The Better Letter: Purity Rituals

History doesn’t owe us an ending, happy or otherwise.

As the great Bob Dylan explained recently, “gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news. And we have to thank the media industry for that. It stirs people up. Gossip and dirty laundry. Dark news that depresses and horrifies you.” Watch the great Aretha Franklin turn pop into gospel.

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Purity Rituals

The killing of George Floyd has launched a vital rethinking of race, violence, and policing in America. To pick one example among many, it has brought to the fore further consideration of racist memorials to American traitors who enslaved human beings. As proudly proclaimed by the insurrectionist vice president, the Confederacy rested on “the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Perhaps worse, most confederate monuments were erected not so much as an homage to anyone or anything, but as chilling reminders to subjugated citizens in the Jim Crow south of who was still in charge.

Those values do not deserve to be honored.

Even so, it should be axiomatic that local governments decide the fate of monuments, not mobs. Yet with Taliban-like moral superiority and certainty, rioters today are forcibly removing statues of a wide range of alleged “monsters,” including insurrectionists but also great American heroes. It is as structured as any dance. Often on Twitter, they make their presence known, glide out onto the dance floor, and twirl. It’s a progressive purity ball.

In Portland, Oregon, protestors pulled down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for their lack of moral purity. The Father of Our Country was accused of being a “Genocidal Colonist.” Jefferson wrote the greatest prose in all of history about human liberty yet only freed a few of his slaves.

The great Frederick Douglass, former slave, abolitionist, intellectual, and social reformer, eulogized Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general who won the Civil War and later became president, as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” Hoodlums in San Francisco pulled down his statue anyway.

In perhaps the most absurd example of all, an immigrant abolitionist who died leading Union soldiers into battle to eradicate slavery in the Civil War had his statue pulled down this week, beheaded, and thrown into a lake. 

These are the actions of idiots, ignoring reality to offer their own purity rituals of virtue signaling and slut-shaming.

Looking at past pictures of ourselves can be a difficult experience. Our hairstyles were invariably bad and our sartorial selections questionable. If we expand the field of inquiry to include more significant choices – who we hung out with, who we voted for, what investments we made, what we tattooed on our bodies, who we married – things can get ugly in a hurry. At best, we chuckle knowingly, grateful in the presumption that we won’t do that (or some series of thats) again. At worst, we’re thankful to be alive and not in jail.* 

But today is a different story. The execrable and benighted past is a mere prelude to a glorious and enlightened present. 

Researchers call this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” whereby we tend to think of the present as a sort of “watershed moment” such that we will continue to be who we are in that present for the rest of our lives. Everyone “seem[s] to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain. History, it seems, is always ending today.”

As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who co-authored the seminal research in this area, explained: “At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.” 

As is so often the case, artists were ahead of the scientists. George Orwell’s 1984, written more than 70 years ago, perceived the same thing and make ominous use of it. 

“History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Abstractly, we all recognize our fallibility, that we have made many, many mistakes. The problem is finding current examples.

Without acknowledgment, Gilbert’s research was surely referencing the work of one-time neoconservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Three decades ago, Fukuyama confidently announced the “end of history” via the “triumph of the West.” As he saw things, the natural desire of all people for peace and well-being set nations on an inevitable path to liberal democracy and thus toward progress.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the craziness of that claim. Still, most of us tend to think of history as a linear (and perhaps heroic) progression towards something.  The idea is that human culture, like science, develops by the addition of new truths built upon the edifice of old truths or, more precisely, the increasing approximation of theories to the truth and the correction of past errors.

At the extreme, which isn’t nearly so extreme today, those with this conviction see those who came before them (like George Washington) as intellectually and morally inferior for not having embraced the most up-to-the-minute ideas and fads. Thus, the American Founding was diabolical and those concerned about the desecration of Washington’s statue are simply echoing Confederate defenses of slavery.

For them, the “wisdom of the ancients” is an oxymoron, with the past offering little other than cautionary tales. In this telling, the American experiment was evil from birth and all that followed didn’t remove the toxins from the fruit of that poisonous tree.

That is a reading of history that hasn’t read much history. As C.S. Lewis persuasively outlined, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

The current cultural situation is particularly grave because it has elevated politics to quasi-religious status. Political issues today are increasingly cast in moral terms, with no ambiguity or wavering permitted. This elevation in status provides motivation for the faithful but makes dialogue with opponents difficult at best. It uses moral command in place of argument. It requires a priori acquiescence. The prophets of this secular religion come not to offer reconciliation, reformation, or redemption. They are not interested in persuasion, only punishment. They demand retribution without recourse.

