History Won't Judge: Joan C. Scott and Passing the BuckHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, atrocities, Enlightenment, Political Philosophy, Joan C. Scott
Kirsten Weld teaches history at Harvard University. She is the author of Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala.
HISTORY DIDN’T GET A MOMENT’S REST during the Trump years. The troller-in-chief twisted a renewed national conversation about slavery’s afterlives into yet another attempt at owning the libs. Anti-Trump liberals, meanwhile, conscripted history into the #resistance, deploying it alongside “truth” and “science” in an appeal to generic Enlightenment values. Whether by the 1776 Commission or The 1619 Project—which is to say, by a fatuous provocation or an earnest appeal—poor Clio, the muse of history, was asked to do a lot of work.
One of her main tasks seemed to be to pass judgment. “History will judge Donald Trump severely for his crimes against the United States,” declared David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor in chief, after the Capitol riot of January 2021. A Gallup poll on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration found that six in ten Americans “believed that history will regard President Donald Trump negatively.” “With the outcome a foregone conclusion,” Nicholas Fandos wrote in the New York Times during the House’s second impeachment proceedings, readers could take solace in the thought that “the trial itself became an illuminating and cathartic act for history.” Such invocations conjured an image of History with a capital H, clad in black robes and powdered wig—perhaps even sporting a chic little RBG-style lace collar—gaveling Trump offstage to the jubilant cheers of the righteous. In this movie, Clio, our heroine, would triumph where the Access Hollywood tape, Robert Mueller, the emoluments clause, the Hatch Act, and two impeachments had stumbled.
The idea of history’s judgment was, and remains, seductive. It flatters our discernment, suggesting that we and History navigate with the same ethical compass. It reassures us that today’s wrongs will be righted in the future, regardless of our inability to remedy them now. It imagines that society will learn from past errors, as if human reason were an autonomous force. In the U.S. political context, it is best embodied by the refrain, borrowed by Barack Obama from Martin Luther King Jr. (who paraphrased it from the abolitionist Theodore Parker), that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Improvement, vindication, transcendence: these are its consolations, a redemptive promise for our secular age.
Yet this notion cannot withstand scrutiny, as Joan Wallach Scott’s On the Judgment of History shows. A work of political philosophy, the book argues that appeals to History as some kind of virtuous magistrate, however progressive the intent, in effect serve as a liberal alibi, deflecting demands for radical change and placing an outsized faith in the nation-state. At a time when political crises are resolutely global—eco-apartheid, ascendant right-wing nationalism, climate-driven mass migration—Scott argues we need to develop bolder, more capacious understandings of justice. Put simply, we cannot cede today’s political imperatives to the good favor of tomorrow’s retrospection.
Scott opens her book with the same event that Biden claims spurred him to run against Trump: the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August of 2017. There, as police passively looked on, white supremacists hoisted swastikas, Confederate flags, and torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter” as they attacked antifascist counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens. Scott was aghast by the scene, which seemed to represent a “refusal of what was supposed to have been history’s judgment.” Had slavery and Nazism not been consigned, permanently, to the dustbin? What happened, she asked herself, to “never again”?
One might question whether this event was truly the driving motivation for either Biden or Scott. A pioneering feminist historian best known for her 1988 book Gender and the Politics of History, Scott has spent her career critically analyzing knowledge production through her studies of sex, secularism, and academic freedom. Having written widely on social difference, she was surely less surprised about the persistence of white supremacy than she makes herself sound. (For his part, Biden had been dreaming of the presidency for more than three decades.) Nevertheless, Scott’s point is well-taken. Even for those who ought to have known better—a group in which she generously includes herself, as one can hardly imagine a male author doing—the fantasy of history’s judgment holds a magnetic appeal.
Where did this idea come from? Scott provides a capsule summary in her prefatory chapter, “History, Race, Nation.” Her story begins with the dawn of Enlightenment modernity, when a group of philosophers set out to break the hegemony over politics and knowledge hitherto exercised by the Church and aristocracy. To supplant the apocalyptic Christian notion of a Last Judgment or divine reckoning, Enlightenment thinkers developed the concept of a rational History which moved inexorably forward, in the direction of progress and civilization. Hegel and Schiller declared history “the world’s court of judgment” and “the world’s tribunal,” respectively. Kant argued that history’s course was governed by “constant laws of nature,” wherein good could be neatly separated from evil, justice from injustice, truth from falsehood. While they purported to be resolutely secular, these philosophers attributed to History many of the qualities previously reserved for sacred authority: moral probity, sanctity, and unimpeachable wisdom. In this account, the future would always be superior to the past, even if the advances it guaranteed were long in coming.