By William Deresiewicz
How smug we seem to be today—I mean, in relation to history. Mention Jefferson, and the punchline follows automatically. He banged a slave! No need to take him seriously. Forget the Declaration, the Notes on the State of Virginia, the University of Virginia, the radical defense of democracy. Heart of Darkness? Uses the n-word. Never mind that the book mounts a withering attack on colonialism and the racist mindset that enabled it. Mad Men? The show is remarkable for not condescending to the era it depicts, as sexist (and bigoted and homophobic) as it was, but many viewers take it, often gladly, as doing just that. And so forth. A tone of glib dismissal governs our view of earlier states of society. Athens? Misogynistic slaveholders. The Middle Ages? Sunk in superstition. Anything at all before modernity? Monarchical, war-torn, and primitive, with terrible hygiene, to boot. The feeling seems to be that we are just incomparably better and more enlightened than everyone who came before us.
No doubt the attitude is nothing new. It comes with the belief in progress, the notion that society is slowly getting better. And in some ways, it is. The question is, are we getting better, as individuals? Jefferson owned slaves, but so did everybody else. Men were sexist in the 50s, yes; would you have acted any differently? That’s the only reasonable measure of a person’s moral worth: where you stand in relation to the prevailing morality of your own day. If you’re not any better than the people around you, you have nothing to be arrogant about: not with respect to Jefferson, or Don Draper, or slave owners, or witch burners, or people who bought and sold their wives like cattle.
As a friend of mine, a vegetarian, once remarked, you know what they’re going to be saying about us in a hundred years? They ate animals. That’s what they’re going to be saying. They actually put the bodies of animals in their mouths and chewed them up. And they’re not going to care that everybody did it. That isn’t going to excuse us to them, any more than it excuses the people who came before us to us.
Of course, not everybody does do it. Some people are already more enlightened than the rest of us, which is how we’re going to get from here to there. So it always is. Progress doesn’t happen by itself. A few brave and morally gifted souls—a very few, at first—envision new possibilities for humankind. Are you one of them? Neither am I.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won't Teach You, which will be published next year, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.
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