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The Culture War Against the Past

The European Conservative 17 November 2011

The mere hint that a point of view is outdated serves as a signal that it need not be taken seriously. It can be legitimately vilified and condemned.

As a sociology professor, I often take note of how students, faculty, and administration speak about topics of political controversies. For years, I have noted that ‘outdated’ has become a favourite term of abuse hurled at opponents by zealous culture war activists. The use of the term as an insult has now migrated from university campuses into public life, so I am not surprised when I read the title of a press release, from a disabilities charity like Leonard Cheshire, stating that “shocking new research reveals the outdated and inappropriate language endured by Britain’s disabled community.”

Recently the meaning of ‘outdated’ has radically mutated; from a term of description connoting old-fashioned or obsolete, ‘outdated’ is now an adjective used to show that something is worthy of universal condemnation. Today, the very coupling of outdated with the attitudes and behaviour of older generations conveys the sense of moral and intellectual inferiority. That is why in intergenerational discussions and arguments the response to the views of older people is often the put-down statement “they don’t get it.” (One need only think of the ubiquitous phrase “Okay, boomer” for a recent example.)

The mere hint that a point of view is outdated serves as a signal that it need not be taken seriously. It can be legitimately vilified and condemned.

Of course, there is nothing new about criticising old people for their outdated ideas This has been a widely practiced custom designed to devalue the moral status of the elderly. For example, back in 1950, the American sociologist David Riesman drew attention to the project of de-legitimating the status of the grandparent. In his study, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, Riesman stated that “grandparents stand as emblems of how little one can learn from one’s elders about the things that matter.”

Today it is not only grandparents but virtually any ideal, custom, and mode of behaviour that bears the imprint of past tradition that is likely to be condemned as outdated by the Anglo-American cultural establishment. Individuals are often accused of using outdated terminology as though this, in and of itself, were a refutation of their arguments. At times, the policing and targeting of outdated ideas becomes its own caricature. Content and ‘trigger warnings’ on old museum exhibits and films communicate the message that their viewer must beware that the ideas that gave birth to these works of art are outdated—and are thus unacceptable for anyone living today to hold. There is a veritable army of ‘offence archaeologists’ digging up the outdated legacy of the past with a view to insulating society from its supposed toxic effect.

More ominously, ridding the world of outdated views and sentiments has acquired a disturbing and coercive dimension. In Canada, one school board has organised a book burning ceremony to celebrate the destruction of publications containing outdated views. The ritual, titled a ‘flame purification ceremony’ aims “to make a gesture of openness and reconciliation by replacing books in our libraries that had outdated content and carried negative stereotypes about First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.”

For the promoters of the flame purification ceremony, the corollary of their narrative of the outdated is a palpable sense of hostility towards the past. The legacy of the past is not only deemed irrelevant but is also denounced and attacked. Early traces of this trend were noted in the 19th century by the renowned Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt, who in Reflection on History remarked that “a very peculiar phenomenon has become manifest, namely the sudden devaluation of all ‘mere’ events of the past.” He also noted that since the French Revolution “men took upon themselves the right to indict the past as a whole.” In the 21st century, the accusatory orientation towards the past alluded to by Burckhardt has acquired a crusade-like character.

Having (and losing) a sense of the past

Throughout human history, the past has been seen as a heritage, something that offered a pattern for the present. However, during the 19th century, Westerners came to believe that innovation is both “inescapable and socially desirable,” as Eric Hobsbawm wrote. It was at this point that western culture’s capacity to retain a sense of the past was called into question. For the sociologist and critic, Philip Rieff, writing in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the loss of the ‘sense of the past’ meant that cultural continuity became disrupted and the capacity of adults to serve as models to the young diminished.

The possession of a sense of the past was (and still ought to be), in the words of literary critic Lionel Trilling, writing in The Liberal Imagination, an “actual faculty of the mind, ‘a sixth sense,’” through which man becomes conscious of history and his place in it. This sensibility does not mean obsessively looking back towards a distant land, but a form of consciousness that regards cultural continuity as relevant for illuminating the human predicament

At some point in the 20th century, the western world became estranged from the past, rejecting the idea that it has any kind of authoritative status, and often even rejecting it altogether. Its obituary was captured by the title of the historian, J.H. Plumb’s book, The Death Of The Past (1969). Though Plumb was sympathetic to a progressive vision of the past, he was sensitive to the fact that something important was being lost. He observed that “whenever we look, in all areas of social and personal life, the hold of the past is weakening.”

