“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.