Progressives and (a lack of) History

“These are unpleasant facts; I know it. But then most historical facts are unpleasant,” explains Mustapha Mond in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  For that reason Huxley’s world has been scrubbed of history.  Historical knowledge can change the prescribed narrative.

The history of America, and of the British Empire more-or-less up to the founding of America, need no such scrubbing.   Sure there are unpleasant facts, but the overarching narrative has been a celebration of progress.  The affect has been very pleasant, and somewhat akin to what Huxley depicted; the American saga has fostered a widespread inculcation of the Whig interpretation of history.

The Whig Interpretation of History, expounded by Herbert Butterfield, holds that society is ever trending toward something better.  There may be bumps in the road, but the road inevitably takes us to a brighter future.  “Excelsior,” or ever upward, the state motto of New York embodies the conceit.

To paraphrase Butterfield, the Whig interpretation, validates the present and glorifies the future.  It is a faith of progress.  Armed with that faith, progressives look for change – the mark of progress.  This pursuit, and the subsequent revulsion at any notion that would “take us back,” may be hopeful, but it also reveals a lack of imagination in the progressive mind.

In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr., warned that “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”  Dr. King did not lack imagination.  The Whiggish view is seductive, but it is not accurate.  History is not a continual march forward.  We can, and have, lost ground, gone backward.   The Roman world gave way to the Dark Ages, the Ming dynasty was followed by wars and death.  Every advancement is not necessarily for the better.

On the political Left the Whig interpretation has been succeeded by meliorism, a belief that not only does the world ever improve, but that it can be spurred to improve faster and further by well-designed actions.  Among the meliorists, change is inherently good, progress is inevitable, thus a cautious approach to government and politics has been supplanted by a mantra that doing something is always better than doing nothing.  They deride hesitancy, reflection, and analysis as obstructionist.

It is foolish to ignore history and dangerous to run blindly into the dark.  When we put all of our resources into rushing childishly forward we can not possibly safeguard the riches we enjoy today.


3 thoughts on “Progressives and (a lack of) History

  1. Well said (and well read) as usual. It’s only worth nothing that Butterfield’s point was one of historiography. It was long ago I read this book (on assignment from no less than an “elitist” Ivy League history department!) but I think he was critiquing the very idea of progress as a tool that’s useful for historical analysis. So far as I know, however, he was not making a normative statement on which changes in society (including those that might be desired by serious Christians like himself) might be worth essaying, or under what circumstances, or at what risk. When making judgments on what changes might be desirable to try, your (and Dr. King’s) point on lack of automaticity is key, and in my view obviously correct. And since King was what you and I would probably agree to call a progressive, I conclude that not all progressives are naive about progress, though certainly many are.

  2. Well, I wouldn’t call MLK a progressive, but he and I do agree on the universality of inalienable rights, which politically, go back to at least the Magna Carta.

    You are of course spot on about Butterfield. He was, as I recall, talking about historiography. He was making a point that the Whig view tended to affect how historiography is conducted and viewed. If correct, I think later in his life, while maintaining his criticism did note that historiography is nearly impossible to write as anything other than building to the present.

    Of course I do not think all progressives are naive about progress. I was trying to make the point that 1) the speed of progress is worthy of debate, and 2) public conditioning to accept the melioristic view can stifle meaningful critique. I should have also made the point that the latter can tempt progressive politicians to demogoguery.

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