weight to the very being of the nation-state is at base a deeply paralyzing use of history and historical memory; what a sad and futile use of our heritage.

Again, I greatly appreciate your continuing and thoughtful reflections on this topic, which puzzles me. said...

I like this, I like the various perspectives.

But as a biologist, I, too, see this as an evolutionary process, one of cultural evolution, and perhaps very small genetic evolution.

It took 50-60 years to go from ML King to Obama. If you struggled through that period, it was a frustrating time of slow progress, and constant injustice.

But from an historical viewpoint? It was fast. And from a biological viewpoint, it was light-speed.

The old powers of domination and oppression are still around, and still trying to grab control. Progress is a saw-back advance, up-down, better-worse. Right now, the oppressors have an advantage. I do not think, however, that it is totally coincident that they can't get much done; they are dinosaurs, they represent not only immoral viewpoints, but obsolete approaches. Which makes sense: at some point, moral is usually what works, what produces more productivity and efficiency. I just posted on precisely this topic:

samuel glover said...

What a horror that Zuckerberg was allowed to foist such an institution on all people.

If it hadn't been him it would have been somebody else. I'm no fan of Zuckerberg, and I've never signed up for Facebook, because it never really seemed to offer all that much more than was already available on the internet. But you may as well blame the transistor as Zuckerberg -- global, cheap, ubiquitous telecommunications had to be world-changing, and it's not going away.

jjeconomist said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the perspective.

Bozon said...

This note is a reply to Mr Glover.
Great points. Yet, if not Zuckerberg, then who?

None of it was ever truly inevitable, except in the minds of those who believe in such things as progress, and who identify technological developments with human progress. Those beliefs however, have already proven faulty, and even quite illusory, going forward.

However; some so called world changing things can and do go away in some places; and will increasingly in some others. A really really dark ages time is even quite possible now.

That would be very world changing would it not, but nothing like what anyone in their right mind would call progress, although an old friend actually made that argument to me, that it would be progress on the road to higher ground, with a straight face, not so long ago, a scientist actually.

All the best

samuel glover said...

" the minds of those who believe in such things as progress, and who identify technological developments with human progress. Those beliefs however, have already proven faulty, and even quite illusory, going forward."

I dunno about you, but I've never had to worry about smallpox, polio, or having enough to eat. My not too distant ancestors did. Practically everybody I have ever known can say pretty much the same thing. But by all means, let's talk about how "illusory" technical progress really is.

Bozon said...


Mr Glover is obviously a well educated guy.

Human population growth, amid technological food and medical advancements, has been utterly disastrous in so many ways, losing countless species; almost no more fish in the sea, or wild animals anywhere, evey the very bees are threatened, widespread genetically modified food that will backfire almost immediately on all of us.

Disease itself was a natural brake on this disastrous process of human population growth cancer which so called progress theory and practice has done almost nothing to halt, and everything to enhance.

The globe probably right now has several billion too many humans, all wanting to get to a Western middle class living standard. The very idea is ridiculous, terms search my site convergence. I don't call that progress. Think of some other word.

All the best