We humans, assuming our basic physical needs are met, want meaning most of all. We want our lives, our choices, and our ideas to matter. And we want them to matter today. We want the relentless now to be crucial, to be vital, to overturn the evils of the past, to be a lynchpin of history. Even when it’s none of those things.1
After half a century of intermittent debate and protest (because, after all, it’s San Francisco), the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously in June to spend at least $600,000 to whitewash away “The Life of Washington,” 13 murals2 of the first president that adorn the halls of a local high school named for him. One of the frescoes depicts Washington’s slaves, hunched over, working in the fields of Mount Vernon. In another, Washington points westward over the dead body of a Native American. The art was deemed ripe for destruction because it was said to traumatize students.
Ironically, as an activist artists group noted, “The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists.” The leftist artist3 Victor Arnautoff created the murals as public art during the New Deal boldly to depict the Father of Our Country as an author of a genocide claimed as Manifest Destiny. According to the artist’s biographer, historian Robert Cherny, Arnautoff intended the mural as a “counter-narrative,” a corrective rebuke to the nation’s founding mythology. “Arnautoff was far ahead of his time, and we have yet to catch up with him in terms of making school curriculum more inclusive and historically accurate,” said Harvey Smith, president of the National New Deal Preservation Association.
Richard Walker, professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the history project, Living New Deal, says the Washington mural shows “uncomfortable facts” about America’s first president and was among many New Deal works of art considered radical when created. “We on the left ought to welcome the honest portrayal.” Walker said.
Alice Walker, who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing The Color Purple, who is both African-American and part Cherokee, and whose daughter went to WHS, also defends the murals. “Why try to hide the reality of our history?,” she asked. “It’s very ignorant and backward to think that you can erase history, erase reality by destroying art.”The black actor Danny Glover, a Washington High graduate, agreed, saying that whitewashing or blocking the frescoes from view “would be akin to book burning.”
Art critic Roberta Smith found the murals “honest and possibly subversive.” Indeed, “At the time [of their creation], high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel,” Cherny noted.
The murals show no cherry trees.
Yet the reality of what the murals depict was deemed irrelevant when compared to how some feel about the art, irrespective of whether there is any reasonable basis for the feelings.4 “No one has the right to tell us as native people or our young people who walk those halls everyday how they feel,” said Paloma Flores, the school district’s Native American education program coordinator, placing alleged feelings over obvious facts. Joely Proudfit, director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, said it is not worth saving the art if one native student “is triggered by that.” Flores insists that “Intent does not negate lived experience.”
That was then, this is now.
Even so, WHS students largely oppose the whitewashing. A freshman wrote, “The fresco is a warning and reminder of the fallibility of our hallowed leaders.” A sophomore noted that, “It’s not necessary to hide the truth.” Students were hardly unanimous, however. A junior told the school board that the murals were “hurtful and harmful to many students,” that they “tell the history from the perspective of white people.”
With Taliban-like clarity, Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, insisted that “students shouldn’t be exposed to violent imagery – that it’s degrading.” He further claimed that covering or concealing the murals wasn’t an option because that would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” No future change of heart or values allowed. Destroying the art was worth it regardless of the cost, he argued, asserting, “This is reparations.” Another board member claimed that, “Property rights over human rights is a critical aspect of maintaining white supremacy in our country.”
After much criticism and national publicity, the school board reversed course (sort of) and decided not to paint over the murals after all. Instead, by a 4-3 margin, the board voted to spend $815,000 simply to cover it (the three dissenters still wanted the frescoes destroyed). In other words, the murals would survive, but would not be visible. This is better than painting over them, of course, but it’s certainly no grand strike against pigeon-hearted pandering.
When we remember who we were and what we were like in the past, we readily recall how different we were and how much we have changed. However, when we look into the future, we expect that we’ll stay the same person, with the same values, interests, and preferences, we are today.
Researchers call this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” wherein we tend to think of the present as a sort of “watershed moment” such that we will continue to be who we are in that present for the rest of our lives.5 It is consistent with our inherent overconfidence,6 excessive certainty, insistence on fighting the last war, thinking “this time is different,” illusions of control, and bias blindness. Everyone “seem[s] to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain. History, it seems, is always ending today.”
The school board’s actions in the WHS case provide a telling example of the end of history illusion in a group setting. The execrable and benighted past is mere prelude to a glorious and enlightened present. That was then, this is now.
Looking at past pictures of ourselves is scary business. Our hairstyles were invariably bad and our sartorial selections questionable. If we expand the field of inquiry to include more significant choices – who we hung out with, who we voted for, what investments we made, what we tattooed on our bodies, who we married – things can get ugly in a hurry. At best, we chuckle knowingly, grateful in the knowledge that we won’t do that (or some series of thats) again. At worst, we’re thankful to be alive and not in jail.7 But today, we’ve got everything figured out. That’s the end of history illusion in an individual setting.
