Carl R. Trueman writes that our contemporary experience of history is often:
little more than present-day politics pursued through the idiom of the past tense. As Philip Rieff memorably expressed it in Fellow Teachers:
“But, for Americans, all pasts are embarrassments, beyond recall except as tactical instruments of scarcely concealed rancor against present or imagined inferiorities.”
I like that: “little more than present-day politics pursued through the idiom of the past tense.”
In its most trivial incarnation, this is what I encounter when I go to watch a cartoon about a cat and mouse, and am warned that they “are products of their time,” as if anything that exists isn’t the product of its time. As if, in condemning certain attitudes not yet even encountered, while implicitly baptizing our own, we distinguish ourselves as a distinctly enlightened people.
(That comfortable and naive certainty that the future will judge us so specially is the righteousness that fuels that empty slogan: “the right side of history.” History has no sides, but I understand the impulse of any era’s elite to suppose their power derives from righteousness.)
When everything has a trigger warning attached to it, we cease to convey knowledge and instead imprint our own greasy fingerprints on the pages of the book. We change from conveying knowledge of a thing, to conveying knowledge about our own era’s attitudes about things. Which is the opposite of learning, wherein encounter with history, or more precisely with knowledge, is essential—rather than what we largely have now, which is encounter with this particular era’s ideological attitudes, with its taboos.
“Present-day politics pursued through the idiom of the past tense.”