The enemies of freedom are coming for the past. Exposing the fallacies of their claims, and the poverty of their understanding of history, is an urgent and ongoing task. But it may not be enough.
Someone once said, “the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there”.
Actually it was LP Hartley, a British novelist who died in 1972. To be remembered for contributing a famous line that gets quoted millions of times, mostly without anyone knowing who actually came up with the line, must be a mixed blessing. Oh to be famous for something! Or, but what about all my other stuff? To be remembered for only one thing. Sigh.
The past is under siege at the moment.
Actually it has been for some time. The architects of presentism and the purveyors of the moral superiority of the current generation clearly have an ideological stake in prosecuting the case that the past should never be thought of as a foreign country, but rather as one where our present selves, retrofitted to a previous time, behaved abominably.
This claim is patently absurd. But seemingly powerful, nonetheless.
The mediocre, listless and unmoored Prince Harry suggests that “we should face up to our past”. “Our” past? Who is “we”? We should “right our wrongs”. I have enough trouble righting my own past wrongs. Who else’s wrongs should I attempt to right? Males’? Christians’? Heterosexuals’? Australians’? Residents of Lismore NSW’? Sexogenarians’? Past members of the Australian Conservatives’? Waverley Old Boys’? Give me a break, Harry. I can only carry so much guilt.
The eminent British historian Robert Tombs has addressed the matter of the Woke Sussexes and their (latest) pitch:
When people such as Prince Harry say they want us to face up to the past, do they really mean it? It’s a demanding task, needing patience, humility, and effort. Some people spend their whole lives on it. It means understanding people from very different cultures with very different values. It means acquiring some feeling for the hard physical conditions they had to face, their insecurity, their limited resources, the always slow and often imperfect spread of information, and the frequent illnesses and pains they took for granted. It means gaining some insight into their beliefs about the universe, their understanding of their own history, their fears about their present, and their expectations of the future. Facing up to the past should make us less sure of our own superiority. Is Prince Harry – who said, when talking about the Commonwealth, that we need to ‘look at the past’ to move forward – prepared for that?
Tombs makes a case for a nuanced appreciation of history. And he reminds the present woke class of some basic home truths. In relation to our past.
The first point is – do these protagonists of a utopian future based on their own, very limited understanding of the past, of even the present, have a clue what they are talking about? Do the woke arbiters of moral rectitude have their facts right? The short answer is – not even close. But that would not matter to them and their ilk. Because history and it study is messy. They have little time or energy or aptitude for the study of history. Complexity, carefully considered distinctions and moral subtlety do not suit the current ideological game-plan.
They are, alas, not alone. The protagonists of the current anarcho-presentism are on-mission, on- message, and on a roll. The statues are falling. The now enfeebled, isolated and utterly baffled Western defenders of the West’s core meaning are nowhere to be seen among the institutions that matter.
Tombs demolishes the woke “case”, with the ease of one who knows what he is talking about and one who has the measure of his opponents.
Unless we regard ourselves as the unique pinnacle of human achievement (and I have an uncomfortable feeling that some people do), the answer is no. There are of course things in the past that were utterly evil and known at the time to be so. But most human experience is shades of grey. Facing up to the past, in this and many other cases, is not about passing sanctimonious judgment, but of understanding a shared history which is sometimes a shared tragedy, and trying to use that understanding for reconciliation and progress.
Determining responsibility for a “collective” past is a mug’s game, a fool’s errand. Correcting our individual pasts is itself a massive problem, one that we cannot easily and comfortably resolve. We all have our individual pasts, and they cause relentless unease.
Is there a man or woman who would not like to go back, and do things a little differently? There is even a petit-genre of writing, which we might term “writing to my younger self”. Alas, we cannot go back, individually or collectively. What do we think of our past sins and transgressions? We regret, we wish we could have out time over. Do we obsess about our past mistakes? Yes. It is called an unhealthy obsession. Catholic guilt is a joke against Catholics who do this. And against Jews who do this. The mark of original sin includes guilt. Life sucks.
We are taught that once a sin is forgiven by God, it is also forgotten. God forgives and forgets, we are taught. We humans, alas, do not. We simply cannot forget. Well, not easily, on current evidence.
What about the past sins of groups, of governments? Here we come to the whole current obsession with making reparation for the past sins and (sometimes) crimes of our variously defined “forefathers”. Can membership of a “group” assign culpability to an individual?
Can I personally be condemned for the sins of British colonialism? I think not. My great-great-great grandfather was a convict, pinged in the heady times of late eighteenth century London for having received a small amount of stolen calico. Seven years, with transportation. Without knowing the views of Pierce Collits on the rights and wrongs of British colonialism, I venture to suggest it was not top of mind. Was Pierce responsible for the sins of the Brits against the indigenous peoples of pre-Australia? Were his progeny?
No, the notion of collective, retrospective guilt for the actions of people and governments with whom we may have had little, if any, connection – or sympathy – is farcical. Yet it is now embedded in the thinking of the Western, woke elites. Thinking? Not much, but that is another matter. Our current society is now ruled by power, and not by thinking or post-Enlightenment reason. If there are “group rights”, well there must also be “group responsibility”. If there is a coherent, compelling case for this, I have not yet heard it.
We all have inter-connecting and sometimes utterly non-connected, group identities.
