Drooling on the Pillow

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Herbert Butterfield Took Me To The Dark Side 

I've mentioned before that my first presidential ballot was cast for George McGovern and my last two for George W. Bush. There are undoubtedly legions of events, realizations, people and turns of fate that contributed to my long trek across the political landscape, but two things come to mind that jarred me loose from my hardened assumptions and allowed me to begin the trip.

I was waiting tables in a trendy joint on the East Side in the early eighties and making a play for one of the chefs. I thought she was cute as hell and bright as a button. Someone ran into the kitchen and announced that Reagan had been shot. The object of my affections pumped her arm in the air like a hockey player and shouted "Yes!"

Well, I may have been a vaguely lefty layabout, but I knew that wasn't right and I actually felt myself shift in that moment. Not toward the right, but toward giving things a fresh look.

And I happened to come across a book around the same time called The Whig Interpretation of History, by Herbert Butterfield, which can be accessed in its entirety under the link. It's a short book (or long pamphlet) but dense, written in 1931. It's premise is that most of our influential historians have been Whigs or progressives and that there is a characteristic relationship between the Whig historians and their subjects. They tend to interpret the past through the eyes of the present and they understand the present to be the end of a long series of events leading from darkness into light, from reaction to Jacobinism to liberalism, from authority to liberty and from right to left. History, in this view, is a vast Powerpoint document demonstrating the triumph of the progressive point of view.

As with any post hoc, ergo prompter hoc argument, it's an easy fallacy to fall into. In broad strokes, we have moved, or, you could even say progressed fairly resolutely through the centuries towards more personal liberty and from at least an acceptance of the inevitability of central control. On the other hand, of course, during the incomprehensibly blood-soaked 20th Century, most of the power was centralized under, and most of the blood was spilt in service of, 'progressive' regimes.

To Butterfield, it is the role of the polemicist, not the historian to answer the question, 'how did we achieve religious liberty?' without first understanding the reasonableness of religious persecution from a 16th century point of view.
Real historical understanding is not achieved by the
subordination of the past to the present, but rather
by our making the past our present and attempting
to see life with the eyes of another century than our
own. It is not reached by assuming that our own age
is the absolute to which Luther and Calvin and their
generation are only relative; it is only reached by fully
accepting the fact that their generation was as valid as
our generation, their issues as momentous as our
issues and their day as full and vital to them as our
day is to us.
He makes the case that the interposition of an agenda, consciously or not, acknowledged or not, liberal or conservative, invalidates the narrative of history. He might not argue with the analogy of history as story-telling, but he is firm against the addition of a moral at the end of the story.
It seems to be assumed that in history we can have
something more than the private points of view of a
particular historian; that there are "verdicts of
history" and that history itself, considered
impersonally, has something to say to men.
There is a satisfaction in finding historical vindication for one's assumptions, but there is a thrill in being led, by examination and analysis to suddenly looking through the eyes of a 12th century crusader and realize he didn't do what he did simply because he was wicked.

We do tend to see analogs to our party or our convictions in earlier era, but it is a mistake to imagine they would be your allies were they to pop out of the Way-Back machine tomorrow morning. People and nations had particular reasons for what they did and those motives are entirely opaque to us without a close examination of the relationships, the personalities, the restrictions, resources and needs of the actors involved with absolutely no reference to what we would do if we were in their shoes. Once that's made as clear as possible, then you can proceed to look at the transitions and turning points.

The very act of drawing that line from Luther or whomever may represent the beginning of a liberal notion through today and stringing connecting events onto that line, deliberately excludes half of the story. Perhaps in retrospect the destruction of American Indian culture was inevitable once it clashed with the technologically superior Europeans, just as, in retrospect, the annihilation of the Republican Guard was inevitable once the Marines were given the go-ahead to proceed to Baghdad. But retrospect means looking backward from the perspective of the present and from the perspective of the 16th century and early 2003, neither event was inevitable. Of course, the closer one approaches the actual events, the more uncertain seems the outcome. The Whig interpretation is the abbreviation of history by selection.

This book didn't make me a right winger by any means but it was the first challenge to a way of looking at history that had become ingrained in me and it opened the door.
One may be forgiven for not being too happy
about any division of mankind into good and
evil, progressive and reactionary, black and
white; and it is not clear that moral indignation
is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great
confusion of one’s judgement.
Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com Listed on BlogShares