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The condescension of posterity

Frank Furedi has proposed an intriguing idea that the spectre haunting radical identity politics, the Rainbow Guards of our raging Cultural Revolution, is a difficulty with borders. The boundaries between nations, genders, the public/private, and key characteritics of populations are being torn down, and being replaced by a convenient chaos of fluidity and the new deity of Trans. All that is solid melts into fair.

Among the borders annihilated in this revolution of bad ideas is the ethereal crossing between the present and the past. Furedi sees the toppling of statues as a kind of conceptual confusion about the separation of the present and the past. The Red Guards of Antifa and Black Lives Matter topple statues in a virtual struggle that confuses symbols of the past with the realities of the present. In doing so they deny all particular, unique, given separateness to these figures of the past. The statues stand contemptuously as caricatures of injustice in place of a real past that can be understood, if not ever perfectly known.

I am not sure Furedi quite grasps the mentality of the protestors and rioters, who, it seems to me, have summoned phantasms of the past into a constant present to deliver Maoist popular justice (see the irony in that term) in all its vicious violence. All these fading figures in bronze, who in truth have been largely forgotten and neglected in mass education and popular understanding, have been summonsed by the Committees of Public Safety to a trial like that of K, conducted without knowledge of their experience, without charge or process, without common decency or law. In the bad, atrocious history of the social justice warriors the past is always guilty, the future is always innocent, and the present is a ceaseless struggle session. The past becomes an enemy of the people for the thought crime of pursuing different aims, ideas and follies than the party of the present.

In arguing for borders, generally, Furedi seems to be restating the importance of constraints in a deeper experience of freedom, a freedom that Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed) might name a republican sense of liberty or self-government within the boundaries of the law. Statue-toppling is the latest frenzied liberal illusion of freedom from the past. As Deneen argues, such a concept of freedom is something of an illusion:

“The word “freedom” is embraced as the fundamental commitment of our age, but in vast swaths of life, freedom seems to recede – many citizens, for instance, believe they have little actual control over or voice in their government. Motivation by many voters in advanced democracies reflects not the confident belief that their voice is being heard, but the conviction that their vote is against a system that no longer recognizes the claim to self-rule.”

Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), loc 2778

Statues are toppled not through civic dialogue and deliberation. Unconstrained protestors merely vote unpopular or unknown identities – Robert E Lee, then George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus, even Miguel de Cervantes, himself a slave and most appallingly of all, Frederick Douglass – out of the Big Brother House. The pusillanimous leaders of the progressive liberal order admit there is no self-governing republic that can defend itself against this paroxysm of idiocy. Nancy Pelosi, the octogenarian grandee of the USA’s Democratic Party, when asked how she would respond to this outbreak of iconoclasm, said revealingly, “I don’t care that much about statues… People will do what they do.”

Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France that society is a partnership, and rather more than a social contract, let alone, our present might interpolate, co-existence on a digital media platform. Burke wrote famously that partnership is:

“not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

In modern liberalism and its change-merchants, and in modern radicalism and its identity-alchemists, this partnership is revoked, and the terror of Year Zero spills the blood of the past and destroys the inheritance of culture. As Patrick Deneen writes:

“Yet for modern humanity in the advanced West and increasingly the world, liberalism is equally an unwitting inheritance, and any alternatives are seen as deeply suspect and probably in need of liberal intervention [my emphasis]. Liberalism further overlooks the way that culture itself is a deeper form of consent. Culture and tradition are the result of accumulations of practice and experience that generations have willingly accrued and passed along as a gift to future generations. This inheritance is the result of a deeper freedom, the freedom of intergenerational interactions with the world and one another [my emphasis]. It is the consequence of collected practice, and succeeding generations may alter it if their experience and practices lead to different conclusions.”

Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), loc 2834

This inheritance passed along as a gift to future generations is what I call the infinite conversation, and in the conditions of riotous protest, media-blown amnesia and liquid modernity, this infinite conversation is not possible. It is under attack, and it must be salvaged by undertaking simple disciplines and old traditions far away from the Emperor. It is by “building practices that sustain culture within communities, the fostering of household economics, and “polis life,” or forms of self-governance that arise from shared civic participation” (Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed).

One simple practice to sustain the infinite conversation is to change our attitude to the past, and to save it from the terrifying condescension of posterity. The truly astonishing ignorance of so many public commentators and politicians is deeply saddening. Rather than see the past as some kind of .gif file to be endlessly manipulated into dumb leftist memes, we need to recall how strange, enigmatic and enduring the past really is.

When I was an undergraduate history student in the 1980s I studied deeply E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. It did shape my intellectual adventure in many ways – never the Marxism or New Leftism, but the moral claim so beautifully evoked in his preface. It may be worth inviting all the storm-troopers of the Leftist Cultural Revolution to read this passage, and remind the intellectuals of progressivism how they have fallen into corruption. Let me quote at length:

“My quarrel with the third [“Pilgrim’s Progress” orthodoxy of leftist history] is that it reads history in the light of subsequent preoccupations, and not as in fact it occurred [my emphasis]. Only the successful in the sense of those whose aspirations anticipated subsequent evolution) are remembered. The blind alleys, the lost causes and the losers themselves are forgotten.”

E.P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) p. 12

In today’s Pilgrim’s Progress of the Woke, most of history must be both forgotten and obliterated to honour only the delusions of the woke. Thompson continues with the most famous passage of his great work, which inspired me to salvage forgotten paths:

“I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the utopian artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott [a prophetess of London radical artisans], from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.”

E.P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) p. 12

Thompson believed as a radical progressive that these lost causes of the past may yet be the source of ideas and insights into “social evils we have yet to cure”. He believed we are not at the end of social evolution. He perhaps believed there was an infinite class struggle, but that from the cultural inheritance of the poor stockinger new grounds for hope and evolution could be born. I do not share his belief in social evolution, and fear we are living in a time of demonstrable decay. But I honour the belief in the inheritance of the past, that makes its gifts in unanticipated ways to each succeeding year, and from whose ashes we can only hope the Phoenix of culture will be reborn.

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