Sunday, April 11, 2010

Grasping the past (1)

The libertarian blogosphere in the US has been having a bit of a barney over how to think about the past and the progress of liberty in US history.

It started with David Boaz’s piece in Reason pointing out that many current day Americans (particularly black Americans) had more liberty now than their equivalents did in the C19th, so talking about some past “golden age” of liberty was mistaken.

The piece generate a lot of remarkably grumpy comments: grumpy because people were obviously quite enamoured of positive views of American history, were tired to being beaten with the stick of slavery and very much of the view that liberty had been steadily declining.

Jacob Hornberger responded, also in Reason, conceding the point about slavery but holding that, in 1880, the US was still a much freer society than it is today. Will Wilkinson—whose posts alerted me to this controversy—responded by asking, very reasonably, what about women?

The best construction that can be put on Jacob Hornberger’s position is: in 1880, white heterosexual males had lots of liberties and we want everyone today to enjoy at least the level of liberty that white, heterosexual males enjoyed in 1880. Which is certainly a defensible (even admirable) position. The interesting question is why he did not put it like that in the first place.

Particularly given he was responding to David Boaz’s essay, in which Boaz wrote:
And in particular, if we want to attract people who are not straight white men to the libertarian cause, we'd better stop talking as if we think the straight white male perspective is the only one that matters. For the past 70 years or so conservatives have opposed the demands for equal respect and equal rights by Jews, blacks, women, and gay people. Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying "Americans used to be free, but now we're not"—which is a historical argument that doesn't ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.
The feminist answer as to why would be the simplest (and, in this case, correct): white, heterosexual male experience is taken to be the definitive human experience. So, someone like Jacob Hornberger does not stop to think about blacks, women and gays because it does not occur to him to do so, even though they collectively made up a clear majority of the American adult population in 1880. White, taken-to-be-heterosexual males were the stuff of history, so the history that is definitive is the history that happened to them.

Now, I do not want to endorse all the constructions of deconstructionist history of various types, but surely we should expect to be at a point where an intelligent, informed, thoughtful person simply does not write like this anymore.

Alas, apparently not.

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