Historical Optimism

Part of what I want to get at in this blog and in the cast is why we as a country, culture, people do what we do abroad. Why and how we can continue seeding these disasters overseas. Part of the answer, unavoidably, is that we don’t see foreigners as people, not in the most important sense. Trying to overcome that barrier to human feeling was part of the post I wrote on Looking at History from the Outside.

Another element, I think, is optimism. Historical optimism. I don’t know exactly when the US as a country acquired that outlook, whether it came to us at some point or whether it was baked in from the beginning, but it’s thoroughly ours. One of the many definitions of the American Dream is providing better for your kids than your parents did for you. America, especially once we’d left the gold standard and gotten into Breton Woods, had a hand in creating a global economic system whose goal is year-over-year growth, forever. There’s a philosophy behind both those ideas and many other aspects of American life, which is that things are getting better, in the long run.

Things are getting better in the long run. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it curves toward justice. Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. The idea that things are, in the long run, getting better, has a long pedigree.

We, and forgive me if you’re beyond this, tend to see history as a progression in a bumpy but upward sloping line from the dawn of man to us. Develop agriculture, develop cities, writing, empires, democracy, the US, iPhones, us. The future isn’t clear, but we know it will eventually contain more and better than what we have now.

Modern (and ancient) schools of history spit on that idea. The progress of history (and “progress” is a word we use in that context exactly because we view history as such) is random, literally unpredictable, and curves in whatever direction the uncaring universe and humanity as a whole push it in, period.

There are no Hari Seldons.
There are no Hari Seldons.

It’s relatively easy in the US right now to defend history-as-progress. The situation for women and ethnic, social, and gender minorities is better than it’s ever been and looks like it will improve for the foreseeable future. Sure the economy’s shit and wealth is messed up and our politics are down the toilet, but it’ll all look up, eventually.

Things, though, have been as good before. Some anthropologists believe that man was healthier and had more leisure time as a hunter-gatherer than he’s ever had since. We might be getting healthier, now, physically, but we’re only just discovering that modern living has been destroying the health benefits of so-called ‘traditional’ living for centuries. As far as the mental and moral weight of 10,000 years of civilization, I’m not sure it’s too easy to argue that the balance falls toward the good.


That’s all vague though. Entire great civilizations, like the Harappa, lived and died so many thousands of years ago that we know almost nothing about them except that they probably imagined things would be getting better, generally, in the long run. Ancient Athens was more politically and philosophically and sexually enlightened than any society before maybe 1800. Ancient Rome was sometimes brutal and definitely unequal, but the Pax Romana kept the Mediterranean safe from the depredations of war, defended religious freedom, and exercised a form of slavery much more benevolent than ours was or the kind that gets us our chocolate is. The ancient and medieval worlds, for all their iniquities, did not practice racism or even acknowledge ‘racial differences’ in the way that we do today. The Middle East was once the cultural and scientific capital of the world, the Ottoman Empire a vast swathe of tolerant social policy, and a place where women had vastly more rights than they do in much of the former Empire today.

More analogous to our situation now, Europe had never been more cosmopolitan, democratic, or interconnected than in the summer of 1914. Weimar Germany was as progressive as a place got before the modern day back in 1933. The US was more equitable and democratic during Reconstruction in 1870 than it was afterwards in 1900. Mexico was on a serious upswing during the last year of Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship, right before it plunged into twenty years of war. Spain finally threw off its monarchy and founded the Second Republic in 1931, then convulsed in civil conflict and spent forty years under the brutality of Francisco Franco.

But, okay, maybe those were all blips, not actual reverses. And other than our inequality and politics, things look alright. As long as they’ll keep getting better, they look alright. Better than before, anyway.


And they may be alright. Historians don’t spit on the idea that, from now on, history will be progress towards ever greater good. They reject the idea that it has to be so, that some extra-historical force will compel it to be so. To them (and to me), the only things affecting the vague shape of the future are us and an uncaring cosmos. If you’re religious and you believe that God has a plan, that’s great, I do too. But I acknowledge that the two tools with which He enacts that plan are humanity and the cosmos. So we’re on the same page.

Why is it important to me or to this site or this podcast that you believe me? Because I want you to understand that this upward slope we’re on (if we’re on one at all) is delicate, incredibly so. The shows in the podcast are ample evidence that human society is fragile, and that a few knocks and tweaks here and there can bring it crashing violently, disastrously down. For ten years, Guatemala was the most progressive country in Latin America. Almost overnight it became the most violent. Iran from progressive to regressive. Almost every nation in Latin America from “kind of like the US in the 1940s” to excruciating dictatorship.

Human achievement depends on humanity and circumstance and needs both to survive. And we are at this point staring down the barrels of both. Western meddling in the Middle East over the last century and a half transformed a budding regional player on the world stage into a harbor for extremism that primarily physically affects the region itself but which, through terrorism, is transforming the countries of the ‘civilized’ West into xenophobic surveillance states. In Europe, fascism is once again on the rise. At home, demagoguery in the American pattern, fueled by Reagan’s disastrous inclusion of the religious right into Republican politics is literally threatening the bases of our government.

In Paris last year, the collective nations of the world capped off 21 years of procrastination by passing a toothless climate change agreement, all while every year climate change beats out our most ominous predictions of its progress. Whether or not you believe in climate change, we’ve passed the peak of cheap oil, and things like electricity and transport, medicine and food, are set to get precipitously more expensive and could wreck society as we know it unless we pour everything into alternative energy right now, which we definitely will not.

Climate change, itself, whether it’s manmade or a natural cycle or the will of God, will ca use food and resource shortages, mass migrations, natural disasters, and the spread of tropical plague, all of which are what brought down the Roman Empire, much longer lived than us.

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So two things.

The first is that whatever we have now, the only way we got it and the only way we’ll hold onto it is by fighting for it. Every time you don’t vote, don’t write your congressman, hold back that argument for fear of offending, don’t stand up for someone in a weaker position than yours, you’re letting us all down. Dr. King could see history curving towards justice because he was pushing it that way. Every time you leave the pushing up to someone else and assume that the curve will hold, you’re actively letting it fall back down.

We are all there is.

The second thing is that when we act abroad—when your senator threatens Iran or the President gets on the radio and reads an ultimatum to a dictator or some asshole denigrates diplomacy and international law as words for weaklings—take a hard look at the people they’re talking about. Because by definition they’re weaker than us, and whatever situation they’re in, it’s delicate. And if we destroy it, there is no guarantee that it will, in the long run, get better. Then look around yourself and try to reckon with the centuries of human effort and historical luck that put it all there.

And ask yourself if you’d want it taken away from you.

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