The loss of the sense of the past was interpreted by social scientists and educators through the magnification and the objectification of the psychic distance between the present and the past. From the late 19th century onward, change was often experienced and presented in a dramatic and mechanistic manner that exaggerated breaks and ruptures between the present from the past. The outcome of this sensibility was to corrode the link between society and its past. Today this sensibility has hardened into a veritable crusade of hatred against the past and its outdated legacy. The European Union has wholeheartedly embraced this orientation and seeks to treat those who seek to conserve the legacy of western civilisation as cultural outcasts.

Animated by the impulse of purging the world of its outdated legacy, a powerful cultural movement is now afoot across the Anglo-American world. This development first gained momentum in the United States before enveloping the rest of the Anglosphere, as well as other Western societies. This movement has unfolded in several distinct stages.

In a first stage, the past was rejected by both progressive commentators and the technocratically inclined, both of whom saw the past as no longer relevant to the needs of the modern world.

This eventually led to a second phase, in which the additional conclusion that the past was not just irrelevant but also an obstacle to progress. This tendency to regard the past as an obstacle to progress gained momentum in the aftermath of World War II (which itself was blamed on the influence of outdated attitudes). This was forcefully voiced by the Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, the first director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), who claimed that the survival of humanity required ridding itself of the obstacles constituted by the outdated views of the past. In a 1947 essay in A Review of General Semantics, he warned that:

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.

Chisholm, like many of his colleagues running the newly established international institutions of the post-World War II era, regarded that one of the virtues of the WHO was that it would help remove the obstacle represented by “untrue old ideas.”

The conviction that outdated ideas were an obstacle to progress then gave birth to the belief that the entire legacy of the past was characteristically malevolent. This third phase gained great momentum in the 1960s. It was underlined in 1972 by the America political scientist C.J. Friedrich, who in a 1972 book observed that, “in the [20th] century ‘tradition’ became a pejorative term.” Since the end of World War II, and especially since the 1960s, this sentiment of intolerant anti-traditionalist scorn has become increasingly directed towards those who refuse to ‘move with the times.’ This attitude is explicitly committed to morally distancing itself from the past and rupturing the links that bind society to its historical traditions.

Today we are living through a fourth phase in the more than a century-long crusade against the legacy of the past. It is a phase in which this legacy is seen as constituting a clear and present danger.

The pathologisation of the past constitutes an integral feature of the current zeitgeist. It permeates the educational and cultural life of western society. A new discourse of accusatory history has emerged that represents cultural continuity 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 virtually the entire past is portrayed as the bad old days, times that must be interpreted through the prism of scepticism and malevolence.

In the current moment, the past has become a live political issue. That is why demonstrators are able to claim that old statues traumatise them and constitute a threat to their mental health. This claim has developed into a movement, and what is fascinating about it is that often its target is not a specific statue implying a racist message, but any monument that is old or holds the past as worthy of veneration. That 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. The impulse to negate the past has helped transform hatred towards it into a cultural resource that can be used by movements who can claim to be its historic victims.

In contrast to the attitudes expressed in the 19th century, the current reaction to the past does not seem to be guided by a positive, idealistic commitment to progress. Writing in the late 19th century, Burckhardt had noted how ”the protest against the past is blended with a radiant vision of the future.” But today, there is nothing radiant or future oriented about the zealous hatred directed at the past by the contemporary movement of mindless iconoclasts. At times it even appears that the current revolt against the past is influenced by impulses that are distinctly backward looking. Yet, its impulse to rid the world of the symbols and values of the past suggests that it is striving to forge a ‘Year Zero’ culture—one where the new identities that are created are entirely detached from the negative influences of outdated ideas.

