In his mid-twentieth-century book, “What is History?” the 1961 published version of the Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge, E. H. Carr explores how history grapples with the question of “the progress of humanity” as a clarifying/qualifying lens through which to view history. Given the historian’s culturally-influenced world view, and the required selection of certain facts as important, primarily as ‘successful actions,’ Carr writes about the shifting perspective of history:
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries man had already become fully conscious of the world around him and of its laws. They were no longer the mysterious decrees of an inscrutable providence, but laws accessible to reason. But they were laws to which man was subject, and not laws of his own making. In the next stage man was to become fully conscious of his power over his environment and over himself, and of his right to make laws under which is would live. (Carr, p. 135)
“In the eighteenth century, history was still a history of elites. In the nineteenth century, British historians began, haltingly and spasmodically, to advance towards a view of history as the history of the whole national community. (op. cit. p. 149)
It was not till the turn of the century that we completed the transition to the contemporary period of history, in which the primary function of reason is no longer to understand objective laws governing the behaviour of man in society, but rather to reshape society, and the individuals who compose it, by conscious action.(op. cit.p. 137)
Quoting the first Cambridge Modern history, published in 1910, Carr writes:
The belief in the possibility of social reform by conscious effort is the dominant current of the European mind; it has superseded the belief in liberty as the one panacea….Its currency in the present is as significant and as pregnant as the belief in the rights of man about the time of the French revolution. (op. cit. p. 141)
And then, Carr himself asserts:
(M)an has begun, through the conscious exercise of reason, not only to transform his environment but to transform himself…But the most significant of these changes have probably been those brought about by the development and use of modern methods of persuasion and indoctrination. Educators at all levels are nowadays more and more consciously concerned to make their contribution to the shaping of society in a particular mould, and to inculcate in the rising generation the attitudes, loyalties, and opinions appropriate to that type of society; educational policy is an integral part of any rationally planned social policy. The primary function of reason, as applied to man in society, is no longer merely to investigate, but to transform. (op. cit. p. 142)
And then there is the prevailing question of “how” to effect such transformation. As reference Carr points to “Professor Popper, (who) attacks policies which allegedly aim at ‘remodelling the ‘whole of society’ in accordance with a definite plan’(and) commends what he calls ‘piecemeal social engineering,’ and does not apparently shrink from the imputation of ‘piecemeal tinkering’ and ‘muddling through.’ (op. cit. p. 154)
And then Carr explodes with his own vision:
Progress in human affairs, whether in science of in history of in society, has come mainly through the bold readiness of human beings not to confine themselves to seeking piecemeal improvements in the way things are done, but to present fundamental challenges in the name of reason to the current way of doing things and to the avowed or hidden assumptions on which it rests. I look forward to a time when historians and sociologists and political thinkers of the English-speaking world will regain their courage for that task.
It is, however, not the waning of faith in reason among the intellectual and the political thinkers (of the English-speaking world) which perturbs me most, but the loss of the pervading sense of a world in perpetual motion. This seems at first sight paradoxical; for rarely has so much superficial talk been heard of changes going on around us. But the significant thing is that change is no longer thought of as achievement, as opportunity, as progress, but as an object of fear. When our political and economic pundits prescribe, they have nothing to offer us but the warning to mistrust radical and far-reaching ideas, to shun anything that savours of revolution, and to advance—if advance we must—as slowly and as cautiously as we can. At the moment when the world is changing its shape more rapidly and more radically than at any time in the last 400 years, this seems to me a singular blindness, which gives ground for apprehension and not that the world-wide movement will be stayed, but that this country—and perhaps other English -speaking countries—may lag behind the general advance, and relapse helplessly and uncomplainingly into some nostalgic backwater. (op. cit. p. 155-156)
Although written and published way back in 1961, Carr’s resonating clarion call for boldness, as the west seems to be drowning in the minutiae of resistance to anything even hinting a social responsibility, including a bold acknowledgement of the vacuum of attention, thought and policy development, and the legislation to support those endeavors, to address rising mental illness, racial disparity, poverty and the rape of natural habitats in reckless and unbridled pursuit of more wealth for those already saturated in cash.
The notion of social and human enhancement, through courage, imagination, creativity and a perspective that sees past the next opinion poll, the next headline and the next court battle, needs a school for all of those qualities on which bold, optimistic and courageous changes depend. And this courage and boldness must never come under cover of narcissistic, opportunistic, avaricious (again) mostly men who seek to inflate their own depraved ego’s with false bravado.
