History has no arc

Nothing distinguishes a modern, Western individual from their pre-modern ancestors more than the belief that human society is perfectible, We believe as a matter of our modern faith that centuries-old oppressions can and will be lifted by our efforts, because the “arc of history bends towards justice.” The arc holds such a fundamental place in our outlook that when President Obama chose five inspirational quotes from Americans to line the circumference of a new Oval Office rug, one of his selections was: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is often mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King, but King was actually quoting a 19th century clergyman named Theodore Parker.

There are several reasons for our persistent belief in the arc of history. When we are fighting something unjust, it’s reassuring to believe we are going with, and not against, the grain of history. We’ve experienced unmistakable progress in material development, based on the slow accumulation of scientific knowledge and the development of industry. Quite naturally, we came to believe that the channel cut through the world by material progress could focus and direct moral progress as well. This moral progress would free us from ancient enmities just as scientific progress freed us from the weight of nature.

Justice used to be considered above and outside humanity, found in the unknowable moods of a Creator. A vengeful God would smite the enemies of His believers, or a merciful God would balance the travails of this wretched life by the bliss of a well-earned paradise. Once we believed that hardship and unfairness in this world would find its compensation in God’s grace after death. But in a world without God, the pain we suffer in this world serves no purpose, and we lack the patient, confident belief in a God that promises vengeance, or succor. So it’s our pain, and as such it must flow from either our own imperfections, or, more commonly, from the malice of others.

Once we believed in God; Now we believe in “social justice.” The narratives we tell ourselves now are all about heroes who have triumphed over human oppression. Once we had the Books of the Prophets, or the Lives of the Saints, now we have the lives of the various “History Month” heroes to leaf through for inspiration. Just last month, Playboy featured its first transgendered centerfold, and this is seen as yet another, inevitable unraveling of oppressive conventions.

It’s astonishing to me that we can believe in justice when there is absolutely no evidence for it in history. Atheists — the most modern of people today — consider the belief in God fanciful, delusional or even dangerous, but most of them still believe fervently in justice, making it seem as if the belief in justice satisfies an even deeper need of ours than the belief in God. You don’t see a lot of skepticism about the arc of history, even though always we see the formerly oppressed rise up and oppress others in their turn. Whether it’s brownshirts avenging an unjust and imposed peace, or refugees from Hitler seizing land in the Middle East, or Nat Turner killing the children of slaveholders, or the wretched refuse of Europe seizing what was, to them, a New World from its first peoples to whom it was very, very old indeed.

Without the arc of justice, these cycles of oppressors and oppressed are just a chaotic boil of human urges. Modern education and rhetoric implores us to discern a slow ascent within the flux, inviting us to join the leaned elect and lend our efforts on the “right side of history.” After all, since there’s been clear progress in our ability to understand and control the material world to our own ends, shouldn’t there be a material counterpart to that? Isn’t “social justice” just the analog of science?

I believe there is no such justice to be found in this world. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould studied the diversity of Cambrian life found in the Burgess Shale fossils and concluded there was no direction to evolution, no aim, no general quality of fitness that evolution climbs towards. Simple chance dominates the outcome — given the same Cambrian starting point again evolution would take a different turn. Gould studied ancient life, and rediscovered what is really an ancient realization:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” — Ecclesiastes

So in natural history, there is no direction, no arc. Today’s vast ecology of species is not a milestone along a course, but just a particular elaboration of a long series of chance events, like the deal from a card shuffle. Similarly, and taking a page from post-Modernism, the organization of knowledge we have today is purely a social construction, and so it’s no more a sign of progress than a claim that modern languages are somehow better than extinct ones.

When I say there is no justice, no arc to history, I’m really taking issue with what Thomas Sowell skeptically called the belief in “Cosmic Justice” — that there is some equilibrium end state of society that will finally compensate for all past suffering. To me, social justice is just a racket used by the now weak to exact vengeance. In prior centuries, power was taken from a sense of pride, we felt we had a mission to civilize people we considered more backward than ourselves, and to seize resources we could make better use of. In modern times victimization is the currency. Nazis gained power not by celebrating their evil and their thirst for power. No, they gained power because they believed they were righting the injustice of Versailles and their victimization from Jews. They believed they were righting an injustice, and that they were following the arc of history.

My beliefs are from an earlier time. I believe in God, and in justice, just not “cosmic justice” I believe in a very personal justice, the imperative to act fairly in my personal dealings, and to right wrongs where I see them. I have no wish to spend myself in some political movement for justice. To me, the fallen nature of man means that all such efforts merely replace one injustice with another. I’m happy to leave cosmic justice to God.



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