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.