U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Freedom is not a Chia Pet.

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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robin, I think you are conflating two ideas here: the metaphysical notion of historical teleology, and the conception of history as a passive process in which time itself will produce change absent human agency. The latter is only one component type of the former, and it seems to me that you (and most professional historians, despite their talk of contingency and accident and non-inevitability) subscribe to a version of whiggish progress (what you call “real progress” in your final sentence.) Nineteenth-century Marxists, for instance, debated whether active agency and organization and making history happen was necessary, or whether the structural feature of materialist dialectics would produce historical outcomes independent of seizing control of the process. But both sides of the debate believed in a telic vision of history, one in which there was an ultimate direction to history. Contemporary historians may have given up the idea of teleology in theory, but they still organize their narratives around, for instance, the still unfulfilled realization of freedom and the struggle for it. That they see it as a struggle and a set of conflicts doesn’t mean that they aren’t committed to an idea of progress, one in which the present represents an improvement over the past, and the future promises a fulfillment of yet unrealized aspirations. The titles of the textbooks professional historians use to teach the U.S. survey–textbooks that professional historians have written–suggest that professional historians are no more immune to the idea of historical progress than the lay understanding of history you write about: e.g. _Give Me Liberty__, or _Out of Many_ or _A History of the American People_. So, I think it’s worth distinguishing between the idea that “time” will produced change on its own, and the idea that history is teleological.

    On the former, it’s interesting that you choose the Civil Right Movement as an argument against the idea that achievement of black equality was simply a matter of waiting for the right time, since Martin Luther King makes exactly the point you are making in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he challenges “the white moderate” who is cautioning that “the time is not right.” He says that this is a mistaken idea of time, and sees history and justice as being produced by those who don’t wait for “the right time.” But I think I would say that King also subscribes to a teleological view of history, that he sees a fulfillment of human freedom as the necessary and inevitable element of a God-ordained plan.

    • Hi Dan, thanks for the comment.

      Yes I don’t disagree with the above, especially in concern to Marxism and the fact that, as you put it, most historians “still organize their narratives around, for instance, the still unfulfilled realization of freedom and the struggle for it.”

      But that wasn’t what the post was about; whatever historians do or don’t do, it’s still substantially different from the understanding many non-historians have of how history works. Or at least, as an historian often interacting with people not trained in history, that’s certainly how it seems to me. Maybe you have had a different experience.

      Although I would say I have noticed the titles of textbooks, as you have pointed out, and found them irritating, precisely because even if they represent the more sophisticated commitment to progress of historians, in effect they tend to reinforce, I think, the lazy and irresponsible assumptions about progress more common in the public sphere — which is not the teleology of King, mind you (which you are entirely correct about) but the teleology of the self-styled “pragmatic” who argued against almost everything King ever did.

  2. I’m intrigued by a real, or potential, difference between the way youth and the aged view the tides of history (as lay historians). I think the notion of progress (inevitable or otherwise) is primarily attached a youthful view of historical progression. The aged (I won’t call them “adults” because I think that privileges their position) seem to view progress as a regress. What I mean by this is that they nostalgically long for a return to some apparent certain or safe time. They want a constitution interpreted as it was in the old days, and appliances to run as they did when they were kids, and morals obeyed as when they were younger, and society to be as orderly as it was when they were kids. Otherwise the forward march is entropic for them, a series of rupture, fractures, and discontinuities with what they remember. Their freedoms are being diminished, and their vistas are less open. Things are always getting worse.

    And I’m not sure this view of things can be confined to aged lay historians.

    To bring this back to Chia Pets, the aged lay historian wants it exactly how it was when she/he grew one as and 8 year old. This new Chinese-made Chia Pet is crap–a poor copy of the original, made in Toledo, they received as a birthday gift. It was larger and the chia seeds sprouted faster. THAT was a Chia Pet. – TL

    • I think you are on to something, Tim. And, in my capacity of interacting with students, it is mostly younger people, now that I think of it, that express this perspective. Maybe that goes to show how change, like so much else, remains ever abstract until experienced – and when you do fully grasp what it means for things to change, you’re not necessarily going to be happy about it.

