A Therapeutic Proposal
It’s hard to compare previous eras to this present one — which is always “the best of times and the worst of times.” That said, there are features of life in our America that feel new to me. I’ll mention two.
On the one hand, an effective populist demagogue appears busy as a squirrel in October, laying up provisions for his renewed assault on the peaceful transfer of power through a national election. And what’s that I hear? “Next time, no more Mister Nice Guy”?
On the other hand, Social Death by Denunciation threatens the common sense of ordinary people. Whether or not they have university degrees, people are being silenced by inquisitors who invade regions of creativity and expression. Writers are afraid to write, public speakers to speak, teachers to teach, lest they express something forbidden. If you can’t say it, you can’t think it, and if you can’t think it, you can’t desire it either. As they used to say in gangster movies — “Freeze!”
On the one hand, a mob. And on the other hand, a mob. What, in the name of all that is holy, is going on? And, not the question most widely asked today — but nevertheless —
Can Hegel help?
Let’s find out. What does Hegel think is meant by the term “culture”? What does he think “history” is? A culture, for him, would be unified by its shared view of where truth lies and by the way it shapes desire in the light of that view. About Hegel, I once wrote, “culture may be deemed a collective passion.” Bracketing the impact on culture of earthquakes, tidal waves and invading hordes, a culture will live as long as its view of truth is generally believed. It will die when its claims about truth are widely doubted. When the culture is overcome, by internal inconsistency or failure to meet the challenge of new evidence, a successor will take its place that’s able to meet those dialectical objections. That is the Hegelian story of history. It explains why philosophy makes a difference in history, though of course, it is not the only thing that matters.
In historical situations, what specific insight is afforded by a Hegelian analysis? He sees human history as permeated by a particular delusive tendency. It’s to get to solutions immediately! Human beings yearn to set aside the trial-and-error steps that lead to reasonable adjustments and feasible compromises. We cannot stand our own imperfectness nor the shifting mists through which we must make our way. We can’t pause to take the measure of actual circumstances. We just can’t stand living in history — though that’s life in the human condition.
Can that refusal be seen in the present tug-of-war in our culture?
One side wants to overcome historic injustices. Which is good. Immediately! Now! Just like that! Which is not so good. That is, without careful analyses of respective victimization claims, without reviews of the evidence for each such claim, without the will to examine competing models for curing them. There is little patience for methods that don’t exploit resentment or guilt but instead work steadily and soberly toward the dignity of productive coexistence. Nevertheless, such relations of mutual respect do more and more occur, when they can escape the impatience of the outraged.
The other side wants to get its ordinary life back. It wants a country that accepts and merits its allegiance. It wants its children equipped with basic skills, protected from graphic explicitness about the facts of life, encouraged to compete fairly — and potentially illuminated rather than stigmatized — by higher education. It reaches for a man on horseback because it can’t see how to strive openly for such legitimate outcomes without being the target of guilt projected by those who can’t bear the stains of human history.
Are these desiderata hard to come by nowadays? Yeah they are.
History requires …
a certain dose of patience and
an equal degree of persistence.