A Selfish Kind of Historical Relativism
The problem with imagining that the moment in which we live is somehow a chaotic historical aberration instead of fairly typical.
Americans have been having a lot of trouble with historical relativism lately, and not just when it comes to the past.
It’s no secret that we are too prone to apply modern standards to historical figures and conduct. The most obvious examples relate to slavery and our heroic leaders of the past. George Washington did not have enlightened views on slavery and race by our standards, but for a Virginian who entered public life in the middle of the 18th century, he was morally advanced.
I don't bring this up to defend George Washington, because he does not need my defense. Indeed, it would be far harder for most politicians today to conform to Washington’s standards on everything else—e.g. ethics, service, duty, dignity, self-denial—than it would be for Washington to get in line with modern thinking on matters of race if he were plopped down in the 21st century.
That’s why I bring up Washington and the giants of American history. We are suffering with a kind of inverted historical relativism. Like the now infamous San Francisco school board that tried to remove Abraham Lincoln from the name of a high school after 81 years carrying the banner of the great emancipator, Americans are getting very good at holding figures of the past to impossible standards of the present. But some of these same people have shown a real gift for excusing their own dubious conduct by imagining that the moment in which we live is somehow a chaotic historical aberration, rather than fairly typical of the human experience.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte premiered in Vienna in 1790. The opera is a delightfully ridiculous morality play arranged around the idea of fidelity among young lovers. When the antagonist recommends licentiousness to his young friends, he points out that with “the world in the midst of these whirlwinds” what can one do but take pleasure?
In 1790, the times were tumultuous indeed. A successful revolution in America had taken root, but not too far away from where the play premiered, the French revolution was underway and was about to turn into a bloody disaster. The uprising against the old feudal families of Europe was underway and carried with it serious implications for the kind of people who wore powdered wigs to opera performances at the Imperial Court Theater as guests of the Hapsburgs.
We are similarly freaked out these days, and it's easy to see why. The world is changing dramatically all around us. Technological revolution, social upheaval, and cultural distortion all make people very uncomfortable. Maybe it is not the same as Mozart's time in every way, but it is the same human response: In periods of change, we imagine that things are different than they have been before, and that we are not obliged to uphold the standards of normal times. With “the world in the midst of these whirlwinds,” why not do what you like, even if that means lying to gain or hold power? Why not use demagoguery or reject decency if history has been blown off of its axis?
Longtime readers will have to excuse my serving up this observation again, but it is too important to not reinforce.
Between November 1963 and April 1975, America ripped itself to pieces. In a period shorter than it’s been for us since the financial crisis of 2008, we assassinated our president, assassinated his brother, assassinated the world-historic leader of the civil rights movement, after having assassinated the second most prominent civil rights leader. We almost killed segregationist George Wallace during one of his presidential campaigns, which is less frightening than the fact that Wallace won 46 electoral votes. There were riots in more than 100 cities, and not the looting of a Ferragamo store, but the wholesale destruction of big chunks of cities. Chaotic destruction raged through the large industrial cities of the north. From Philadelphia to Los Angeles, there was hell on earth.
On foreign policy, the United States faced its first military defeat overseas in our history, and did so after the federal government perniciously lied to the American people about the nature of that conflict. The tragedy of Vietnam was a heartbreaking consequence of a federal policy that was confused, dishonest, and impossible to ever fully implement even if it had been on the level. We abandoned our allies in south Vietnam and left them to certain slaughter.
Our president and vice president both resigned in disgrace but over separate scandals. Our leaders failed the American people in profound ways, unthinkable to the previous generation. And that all happened in a period of time about the same as it has been for us since Barack Obama’s first term.
I bring all of that up because it is, to me, the essential reminder for Americans, especially those younger than 50, that our era is not a historical aberration. The challenges we face are real, yes, but not as bad as the ones from the period that ended in 1975. They even had worse inflation and energy shortages and dealt with a more fearsome Russian foe. But we quickly forgot how things had been, and within a generation confused a vacation from history with the end of history.
We’re like Don Alfonso, the rake from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. We tend to believe that extraordinary behaviors are allowed by extraordinary times—that we live in an era that will not allow us to maintain first principles. Of course, the opposite is true. It is in chaotic times when first principles are the most important. That’s harder to remember, though, when our historical ignorance allows us to simultaneously judge the past by modern mores while imagining that “the whirlwind” of our times is some kind of radical departure from the human experience.
Which brings us to another favorite of mine: Opinions are luxury items, so don’t have more than you can afford. When times are good, as they have been for a very long time in the United States, we grow our lists of priorities. We want a robust economy, but also carbon neutrality. We want safe streets, but also equity in policing. We want greater wealth, but less wealth inequality. We want a peaceful world, but not one that we are obliged to lead.
When times are bad, people focus on the first things: peace, security, and prosperity. When we have those things, we tend to forget the principles that provided them in the first place. When troubled times do come, we have to remind ourselves that hardship is the norm, not the departure, and that first principles are way through.
The principles we have built since even before Mozart’s day are born of and for hard times. For Americans of 2022, that means being able to see the past and present in proper context, even when that means being more generous with the figures from history and more demanding of ourselves.