Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Wrong Side of History

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post suggesting that our all-male priesthood needs to be evaluated in the context of an LDS "cooperative culture" and not through the lens of the "competitive culture" most Americans know best through school, work, sports, and so on.

Well, a recent commenter isn't buying any of it. Mormons are an oppressive corporate cult, this anonymous individual informs me, and we are on "the wrong side of history."

I'm sort of bored, quite frankly, with the "legitimate religion or oppressive corporate cult?" debate, so I'm going to accept the sad truth that I have to live my life without an anonymous internet commenter's approval. But I am still interested enough to spend a post on the "wrong side of history" debate, because I'm intrigued by the way it combines social studies with geometry. Does history have a shape? Is there a right side of history to be on? 

The Dominant View

Click on the illustration below to see how I think many people imagine history and our place in it:

This view of history is based on the assumption that as time passes, the world inevitably gets better. History=Progress. The right side, where the future (and Pacman?) live, is good. The other side, where humankind left the cruel and benighted past to die, is mostly useful to provide contrast.

Being a Latter-day Saint has never looked great in this picture.

In the early days of the Church, we were backward for believing in prophets and miracles and temples and all that primitive Israelite garbage decent Protestants had long since progressed past.  Later, an intelligentsia that had progressed right out of Protestantism and into enlightened secular rationality found even our faith in God vestigial at best, and more likely a tell-tale relic of barely-concealed barbarism.

Currently, it seems most common to see Mormons as backward on our principles of community building. Surely respect for authority should have gone the way of Nixon--or did we sleep through the '70s somehow? What's our obsession with meddling in personal choices: don't we know that it's systems, not people, that are moral or immoral these days? And seriously--who can believe in gender after glam rock?

On a left-to-right map of history, we are a stubborn, perplexing, willfully primitive Church.

An LDS View

But to the best of my knowledge, nothing in the scriptures suggests that human beings are fundamentally better for having largely switched from cooking fires to microwaves. Better off, sure, but is that truly better in any important sense? While most of us feel blessed to live in these latter-days, we also understand that each time period has had its own blessings and burdens. 

Maybe the best way to draw an LDS view of history relies more on the Book of Mormon than on the European Enlightenment, as shown when you click on the illustration below: 

In this view of history, the past and the present are not nearly so different as most people might believe. Technologies and ideologies come and go, but the same sorts of patterns happen no matter what the costumes are.

This view of history reserves no special disdain for people who look "backwards" or "forwards." No, we save our worry for those who are "lifted up in pride"--and if we're smart, we remember there's a good chance they'll be hanging out in our mirrors.

Some progress, in this view, may be genuinely good and even righteous. But some things society labels as "progress" now might be castles in the clouds that are set into stark perspective by the next honest-to-goodness crash. 

So let's be backward for now. Why not? And if we live to experience the next big crash, maybe we'll get the chance to teach former anonymous internet commenters how to plant gardens, listen to prophets, and make it through history's storms.


  1. "So let's be backward for now. Why not? And if we live to experience the next big crash, maybe we'll get the chance to teach former anonymous internet commenters how to plant gardens, listen to prophets, and make it through history's storms."

    Well, here's the thing. I kind of don't agree with your graphs. I think that they are in fact both correct.

    One can often see an upswing downswing cycle, but I think that it isn't flat, but rather trends upwards as a whole. Consider that, despite all of the problems we have now, there has never in the history of the world been this level of freedom, peace, safety, and nutrition for so many. Not ever. Particularly for women, minorities, and children.

    You seem to be looking back longingly towards a past that never really existed, one where any type of non-conformity was harshly and savagely punished and one that was in no way, shape or form self-reflective or self-conscious.

    We finally live in an era where we can dig into the makeup of the human organism and reflect on ourselves as a society and try to figure out why we are the way we are, and how we can improve ourselves.

    You see, I firmly believe that we are being lifted ever higher by the Lord, cyclical though that process might be, until we become ready to receive him.

    And I have to be honest with you, the glee that is apparent when you write of planting gardens and living as a subsistence farmer evokes in me nothing but horror at the life of drudgery it would be for me, even assuming that I could actually eat anything that grows in the climate I live in.

    Put it this way, if the world blows up, I'll be going up with it. No interest in a pastoral life whatsoever. :D

    1. I'm not really excited about the prospect of a crash either. But I think it's naive to believe our current system is long-term stable or to talk about a side of history with the assumptions that our current trajectory will continue forever.

      I recognize that there are many great things we're doing now--better perhaps, in some areas, than any other generation.

      But no other generation has damaged the environment to the extent we have, either. And who would have thought that so much progress would also come with so much porn?

      I am totally cool living in our current society with the counter-balance that comes from the gospel. But I get annoyed when people suggest that the Mormons are backward because we don't live up to their ideals, when their own ways of organizing society are based in and dependent on our unsustainable economic system.

  2. James, I really like this blog. That's all. :)

  3. I really, really liked this. I've studied archaeology extensively, and I'm always frustrated when people talk about the past as being inherently worse than the present. Hunters and gathers, for example, were healthier and had a more varied diet than their farming counterparts, and more leisure time. Farming's only advantage was a higher fertility rate.

    Likewise, modernly, yes, we have an abundance of food in many places, but that doesn't mean that we're eating well. My grandparents lived out of their vegetable gardens. I know people today who live off of cheese puffs.

  4. Orson Scott Card wrote a cool article like yours a while ago. It's called the Myth of Progress, and it goes into some interesting stuff.



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