Dogmatism doesn’t suit me well, but there are a few opinions-non-grata which — when busted out in a class discusssion or over the dinner table — I can’t stand. One is facile cultural relativism: “But there’s no right answer! We all have such different backgrounds, and different experiences informing our views (no shit!) — which therefore must all be valid!” Another is useless and obvious skepticism: “But… how can we know?”
And the last, most prevalent in historical studies (but prone to crop up elsewhere too) is the “didacticization” of our past — the notion that historical studies must be instructive. I’ll concede that we can and should glean lessons from our past, but it’s not — it can’t — be the historian’s sole purpose. So when some kid quotes Santayana (with the apologetic air of someone who knows he is treading in triteness) — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — I’ll stop listening.
To be fair, it’s not just thoughtless Harvard students who want to treat historical studies like some Delphic oracle. These students take their cue from old-school scholars who were trained in traditional, political, causation-based methods — nation state versus nation state, A leads to B. Their approach is not all that bad — it doesn’t muck about with counter-factuals, or mire itself in too much “well-it-depends” contextualization — but it falls flat when these historians take their possible causal connections and call them necessary connections, even using them to model the future.
Arthur Lovejoy did this when he mapped out the inevitable trends in aesthetic culture:
“A tendency to radical innovation flourishes for a time and perhaps eventuates in a revolution, which is followed by a reaction, more or less extreme, and a period of dominant conservatism… [C]onnoissueurs in one period care, for example, only for Gothic architecture, then they despite it, then they admire it again, then they once more revolt against it…”
Sure, Arthur. Of course (granted, this would explain how leopard print and leg warmers make fashion comebacks at least twice in each decade).
Frank Rich makes the same exact mistake, in an editorial from last week (forwarded to me from the same friend who likes historicism in architecture). He claims that hot-button cultural issues — stem-cell research, abortion, same-sex unions — are resolved after becoming non-issues; in other words, when people stop caring about them, because there’s other stuff (“these economic times”) to care about. He draws a loose equivalence between the repeal of Bush’s stem-cell policies in 2009, and the end of Prohibition in 1933, to show that it’s not activism, or an actual change in moral attitudes, which end culture wars — it’s distractions, like southward economies, which make them irrelevant.
“History is cyclical,” Rich claims. This leads him to predict: “When the administration tardily ends ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, you can bet that this action, too, will be greeted by more yawns than howls.”
He might be right. But what would that mean? That we should trust in historical redux, bum around, and wait for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to abolish itself? Sure, history has repeated itself in the past, but — I’m going to stand with Hume on this one — that doesn’t mean it will in the future, and moreover, we can’t count on it to. We can’t afford to not care about DADT, because Frank Rich thinks the culture wars will subside.
He could be off the mark. Look back at the Cold War — it’s hard to think of a more overpowering threat than nuclear rivalries, but it didn’t make the moral issues at home irrelevant, and it didn’t make America more progressive. Indeed, in conflating liberal ideas with communism, the Cold War exacerbated the culture wars. And this was closer to our time than 1920s Prohibition.
So while we can take hints from the past, we can’t use it as an excuse to be complacent. When it comes to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — don’t wait. It’s a problem; let’s make it a problem.
Work Cited: Arthur Lovejoy, “Reflections on the History of Ideas”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan. 1940), 3-23.