Tag Archives: terror of history

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

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Weekly Rant: Charleston, SC and the Terror of History

Since news broke on Thursday that a young white man had killed nine black men and women in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, I have struggled to make sense of this tragedy.  I have pored over articles in my preferred news outlets, including Slate, Salon, and The Atlantic.  While those pieces were helpful in collecting and concretizing my thoughts and helping me to make sense of my tangled and raw emotions, I also found myself still struggling, as if something, some crucial bit of understanding, hovered just out of reach.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the overwhelming weight of history that this incident represents, centuries of exploitation and terrorism, in which the lives of people of color have been systematically devalued and rendered invisible.  How can one person contend with, let alone psychologically and emotionally process, such a mountain of misery?

While I do not, in any way, want to diminish the importance of the ongoing, if still stilted, discussion of mental illness in this country, I want to emphasize my firm and profound belief in the absolute necessity of contending with the terror of this country’s history.  I mean this in multiple (and interconnected senses):  the well-documented terror that white culture has inflicted on people of color, whether it be the Ku Klux Klan or The Birth of a Nation, police brutality and use of unnecessary force or the matter-of-fact slaughter of innocents in a place of worship.

Yet what troubles me the most about this whole incident in Charleston is precisely how unexceptional it is.  This is a state, after all, that has refused to take down the Confederate flag (which is, no matter how you spin it, a signifier of racial violence and oppression) from the grounds of its state house, as well as a region of the country that fought tooth and nail to keep people of colour from equal access to everything from education to elected government, and in many cases continues to do so (though largely through more obfuscated means).

Further, the American South is a region that continues to fetishize and enshrine the vestiges of its antebellum past, often either without acknowledging the ways in which the glories of that past were built on the back of ruthless exploitation or ensuring that that exploitation is rendered quaint or somehow excusable.  What remains understated, however, was the way that the romanticizing of that past was in large part responsible for the terrors that were unleashed after Reconstruction was abandoned.  Thus, while the South is the place where this all comes to a head, it is important to not commit the equally grievous sin of writing the North a blank check, for it was precisely those in the North who turned a blind eye to the horrors unfolding in their southern neighbors, with white northerners more interested in rapprochement with their racial counterparts than helping or aiding the afflicted people of color.

And yet, one might wonder:  why, in the face of so much violence, does mainstream, white American culture still find it difficult, if not impossible, to contend with that past?  Why is it so much easier to pretend that we live in an eternal present, where atrocities committed by people with racial hatred worn proudly on their sleeve can be explained by anti-religious animus or by mental illness rather than by an acknowledgment of the systems of power and the weight of history?  Well, it is precisely because really engaging with history is, indeed, terrifying.  To confront the terror of history face to face is to recognize so much else:  complicity in oppression, an acknowledgment that the American dream is a myth and a lie, that sometimes the acts of an individual are circumscribed and embedded within systems of power that are hard to comprehend in their totality.  It is far easier, then, to simply boil things down to the actions of a lone wolf, an entity that can be locked up with any deeper, more probing questions shunted aside.

This is one of the many reasons that I take my social justice-inflected pedagogy so seriously.  If I can allow at least one student to gain a more nuanced understanding of how race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, etc. have complicated and violent histories, then I can hopefully do my part to ensure that the horrible events that have  At the same time, however, I also recognize that many of my students, and my colleagues, will probably remain in the bastions of progressive thought and relative safety (the Northeast, the West Coast, and the larger cities in the South and Midwest).  However, it is precisely the not-safe spaces, the South, Appalachia, the rural reaches of the Midwest and the Northeast, that desperately need the presence of critical thinkers and educators.

Only by forcing an acknowledgment of the deep problems and terrors of history can we ever hope, however faintly, for a better, more just, more peaceful world.