The object of my parasocial necromancy, and bespectacled lizard-god, Michel Foucault, once warned against the ‘ideology of return’ that manifests in those that spend their lives lamenting the problems of the present, whilst fetishising the orthodoxy of ages gone by. Foucault believed, in a quasi-Nietzschean fashion, that true inspection of history would warn-off any romantic ideas of returning to practices and situations that would prove incompatible with the progress that brought us the present, and that will lead us into the future. Don’t believe me? Well, in an interview he did with Paul Rabinow, entitled Space, Knowledge, and Power, he states that a “good study of peasant architecture in Europe” would elucidate to us the “utter vanity” of desiring to return to such a state. And this is what history does. It reminds us that ages gone by, with all their orthodox parameters, are not to be romanticised, because a lot of it sucked major balls. In fact, any good study of history, according to Foucault, would protect us from any form of historicism “that calls on the past to resolve the questions of the present.”
Why am I telling you this? You don’t read this blog for quotes from dead philosophers! You are here for profanity-laced rantings from my idiot brain. Well, fret not thyself, for there will be no more smartness from here on out. Only dumb, I promise.
I think it is worth analysing the words of, so called, ‘philosophical postmodernism’s’ reluctant absentee father, because it seems as if many people are preconditioned to dealing with history in the exact opposite manner. As much as his words might sound completely sensical to most of us, it is also worth noting that there exist various, passionate “movements” around the world; all of which seem to try and force the square pegs of traditionalism into the round holes of contemporary society. It is as if, contrary to what Foucault thought the past would teach us, many people seem to learn the exact opposite lesson from history. Why is this? Is it ‘human nature’? Probably not, and one should (almost) never take any argument based on the idea of ‘human nature’ too seriously. Is it that the present is just obviously worse than 1950s America, or seventeenth century Europe? Fuck no! Was the age of Apartheid the glorious utopia that many people claim it was? Only if you were white. Or else, also FUCK NO!
Why then is it that the fundamental thesis of the regrettable nature of progress, seems to be so powerful a narrative for those that consider themselves ‘conservatives’ or proud heritage-riders of the ‘anglo-sphere’ (a term I despise)? The obvious answer peddled by middle-of-the-road liberal pundits would be that “history is subjective” or “told from multiple perspectives”. Either way, the premise always seems to allude to a kind of misunderstanding that resulted from some sort of historico-brainwashing. It is, partially, for this reason, that the ‘history’ that children are taught in schools, seems to be such a fucking contentious issue in many countries, including my own. We seem to think that people will grow up right, as long as we are sure to teach them that the holocaust was real, and that racial segregation was bad. On the other side, there are people who think that teaching our kids anything more than a paragraph about slavery or Apartheid, is some form of ‘liberal indoctrination’. Remember when Donnie Trombone wanted to introduce a ‘patriotic education’ to U.S. schools that would, basically, gloss over all the things that would make America, or white Americans, look bad? Same shit! The primary argument that, teaching people the correct version of history would allow them to more accurately appraise the state of the present, seems to be taken at face value.
But, what if the very first premise upon which all of this debate is predicated, is… wrong, or at least partially wrong? I have, many times, sat in heated debates with ‘lovers’ of ‘traditional values’, only to realise that their conceptualisation of history, at least on a factual level, is not that much different from mine. I have very rarely met a holocaust denialist, and it is rare that I encounter a right-winger under 40, who honestly holds the belief that people of colour “had it better” during Apartheid than they do now. Sure, these views exist, but they are fringe, or compartmentalised within the older generation of racists. On the contrary, the traditionalists that I most often encounter, are aware of these historical atrocities, and either subjectively think that these things were not as ‘wrong’ as I do, or they actually desire for these social atrocities and parameters to be resurrected, because they feel as if they would benefit from them, or they are willing to throw the victims of these kinds of things under the bus, if it means that something something Christian values, something something traditional family structure.
For today, we are putting a pin in contemporary Western interpretations of “Christian values”, because most of the people who are willing to leap face-first into this nebula, would be surprised to find how inconsistent contemporary Evangelicalism is with the teachings of Christ. However, what I have picked up is that people tend to home in on certain aspects of the past, which seem to align more with how they want to live their own lives in the present, and would romanticise these elements, all while actively excusing the bad shit. People, who might not be super-duper overtly racist, are willing to resurrect the traditions of the past, if it would mean that gay marriage would be criminalised again, or that they didn’t need to risk living in neighbourhood where a black family would be allowed to move in. More often than not, people are fully aware of those things that should serve as warnings against the desire for ‘return’, but the very elements that sicken the majority of us, are the things that they either, find most attractive, or see as means to a personal end.
