The culture war against the past

Spiked on-line, 30 July 20202

The cultural conflicts that have engulfed much of the Western world threaten to detach our societies from their past. Almost seamlessly the numerous disputes that have erupted over identity, race, gender and family life have reinforced one another and intermeshed. But in the end the venom is directed towards one central target – Western society’s past. This project has little to do with the honourable mission of learning from the past. It is about treating the past as if it were current, and condemning historic figures and institutions as if they were our contemporaries. In this way, culture warriors seek to demonstrate their moral superiority over the centuries-old target of their outrage. Paradoxically, this crusade seeks to detach the present from the past.

It is important to understand that the culture war against the past is not confined to the vandalisation of old memorials and statues. The numerous demonstrations denouncing the misdeeds of Western empires or attacking historical figures like Jefferson, Gladstone or Churchill are in reality only the most vivid and striking symptoms of the cultural malaise afflicting the West.

The most significant feature of the war against the past is the complicity of cultural institutions and their leaders in these projects of estranging society from its traditions and history. It is not merely universities that promote a vision of the nation’s past as one that people should view with shame. The claim that contemporary cultural institutions bear the burden of guilt for the crimes committed by their ancestors is widely internalised by the cultural elites. From their perspective, Western history is a story of unremitting violence and greed. There are no ‘good old days’ that can serve as a focus for redemption and nostalgia. Instead of nostalgia, the current regime promotes a vision of the past as ‘the bad old days’, inciting guilt, shame and self-loathing. This corrosive orientation towards one’s history leads to constant performances of apology.

In the UK, take the example of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Recently, Welby announced that church statues will be reviewed ‘very carefully’ at major places of worship to see ‘if they all should be there’. Welby explained that not even Canterbury Cathedral or Westminster Abbey would be spared from this review.

Welby used ecclesiastical doublespeak to justify his call for potentially cancelling bits of his church’s history. He stated that forgiveness can only be granted ‘if we change the way we behave now and say this was then and we learn from that and change how we are going to be in the future’. Here, ridding churches of historic monuments is an act of contrition and repentance.

When an institution like the Church of England, charged with upholding England’s traditions, decides that its new role is to call into question the very legacy it is meant to protect, it is clear that the culture war against the past is not only being fought by demonstrators. And if the Church of England has become so enthusiastic about cancelling the past, it is not surprising that secular cultural institutions have also embraced this crusade.

Curators in cultural institutions and museums promote a script that attributes a negative connotation to anything that is Western, particularly objects from the past. It was in this vein that, last summer, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London posted signs outside an exhibition on the history of British humour, stating ‘this display confronts uncomfortable truths about the past’. This phrase suggests that the exhibition was not about displaying old objects, but confronting them, as if they were in the here and now.

At a Paul Gauguin exhibition at London’s National Gallery, a trigger warning posted on the wall noted: ‘Gauguin undoubtedly exploited his position as a privileged Westerner [in French Polynesia] to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him.’ An audio guide raised the question, ‘Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?’. The very posing of this question indicates that it is not just monuments and statues, but also objects of art that are potentially tainted by their association with Western civilisation. As recent events demonstrate, one way of answering the question posed by the audio guide is removing Gauguin’s paintings from sight altogether.

The history of Western art is increasingly regarded as a potential site of interest for the crusade against the past. Anticipating trouble ahead, Yale University has acted swiftly. The Yale Daily News reported in January:

Decades old and once taught by famous Yale professors like Vincent Scully, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes. But [its cancellation] is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealised Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists’

Of course, in the current climate the Western canon is anything but idealised. On the contrary, it has become pathologised to the point that convenors of university humanities courses are constantly in search of new recruits to fill the gap left by cancelled Western artists and authors. Cultural institutions are bending over backwards to demonstrate their hostility and estrangement from anything that is remotely associated with Europe’s historical legacy. It is important to comprehend that the culture war against the past is inspired by an aesthetic impulse that is not just anti-Western, but also characteristically anti-civilisational. In recent times, mathematics, philosophy and classical music have all come under attack for being too Western or too white. Unsurprisingly, language, which has always been an important site of the culture war, has become a focus of renewed conflict. Traditional grammar itself is now supposedly tainted with white privilege. That is why, in her wisdom, Rebecca Walkowitz, head of the English Department at Rutgers University, has decided to incorporate ‘critical grammar’ into her institution’s ‘pedagogy’. Critical grammar is another way of saying that the rules of grammar need not be taken seriously. As she explains, her approach ‘challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar / sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard “academic” English backgrounds at a disadvantage’. Walkowitz added that her approach ‘encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents’. In effect, the English Department at Rutgers has opted to distance itself from traditional grammar in favour of cultivating poor literacy. The culture war against the past is increasingly directed not at flawed historical individuals, but against the civilisational accomplishments of humanity as a whole. When art, philosophy and the rules of grammar can be so casually cancelled, it is evident that far more than the fate of a statue of a Confederate general is at stake. To understand the current conjuncture, it is necessary to explore the four distinct stages in Western society’s estrangement from its historical legacy, and its adoption of an increasingly negative orientation towards its past. There is always the potential for a modern society to become alienated from its historical traditions, but it is only in recent years that this sentiment has acquired a self-consciously ideological and political form.