“Middle-aged people – like me – often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” explains Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who co-authored the seminal research in this area. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.” Generally speaking, we all recognize our fallibility, that we have made many, many mistakes. The problem is finding current examples.
“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Jordi Quoidbach, also of Harvard and another study co-author, adds. “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision….” As Yuval Noah Harari writes, “It is sobering to realize how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years.”
Without acknowledgement, Gilbert and Quoidbach were surely referencing the work of one-time neoconservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Thirty years ago this summer, Fukuyama confidently announced the “end of history”8 via the “triumph of the West” and on account of “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”9 Fukuyama foresaw “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama’s argument was that liberal democracy would inevitably win out over all other forms of government because of “the idea of freedom latent in human consciousness” and because alternatives would collapse under the weight of their inefficiencies. It is “the common ideological heritage of mankind.” In other words, the natural desire of all people for peace and well-being set nations on an inevitable path to liberal democracy and thus toward progress.10
Similarly, most of us tend to think of history as essentially a linear (and perhaps heroic) progression towards something via “Flux, motion, growth, [and] change.” The idea is that human culture develops by the addition of new truths built upon the edifice of old truths, or (more precisely) the increasing approximation of theories to the truth and the correction of past errors. This progress might accelerate in the times of historic change and transformational leadership (cue favorite 1960s documentary here), but the ongoing progress itself is thought to be all but guaranteed.11
Of course, that is a reading of history that hasn’t read much history. We may live in the best of times but, also, if not the worst of times, times that are too often dangerous, oppressive, inequitable, and unfair.
As C.S. Lewis so persuasively outlined, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” For example, and despite any romance in the journey, the suffering of the vast majority of the populace increased dramatically after the overthrowing of Tsar and Shah by ideologues, driven toward alleged utopian ends revealed by experimental science or from on high, all pledged to aiding them. As Adam Gopnik noted, “the twentieth century is a graveyard of such attempts.”12
It was the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper who first destroyed the hubris of historical determinism in his devastating critique of Marxism and fascism. His arguments apply no less to the liberalism he sought to defend. Stuart Kauffman made a good observation about “Mill mistakes”: “James Mill once deduced from what he considered indubitable first principles that a constitutional monarchy remarkably like that in England in his day was obviously the highest form of government. One is always in danger of deducing the optimality of the familiar.”
At the extreme, those with this conviction see those who came before them (like George Washington) as intellectually and morally inferior for not having embraced the most up-to-the-minute ideas and fads. For them, the “wisdom of the ancients” is something of an oxymoron, with the past offering cautionary tales but little of positive value. In this telling, for example, the American nation was evil from birth (in 1619), and the American Revolution and all that followed didn’t siphon the toxins from the fruit of that poisoned tree.13
On December 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence and the Cold War expired with a whimper rather than a bang, with liberal democracy the apparent aim, Fukuyama was ascendant. For those who see the American experiment as primarily an Idea, Fukuyama provided a rough schematic for the realization of that Idea. Thirty years on, the Idea lives, but history isn’t ended. Liberal democracy is never required or established. It is always and everywhere elective, hard-won,14 and tentative.
As Harvard’s Louis Menand has explained, “Present trends don’t continue. They produce backlashes and reshufflings of the social deck. The identities that people embrace today are the identities their children will want to escape from tomorrow. History is somersaults all the way to the end. That’s why it’s so hard to write, and so hard to predict. Unless you’re lucky.” As Geoffrey West demonstrated, for example, “Half of all the companies in any given cohort of U.S. publicly traded companies disappear within ten years, and a scant few make it to fifty, let alone a hundred years.”
Maximillian Alvarez has shown that every end of history proclamation has been ludicrously premature. “Seneca’s Pax Romana announced a history stilled by the glorious rise of Augustus, the ‘sun that never set’ shone on the image of time frozen at the height of the British Empire – and the world spun madly on.” Or, as Ivan Rogers wrote recently, our current global situation has much in common “with the gold standard era – with its free capital mobility, its open trade, and its staggering complacency – than any other. That era came to an abrupt and violent end with World War One and its key features could not be resuscitated for decades.
“Many sage figures bearing considerable similarity to our current political leadership confidently pronounced in the early 20th century that conflict was now completely impossible between developed democratic states, given their economic interconnectedness. We know how that turned out.” Indeed, we do.
History needn’t follow our favored notions of what must or ought to happen. And it rarely does.
As Gopnik has argued, “Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it.” Indeed, “You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place.”
Gopnik sagely pointed out elsewhere that “nothing works out as planned,” and “everything has unintentional consequences.” Moreover, “the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out.” What history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they are making it. The study of history means seeing the planning fallacy writ large…over and over again.
