There are a host of key sins that all professional historians live in fear of committing. The sin of teleology – also known as whig history, also known as assuming that the spirit of things are inevitably headed in a particular direction of betterness – is one of these. Contingency, historians well understand, will pwn the dialectic every time. Or at least a good chunk of the time.
Yet however successful we are, amongst ourselves, at dispelling the temptations of teleology, the model of history as an ever-forward march of progress remains nearly untouched in the public imagination. This seems odd, of course; isn’t the whole middle half of the last century of history disturbingly cluttered with some of the most horrific crimes against humanity ever recorded? Then again, in Germany, things might be different.
In the United States, however, teleological history is alive and well, for it is the people’s history. Or, to avoid homogenizing “the people,” it is the default historical model of a sizable chunk of the not-professional-historians population. I know this because I grade papers written by students who have not had extended contact with, nor aspire to become, professional historians. And contained in a thousand thesis statements and topic sentences, one simple idea pops up over and over again: give it time. With time, things get better.
Usually, this argument is merely implied; but several years ago, I experienced it being made explicitly. I was the teaching assistant for a course in American history, and the students were writing their papers on the question of why the civil rights movement suddenly became so successful in the decades after World War II. The course had provided students with a multitude of ways to answer the prompt, from emphasizing the vital role of the Cold War to focusing on the spread of tactics of non-violent resistance. This student, however, had an idea for an argument he wanted to run by me.
“So here is what I think,” he said, preparing me for the pitch – “Change takes time. Things change slowly. So the civil rights movement didn’t happen until then because it simply needed more time.”
I won’t bother you with an account of how I navigated this “teachable moment,” but don’t worry, I didn’t shut him down or belittle him for this approach. After all, how could I? He was merely picking up on the implication of most of the narratives around him – not the narratives of the work of professional historians, but a popular consciousness of history is, I’m afraid, not primarily formed by professional historians. Indeed, he was being more perceptive than most in noticing consciously what many people assume without even entirely realizing it.
But don’t worry; I’m not going to rely on merely an anecdote about a student I once had to point out the depth of the problem here. For even highly educated, public commentator types often fall for the lure of the narrative of ever-forward marching history. It shows up in odd ways, intersects in a messy manner with much more substantial questions of politics and power – but yet, I still think there is something there, some element of faith we (perhaps desperately) cling to when we tell ourselves stories of inevitable progress.
Take, for example, theresponse of some critics to the movie Selma. Succinctly put, many were bothered by the portrayal of LBJ, who is depicted almost as much as an obstacle to King and the movement as a hero who validated and enabled the cause. Indeed, some even went as far as to say that Selma was LBJ’s idea. Such a debate, of course, is extremely politically charged and best addressed by focusing our attention on the way race continues to shape and unsettle almost all of our major political discussions.
Yet here I want to draw our attention to another dynamic, one also intimately related to how Americans explain their nation’s history of racial oppression to themselves. And that is simply that one of the most impressive things about Selma is how resolutely it resists the idea that Jim Crow was simply bound to end eventually. For Selma shows not only the struggle African Americans had to go through and the pain they had to endure along the way, but also the obstacles in their path – the resistance, from the bigots in Selma to the uncomfortable ambiguity of Lyndon Baines Johnson, is on full display. One cannot come out of a viewing of Selma without comfortable assumptions about how history moves disrupted.
And this makes the film incredibly valuable – for one of the most amazing things about the power of the narrative of inevitable progress is how it has managed to structure even the story of the Civil Rights Movement. This is quite a feat, for it is difficult to think of a historical event less suited for a teleological fairy tale than the Civil Rights Movement. As a thorough understanding of our nation’s history of human bondage and racial oppression reveals, black Americans were not going to be granted their freedom unless they forcibly inserted themselves onto the stage of history and simply refused to let the show proceed as usual. Yet somehow even the Civil Rights Movement is remembered, by many Americans, in a way which confirms their easy assumptions about progress. Like my student said, things take time – freedom is a chia pet, so just sprinkle some water on the Declaration of Independence, wait 200 years and watch it grow!
So we need more movies like Selma – we need more Ida B. Wells, more W.E.B. Du Bois, more letters from a Birmingham jail insisting that demanding freedom now has always been the prerequisite to real progress. For whether out of laziness or shame, we might want to believe that we can sit back and watch and wait while things get slowly better – but American history gives us no reason to condone such complacency.