In 2014, I wrote a post here on The Boomerang about a phrase I kept hearing and which puzzled me, “History will judge…” Pundits and politicians alike were throwing this phrase around as if there in the future existed a panel of historians expected to pass judgment on humanity based on our actions (or in-actions).
Since I wrote that blog post six years ago, this phrase has come into even heavier rotation as chaos and morally ambiguous behavior became the norm on behalf of members of our executive branch, and, to some extent, our legislative branch as well.
I am not alone in thinking about the use of this phrase. Historian and Professor Emerita Joan Wallach Scott became puzzled by it in 2019 when a friend of hers commented on the anti-climax of the Mueller Report by saying that history would judge those who worked to corrupt the democracy of the United States.
This exchange sent Wallach Scott on an investigative journey to find the origins and the meaning of the concept of history as an agent of judgment. The result of that journey is the book, On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020).
To investigate the meaning of this concept, Wallach Scott presents three case studies–the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid, and the movement for Reparations in the United States. What binds these case studies together is that they “explore the different ways in which the idea of the state as the embodiment and enactment of history operated.” (p. xx). Moreover, they engage directly with the nation state as the telos of history; they highlight the connection between nation states and racism; and they demonstrate the use of the nation state as the impetus for what the people involved intend to achieve. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, the goal is the conviction of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. In the case of South Africa’s TRC, a path forward out of Apartheid. In the case of the Reparations Movement, a reckoning with the United States’ original sin, slavery.
The case studies are based on extensive and impeccable research, as would be expected of a historian of Wallach Scott’s caliber. It raises several important questions, explicitly (“Could the nation state exist without racism at its core?” (p. xxii)) and implicitly (What is the purpose of history?) In her case studies, Wallach Scott demonstrates how history has been utilized (Nuremberg), deferred (South Africa), and challenged (the US). In the end, however, the case studies only partially succeed in addressing the issue at hand, namely why we today refer to history as an impartial, moral judge.
Wallach Scott shows us where the idea of History as Judge comes from by stating that it “is associated with the Enlightenment belief that there is but one History, which moves in an ever-improving direction: forward, upward, cumulatively positive.” (p. xv) Because of its origins in the Enlightenment, this One History of forward-moving positivity is inherently European, male, white, colonial, Christian (Protestant, to be exact), intrinsically intertwined with the development of the nation state, and the view of the nation state as the culmination of human civilization (or the nation state as telos).
To answer the question of why this phrase has caught on the way it has, Wallach Scott states that in an increasingly secular age, History has become the “righteous Judge of the Universe.” (p. 76) That is to say, where people used to turn to God on Judgment Day for the separation of sheep and goats, we now turn to History in a future deferred.
These conclusions have led me to the following conclusions of my own.
First, as Wallach Scott concludes, the idea of History as a moral judge is an expression of increased secularism in the United States. But, it is also an expression of the normalization of Apocalyptic Christianity in the American mainstream. Writes Wallach Scott, “The unveiling of the role of race in the economic history of the United States explodes long-standing, congratulatory progressive histories as myth. [—] This acknowledgment is a form of restitution and it opens the possibility for reclaiming the lost promise of justice, the messianic hope of the judgment of history.” (My italics.) Wallach Scott’s decision not to delve deeper into this view of history is the book’s lost opportunity.
Second, there is a conspiracy at the heart of American history and the argument over what that conspiracy is, is the reason for the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in American society today. I agree with Wallach Scott’s conclusion that “appeals to the judgment of history […] function more as consolatory polemic in the present than as evidence of deep confidence in the future.” (p. 82) There is no doubt that American society is in crisis. Until we can start having a constructive conversation about the buried secrets of our past, we will continue to be a society in crisis. History will not save us, because, as Wallach Scott also states, History with a capital H is written by a group of highly trained and specialized professionals known as historians. It is not a force of its own.
Finally, the idea of History as a Moral Judge of Good and Evil is an American idea and based on American values, which in the mainstream are Christian (Protestant, to be exact) values. Of the three case studies that Wallach Scott presents, two use history to pass judgment and one does not. It is not a coincidence that the two in question (Nuremberg, Reparations) involve Americans in leading roles. The third (the TRC) was an internal South African affair. As a historian trained and educated entirely outside of the American educational system, I reacted to the use of the phrase “History will judge” already in 2014 because the idea that such a notion is even possible was (and is) completely alien to me.
On the Judgment of History by Joan Wallach Scott is a thought-provoking book that opens up for discussion on the role of history and what history is and can be. Ultimately, the book misses its mark because in its choice of case studies, it becomes a demonstration of the belief that the internal concerns of the United States are also the concerns of the world.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.