Most of us overrate our own capacities and exaggerate our abilities to shape the future. That flaw, per Daniel Kahneman, is the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy is our tendency to underestimate the time, costs, and risks of future actions and at the same time to overestimate the benefits thereof. It’s at least partly why we underestimate bad results. It’s why we think it won’t take us as long to accomplish something as it does. It’s why projects tend to cost more than we expect. It’s why the results we achieve aren’t as good as we expect.
The planning fallacy projects our fanciful and self-serving renderings forward with the idea that the future can somehow be managed – and perhaps controlled – despite the lack of any actual historical support for the notion. This overriding problem is why I take three trips to Home Depot on Saturdays and why it takes me all day to finish a household chore I expected to take maybe an hour (which then doesn’t work right or look right). As John Lennon put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Things rarely turn out the way we expect. We never have everything covered.
The narrative fallacy offers another layer of difficulty.
People, powers, movements, models, ideologies, ideas, and history itself are hardly monolithic, much less consistent. They are all inherently messy, volatile, and self-contradictory, making F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pretentious aphorism and implied humble brag, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” a mere bromide as true of second and third-rate intelligences as to his own presumed first. As Gopnik reminds, “All times, save the most catastrophic, like all people, save the most depraved, are mixed” (and we far too readily see times and people as catastrophic and depraved). Indeed, “history doesn’t have a preordained plot.”
History doesn’t owe us an ending, happy or otherwise.
Our conventional wisdom sees history as a chronicle of winners. Humans win against life and hardship. Ideas win out over other ideas. Some humans win against other humans. And we record those zero-sum victories via story.15
Expanding slightly upon literary critic Frank Kermode’s argument in The Sense of an Ending, history, like humans, depends upon narrative to create the illusion of order and space to operate. “To make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.” Monocausal stories are nearly always too neat. Neat stories with neat endings are altogether phony. In German, not coincidentally, story and history are the same word: Geschichte.
Our lives are messy. We condense and simplify our messy lives into narratives, which flatten us while making our lives more coherent. The urge to “punch it up” to the point of dishonesty can be overwhelming. Life, like history, but unlike most stories, is non-linear and random, often wildly so. Surprising things happen all the time. The study of history means seeing the planning fallacy writ large…over and over again.
There are at least five obvious lessons to be learned from the end of history illusion.
- Our lives are messier than we think;
- Understanding the past has more value than we assume;
- The present is more problematic than we think;
- The future will offer more change than we expect; and
- We’re both wrong more and more wrong than we think.
Nearly everyone will concede to a past littered with mistakes, errors, and bad decisions. But our presents are that way too. As Lincoln saw, “It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country (emphasis in original).”
Nobody’s perfect. We’re only human.
Truth be told, we have made progress, and often enormous (if not consistent or reliable) progress, on virtually every human problem except for the most fundamental one. Human nature – a complex amalgam of the base and the heroic, the compassionate and the brutal, the brilliant and the imbecilic – remains largely static across human history. “The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be,” wrote sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. As Leibniz said, quoting a line from his favorite comic opera, “Everywhere and always, it’s the same as it is here.”
That was then and still is now.
We need to continue to get better and be better. Of course. But while we, usually readily, acknowledge that general reality, we fail to make it specific and thus actionable. Rare indeed is one of us who can offer current examples of our failings. We haven’t reached any end of history. What’s happening now isn’t any sort of final verdict, making the future mostly a design problem.
In the same way that Aslan is not a tame lion, our future is hardly safe. It is fraught with risk and uncertainty. That’s what makes it so valuable, why – if we want a decent chance of a decent outcome – it demands that we invest in it. Actively. If we aren’t busy living, we’re surely dying.
History hasn’t ended. Plan and act accordingly.
November 1, 2019 Update: This Harper’s article attacks “the cartoon Leninism of the mural’s critics” and completely puts the lie to the idea that the George Washington murals ought to have been destroyed.
1 Today, allegedly earth-shattering events happen all the time. For example, every election is of “Flight 93” magnitude. However, it’s an interesting exercise to ask yourself how many “crucial” events you can name throughout history, especially during times without a lot of focus. How many of us can name anything significant that happened in, say, the 9thCentury? Will the far future see the 21stCentury as uninteresting as we see the 9th?
2 The Washington murals were created in the mid-1930s for the Works Progress Administration, an agency created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide public works jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression.
