Thursday, July 9, 2015

Textbooks Standards and the Limits of Human Knowledge

Catastrophic evil grabs headlines. I tend to think, though, that we're less endangered by the comparatively rare instances of spectacular depravity than by the the toxic and altogether commonplace combination of arrogance and ignorance.

Consequently, what's most exasperating about neo-Confederates and their implicit fellow travelers is their utterly absurd and totally unjustified attitude of learned superiority. They defend a repugnant government. They idolize an evil society. But what I find most annoying--rather than horrifying--is the arrogance with which they proclaim their ignorance. Historically indefensible attempts to minimize the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause are invariably followed by the pompous demand that their opponents "read some history."

Look, I know history is complex, and that all generalizations in historical study overlook caveats and nuance and exceptions to the rule. But unless we're to do away with generalization altogether--in which case the study of history would not exist, and in its place we'd have archival cataloguing of meaningless and disconnected scraps of information--we have to live with some degree of simplification. As John Lukacs is fond of saying, "Generalizations are like brooms--they're meant to sweep."

So we must generalize at times and in places or give up on historical study. Given this inevitability, we simply have to evaluate which generalizations are more justified and which are less. And if there ever was a defensible, sweepingly true generalization, it's this: the Confederate states seceded and fought a war to defend, extend, and perpetuate an economic and social system defined by--founded and entirely dependent upon--race-based chattel slavery.

The historical evidence is overwhelming--from the declarations of secession to the arguments of southern secession commissioners to the statements of the major political figures of the Confederate States of America to the Confederate Constitution. Meanwhile, alternate theories are indefensible--bad faith distortions largely manufactured by Lost Causers after 1865 as a fig leaf to disguise their slavery-centered revolt. Southern states and the C.S.A. were eager to trample states' rights in defense of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, was arguably the most invasive federal law ever passed. The tariff was lower in the 1850s than in most of the previous decades,* and references to it among secessionists were sporadic and inconsistent. It's true that during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln acted outside of Constitutional bounds, but as the war went on so too did Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government concentrate power at the federal level at the expense of the states.**

It was with great interest, then, that I listened to Diane Rheem's show yesterday on the Texas textbook kerfuffle.*** Obviously I have very little sympathy with those who wish to believe that states' rights was just as central to secession as slavery--much less with those who want nonsensically to treat slavery as a "side issue."

As the panelists discussed the Texas textbook standards--which certainly appear to be frankly ridiculous--a vision of a universalized, national history education emerged from some as the solution to the Texas problem. Early on, Diane Rheem asked, "But wouldn't you think there would be sort of a standardized history text that every child in America would learn the same things about?" Throughout the show, various panelists lamented that this was not the case.

As repugnant as Texas' standards appear to be, I also have to admit that I am deeply uncomfortable with this nationalized vision for historical education. Rheem and her panelists are unconsciously subscribing to the notion that if we just get enough experts together, we can conjure up one single historical account that should suffice to explain everything to everyone.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Judging prophetic claims about history

"Good to be in the right church and on the right side of history."

I read that in all of its intense and righteous self-satisfaction, and I thought of Mrs. Turpin from Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation":
To help anybody out that needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent. And of all she had to be thankful for, she was most thankful that this was so. If Jesus had said, "You can be high society and have all the money you want and be thin and svelte-like, but you can't be a good woman with it," she would have had to say, "Well don't make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!" Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds instead of one hundred and eighty.
Mrs. Turpin's fate was to be set upon and, ultimately, set right by the ultimately-not-ironically-named Mary Grace. In absolutely no way do I wish Mary Grace's violence upon the author of those words, but I am always taken aback by the exaggerated sense of rightness in such proclamations.

 A long time ago I thought that claims about right and wrong sides to history were essentially about "a progressive view of history, whereby the superior moral standing of later generations exposes the errors of the past."* I still think that's true, but what stands out to me now is the way that a progressive vision of history functions essentially as an article of faith, entirely and wholly apart from any connection to lived history. I'm interested, in other words, in the religious zealotry that underlies progressive history.

In my last post on "Hope in historical unpredictability," I pointed out that those who make claims about sides to history "aren't making 'historical' claims, in the sense that they can be proven or supported with reference to past history. Whether the proclaimers recognize it or not, such assertions are fundamentally prophetic. That is, they are making a claim about the purposes and intentions of the author of history."

In that post, I more or less implied that statements about the right or wrong side of history should be simply ignored entirely. But that's not particularly charitable, nor am I sure it's prudent.

If, as I suggested, they are not historical claims, then they cannot be investigated and then either confirmed or falsified via the study of history. So, then, how can we evaluate them?

The answer, I humbly suggest, is to evaluate them as what they are: prophetic claims. The speaker of such claims is, essentially, claiming to be a mouthpiece for the author of history. And as I concluded my last post, "the author of history either does not exist or he is God Almighty."

It's worth noting here that prophecy in Scripture is not really about mystically predicting the future. It's about speaking God's truth, which needn't but may sometimes involve proclamations of future judgment. But in either case, the prophet speaks for God.

How, then, would you respond if someone claimed to be speaking on behalf of God?

If you do not buy into prophetic claims in general--perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic or deist or what have you, or perhaps instead you are simply a Christian who thinks prophecy ceased after the New Testament--then you can simply disregard claims about sides to history altogether. You should grant them no more credence or meaning than you assign to your average sign-waving apocalypticist shouting on a street corner.

Things are more complicated if you do not dismiss all prophetic claims out of hand.

In his essay on "Historicism," C.S. Lewis implies that a prophetic claim about history should come "with supporting evidence by way of sanctity and miracles"--and suggests that he is not capable of judging in such an instance. Presumably, Lewis saw that as the job of the Church. That is pretty much what I think--that prophetic claims ought ultimately to be judged by the Church.**

But there are places where the Church has already spoken--where Scripture is resoundingly clear, or where ecumenical councils have made relevant statements, or where the common prayer and practice of the Church make a conclusion unavoidable. And we know, as I've said before, how the story ends.

So, I'd humbly suggest, if someone's claiming that the author of history is saying something in contradiction to what we know to be true about God or what we know to be true about the end of the story, then we can safely reject it as nonsense.


*At the time I noted another possibility: Perhaps the man who was shouting about the wrong side of history wasn't really a believer in History as Progress. "Perhaps," I wrote, "he fancies himself a hardened realist. He's merely stating that victors get first dibs at writing history textbooks, and he intends to win. He intends, in other words, to sit in the chair, become the power that be is? and say what's what." He's saying, in other words,  that you'll be on the wrong side of history because I'm going to make sure you lose, and then I'll write the history of your defeat. I wrote that with my tongue firmly planted in cheek, but now I'm not so sure that's an implausible reading. In fact I think it's likely that faith in History as Progress goes hand-in-hand with the desire to demonize, defeat, and annihilate the Enemies of Progress.
**In response to this post, Daniel Silliman has rightly pointed out that the two options I've outlined do not fairly cover the possible responses to prophetic claims. He's absolutely correct, and I did not mean to suggest that wholesale dismissal and "the church should judge" are the only possible responses. Many evangelicals, for example, might respond that each individual should judge by Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I merely want to say that claims about the sides of history should be weighed in the same manner as you would judge religious claims--however you do so. My primary targets--to drop the whole indirect pretense real quick--are those who think religious claims are fine as privately held beliefs but have no place in the public square, yet also bludgeon their political opponents with "wrong side of history" language.