Sebastian Lecourt: Whig History in the Age of Trump

Dec. 13, 2016

Having taught the poems of Robert Browning at three different universities, I’m still surprised at how many of my students instinctively read “My Last Duchess” – a dramatic monologue whose sixteenth-century Italian speaker murders his wife out of jealousy – as a reflection of Victorian misogyny. The poem, for them, is either (at worst) evidence of the Victorians’ deep sexism or (at best) a subversive protest against it: even in an age as misogynistic as the Victorian, Browning had the courage to say that killing your spouse was bad.

On one level, of course, it pleases me to see students approach the poem with some sort of political consciousness. I could even take their reactions as evidence for Eleanor Courtemanche’s argument that the methods and sensibilities of ‘90s cultural studies have spread beyond the academy and become a part of our cultural common sense. But I’m also struck by just how Victorian my students are being. For in fact their inclination to set Browning up as the representative of a more barbaric age from which we have progressed is at some level what Browning is doing with the Duke of Ferrara, although they rarely realize it without some prodding. Their own Victorianism, in other words, prevents them from recognizing his.

What the teaching of Victorian literature offers us in the current political climate, I’ve come to think, is a chance to get a little distance on the narratives of progress that many liberals have re-embraced over the past decade. At some point during the Bush years the American left began to turn away from the language of fin de siècle relativism and revive the term “progressive” as the preferred label for their political position. The task of liberal politics, for many today, is less to make space for different values within a pluralistic society than to advance a Whiggish course of historical evolution. At the same time, many of the new progressives have begun to talk in a kind of positivist rhetoric about facts as the cornerstone of politics and to identify the common thread linking climate-change denial, creationism, and even opposition to gun control as a basic rejection of objective reality. (Indeed, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy opened a 2013 piece on gun-violence statistics by citing Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind with only the tiniest pinch of salt.) On both counts, a very Victorian science-versus religion narrative has returned to the fore of the left-wing imagination. Contemporary U.S. politics, the story goes, is divided not between different social or political values but rather between a “reality-based community” that believes in science and data and another community that takes its marching orders from non-evidentiary superstition.

This turn has in some sense been a necessary one. For in fact the word “progressive” represents a nice antidote to the haziness of “liberal” and makes a stronger counterpoint to the various fundamentalisms, both free-market and biblical, currently aligned on the right. Meanwhile the rhetoric of factuality signals, I think, a crucial panic over the fragmenting of the public sphere into a series of self-enclosed bubbles that share no common facts for people to disagree over.

But as Victorianists, it seems to me, we are in a uniquely good position to identify the blindspots of these new keywords. For example, one problem with narrating liberalism as a part of inevitable historical progress is that it under-motivates the opposition. Right-wing political positions become what the Victorian anthropologist E. B. Tylor called survivals, vestiges of old worldviews and attitudes that outlive their currency and persist merely as bad habits, like adolescent thumb-sucking. Or as John Oliver puts it in his recurring segment of the same name: “How is this still a thing?” That still, it seems to me, cloaks a major failure of comprehension. Tylor’s theory of survivals, a historian of anthropology will tell you, missed how cultural practices that he considered unenlightened gained their power from their present social usage rather than from simple inertia. So too, I think, does the post-election handwringing about why we are still a racist society risk treating racism as though it were simply a discredited belief, like pre-Copernican astronomy, and not a set of narratives that are sustained by their ability to make misleading sense of the present. Racism is a political reality in 2016 at least partly because the Welfare Queen and the Immigrant Who Took Your Job have become explanatory figures through which some white voters understand post-industrial underemployment. Such voters don’t have to literally remember Jim Crow in order to gain a false sense of clarity from these imaginary characters.

On the other side of the coin, the narrative of progress can sometimes confuse us about historical agency. Its virtue as a political storyline is that it narrates specific battles, like those for women’s suffrage or for racial equality, as parts of a larger moral cause. But it also tempts us to imagine that progress has a causal power its own right, as though certain changes have taken place in the world because they represent the way in which history is irresistably moving. Once you think of political change this way, all setbacks become a kind of cosmological crisis – you mean the moral arc of the universe isn’t bending toward justice? – rather than a case of opposing values carrying the day. Here too I find Victorian literature useful because it reminds us of how progress functions as a narrative framework that we put around political arguments. Everyone in politics wants to change things from how they currently are, but some describe this as progress and others as the restoration of a world that used to be. These narratives help instill us with a broader sense of purpose, but they don’t actually represent historical forces in which faith can be lost, much less arguments for our positions. When we advance toward a moral or political ideal, we may name the change progress, but it wasn’t the “progressive” nature of the change that caused it to happen.

But revisiting Victorian literature can do more, I think, than simply defamiliarize our political narratives in the present. It can also encourage us to look at the past in eclectic terms that are ultimately more useful for constructive political thinking. For when you turn to Victorian writers with contemporary American politics in mind, you recognize many of their specific stances but almost never the larger formations that organize them. You find free-market ideology, scientific racism, and evangelical politics, but not aligned in ways familiar to us. Instead, it’s the liberals who trumpet individual striving within the marketplace and conservatives who want large centralized institutions to look after the common good. It’s often radical secularists who support the theory of racial “polygenesis” (because it debunks the biblical account of humankind’s special creation) and self-described Tories who speak reverently of the natural environment (because they’re opposed to industrial capitalism). In the case of Tylor, we discover how liberal universalism – the idea that we’re all caught up in the same collective progress as a species – can naturalize inequality and colonialist paternalism, while in the career of a Richard F. Burton we see how a strong, embodied account of racial difference can underwrite a weird relativism not unlike our own culture-concept.[i] What we learn, in short, is that all of these positions have multiple possible alignments depending upon the political and rhetorical context.

This recognition strikes me as important because another rhetorical habit of the new progressivism has been to treat political periods as holistic and therefore subject to either approval or condemnation in toto. The fact that Trump speaks of nasty women and approvingly cites Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback means that he wants to take us “back to the 1950s.” But the ‘50s were also the site of many things that progressives today want to recuperate: strong unions, high corporate taxation, a massive regulatory state, and overall faith in experts and institutions. Like the Victorian period itself, the 1950s are a decade in which things that we like are deeply interwoven with things that we don’t, a fact that asks us to consider the different ways in which the former might be re-implemented in the present. How to use federal tax policy to create a strong middle class without also exacerbating racial disparities? How to create large media institutions that encourage a basic consensus over well-vetted facts without stifling voices of dissent or counter-knowledge?

Perhaps the key figure here, at least for my own teaching, has been William Morris. Morris’s politics are not mine, but I’ve always admired how he reads the Middle Ages as a complex assemblage from which different features can be appropriated. In News from Nowhere, his imaginary socialist utopia is not a revived feudal society but rather one in which elements of the guild system and cooperative agrarian labor have been enlisted into the services of a kind of anarcho-syndicalism. This is a very much a secular society, yet it dares to find precedent for itself in medieval religion. As Old Hammond tells William Guest at the end of their long discussion, the intense medieval fixation upon the realities of Heaven and Hell made them “a part of the life upon the earth” in a way that retrospectively prefigures the this-worldly utopia of Nowhere, whose denizens affirm “the continuous life of the world of men, and . . . the religion of humanity.”[ii] Morris does not imagine that the medieval period could be brought back wholesale, nor does he want to do so; instead, he draws out certain institutions and practices that might prove useful for rethinking politics in his own time.



[i] See Dane Kennedy, The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005).

[ii] William Morris, News From Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (New York: Penguin, 1993), 158-59.

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