History Judges But Who Is Presiding Part 2: Joan Wallach Scott’s ON THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY

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.

History Judges But Who Is Presiding?

A commonly used phrase in political debate is “History will judge.” For example, in 2011, in a comment on ending the Iraq war, President Barack Obama stated that “History will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, also used the phrase, for example in July of 2013 when he, according to The Washington Times, stated that “history will be the judge of his record in office.” Several others, ranging from journalists and pundits to politicians and writers, use the phrase on a recurring basis.

As an historian, the phrase intrigues me. It seems as if history somehow is seen as a person with a law degree.

Gavel and stryker.
Source: KeithBurtis

What does the phrase “History will judge” actually mean? And why would an historian worth his or her salt never use it?

First we need to take a closer look at what history actually is.

I define history as an academic discipline that researches the human condition through the study of written documents. History is the study of events connected to one another within the framework of human society, interpreted from the viewpoint of the individuals participating in those events as they happen.

Consequently, based on this definition of history we can determine what history is not.

History is not the same thing as time.
In other words, history does not begin when time begins. Neither does history end if or when (depending on your belief system) time ends. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there were voices who declared “the end of history,” as if historical research, indeed human society as we then knew it, had lost its reason for existing.

History is not the same thing as all human activity.
History is only interested in those human activities that contribute to the creation of human society, expressed in writing in a literate society. Study of the human condition and the creation of human society within a non-literary context belong to research disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology.

History is not the same thing as retrospect.
When looking at past events it is easy to take the outcome or result of those events and extrapolate them to a time before the events took place, as if the people involved would have known what we know. However, this is not possible when researching history. Neither is it possible to predict what events will become historical. At the same time as President Obama stated that history will judge the reasons for the Iraq war, he also said that ending the war after nine years is “a historic moment.” Unfortunately, this is something that not even the President of the United States of America can decide.

The phrase “History will judge” indicates that history is all-encompassing and omnipresent in human society. It also indicates that eventually it will be decided if actions taken and decisions made were right or wrong.

However, it is only possible to judge actions or decisions to be right or wrong if you base that judgment on a set of moral and ethical values. Such values, as we all know, change. For example, less than one hundred years ago it was normal that all women, as well as men below a certain level of income, were not allowed to vote in political elections. Less than fifty years ago it was normal for school children to be hit by their teachers. Today neither of these practices are acceptable. In certain parts of the world, I might add.

Ali G interviews Sir Rhodes Boyson on British Education (YouTube)

The phrase “History will judge” also indicates that sometime in the future there will be someone who makes the judgment as to what actions and decisions were right or wrong. When people say that history will judge, who do they envision making that judgment?

Based on the above definition of what history is or is not, I would argue that if history judges, those presiding will be the historians doing research at that time. The reason for this argument is that what we know about our past is based on information found, interpreted and analyzed by historians.

The only problem with this statement is that if the true judges of history are the historians, the bench will be empty when the court is in session. Any historian who takes his or her work seriously would never pass judgment on past events, processes, or individuals. In other words, an historian would never state whether something is right or wrong, but rather present the context in which an event took place and draw conclusions from there. However, this is not to say that historians accept or condone atrocities, such as, for example, The Holocaust or the Genocide of Rwanda.

Therefore, in public debate, whenever a biased statement on past events is made, that person is either not an historian, or an historian with an ulterior motive.

Next time you hear someone use the phrase “History will judge” or declare a moment to be historic, ask yourself: Who is saying it and why?

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Politico Obama: “History will judge Iraq” war
The Washington Times George W. Bush: History will be the judge; as for opinion polls, “I could care less”
Wikipedia End of history

Image of gavel and stryker downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Previous posts on related topics:
The Historian as Time Traveler
Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity
Historical Science in Science Fiction
Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History
Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History