A few thoughts in praise of backwardness.
“We don’t look backward,” says President Obama in reference to imposing justice on powerful large-scale criminal suspects. Of course, as we don’t prosecute future crimes but only crimes of the past, “not looking backward” is a euphemism for immunity — an immunity not granted to those accused of small-scale crimes or crimes with no victims at all.
“Forward!” says President Obama, making that seemingly vacuous word his slogan. But the word has meaning; it means continuing thoughtlessly in the current direction, without seeking guidance from the mistakes or accomplishments or untested inspirations of the past.
The secrecy of the Obama White House, including record levels of classification, ground-breaking legal claims to secrecy, and record-level prosecutions of whistleblowers, moves us in practice to the position of rolling “forward” without a clear idea where we are or where we’ve just been. This is nearly as fatal to good public policy as “looking forward” is to law enforcement.
We need to know our immediate history, but equally we need to know the history of distant times and places, for otherwise we can be greatly deceived by those in power — including with that greatest deception of all: the idea that we are powerless. Only history shows us what works and what doesn’t in attempting to improve the world.
Only history reveals, as well, how dramatically different patterns of life and thought and notions of “human nature” can be in cultures separated by time and/or space. It is always easier to imagine radical changes for the better after examining how radically different people have already been.
In 1888 Edward Bellamy wrote a book called Looking Backward, which told the story of a man put into a trance in 1887 and awakened in the year 2000. In 1888 people bought as many copies of this book as could be printed, created clubs and organizations inspired by it, and developed a political movement the lasting (though indirect) benefits of which are no doubt tremendous.
Bellamy was, of course, looking forward, but we must look backward to recall an age in which anyone looked forward in a terribly useful or inspiring way. In 1888, people imagined the world could be made a much more pleasant place to live. In 2012 we are lucky if we can muster any confidence that the world will not collapse into an environmental or military or plutocratic hell on earth.
Bellamy got his prediction of the year 2000 largely wrong, but of course he was prescribing more than predicting. He got his prescription wrong as well. That is to say, what he prescribed was probably to some extent unworkable and undesirable. But it is tempting for us to confuse these questions, to imagine that whatever hasn’t happened couldn’t have or shouldn’t have.
Bellamy had no accurate notion of what technology would look like in the year 2000. He idealized large and centralized bureaucracy. He valued military-like discipline rather than cooperation in the workplace. He imagined, absurdly I think, that a perfect society need not contain a mechanism for additional major changes. He believed — and I have doubts on the point — that religion and superstition could persist harmoniously with extreme ethical enlightenment.
In questionable moves, Bellamy bestowed greater power on the old than the young, built elitism into systems of governance and justice, and condoned the use of solitary imprisonment. In notable silences, Bellamy’s vision did not address the question of environmental sustainability or the problem of outsourcing — which is not to say that his utopia could not have incorporated solutions to such concerns.
But Bellamy advocated nonviolent change over violent in a manner suggesting an understanding of history he had not lived through. He argued plausibly for the elimination of debt, interest, and — in fact — money (which is not to say all forms of compensation). He laid out plans for peace, relative equality of wealth, security for all, an elimination of (most) prisons and virtually all crime, and the serious and nonviolent elimination of something all men and women have longed for since at least the age of Shakespeare: lawyers and law schools.
Bellamy’s world would be prosperous and wealthy despite a retirement age of 45, in part through the elimination of debt, of militaries, of prisons, of tax assessors, of crime, of advertisements, of wasted or duplicated efforts (think of how much our “health insurance” system costs us compared to those of other nations), and — here’s the bit our current president would like, at least for the rich and powerful — of a criminal justice system. (I’m afraid the steps that could conceivably bring us closer to Bellamy’s world would need to come in a proper order, with the elimination of accountability for those in power evolving late in the process).
Bellamy may have been deluding himself if he imagined a world free of dangerous levels of selfishness. But he was certainly on the right track in envisioning a world that did not promote selfishness as a virtue, that valued instead one’s responsibility to society, to children, and to future generations. Bellamy imagined huge advances for women’s rights, many of which have in fact materialized. But other dreams of Looking Backward remain dreams.
Can we have competition, checks, and balances, but no advertising or systemic motivations to deceive? Can we have media outlets democratically managed by their consumers? Can we put one umbrella over a sidewalk when it rains instead of each carrying our own?
Dare I say it? Yes, we can.
But not until we abandon our affection for cries of “Forward!”