On the other hand, the people who are super-duper racist, will outright look at historical atrocity, and lament the fact that, they, the rightful heirs of the Eurocentric conquest of the free world, are now being forced to live in some weird, globalist, socialist, UN-dominated hellscape, where their birth rights are being denied on a daily basis. You know the type: social media profiles festooned with Roman statues, and European cathedrals from the middle ages. The kind of person who spends a lot of time fighting some culture war where evil libtards have decided that a rape-skunk does not function as appropriate children’s entertainment, and who thinks that any deviation from the performative masculinity of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne is symptomatic of the liberal campaign to feminise men. These people cannot be ‘fixed’ by teaching them history, or by carefully explaining to them that the very traditions that they want to return to are harmful to others. They know all that. They want that! The entire ideology upon which their appraisal is based, would not be changed by telling them about history. Explaining to them how fantastically gay the Spartans were, would not make them less homophobic, and telling them that fascism has murdered millions, will just trigger the knee-jerk “communism also killed many people”. And trust me on this, you will not be able to convince them that any form of welfare will not eventually turn the entire world into Venezuela (which is their favourite one to bring up).
My point is this: The problem is NOT with history, as it is being taught. We are getting better at that every year. But it really doesn’t matter what you teach people about history, if their problems are rooted in ideologies of the present. Telling a Nazi in 2021 that Nazis in 1939 were evil, is meaningless. These are our Nazis that we have to deal with them in our own present. Hell, these are people who, in a universe where there was never a Third Reich, would probably still (somehow) end up believing Nazi-esque things, but we would call it something else. It is the ideologies that they hold today that allow for their disturbing appraisals of history, not their understanding of that facts of history. The more disturbing the facts might be to us, the more of a raging hard-on it would probably give them.
So, what do we do with these people and ideas? The answer, funnily enough, lies in history. Well, sort of. Foucault famously referred to his various methods of analysis as either ‘a history of ideas’ or ‘a history of the present’. He had a great admiration for history, and for what we can learn from it. Foucault believed that history should be analysed with the purpose of critiquing and informing the present. Note that this is not the same as the arguing that we need to regress to previous incarnations of society, but rather that we need to incorporate the lessons of history into our analysis of the present. And, as Foucault made clear, if we do this properly, we will NEVER get caught up in the sentiments of ‘return’, but rather consistently propel ourselves forward, whilst actively working to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We learn about Nazis, slavery, oppression, and genocide, so that we can track the kinds of movements, ideologies, and leaders that led up to these atrocities. If we can understand the necessary conditions for the emergence of fascists, and the practice of genocide, then we can spot them and deal with them when the ‘lovers of tradition’ make yet another bid for the manifestation of atrocity.
History helps us to warn-off the mistakes of the past, not hark back to them. Normally, anyway. We have, in recent years been burdened with the re-emergence of some deeply disgusting ideas in the contemporary ‘marketplace of ideas’. Once again, this marketplace has become a toxic space where stupid people dog-whistle bigotry in the open, and where they lament the ‘cancel culture’ that would result in there being any backlash against their ideas from the ‘post-cultural-neo-Marxist’ crowd. But look, Foucault and Nietzsche had our backs on this. We’ve had Nazis, white supremacists, and ethno-fascists before. We know what they sound like, we know what they believe, and we know that their ideas come with the threat of terrible consequences for the rest of us. But most of all, we know how to deal with them. We know how to squash them. We know how to defeat them, because they always lose, and history is littered with stories of their many defeats. If you are on the fence about how to deal with a Nazi, just pick up history book. If you are not sure whether or not the Nazi is worth dealing with, stick with the same book.
Foucault spent the majority of his academic career speaking truth to power. He did this by critiquing the present through a lens informed by the past, and thought it was the most logical way to deal with history. The history of ideas will indicate something disturbing about the West, which is just how easily we forget lessons from the past, and doom ourselves to repeating those mistakes. The very fact that we are even having conversations about white nationalism, fascisms, and Nazism in 2021, is a testimony to that fact. We need to start looking at the past, in order to help clear up some of the filth in our present, lest we sacrifice our future to those who wear the atrocities of the past like a badge of glory. If the only lovers of history, are those who wish to foster an ideology of return, we are in deep trouble…again.