Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On historical lessons

History does not repeat, but it does instruct. ... History can familiarize, and it can warn.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century consists of 20 admonitions which can inform resistance in this scary time, enveloped between a prologue and an epilogue that asserts the necessity of appreciating rigorous historical knowledge.

No one who reads here will be surprised when I rejoice -- this is my kind of book. It's accessible and even concrete. In all likelihood, I'll be drawing on the 20 lessons in future posts about discrete current events and circumstances.

But here I want to reflect on what Snyder writes about our society's relationship to history. He indicts us for embracing two opposite fallacies. The first he calls inevitability:

... Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.

... To be sure, the politics of inevitability seem at first glance to be a kind of history. Inevitability politicians do not deny that there is a past, a present, and a future. They even allow for the colorful variety of the distant past. Yet they portray the present simply as a step toward a future that we already know, one of expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity. This is what is called a teleology: a narration of time that leads toward a certain, usually desirable, goal.

... The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. So long as there was a contest between communist and capitalist systems, and so long as the memory of fascism and Nazism was alive, Americans had to pay some attention to history and preserve the concepts that allowed them to imagine alternative futures. Yet once we accepted the politics of inevitability, we assumed that history was no longer relevant. If everything in the past is governed by a known tendency, then there is no need to learn the details.

I read this and I can identify with it. Often enough, meditating on some past or present atrocity, I've called to mind Theodore Parker's eloquent formulation made famous by Dr. King: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I've labeled Steven Pinker an "arrogant twit" but conceded that I've learned something from his insistence that, on the whole, the world is becoming kinder and gentler. It's probably true that I'm a determined optimist about the positive potential in human societies.

But that only makes me more determined to "learn the details." It is in the details that the hints of hope are hidden. I don't think that dooms me to an "intellectual coma."

Snyder's second fallacy is what he calls eternity.

The second antihistorical way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. ... In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. ... politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. National populists are eternity politicians.

I wish Snyder had been more specific about where eternity politics is located in U.S. society. That is, about this I crave details. Does he mean the white supremacist politics of the Confederate Lost Cause, the impulse that led to Alabama's new law outlawing removal of statutes of slavery's defenders? Okay, point taken, this is a remarkably durable thread in our history. But where else? In nostalgia for a romanticized 1950s when (white) men were men and women stayed in our place? Perhaps, but do even the nostalgists really believe anymore this existed? I doubt it. He says the reference decade for eternity politics is the 1930s, but aside from a few right wing crackpots, I think we'd be hard put to find anyone who lives within any picture of that decade.

But though I'm unsure about Snyder's two sided polarity, I resonate with his plea for the necessity of knowing some history if we are to find a way forward.

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the co-creator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. ... History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.

... One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. This is not the end, but a beginning.

Let us resist and protect much.
Two previous blog posts about Snyder's histories:
Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
Thinking the Twentieth Century


Brandon said...

Not about Timothy Snyder but about resistance.

KPCC Radio, "Resist March replaces LA Pride Parade — and Some Resist the Change."

janinsanfran said...

Inevitable that somewhere there would be a round of this. Best (only) LGBT march I've been part of in years was when a lot of us pushed the parade committee about supporting Chelsea Manning. Wonder where she'll march this year.