One of the occupational hazards of being a historian is reading old books. The one in front of me is John Fiske’s The Destiny of Man (1884). Fiske was an American philosopher and popular writer on Darwinism, Spencerism, and many other representative isms of his day. Like many thinkers of the late 19th century, he believed in inevitable progress as well as the inherent superiority of men like himself.
From the vantage point of 2013, what is perhaps most striking about Fiske was his optimism that war was coming to an end. In his words:
The nineteenth century, which has witnessed an unprecedented development of industrial civilization, with its attendant arts and sciences, has also witnessed an unprecedented diminution of the primeval spirit of militancy. It is not that we have got rid of great wars, but that the relative proportion of human strength which has been employed in warfare has been remarkably less than in any previous age … In almost every case [of war since the Revolutionary War and Napoleon] the result has been to strengthen the pacific tendencies of modern society …[War] has now become narrowly confined in time and space, it no longer comes home to everybody’s door, and, in so far as it is still tolerated…it has become quite ancillary to the paramount needs of industrial civilization …the final extinction of warfare is only a question of time.
War was coming to an end, to be replaced by the reign of law, Fiske predicted in 1884. Thirty years later, the horrors of World War I came to visit (in one way or another) almost everyone’s door, with World War II proving an even more persistent caller. Today, the United States finds itself in a self-defined, and apparently endless, “war on terror.” What happened to Fiske’s pacific progress?
We all have blind spots. For Fiske one of those was the European imperialism of his day, which he didn’t treat as war since inferior brutes needed civilizing by Whites. Another was his belief in inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man, as shown by “the pacific principle of federalism” and the “due process of law,” which he believed would settle future disputes without war.
Rather than bashing Fiske, it’s perhaps more useful to ask what our blind spots might be. American exceptionalism is certainly one. Just as Fiske believed that the White man was inherently superior – the culmination and fruition of evolution and civilization – many Americans seem to believe that the United States is the best nation in the world, the most technologically advanced, the most favored by God. This belief that “When America does it, it’s OK; when another country does it, it’s wrong” is one that’s opened many a Pandora’s Box. A second blind spot is our belief that more and better technology will solve the most intractable problems. Consider global warming. It’s most definitely happening, driven in part by unbridled consumption of goods and fossil fuels. Our solution? Deny the problem exists, or avoid responsibility even as our country goes whole hog into boosting production of new (and dirtier) sources of fossil fuels via hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
Like Fiske, Americans by nature believe in their own exceptionalism. Like Fiske, Americans by nature are generally optimistic. But Fiske dismissed the horrors of imperialism even as he missed the looming disaster of mass industrialized killing in two world wars.
What are we dismissing? What are we missing? I’ve suggested we’re dismissing the blowback produced by our own exceptionalism even as we’re missing the peril we pose to the health of our planet. I encourage you to add your thoughts below.