Progress and Nostalgia in History

It seems that whenever a newsworthy political event unfolds nowadays, social media becomes the central destination for many people to vent their political opinions. These outbursts can be quite frustrating at times because they seem to be self-serving rather than an act of genuine concern with civic engagement and community building. I’ve been guilty of going on political rants occasionally, and I’ve actually learned a lot from political discussions with friends on social media. However, I realize that change most often takes place with real people in the community, and if I really care about making a difference and helping others, writing a status update on Facebook doesn’t equate to much.

The recent shutdown of the U.S. Government has elicited another round of digital outrage. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these discussions has been the ways in which history is used to justify present day political positions, and there were two common arguments I would like to highlight here. Both are often used to help make sense of the past, and they do much to shape our understanding of the world today:

1. History as Progress: One argument places the blame for the government shutdown squarely on the American people. Their political apathy is the reason why the current members of Congress and the President are in office. With so much information at the fingertips of almost every American today, there is enough information for voters to make informed decisions (ostensibly), so politicians, business leaders, and other elites in society cannot be blamed if they engage in inappropriate behavior or help to shut the government down. The peoples’ political apathy, it was argued to me, can be traced to history. Americans have not had a “real crisis” since the Cold War, and people today don’t know what it’s like to face “hard times.” “Only when real crisis arrives will citizens awake from their slumber and care again,” the argument goes.

2. History as a form of Nostalgia: Another perspective acknowledges that we live in a complex world with many uncertainties. If only we could turn back the clock and live like people did 200 years ago, when things made sense. One person stated this viewpoint as such: “Every family for themselves. Hunt and grow your own food. Pay for your own healthcare with whatever you had to pay with. Teach my children respect and how to use a gun and how God has blessed us with every single thing we have.”

Perspective one acknowledges that people in past societies endured hardships and tribulations. In times of crisis, the people banded together and involved themselves in political issues for the betterment of the United States, something that doesn’t seem to happen as much today. While I certainly agree that the American people hold a good degree of responsibility for electing the same cast of characters in the 2012 elections as they did in 2010, this perspective fails to acknowledge the agency of politicians and the media in shaping how we perceive contemporary political issues. Additionally, it fails to acknowledge that many people are enduring “hard times” today. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that 9/11 was indeed a “crisis” that has profoundly shaped the domestic and foreign policy initiatives of the United States over the past twelve years.

Historian/Sociologist Jim Loewen has described this historical narrative of progress as a form of “ethnocentrism”:

[Americans] have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall storyline is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically…This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

Chronological ethnocentrism plays a helpful role for history textbook authors: it lets them sequester bad things, from racism to the robber barons, in the distant past. Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all “know” everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now. Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past.

Perspective two acknowledges that our lives today are complex. New issues like the Affordable Health Care Act are complex to the extreme, and all of us are uncertain as to what the future holds. In acknowledging the complexities of our world, however, this perspective reflects a specific way of looking at the past that sanitizes the trails and tribulations people have had to endure throughout history. The fact that African Americans before the Civil War faced the fear of their masters selling off their family members at any moment or that most were never allowed to learn how to use firearms (for obvious reasons) seems to escape this particular view of history. Additionally, “paying for healthcare” implies that there was actually an effective system of healthcare available to most people in past societies.

Is there a way to move beyond viewing history as a form of progress or nostalgia? In my opinion, history is both painful and inspiring. We must acknowledge the hardships and injustices endured by people in history. We can celebrate the great moments too. However, these acknowledgements shouldn’t come at the expense of forgetting the hardships of people today. We don’t have to join the Green Party and sing Kumbaya together, but we should always strive for a greater sense of empathy for the human condition, even if we don’t fully understand the circumstances of others (both past and present). When we talk about an America in which the last “real crisis” was fifty years ago or we portray the past as a nostalgic fantasyland in which everyone got along and had all their problems solved, we actually share our understanding of the world today more so than any understanding of the past. As Peter N. Stearns argues, “history should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty.” Through a careful analysis of the past, we can “emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness.”

We’ve come a long way, but that doesn’t mean we’re done.