3 Among Arnautoff’s other public murals is “City Life” in San Francisco’s Coit Tower, in which the artist painted himself standing in front of a newspaper rack conspicuously missing mainstream publications like The San Francisco Chronicle but stuffed with the likes of The Daily Worker. A library patron is shown reading Marx. Arnautoff was also interrogated in 1956 by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
4 There are precursors to this story. Twenty years ago, Amelia Rideau was a 20-year-old junior at the University of Wisconsin who objected to her Chaucer professor describing a literary character as “niggardly,” an offense she found racist and demeaning. She used their confrontation to support a proposed campus speech code based not upon whether the professor’s word choice was objectively offensive (obviously, it was not), but upon Ms. Rideau’s very real, but misplaced, pain at its use.
5 The broader iteration is “Endism,” the idea that bad things are ending. One offshoot of this general idea recognizes that tastes and styles may change, but insists on the moral and intellectual superiority of maintaining the ideas and values of the past. At the extreme, we’re talking about apocalyptic preachers and political reactionaries (which should be distinguished from conservatives), who see the world ending – actually or metaphorically – due to the unique deficiencies of the present youth in morals, manners, taste, dress, intellectual achievement, awareness, energy, self-discipline, and appearance. It dates to at least Horace and Seneca. As Chesterton said, “I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.” A current example, whereby the comedian Sebastian Maniscalco opened his hosting gig at the MTV Video Music Awards by throwing shade at his millennial audience, is shown below.
Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson did much the same to a college audience, although he was much more vulgar.
6 Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously warned against overconfidence when his team was up, three games to one, against the San Antonio Spurs in the 1978 NBA playoffs, declaring, in what would become a rallying cry, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” The Bullets went on to win that series from the Spurs and to earn the NBA championship by winning games six and seven of the championship series against the Seattle Supersonics, including the deciding seventh game on the road. By that time, the expression was printed on thousands of T-shirts and “fat ladies” dressed as the valkyrie Brünnhilde were coming to games to cheer the team on.
Brünnhilde is a character in Richard Wagner’s epic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, designed to be performed over four nights. Her farewell scene in Götterdämmerung, the final night’s offering – which runs over five and one-half hours and includes momentous acts of betrayal, murder, vengeance, and, finally, the destruction of the world – lasts almost twenty minutes and leads directly to the finale of the entire cycle. Accordingly, in a very significant way, the opera *is* (finally) over when the fat lady sings.
But history isn’t.
7 I remember with more than a little chagrin and horror driving way too fast in my high school parking lot with a friend spread-eagled on the hood of the car, hanging on by his fingertips, to pick one blood-curdling example.
8 This is not the end of history prophesied by Yuval Noah Harari, who claims that “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end, and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me [sic] cannot comprehend.”
9 Earlier, in a very different ideological setting, the socialist sociologist Daniel Bell predicted a similar outcome via the corporatist order in his book, The End of Ideology. However, in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Mark Fisher, while sympathetic to Bell’s politics, noted that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
10 The problem, of course, is in the discerning to the “right path.” In today’s politics (to pick one easy example), one side follows a president who came to power by alluding to a dark world of carnage invaded by outsiders who had demeaned American greatness to such an extent that he alone could fix things, while the other side is so undone by the president’s actions and being that they see an America that is no longer America. Meanwhile, all live on outrage, fueled by cable “news,” social media, and talk radio, all day, every day.
11 The lack of necessary progress in history does not require us to concede that Yuval Noah Harari’s (biologically dystopian and determinist) view of Sapiens as having no goals, no meaning, and no story, and that human love, trust, faith, and sacrifice are mere imaginative reflections of some biological fact are accurate either. Where Harari gets it most wrong is in his idea that Sapiens are, or should be, perhaps after sustenance, after power rather than meaning. Because cause and effect are relentless, for Harari, power is real, but meaning and purpose are fictions: “modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.” As Harari concedes (assuming he is correct), the keys to historic liberalism, creativity and liberty, are falsehoods masquerading as truths because our “choices will be dictated by biochemical algorithms as ruthless as the Inquisition and the KGB.”
12 Evolution isn’t linear or progressive, either.
13 For example, if you’re not woke, or if you’re male, you’re trash. The American Founding was diabolical. So called “call-out culture” is poisonous. Renoir is now off-limits as too sexist, Friends is homophobic, Dave Chappelle is garbage, and a Jewish man can be cancelled as racist and an alleged Nazi-sympathizer. After all, “trial by tweet is swift and unrelenting.” Oh, and conservatives who are concerned about civility, reason, and free speech are simply echoing….Confederate defenses of slavery.
14 Despite what AP says, the hyphen is correct.
15 The great science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin set out to undermine this entire construct with her essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, in which she claimed that a carrier bag, rather than a spear, was the first tool. Messy and less interesting, sure, but imagine the practical potential, even without pioneers, lone geniuses, and heroes. Providing more for all rather than winning for some was (and should be) the object. “Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.”
Really great read, thank you. I had a double take on that Lincoln quote – so powerful yet it felt so distant from today (although surely not tomorrow).
Thanks for reading.
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