In his recent, now infamous, interview with Darren Grimes on a UK podcast, the eminent historian David Starkey had a reasonable case that whiteness does not mean privilege. His harrowing account of his own father’s miserable upbringing killed any potential counter-argument that whiteness automatically brings privilege. The burden of his argument was that, in effect, intersectionality works both ways. Privilege is relative, insecure, individually experienced and endlessly shifting. We can be a privileged homosexual. We can be a suffering white boy. We can be a privileged white woman. And, in the age of the ascendancy of woke, we can be a privileged anything, so long as we have a grievance. And we can impose guilt on our fellows, at will. Just ask anyone who has had to attend a compulsory, corporate unconscious bias training course.
The absurdity of creating a class of unified, offended, dudded “groups” which have a right to compensation, whether financial or otherwise, should be obvious. It isn’t, though.
The old bumper sticker, “land rights for gay whales”, inevitably comes to mind when trying to make sense of the intellectually bankrupt yet now massively popular notion of intersectionality. The idea that separate victimhoods are all linked, as if by magic. The British writer Douglas Murray has done as good a job as anyone of eviscerating the intellectual case for intersectionality, in his book, The Madness of Crowds. It is, perhaps, not a difficult task. But a necessary one. It speaks truth to power. Are gay whales remotely worried about Aboriginal land rights? Are Aborigines remotely concerned about the fate of heterosexual whales? This is the logic of intersectionality.
But, as we know, intellectual bankruptcy is no barrier to ideological cut-through in these uneducated and reflexively ideological times. When all bets are on.
Any good social scientist knows about the difficulty in drawing conclusions about complexly interacting variables. In a complex scenario, with multiple actors and complex causal relationships, unknown unknowns and so on, it is impossible to assign causation for events that are even familiar to us. As I say, this is widely known and accepted among serious scholars. Yet we are now seemingly in the business of assessing complex PAST events about which there is endlessly conflicting and incomplete evidence about inherently controversial events, and then holding current people to account for it all.
So, the first problem with the theory of invoking reparations for past group wrongs, whether that involves smashing statues or deleting history courses or cancelling opponents or seeking monetary recompense from the state, is that we simply cannot assign responsibility for past wrongs. It is an intellectual impossibility. We are not remotely in a position to judge.
As the descendant of an (arguably) unjustly sentenced convict, I too might want to seek compensation from the Boris Johnson British Government. Good luck with that. It is not only legally absurd. It is just absurd.
And there is also the not-small matter, in assigning guilt for past collective wrongs, of determining the actual, moral basis of guilt. On whose say-so do we convict past wrongdoers? If the perpetrators of past wrongs broke no (then) law, how do we convict? Oh, of course, we convict on the basis of our own moral superiority. The moral superiority of the present generation. That would be the moral superiority of an age that gleefully and routinely sentences the unborn and the elderly to death because they are inconveniences. An age when orders of nuns are required to provide abortifacient drugs to their employees under Obamacare. An age that treats patients in nursing homes to inhuman “care”. An age that permits the “cancellation”, the impoverishment, the destruction of people whose views might offend someone, by the mob. Not, then, such an enlightened age. Not an age, it would seem, that can comfortably assume a position of moral superiority about anything.
There is a compelling case to reinstate some basic history education here, methinks.
Throw in some philosophy and some logic 101. Throw in some comparative political science. Some literature. Wait a minute. This sounds a little like the foundational tenets of a liberal education. We all know where making that case leads, alas. To the controversies surrounding the Ramsay Centre. To the efforts supported by so many to cancel the study of Western thought. To understanding the traditions of liberal democracy, the rule of law, individual rights and to freedom of thought and speech. We cannot go there, because those who would impose new obligations on our present generation for “our” past “sins” cannot allow this. We might learn that their whole program of retrospectively imposed collective guilt is built on quicksand. We cannot allow that.
Those who wish to kill the humanities and history and its study also want to kill off the historians. These are a problem. The history-killers are collaborators with the woke anarchists in our streets. Useful idiots, all. A traditional historian like David Starkey is fair game in the culture wars. The problem is not what he says or thinks, but what he stands for. He stands for understanding the past, in fine detail and with an objective eye. Kill Starkey! He said “damned blacks”. Cancel him, then.
Which takes us back to the question. Who owns the past? Who, indeed, can be said to own the present? Who can be held responsible for the past?
The modern conspirators against the past have not made the case that the past is NOT a foreign country. We do not own our past, nor, therefore, can we be held responsible for it, either individually or in our complexly interconnected groups with whom we may or may not remotely “identify”.
But that will not remotely bother the statue smashers and the reparations brigade, for they are not interested in prosecuting a coherent case, but rather in smashing by hard and soft power the system that we know as liberal democracy, which, for all of its manifest faults, does still find room to accommodate the idiot ideas of these illiterate morons who now endlessly disturb our days.
The whole case for making reparations for past wrongdoings by past collective institutions is ludicrous, on its face. This needs to be stated, loudly and often. In the face of the current prominence and popular impact of Black Lives Matter and its cognate anarchist movements, the case against the absurdities of retrospective class guilt requires fresh attention. The case for collective present guilt is built on power, but it is susceptible to rebuttal and ridicule. The opportunity lies in convincing third parties who currently bow before its power to reassess their own, useful idiot status.
A starting point may be to direct our attention to the third parties who supinely bow before the intellectually bankrupt philosophies of the age. Corporates, for a start. But only a start.