Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 8 May 2023

The Obsession With Rewriting The Past Is Highly Destructive

When I was growing up in the 1990s, amidst all the exuberance of the American unipolar moment, I certainly thought I lived in a civilization, and an advanced one at that.

The mood of the time was captured in the near-universal misunderstanding of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis about the “end of history,” as well as in the Disney cartoon “Aladdin.”

Both “Aladdin” and Fukuyama invited us to imagine “a whole new world,” and both did so coincidentally in 1992.

Nothing, it seemed, could halt the steady progress of a new age of peace, stability, wealth, and freedom.

But, in the West, so much seems to have gone wrong since that moment.

Disaster in Iraq, Rwanda, and the Balkans should have disturbed western complacency, but didn’t. Neither did the damage done by neoliberal economics, hyper-globalization, outsourcing, and the de-industrialization of the West.

The 1990s also saw the rise of the Taliban, and the following century opened with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the attacks of 9/11 in America.

Since then we seem to have lurched from one crisis to another: warfare and humiliation in the Middle East, the failure to export liberal democracy abroad, financial collapse, terrorism, and latterly the pandemic, supply chain problems, inflation, and renewed warfare in Europe.

All this is to say that the “whole new world” we were promised in the ’90s is much like the old one, only worse. And the theory of irreversible progress seems increasingly implausible in the face of steady decline.

But this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do. Decline isn’t irreversible either. If that were true, then human civilization would never have recovered from its first collapse thousands of years ago.

Renewal is possible even after a long interval, as is shown, for example, by the revival of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, or the ebb and flow of civilization in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or China despite repeated foreign conquest. So no matter how bad things may seem, civilization can recover.

But how would we bring about this renewal? The modern answer centres on innovation: doing something revolutionary and starting over again. Most of us now living in the West are used to thinking of practically all aspects of life in the same way that we think of technology.

One technological change supersedes another, and each change rapidly ushers in another one. The same process supposedly governs social and moral development. This mode of thought passes without question now.

But it would have seemed very disagreeable to a peasant who lived through the French Revolution, a Ukrainian farmer enduring Stalin’s five-year plans, or an indigenous inhabitant of the New World whose life was upended after the arrival of Europeans.

The Western obsession with sweeping away the past is highly peculiar, of course, and it is also highly destructive.

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