Such moral certainty inevitably leads to overreach. For example, a progressive data scientist was fired from a research firm and professionally banished for retweeting an academic study by a black Princeton professor suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones. Apparently, it is not appropriate to cite data in some data science circles, at least when it might question the current dogma.

Such moral certainty leads to the death of fact. For example, its many major (and essentially conceded) factual errors mean the 1619 Project should be taken seriously, not literally (classroom curriculum no extra charge). Similarly, despite a comprehensive investigation by President Obama’s Department of Justice finding otherwise, Democratic politicians, without evidence or political fallout, routinely assert that Michael Brown was executed by police.

Such moral certainty leads to the death of irony, again and again. Public health officials who had in May condemned public demonstrations in the strongest terms on account of the threat of COVID-19, fully endorsed the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in June as a moral imperative: “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.” 

Such moral certainty leads to wild justification. For example, those anxious to pander to the mobs for support and terrified of being seen as less than totally woke eagerly try to explain the current violent protests away. There have been active efforts to minimize the extent of the violence and destruction, to characterize the activity as “protests” rather than “riots,” and to suggest that violence is somehow appropriate and necessary. It’s nonsense of Trumpian proportions – which is really saying something. Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor stated it plainly: “If you cannot attain justice by engaging the system, then you must seek other means of changing it.”

When opponents aren’t merely wrong, but immoral, they are easy to stigmatize and de-humanize. They are thus stupid, evil, or mentally ill. Most of all, they are disposable.

We all know the drill by now. Accusation. Confession. Ritual humiliation. Execution via cancellation. Virtual mobs demanding purity and destroying lives. Those are the rules, with results that would do Joseph McCarthy, Stalin, the Jacobins, and the Cultural Revolution proud.

The Washington Post set out to ruin the life and career of a woman who was not a public figure, who had made a foolish choice a couple of years ago, and who apologized for it. A UCLA lecturer was placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud (it contains the n-word). The purity police also came after Paw PatrolHarry Potterjournalists, and comedy. They even came after Jesus (and they seem hell-bent on reelecting Donald Trump).

In a twist on Santayana’s famous dictum, the reports of history’s demise are always greatly exaggerated. History lives to make a mockery of today’s moral certainty.

We’re all sinners. As the Psalmist observed, “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” However, none of this is to say that we should ignore the sins of our heroes or fail to recognize some very understandable reasons for the current outrage. The great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa said that “to be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” In that sense, historians need to be artists, too. They should also be truthful, fair, and contextual, with the end of history illusion fully in mind. 

Future generations might convey monster status on, say, Harry Truman for warmongering and using nuclear weapons, on Martin Luther King for advancing religion, and on any number of others for ignoring climate change, allowing unfettered abortion, allowing people to go without healthcare, and/or authorizing the surgical mutilation of children. In that sense, we all hold monstrous views.

As Harvard’s Louis Menand explained, “Present trends don’t continue. They produce backlashes and reshufflings of the social deck. The identities that people embrace today are the identities their children will want to escape from tomorrow. History is somersaults all the way to the end.” 

History needn’t follow our favored notions of what must or ought to happen. And it rarely does.

Adam Gopnik got it exactly right: “Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. …You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place.”

People, powers, movements, models, ideologies, ideas, and history itself are hardly monolithic, much less consistent. They are all inherently messy, volatile, and self-contradictory. As Gopnik reminds, “All times, save the most catastrophic, like all people, save the most depraved, are mixed” (and we far too readily see times and people as catastrophic and depraved). Indeed, “history doesn’t have a preordained plot.”

Nearly everyone will concede to a past littered with mistakes, errors, and bad decisions. Our presents are that way too.

History doesn’t owe us an ending, happy or otherwise.

_______________

* I remember with more than a little horror driving way too fast in my high school parking lot with a friend spread-eagled on the hood of the car, hanging on by his fingertips, to pick one blood-curdling example.


Totally Worth It

Artists like Wale, Black Eyed Peas, Teyana Taylor, and more all debuted new material on Juneteenth. Beyoncé released a new song: “Black Parade.”

lovely and unexpected duetWow. The most chilling thing I saw last week. The most terrifying. The best Father’s Day story, although this one is good, too. The craziest. The most ironic. The nicest. The saddest. The most powerful. The smartest. The lost continent of Zealandia. This time, it’s a Florida woman.

Veggie Tales creator summarizes the current status of race in America and asks us all to care – the beginning of any solution.


Benediction

What is the gospel? The word “gospel” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning “good story,” a rendering of the Latin evangelium and the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news” or “good telling.” Kanye West offers one version, quoting John 8:36: “To whom the Son set free is free indeed.”

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 19 (June 26, 2020)