Micro-analysis of each syllable in a presidential tweet, itself inflated to bloating with buffoonery and flatulation, demeans the analyser and the audience. McConnell’s description of the House bill to compensate towns and cities and states as “over-reach” is just another of the litany of vacuous expressions, like fat-fried foods that have an initial sweet taste and leave the consumer struggling with both indigestion and cardiac infarc, offensive to both head and heart. It is not only a choir of self-possessed political actors, legislators and legal advocates to emerge from the shadows of their own neurosis/psychosis/sycophancy and self-sabotage, but a media that seeks out such voices from the history books, not only of their own country, but from the history books of other nations who have faced similar threats.
Not incidentally, these current threats to health, to wealth, to personal security and safety, to truth and to a generally agreed and held vision of how the future needs to look, are all man-made. It may seem as if the pandemic was unavoidable, because it rose from the virus in wild animals. Yet, we all know that how humans interact with those wild animals is at the root of the spread of the illness.
From the Atlantic, we read from the piece by Nathan Stoltzfus in the September 1992 issue:
It complicates our received idea of totalitarianism to learn that there were successful protests in Nazi Germany…On April 1. 1943, the American Legation in Bern sent this dispatch to Washington: “Action against Jewish wives and husbands on the part of the Gestapo…had to be discontinued some time ago because of the protest which such action aroused.” The protest to which this dispatch referred has been a street demonstration a month earlier in Berlin. The demonstration was remarkable for the courage of the people who participated in it, for the sheer fact of its occurrence, and above all for its outcome. For it marked the single instance of group protest by Germans of the Third Reich in behalf of fellow citizens who were Jewish—and it worked…..If nonviolent mass protest by Aryan Germans worked in Berlin in 1943, could it have slowed or stopped the destruction of German Jewry? The question is, of course, provocatively abstract. Whether or not it could have, history shows only that the mass of Germans either did nothing or supported the Nazi regime……
When the Nazi regional leader from Oldenburg, in Protestant norther Germany, issued a decree, on November 4, 1936, ordering the removal of crucifixes (and pictures of Luther) from public schools throughout his district, his action resulted in what secret police reports called a ‘storm of indignation’ in the town of Cloppenburg, a Catholic enclave. Prelates of the area supported the protests, ‘with all means,’ and cried that godless Bolshevism was threatening the fatherland. A special nine-day church service of entreaty and penance was held, church bells were rung in protest every evening sand families began holding their own devotional ceremonies at home. Children went to school wearing crucifixes around their necks; numerous protest commissions sprang up, demanding that officials rescind the decree, and church officials complained bitterly to the government. To the consternation of officials in Berlin, the ‘grave unrest’ caused by the crucifix decrees spread even into Nazi Party circles. Nazi administrators put office resources at the disposal of protest groups; the Nazi Women’s Organization refused to carry out certain orders; even members of the Hitler Youth failed to co-operate.”
Or course, some readers will immediately object that this reference to courageous and creative protest is not analogous to the current unrest around the world in support of Black Lives Matter. There is no Third Reich currently opposing racial equality. Nevertheless, the persistent racism that defies a political party or ideology can be considered just as venomous as any totalitarian regime, given than advocates for respect, dignity, and justice for minorities have to take their cries to the streets of towns and cities under all political ideological leaderships. So, in a sense, the systemic bias that infects each and every institution in most, if not all, countries and regions, like the pandemic is less visible, less predictable and less able to be confronted frontally. In like Ukraine and Hong Kong, where Russian and Chinese officialdom respectively compromise the freedom and the security of ordinary citizens, while the west looks on seemingly in silence, the rights of individual humans are under threat. So too does any ‘concentration camp’ for Uygers in China represent an assault on human rights, freedoms and dignity, again which the current occupant of the Oval Office concurs with its establishment in an transactional move to indenture himself to the Chinese government in support of both his trade deal and his re-election.
It could just be that the current world conditions of racism, poverty, discrimination and the multiple abuses of human rights crying out for redress are potentially as threatening, in the long run, as was the long shadow cast by the Third Reich in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s, without the ease and the benefit of having to face official opposition and protest. Just as a global pandemic demands a collaborative global response (multiple, yet co-ordinated), so too do the issues of human rights, climate change and global warming and the threat to international institutions leaning on the WHO, NATO, WTO, and the International Criminal Court demand collaborative, creative, if differentiated while being co-ordinated, response(s).
The danger of sliding backward, foreshadowed by Professor Carr seventy years ago, is as real and dangerous today, in the face of so many challenges, all of them viewed conventionally and negative, and thereby debilitating, as it was back when he wrote. And the centrifugal forces (acting outward on a body (politic) moving around a centre, arising from the body’s inertia could well threaten human existence as we know it.