Daily Archives: September 21, 2010

When political philosophy collides with historical reality

I’ve done quite a few posts on Glenn Beck’s crackpot historical forays, but I haven’t written many at all on the ways that folks on the other end of the political spectrum have misinterpreted or misappropriated the past.  The problem is simply that I’ve had a harder time finding examples of bad history coming from the Left.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine as we headed to lunch yesterday.  I noted that readers might start to suspect I’m a flaming liberal if I didn’t take the Left to task for some historical transgression or another.

“That’s the thing,” he said.  “Liberals don’t talk about history, so you’re stuck with bashing the other side.”

It was a very general remark, but he had a point.  I certainly don’t think that people on the Right are more interested in history than those on the Left.  Academic historians are famous for being predominantly liberal.  I do think, however, that the Right probably finds the past more useful than the Left does simply because of the differences in their respective rhetorical positions.  Conservative rhetoric invokes the past because conservatism often claims to be a restorative ideology.  We must get back to the Constitution, back to the principles of the Founding, back to the Puritans’ godly city on a hill.  Liberalism, by contrast, portrays itself as the political system of possibility.  Liberalism clamors to use whatever means are at our disposal to slay the social and economic dragons that have menaced us for so long.

Given these contrasting postures, it’s natural that conservatism would invoke the past with more frequency, or at least with more affection.  I have no desire to offer my own views here as to which vision is correct, but it’s worth asking if one or the other is more congenial to an understanding of the past.  Personally, I find both visions lacking when it comes to a sense of history, though for different reasons.

Part of the problem with the Right’s restorative use of history is that it neglects the past’s otherness.  When we identify with the past too readily, when we urge the nation to get back to the good old days (whenever those were), we can forget that those days weren’t ours, and that those people weren’t us.  They offer lessons and examples, but the analogy will never be exact.  This is particularly true when it comes to the Founding.  Those men and that era created the language we use to express our own ideals, so we can find them sounding remarkably like us.  Occasionally, though, they use that language and those ideals within a context that gives them a very different meaning, one we wouldn’t recognize.

But the Left’s vision of possibility has its problems, too.  I don’t think Gordon Wood had liberalism in mind when he wrote the introduction to The Purpose of the Past, but his remarks are applicable here.  He notes that having a real historical sense involves an appreciation of the complex array of factors that limit the range of possibilities when it comes to human activity.  “Realizing the extent to which people in the past struggled with circumstances that they scarcely understood is perhaps the most important insight flowing from historical study,” he writes.  “To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life.  A tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life; it means a sense of the limitations of life.”  The study of history “tends to inculcate skepticism about our ability to manipulate and control purposefully our destinies” (p. 14).  The past teaches us that circumstances limit our ability to shape our future.  Indeed the past is probably the most powerful of those limiting circumstances.  This is not good news for modern liberalism’s promise to use the means at its disposal to shape circumstances for the better—the application of government and other institutions to achieve “positive liberty.”

Of course, in describing both positions, I’m committing a fallacy of my own—drastic over-simplification.  It’s hard to speak briefly about political philosophies without broad generalization, and the risk is that you’ll reduce these ideologies to caricatures.  I’ve probably done so here.  Still, I think the larger lesson here is valid.  The past proves difficult to shoehorn into any particular philosophy, because when we’re talking about the past, what we’re really talking about is reality in all its complexity and ambiguity.  The study of history should serve to regulate our abstractions and philosophies by reminding us all that our opinions about the way we think things are must come to terms with the way they have actually been.

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Filed under History and Memory