The Feeble Logic of the Historical Arc


I’m worried that my fellow travelers on the Left may be making too much of the recent election in Alabama. First of all, the election was close. And as of this writing, Roy Moore has yet to concede defeat. The conspiracy machines are turning. This thing might be taken to the courts, and the United States does not have the best track record when it comes to letting courts decide elections.

The grim possibility that partisan judges might be empowered to interpret the will of the voters notwithstanding, I am concerned with the way the Left is interpreting this political moment. The Left, you see, still acts as if there were such thing as an arc of history. Richard Wolfe’s latest column for The Guardian, “Roy Moore’s stunning defeat reveals the red line for Trump-style politics,” is typical of this view. The thinking is that we have had our reversal of fortunes, and now we’re undergoing anagnorisis, or recognition. Soon, after his family tears itself apart, the mad King Lear will fall and we will have our catharsis. That may well happen, but the problem with such a view is that encourages us to wait and spectate. We’re all watching a play while a mob stands outside the theater with torches, ready to burn the place to the ground.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the concept of historical arc myself. I like to take my Marx with as little Hegel as I can get away with, but I won’t deny that there are at least historical tendencies. It is just that things are a little more recursive than the Moderns liked to think. There is no great container in reality to match up with our notion of history with a capital “H.” I don’t believe, for instance, that there is a line of elemental moments combining with one another to get us from the first grain farmers to twentieth century fascism. Reality is more contingent than that. But there are arcs within arcs which can be identified up until the ripples of eternity blur them from view. And the identification of (and then with) a singular historical arc served progressive thinkers well in the last century. Whereas the fascists saw themselves breaking away from history into a particularity, liberals and leftists fought for the continuity of history, for the progressive expansion of universalities, such as democracy and equality. That’s a criminally naïve characterization of things, I know. But I’m merely referring to the bolder ideological flavors which nonetheless translated into real actions, both horrific and heroic.

Still very much within living memory, the 1960s affirmed the Left’s view that there is indeed an arc of history, a more or less continuous universalization of rights, and that the concept of a historical arc should continue to be integrated into its political logic. The 1980s, on the other hand, demonstrated to the Right that history can be smashed by force of will. The destruction of organized labor, the debt-driven economy, the upward mobility of the upwardly mobile–all of it was a willful cessation of post-Depression political movement. What each wing takes away from its respective decennium mirabilis says a lot about its current political reality.

Take this business about the post-fact world everyone keeps talking about. Liberals, as they are wont to do, are right now engaging in a bit of narcissistic penitence, rending their garments and beating their breasts over their shameful dalliance with French postmodernists decades earlier. But when the editors of Texas school books are characterizing African slaves as “workers” and teaching that the Civil War was about states’ rights, they are not citing Derrida and Lyotard; they’re remembering the 80s. They remember that history is not a transcendent force but rather a field of power, and that power is never bestowed upon the righteous, but taken by the willing. The same goes for the historical record. For the new Right, the historical record is merely something crafted by liberal elites who once had the power to do so. If there is a will, therefore, there’s a way to re-craft it. The power to rewrite history provides enough of a justification to rewrite it.

We may follow the causes of our current historical situation back a few years, a few decades, or a few centuries, depending upon how large we want our arc to be. But I think 2016 already tells us much of what we need to know about the events of 2016 (and the picture of 2017). I’m referring specifically to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, 2016. His sudden and unexpected death signaled to many on the Left that one our three branches of government would soon be aligned to the way the nation was moving. More fellow travelers than I’d like to admit even expressed glee at the death itself, which was shameful and disgusting. But even those of us who tried to separate the personal tragedy from its political consequences couldn’t help but feel that the event was some sort of sign that History is once again on the move towards a more reasonable and humane future, that patience is indeed a virtue. Republicans, as we now know, saw only an obligation to exercise the power they had, knowing that they wouldn’t have to make any apologies for acquiring more power because the acquisition of power is its own justification and because…who would remember what they did anyway? History would not reward them for doing the right thing, and the historical record is only a matter of power.

This brings me back to the Roy Moore affair. By all means, celebrate his loss and give thanks to Alabama voters (especially to African-Americans who are reported to have encountered some truly hostile conditions as they tried to vote). Go ahead and believe in the arc of history. Make it your ethos. But please stop mistaking your belief in the turning tide for political logic. If history is any guide, you can be sure that your opponents won’t be making that mistake.




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