Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Whig vs. Haan


If you want to understand Whig History, just look at the difference between the traditional European and the Disney versions of The Little Mermaid (spoiler alert!). Up until the end, they're pretty much the same - the mermaid dreams of love, and makes a deal with the evil witch, but she fails to get the prince to kiss her, and as a result she forfeits her life to the witch. In the European version, the mermaid dies and turns into sea foam, her dreams dashed. In the American version, however, the mermaid and the prince simply stab the witch in the chest with a broken bowsprit, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I think this difference is no coincidence. Around 1800, history had a structural break. Suddenly, the old Malthusian cycle of boom and bust was broken, and living standards entered a rapid exponential increase that is still going today. No wonder Americans love the Hollywood ending. In an economic sense, that's all we've ever really known. 

So Whig History - the notion that everything gets better and better - overcame Malthusian History. But there's another challenge to historical optimism that's much less easy to overcome. This is the notion that no matter how much better things get, society is fundamentally evil and unfair. 

I know of only one good name for this: the Korean word "Haan". (It's often spelled "Han," but I'll use the double "a" to avoid confusion with the Chinese race, the Chinese dynasty, and the Korean surname.) Wikipedia defines Haan thus:
Haan is a concept in Korean culture attributed as a unique Korean cultural trait which has resulted from Korea's frequent exposure to invasions by overwhelming foreign powers. [Haan] denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation's capabilities on its own). It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice. 
The [writer] Suh Nam-dong describes [haan] as a "feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one's guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined."... 
Some scholars theorize the concept of [Haan] evolved from Korea's history of having been invaded by other neighboring nations, such as Han China, the Khitans, the Manchu/Jurchens, the Mongols, and the Japanese.
Though Korean writers claim that Haan is a uniquely and indescribably Korean experience, there seem to be parallels in certain other cultures. A number of Koreans have told me that "Korea is the Ireland of the East," comparing Korea's frequent subjugation to the domination of Ireland by England. 

Now, I am hugely skeptical of cultural essentialism. I doubt Haan is either unique to certain cultures or indelible. In fact, I bet that economic progress will drastically reduce it. There are signs that this is already happening - young Koreans are much, much less antagonistic toward Japan than the older generation.

But in a more general sense, Haan seems to describe an undercurrent of thought that runs through many modern, rich societies. You see it, for example, in leftist resistance to Steve Pinker's thesis that violence has decreased hugely. Pinker brought huge reams of data showing that violent crime and war have been in a long-term decline for centuries now. Leftist critics respond by citing anecdotal examples of war, atrocity, and injustice that still exist. 

This seems like a Haan view to me. The idea is that as long as examples of serious violence exist, it's not just incorrect but immoral to celebrate the fact that they are much more rare and generally less severe than in past times. 

Actually, talking about Pinker can often draw out what I think of as Haan attitudes. I was talking about Pinker to a friend of mine, a very sensitive lefty writer type. Instead of citing ISIS or the Iraq War as counterexamples, she talked about the problem of transphobia, and how "trans panic" legal defenses were still being used to excuse the murder of transsexual people. I checked, and this has in fact happened once or twice. My friend presented this as evidence that - contra Pinker - the world isn't really getting better. Injustice anywhere, under Haan thinking, invalidates justice everywhere else.

Another example of Haan is Ta-Nehisi Coates' view of history. The subheading of Coates' epic article, "The Case for Reparations," is this:
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Now unless Coates gets to write his own subheadings, he didn't write those words. But they accurately sum up the message of the piece. The idea is that these wrongs against African Americans cause a moral debt that need to be repaid. It's not clear, of course, how the debt could be repaid, or what "reparations" actually would entail. But what's clear is the anti-Whig perspective. Progress does not fix things. The fact that Jim Crow was less horrible than slavery, and that redlining was less horrible than Jim Crow, and that today's housing policy is less horrible than redlining, does not mean that things are getting better. What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.

Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.

And Haan asserts that the world will remain wrong, until...what? That's usually not clearly specified. For Korean Haan theorists, it's a vague notion of "vengeance." For Coates, it's "reparations". For leftists, it's usually a revolution - a massive social upheaval that will overthrow all aspects of current power, hierarchy, and privilege, and make a new society ex nihilo. The details of that revolution are usually left a bit ambiguous.

But the vagueness and ambiguity of the imagined deliverance doesn't seem to be a big problem for most Haan thinking. What's important seems to be the constant struggle. In a world pervaded and defined by injustice and wrongness, the only true victory is in resistance. Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed this in an open letter to his son, when he wrote: "You are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life."

Haan thinking presents a big challenge for Whig thinking.

Whig History didn't have much trouble beating the old Malthusian version of history - after a hundred years of progress, people realized that this time was different. But Haan thinking presents a much bigger challenge, because progress doesn't automatically disprove Haan ideas. Making the world better satisfies Whigs, but doesn't remove the accumulated weight of history that fuels Haan. 