Readjusting the past

For over a century, modern, powerful voices and interests have sought to detach Western societies from the past. On numerous occasions the past was declared to be irrelevant or an obstacle to change. Yet, despite so much energy devoted towards neutralising its influence—particularly over the young—it continues to be perceived as a problem and ‘the bad old days’ are frequently denounced as exercising a malign influence on contemporary society. Paradoxically, references to the past and the demand to settle scores with it has acquired an unprecedented presence in public life in the western world.

There has never been a time in living memory when so much energy has been devoted to attempting to readjust the past, to question and criticise historical figures and institutions. At times it seems as if the boundary between the present and the past has disappeared as sections of society casually cross over it and seek to fix contemporary problems by readjusting our views on the past.

The most insidious manifestation of the project of readjusting the past is the movement to ‘decolonise’ the school curriculum. Advocates of the project of decolonising schools target what they perceive as outdated views on issues as diverse as gender, culture, and race. School subjects as diverse as history, literature, geography, and religious education are now used as vehicles for countering what they describe as “white privilege.” They encourage pupils to acknowledge their whiteness and perceive society as defined by its systemic racism. A new breed of curriculum engineers is devoted to the task of estranging children from such ‘outdated’ sentiments as national pride and patriotism.

The supposed imperative of decolonisation is particularly evident in museums, where many curators have adopted the habit of attaching ‘beware’ signs to old artefacts and works of art in order to inform visitors of the cultural crimes and the sins associated with them. It is as if these curators are putting the past in its place and ensuring that visitors are protected from its baneful influence.

The adoption of ‘trigger warnings’ and beware signs in museums highlights a condition best described as the paradox of the past. What makes this approach paradoxical is that it rejects the past as irrelevant and best left behind, while at the same time obsessively treating the past as if it were very much alive!

The impulse to exact revenge on the past as if it were a living phenomenon was strikingly illustrated during the protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter in 2020. Protestors self-consciously targeted historic symbols of western culture as if these statues constituted a clear and present danger to their wellbeing. Statues are condemned as if they were living figures responsible for the many ills inflicted on the world. On numerous occasions protestors were quoted as saying that the very sight of an offending statue constituted a threat to their mental health. In Oxford, numerous ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaigners asserted that walking past Rhodes’ statue was traumatic.

During the course of toppling statues many of the protestors acted as if they are striking a blow against a living person. The mentality of exacting revenge was at work during the course of pulling down the statue of Edward Colson in Bristol in June 2020. The protestors were not simply interested in toppling over the monument but also to humiliate it. The statue was dragged through some streets before being thrown in the river. It was almost as if what was being dragged was a corpse rather than a statue.

The paradox of the past—its rejection and obsessive embrace—is understandable since even with the best effort it is not possible to abolish it through the invention of a fictitious Year Zero. The past is not a phenomenon that is external to individuals or to the community they inhabit. From the point that children become humanised and socialised they become aware of the fact that what preceded them has an important bearing on who they are. The past is an integral element of human consciousness and society’s reaction to it are communicated through the way it ascribes meaning to experience.

During the course of carrying out research for my study, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: The Culture War Over Socialisation, I drew the conclusion that the cumulative outcome of the more than a century long crusade against the supposed outdated achievement of western civilisation was to dispossess young people of their cultural legacy. This is no small problem, for cultural continuity is essential for illuminating the human predicament. It also has profound implications for the constitution of human identity. The very emergence of the concept of an identity crisis leading to an obsession with identity and its politicisation is intimately linked to the unravelling of cultural continuity.

There is no justification for dismissing the insights that emerged through the centuries as outdated. The intellectual and moral heritage of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment retain their relevance to this day. To recognise the relevance of this rich cultural legacy is not to be uncritical slaves of the past. The willingness to change, adapt and embrace uncertainty are some of the important and positive attributes of the modern era. However, these attributes become a caricature of themselves when they acquire the character of a dogmatic rejection of everything that precedes the present. In The Human Condition, the philosopher Hannah Arendt warned against the tendency of modern man to rebel ”against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere” and “which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.” Cultivating a powerful sense of the past is essential for defending civilisation itself from the cultural predators at work today.


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