In honour of the end of the second (and hopefully last) Current Year, I’d like to opine for a bit on what I like to call Neo-Whig History.
Whig history is, essentially, the idea that everything is inevitably progressing to be better/more liberal/freer/more equal. The term was coined by Herbert Butterfield, originally to describe a certain type of British historical thought. This type of historical narrative is not uncommon. It bears some similarity to Hegel’s theory of history and Marx’s Historical Materialism. I will not be talking about any of these, as they have all largely fallen out of favour these days.
Those eyes will never fall out of favour though.
What I’d like to talk about is Neo-Whig History, which is encapsulated perfectly by John Oliver and Justin Trudeau’s mantra: “Because it’s 2015!”
Neo-Whig History is not grounded in anything resembling sound philosophy. The origins of the Neo-Whig mindset is simply the Problem of Induction. The people who believe it look at selected portions of the past, assume that the future will trend in the same way those selected portions did, and then blindly extrapolate. They believe that because America between, say, 1950 and 2015 on average became “better”/”more free”/”more liberal”/whatever every year, that 2016 will be “better”… than 2015.
There are a number of simple ways to argue against this. For example, one could argue that “more equal” and “more free,” for example, are negatively correlated; as prevalence of the one increases, prevalence of the other necessarily decreases. Or one could argue that a decline in some of these things is masked by advancing technology, and that we are nearing or have passed a point of diminishing returns. But these arguments have been made, many times before.
I would like to take all of the Neo-Whig premises as given, and show that their conclusions are still wrong. For brevity’s sake, I will shorten the list of things that Neo-Whigs believe are improving to “more liberal.”
Also for brevity’s sake, I will refrain from writing the torrent of vulgar epithets I say every time I think of this man.
There are two “versions” of the Neo-Whig way of thinking, and I will respond to each of them. The first is the facile belief that, besides the occasional hiccup, every year is more liberal than the last. This version of the argument is very simple to counter. Trump. Anyone who believes in Neo-Whig History believes that Trump represents a step backwards, away from being “more liberal.” Whether he actually is a step backwards remains to be seen, but the very possibility that he could be means that this simple version of the theory cannot be true.
The more robust version of Neo-Whig History is encapsulated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s paraphrase of Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is essentially the same as the facile version of Neo-Whig History, but allows for indeterminately long “hiccups,” where things can get less liberal.
This version of Neo-Whig History may well be true. At some point far in the future, things might end up being more liberal than they are today. But that doesn’t tell us anything about today or tomorrow. King was writing during the American Civil Rights movement, so he ended up anticipating a movement towards greater liberalism. But what about, say, Iran?
Not exactly a Whiggist’s wet dream
That’s forty-two years between those two pictures. Forty-two years is a big hiccup. So my question to the King Neo-Whiggists is, what makes you think you’re living in 1967 America and not 1970 Iran? If the “Arc of the Moral Universe” is long enough to include over forty years of regression in Iran, why not expect the same to happen in your neighbourhood tomorrow? With this in mind, saying “Because it’s 2015” becomes meaningless. Justin Trudeau has no more reason to believe that 2015 Canada is analogous to 1967 America than he does to believe that it’s analogous to 1970 Iran.
In conclusion, stop dressing up an out-of-favour historiography theory as a self-evident fact. It makes you look like a turkey.