Sunday, May 25, 2008

Contemplating the Rhetorical Uses of "History" as a judge.

The use of “history” as an abstract replacement for God or moral law is pretty noticeable these days - as in George Bush's “History will judge our actions.” I saw an episode of Battlestar Galactica the other day that used the same phraseology, and maybe since the show usually puts me in a thoughtful mood, it jumped out at me. What's the warrant underlying such a statement? What, really, are the moral groundings and the ensuing moral consequences of a stance that leaves some sort of ultimate judgment to History? What exactly is the nature of that judgment? What, ultimately, are the consequences of making an abstracted History the compass for our actions, or the justification of them?

In what ways does History have the capacity to serve as a stand-in for these monumental constructions of ethics – or even for the more recent administrative ethic of efficiency and good management?

What are the consequences of History’s judgment? Are they parallel with those of Heaven, Hell, Evil or Waste?
If the sort of judgment implied in these statements is a moral one, then the stakes are in part the memories held of us by future human beings. The punishment of such a proclamation ostensibly would be that our grandchildren would, if they decide to, remember us as fools, criminals, sinners.

There's a bit of a conundrum here – if History is our judge, then we are claiming that it takes the role of an ethic. But we must imagine that those figures that we imagine in the future (and who are in turn remembering us in the past) have some different ethic, some absolute ethic, some way to judge the rightness of a decision using capacities that we have not yet developed.

In this sense, the invocation of history as a judge of our actions has much in common with the logic of cryogenics - we don't have the power of judgment now that would be required to judge these actions, but in the future, our more advanced successors will have that power.

Of course, much of this speculation would be irrelevant if we interpret the statement in a second possible way. When we say “History will be our judge,” maybe we are not referring to the people who will judge us on new and better ethical grounds, but to some objective set of outcomes that will be clearly decipherable as vindicating our action. In the Bush case, once you do a little reading, it's clear that this second goal is what's in effect, since it's still believed by at least a few that the democratization of Iraq will have long-term positive consequences in the region, such as destabilizing state sponsors of terrorism.

But really, this is only a further deferral of the problem already presented, as it nonetheless assumes that our descendants will have the ability to experience their own surroundings in some sense in relation to an imagined alternative outcome. It also presents a curious problem of regression - if we are deferring the judgment of our actions to some hypothetical future point at which their consequences will become clear, must we not in turn defer the judgment of those consequences until their consequences become clear? This is the problem of all logic that tries to justify current suffering in the name of future outcomes.

Another implication of these sorts of claims is that WE DON'T KNOW what the outcome will be. In what way does this statement position us relative to our ignorance of our actions’ consequences? I have a colleague who, as far as I can tell following on Derrida, makes quite strong claims about the ultimate undecidability of the consequences of actions. But he often seems to me to be making the mistake of taking this as supporting an ethical undermining of all supposedly 'progressive action, making of it nothing more than self-delusion. I, on the other hand, feel that confronting and overcoming this vacuum of knowledge of the future - acting despite our ignorance - is fundamental to being human, or for that matter alive.

The problem with the appeal to history, just as with my friend's deconstructionist ethics, is the inevitable ethical abdication – the refusal to stake a claim on any element of one’s judgment. If we can only appeal to history as an ethical standard, rather than to some piece of our own understanding, expectations, even hopes, we are distanced from the consequences of our own actions. We take less responsibility for them insofar as we defer judgment.

The core aspect of these statements is exactly that deferral of judgment. Strip away some strong layers of implication, and you'll notice that there is often no overt claim that History will find us to be right - only that history will judge us. In other words, this is a slightly fancier way of throwing up our hands and saying "Meh."

One final series of questions - what are the cultural circumstances that allow history to take on this moral role? For something so frequently used by Bush, and evangelical Christian, it's striking how much that statement smacks of Enlightenment. If History is judging us, who's not judging us? You guessed it - God. And whether you are more convinced by my reading of the History here being invoked as "future enlightened ethicists" or "objective administrative outcomes," the progressivism, humanism, and technologism here are obvious.

So, does "history" have good or bad implications for decision making? I would say both - positive, by my lights, exactly to the degree that it implies a pragmatic, outcome-oriented decision-making process. But the far more powerful implication also seems to be far more ethically dangerous - the idea that the wisdom of our present decisions will be truly unknowable until some uncertain time in the future. This may be the true ontological nature of human experience - of, in fact, all existence - but it does not have an ethical consequence. The truly ethical act is to traverse the terror of that ultimate, cosmic uncertainty, and act with the best knowledge you have, and stake one's own ethical status on that what is possible within our narrow human capabilities.

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