      That being said, some larger national narrative is handing these young people a version of the story at least somewhat compatible with their “pragmatic” optimism, right? I think of one of the oldest people I know best, who is from the South, even; and if I asked them “how did the CRM happen?” I’m not entirely sure “black people decided to become a huge thorn in everyone’s side until something changed” would be the answer I would get. I’m honestly not sure, though, what would be the answer. I should try and find out!

      And OMG, I’ve been missing out on high-quality Chia Pets? Man, sometimes I feel robbed.

  3. Robin: ” But that wasn’t what the post was about; whatever historians do or don’t do, it’s still substantially different from the understanding many non-historians have of how history works.”

    Well, I guess I was trying to suggest that, in some ways, it really isn’t, that historians haven’t been willing to live by the terms of their own critical understanding. What you seem to be suggesting is that historians believe in the agency of people who make their own freedom, while the popular imagination is that freedom is a seed that grows and blooms in its own time, independent of agency and intention. But this debate (or non-debate, really) is not really a debate about teleology, but about the role of agency in history. And critical historians have their own version of “the time wasn’t right,” and “it would take time.” We call it contextualism. We say, for instance, that WW II and the response to Nazism, and then the Cold War context, pushed the American state and its promotion of a public culture to shift the ground on race relations for ideological purposes; that the development of a set of institutions within the black community over the course of the twentieth century, the experience of returning black veterans from WWII, the migration of African-Americans into the urban industrial North and West during the war, etc. prepared the conditions for the Civil Rights Movement; that a similar movement, if rooted only in the agency and aspirations and actions of a group of oppressed people, could not have come into being and been successful at some earlier time in the twentieth century because the “conditions” were not right. Now, we historians may provide more concrete details and structural explanations, but we still accept the notion that there is a logic to events that form the context and that delimit the possibilities of action that must be deferred to a time in the future when the context is right, when time is ready. When historians narrate the failure of Reconstruction, for instance, they are doing so through a lens of the Civil Right Movement, and the idea is often put forth that it would take the CRM to fulfill the promise of Radical Reconstruction. A linkage is made between one and the other. What is the nature of that linkage, if we are really going for the historicism of contingency and otherness?

  4. Again, I don’t disagree with your account here/but it also wasn’t what I was really concerned with. As alluded to in the post — “from emphasizing the vital role of the Cold War to focusing on the spread of tactics of non-violent resistance” — I I am aware of these contextual explanations from historians (one would certainly hope I would be) and they were offered very clearly and cogently to the students; yet at least some of them found them unsatisfactory and still preferred a “well no things just get better kind of on their own because people just slowly realize that prejudice is dumb” (which is what I usually hear this accompanied with, and I’m not making this up I swear) explanation. You can call that whatever you want, but no historian worth their salt would have sat there and nodded their head and said, “yup, that’s right. Go write that paper.”

    But this is not just a question anymore about what professional historians do or don’t do — I’m fine with your description of that, and apologize if you found my terminology imprecise — but what I’m interested in, though, is how many people in this country explain the CRM not even through a contexualist lens!, but in a manner which really does assert that simply things simply get better over time. If you are suggesting that historians are partially guilty for that; through textbook titles or whatever else; I can definitely see that and agree — maybe that’s partially why I wrote the post, eh? But the linkage between that then, and my student, is what I’m interested in; not measuring or describing the practices of historians simply for measuring or describing the practices of historians.

    • OK, sorry for derailing the discussion in a less than fruitful direction. I agree that there is an important difference between the popular understanding of historical change and that of professional historians, even if I think the difference is not quite what you believe it to be, and that professional historians bear some responsibility for contributing to the naturalization of “freedom” as an inevitable goal that was realized as people came to realize that “prejudice is dumb.”

Comments are closed.