Nor can all instances of injustice be eliminated. It will never be a perfect world, and the better the world gets, the more each case of remaining injustice stands out to an increasingly sensitive populace. One or two cases of "trans panic" murder would barely have merited mention in the America of 1860. But precisely because there has been so much progress - precisely because our world is so much more peaceful and so much more just now than  it was then - those cases stick out like a sore thumb now. So Whig progress makes Haan anger easier, by raising people's expectations.

There's also the question: Should Whigs even want to defeat the Haan mentality? After all, if we trust in the inevitability of progress, it may sap our motivation to fight for further progress. Optimism can lead to complacency. So Haan resentment might be the fuel that Whigs need to see our visions fulfilled.

But Haan carries some risks. Massive social revolutions, when they happen, are capable of producing nightmare regimes like the USSR. With a few exceptions, the kind of progress Whigs like is usually achieved by the amelioration of specific ills - either by gradual reform, or by violent action like the Civil War - rather than by a comprehensive revolution that seeks to remake society from scratch. In other words, as one might expect, Whig goals are usually best achieved by Whig ends.

As a character would always say in a video game I used to play, "I am a staunch believer in amelioration."

In any case, I personally like the Whig view of the world, and I want to see it triumph. The idea of a world that gets better and better is appealing on every level. I don't just want to believe in it (though I do believe in it). I want to actually make it happen. And when I make it happen, or when I see it happen, I want to feel good about that. I want to savor the victories of progress, and the expectation of future victories, rather than to be tormented by the weight of unhappy history that can never be undone. I want to be able to think not just about the people around the world who are still suffering from deprivation, violence, and injustice, but also about the people who are no longer suffering from these things.

To me, the Whig view of history and progress is the only acceptable one. But Haan presents a stern challenge to that view - a challenge that Whigs have yet to find a way to overcome.


Update: Thabiti Anyabwile, writing in The Atlantic, says similar things in reference to Coates' writings.

71 comments:

  1. "Now, I am hugely skeptical of cultural essentialism. I doubt Haan is either unique to certain cultures or indelible. In fact, I bet that economic progress will drastically reduce it."

    -I'm not, but I also have no doubt that, as the economists say, "incentives matter". And a changing world always provides lots new incentives.

    "Massive social revolutions, when they happen, are capable of producing nightmare regimes like the USSR."

    -I was actually thinking of the Russian 1990s when you said that.

    "The idea of a world that gets better and better is appealing on every level. I don't just want to believe in it (though I do believe in it). I want to actually make it happen."

    -Agreed. Though I don't actually believe in it too consistently.

    "What matters is not the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices."

    -Kinda weird when you put it like that. Does justice add up like this as well?

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  2. Markos Valaris8:04 PM

    I think you are being rather unfair to the anti-Whig position, though (or, at least, you are mixing up two different views, one interesting and the other less so).

    The point is not that the existence of *present* injustice means that the world is not getting better; the point is that the fact that the world *is* getting better does not justify past wrongs. You can imagine a sort of retrospective consequentialist argument that says that since slavery was, so far as we can tell, instrumental in the development of one of the most prosperous, free and just societies in history, slavery was justified.

    I don't know that I fully grasp Coates's moral philosophy, but I think that this is at least a major part of what he's getting at: that the wrongs that some people suffer at one time cannot be made good by the fact that their suffering was instrumental to others enjoying a better life at a future time. This comes through clearly in his discussion of non-violence in the Civil Rights movement, I thought.

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    1. Except the suffering of the slaves cannot be redeemed as they are gone. Today's black community did not suffer any slavery.

      Anyway, as the path of injustice reaches all the way to the beginning of time, there's no fixing it. The very attempt will bring injustice.

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    2. Markos Valaris9:06 PM

      "Except the suffering of the slaves cannot be redeemed as they are gone. Today's black community did not suffer any slavery."

      Well right, that's the whole point! Past suffering cannot be redeemed. As I understand Coates, his view is that the only thing to do about it is to be honest, not deny or try to justify it. That's why he recommends activism on grounds of personal integrity only.

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    3. MaxUtil9:14 PM

      I think you're on the right track with "the point is that the fact that the world *is* getting better does not justify past wrongs." This is precisely one of the false apologies of current injustice that Coates points out.

      Furthermore, I think his critical point was that the injustices did not end with slavery. The fact that people were and are being routinely murdered, imprisoned, and impoverished is not excused by the fact that 'it's not as bad as slavery.'

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    4. No, his response is magical thinking: the destruction of white supremacy, which has no meaning. Metaphysics as masturbation.

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    5. "Today's black community did not suffer any slavery."
      The relative socioeconomic position of blacks in the United States today can, as matter of causation, be traced directly to the fact that their ancestors were enslaved. Magical thinking enters the picture when people try to deny that fact.

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    6. Nope, history is not deterministic like that at all. After all, if subjugation was the measure of future success, say Ukraine, better future would be impossible, considering what they went through in the last two centuries.

      Compared to what happened to Ukrainian peasants, what happened in the US is child's play.