Phase 1: The past is no longer relevant

Previously, the impulse to reject the past was closely linked to the optimistic modernist outlook, which claimed that the past was no longer relevant. Until the 19th century, the authority of the past remained relatively intact. However, during the 19th century many liberals adopted a one-dimensional orientation towards the future. As Dorothy Ross explained in her important study, The Origins of American Social Science, this orientation had the regrettable consequence of weakening ‘historical understanding’ (1). She noted that leading liberal and utilitarian thinkers ‘associated history with the Tory defence of the past’: ‘[T]hey believed a modern society had nothing to learn from the past and should go directly to the universal principles of human nature… [To] those engaged in understanding the historical course of progress, the whole past could be telescoped into a single stage which progress was leaving behind’

In its initial phase, this modernist estrangement from the past did not necessarily mean disrespecting it. Many leading liberals, such as JS Mill, wrote at length about the achievements of human civilisation and understood that they were the beneficiaries of its legacy. Phase 2: The past as an obstacle to progress

During the late 19th century there was an important shift from regarding the past as no longer relevant to perceiving it as an obstacle to further progress. This sentiment was most consistently articulated by commentators and intellectuals associated with the American progressive movement. This view reflected a sensibility that was totally estranged from the past. As the economist ERA Seligman noted in 1903: ‘The American of the future will bear but little resemblance to the American of the past.’ (2)

The belief that the past constituted an obstacle to progress gained momentum during the years after the First World War. This terrible tragedy was widely perceived as the outcome of ideals and values that were rooted in the past. Progressive thinkers argued that it was essential to overcome the obstacles represented by old ways of thinking by educating young people to embrace new values and attitudes. By the 1920s, these sentiments resonated with a significant section of society, who agreed that the values and customs of their parents and grandparents were not only outdated, but were also an obstacle standing in the way of realising the potential provided by science and technology.

At the time, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote about how Western society was caught up in the ‘spell’ of ‘our times’. He feared that the powerful mood of presentism, which had overtaken society, led to ‘cultural breakdown, weariness of spirit and disintegration’ (3). The tendency to regard the ways of life of the past as an obstacle to progress was also boosted in the aftermath of the Second World War, which was often blamed on the attitudes of the past. This sentiment was forcefully voiced by the Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, the first director of the World Health Organisation, who claimed that the survival of humanity required ridding ourselves of the obstacles of the past:

In many of the most important questions of life it is evident that the minds of large numbers, indeed almost all, of the human race are not freely open to consider how true or untrue old ideas are, or to consider any advantages which might be found in new ideas.’ (4)

Chisholm – like many of his colleagues running the newly established, post-Second World War international institutions – felt global organisations would help to remove the obstacle represented by ‘untrue old ideas’.

Phase 3: The past as principally malevolent

Back in the interwar era, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies pointed to the tendency of modernist technocratic institutions to react to the customs and traditions of community life with ‘veiled hatred and contempt’. This point was confirmed in 1972, by the American political scientist CJ Friedrich, who in his fascinating review of this development observed that ‘in the 20th century, tradition became a pejorative term’. Since the end of the Second World War, and especially since the 1960s, this sentiment of intolerant anti-traditionalism has become increasingly directed towards those who refuse to move along with the times and adopt a post-traditional identity. This attitude explicitly distances itself from the past and seeks to rupture the links that bind society to its historical traditions. From the 1960s onwards, the past has frequently been portrayed as not only an obstacle to progress, but also as a principally malevolent influence on the present.

Historical continuity is presented as a curse. Many of the institutions of Western society regard the need to break with the past as a cultural imperative. This sentiment even dominates the teaching of history, where often anything that precedes the end of the Second World War is portrayed as ‘the bad old days’. From this standpoint, 1945 is Year Zero and anything that precedes it is interpreted through the prism of scepticism and malevolence. This deep-seated mistrust of the pre-Year Zero era runs deep. Mothers and fathers are even told to be wary of the child-rearing practices used by parents in previous times. So-called parenting professionals advise mothers and fathers to heed the advice of child-rearing experts instead. Indeed, in Western societies, this silent crusade against the past directs its energy towards altering the way that the adult world socialises young people. The advice and views of grandparents is frequently disregarded as irrelevant and possibly prejudicial to the development of the child. As a result, children are not socialised into the values held by their grandparents, and certainly not those held by their more distant ancestors. This is why, in schools, the teaching of history is far more devoted to the project of highlighting the blemishes of a nation’s past than to drawing attention to its achievements.

Phase 4: The past as clear and present danger In recent times, the past has been so thoroughly pathologised that it has become a taken-for-granted outlook, permeating the educational and cultural life of Western society. Hatred towards the past has become a cultural resource that can be used by movements who claim to be the past’s historic victims. As a result, hostility towards the past has acquired a quasi-ideological form. It is frequently blamed for many of the problems faced by people today.

Conflicts in the present are increasingly fought out through the prism of the past. History has become a political issue. This is why demonstrators are able to claim that old statues constitute a threat to their mental health. What is fascinating about this movement is that often its target is not simply a specific statue, but almost any monument that is old. This is why, for example, supporters of Black Lives Matter have vandalised statues that have no direct link with racial oppression. The sin of such historical objects is that they symbolise the past.

This review of the different phases of the war against the past suggests that its origins can be located within the modernist sensibility that arose in the 19th century. What began as a positive, future-oriented sensibility gradually turned into its opposite, as the cultural elites of the Western world began to feel estranged and increasingly detached from their past. It is this group that bears responsibility for inciting the culture war against the past. The protesters and rioters toppling statues are merely acting out a script that began to be written more than a century ago.

So what should be done? We can and must understand the past. The past is not our enemy, and we must not confuse it with the present. Unless we learn to draw a line between the present and our history, we risk becoming imprisoned in a timeless vacuum, where we lash out at the past rather than take control over our destiny. Footnotes: (1) The Origins of American Social Science, by Dorothy Ross, 1991, Cambridge University Press, p16. (2) Ibid, p150. (3) See Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction, by Dermot Moran, Cambridge University Press, pp11 and 26. (4)‘Can Man Survive’, by Brick Chisholm, A Review of General Semantics, Vol4, No2 (Winter, 1947), p107. Picture by: Getty.

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