Thursday, December 24, 2015

History and the Tragic Sense of Our Fallenness

I wish I had more time to engage with Peter Wirzbicki's excellent piece on historians and hope.  It is unfortunate that this was posted so close to Christmas because it is worth a full read.  

Andrew Hartman agrees with me:






Wirzbicki is responding to Ta-Nehsi Coates's Atlantic piece, "Hope and the Historians."  If you have been following The Way of Improvement Leads Home, you know that we have been discussing this piece as well.  See our comments here and here and here.


Here is a very small taste of Wirzbicki's essay at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:


I found their arguments about the split between history and hope compelling and thought-provoking. I am especially convinced that there are triumphalist narratives of US history that must be combatted. But I also was concerned about where the logic of these essays seemed to go.  Many of us, after all, study social movements for lessons on how to recreate those successes. Or we study structures of oppression to find their weakness. Where does a history without hope leave us? More pernicious, I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism. There is a pessimism about mankind’s abilities in these narratives, a tragic sense of our fallenness 
found most often on the right. In many ways, I think, the fault lies with us historians, who have claimed that history should be our total guide to present political life.  Counter-intuitively, by seeking in the past a totalizing guide for present politics, we have sucked the air from our contemporary political imagination, leaving us necessarily disillusioned.  An overly-politicized past may inadvertently lead to an under-politicized present. A politics shaped solely by history is one that runs the risk of a pessimism, the denial of the human task of rebellion against the given, a rejection of the power of critical rationality to reshape.


A couple thoughts/questions:


1.  If I read him correctly, Wirzibicki has a hard time accepting a view of the past defined by human fallenness.  He "worries" that Coates's narrative will inevitably lead to an "approach to politics" that "falls into a realism that borders on conservatism."  But does such realism about human nature always translate into a conservative political agenda?  I am thinking here of Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been described as a progressive who believed in original sin.  If Jim Kloppeberg is correct, one might also put Barack Obama in this category.


2.  Is it really fair to say that progressives have a corner on the market when it comes to "imagination" and "hope?"  Again, here is Wirzbicki, "I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism."


OK--I realize I am nitpicking here.  On the other hand, the rest of Wirzbicki's provocative argument builds off of the paragraph I pasted above.