How often have we heard that? I know that I’ve heard it multiple times, in multiple contexts. The thing is, it’s become so trite (at least to some) that it starts to sound at best like a catchy bumper sticker and at worst like a pointless whine. After all, isn’t that what our society about? Competing and, ideally, winning? The trouble I face in my life as an academic researching historical/cultural narratives is how to complicate this axiom but in an approachable way. Warning: below the fold lie the krakens of my convoluted thought process.
From Herbert Spencer to Henry Lewis Morgan to even Karl Marx, the idea that societies inevitably progress from “tribal,” heathen savages with bones through their noses to “rational” and enlightened states approaching some sort of utopia is a clear-cut part of Western thought. Quick sidebar: if you think that Karl Marx and American democracy aren’t cousins, you’re missing my point. They can both be considered “Western civilization.” Like many Americans, Marx embraced an evolutionary notion of society. The main difference is that Marx envisioned a stage beyond capitalism; namely, socialism. The concept of societal evolution remains the same. Quick examples: the notion of “progressivism” within what can be laughably termed the American left and the notion of “evolving” with regard to issues like marriage equality. On the American right we have the notion of “getting back to our roots” in order not to “devolve” into decadence. Meanwhile, both sides liken this fight over which way to “evolve” as a sort of war, or competition. If history overlooks you, or finds you wanting, then that’s your problem. You lost. Never mind the fact that in a pure, Darwinian sense evolution isn’t about progression. It’s simply about what works.
So what about the “losers” in American history? Enslaved Africans, Native Americans, women? Was manifest destiny simply an inevitable part of American history that shouldn’t be dwelt upon? Was slavery simply an aberrant blip in our progression towards “racial equality” which, nevertheless, was an integral part of early American capitalism, a fact I like to call the paradox of containment? Was gender equality an inevitable goal to which we must progress, despite the necessity of domestic servitude for women (whatever we might think about Sherry Ortner in this day and age)? Either way, we must not dwell on it!
These are the sorts of things I will attempt to expound upon during this summer of research (when my time isn’t being consumed by my day job, that is). Your homework is to think about the notion of “social evolution” in what can be generally called Western culture, and how ludicrous it can sometimes be. As an example, check out this guy.