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    7. Coates thinks that the "only thing to do about it is to be honest, not deny or try to justify it."
      Reparations today, to blacks today, is more than being honest. When blacks like Obama are included, none of whose ancestors were slaves in America, it is NOT being honest.

      This is an important aspect of the bigger question -- are the sons guilty of the sins of their fathers?
      creosote is wrong.
      The relative socioeconomic position of blacks in the United States today can, as matter of causation, be traced directly to the fact -- that the percentage of black children living with married parents has fallen so far. Now it's less than 30% (some 74% do NOT live with both parents).
      This is not slavery, nor Jim Crow, nor even redlining (all were bad, tho increasingly less so), these are individuals choosing to screw each other for sexual pleasure, even tho it screws over their children.
      And Coates seems to want to avoid being honest about this real, current, sum of individual choices cultural devolution/ destruction.

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    8. I think Coate's piece can be taken too literally. If I recall correctly, he seemed to be arguing that we should examine how historical harm to the black community has trickled down to the present and at least try to quantify it.

      His prose is a little too flowery for me, but his presentation of hard numbers on how growing up in an impoverished community strongly correlates with living in poverty yourself. Then he shows how blacks have been systematically stolen from and forced into those communities, long after slavery was abolished.

      Of course history isn't purely deterministic, but causality is a thing...

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  3. The examples you are quoting are a symptom of something different. The monstrous narcissism that is elevated to the governing principle. Our tiny (or not so tiny) suffering is equal and part of the all the accumulated wrongs (whoever really experienced that).

    The problem with that kind of metaphysical narcissism is that the longing can be only quenched with purifying violence. If our suffering is part of the infinite whole, only unlimited violence can redeem it. That's what sits behind the dream of revolution. Any compromise will only add to the stock of injustice.

    This desire to escape the corruption has led to many disasters: the Nazis, Russian, Chinese, Cambodian Communists, al of them had a go.

    Nothing new.

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  4. MaxUtil9:08 PM

    Without questioning your broader point, I would like to challenge your reading of Coates. You come to a conclusion that many seem to with him that because he points out that there were many post-slavery and current, ongoing injustices to african-americans that he is then arguing that no progress has been made. Further, the rebuttal to his argument for reparations is to point out that the slaves are gone seems to miss the main point of his article. His general point was that the wealth of our nation was originally built on the backs of slaves and that most of us continue to profit from that original windfall. Furthermore, even after slavery ended, what followed was 150 years of financial & legal oppression that was designed to keep black people powerless and poor. He uses examples of living people who were severely disenfranchised by laws and practices in this country and makes the argument that people who have benefited from the legacy of slavery (most Americans) owe something to the people who have been harmed and are STILL being harmed by that legacy.

    I'll grant that Coates is certainly not the most optimistic writer. But readings of him that claim that he is saying that "nothing has improved" or that "white people owe black people money for something that ended 150 years ago" are either willfully misreading him or so stuck on their own priors that they can't see what he is actually writing instead of the argument in their heads.

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    1. Well, yes, but everybody benefited from the slavery, including current generations of African-Americans.

      Not to mention that if the wealth of the US was built on the backs of the slaves, why is Brazil not the richest country in the world? After all, the american colonies took in only 5 % of all the slaves shipped from Africa.

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    2. I'll grant that Coates is certainly not the most optimistic writer. But readings of him that claim that he is saying that "nothing has improved" or that "white people owe black people money for something that ended 150 years ago" are either willfully misreading him or so stuck on their own priors that they can't see what he is actually writing instead of the argument in their heads.

      Well, Coates hasn't really clarified what policies he regards as "reparations", so people are left to speculate. But I wasn't talking about that, so much as his idea that the wrongs of history leave a pall over modern society.

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    3. I have to agree with MaxU here, Coates and his argument don't really fit in with the Haan idea as you explain it. He's saying if we try hard we can better the world, which seems to fit with the Whig History idea as you explain it.

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    4. MaxUtil2:49 PM

      "his idea that the wrongs of history leave a pall over modern society"

      I take his point more to be that the continued and ongoing wrongs that directly follow from the crimes of the past (even if there are diminishing over time) cast a pall over modern society. I think Coates views slavery as the beginning of a long and ongoing history rather than an historical event that is solely in the past. That distinction seems to be missed by many (including commentors here) that routinely go back to "no one alive suffered under slavery" argument.

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    5. His general point was that the wealth of our nation was originally built on the backs of slaves and that most of us continue to profit from that original windfall.

      But that point seems to be wrong. A small number of southern landowners benefited economically from slaves for a few decades - and probably consumed most of the resulting wealth before the Civil War and the rest during the Civil War. By the time of emancipation the North was wealthier and more economically developed than the South - that is why the North won the war after all.

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  5. " Around 1800, history had a structural break. Suddenly, the old Malthusian cycle of boom and bust was broken, and living standards entered a rapid exponential increase that is still going today."

    In other words, right as we started rampant use of fossil fuels to build an industrial society.

    Your Whig history is very soon (this century) going to find out that it was only a temporary aberration. Malthus will win out - renewables cannot sustain our current world population at even subsistence levels, much less a modern standard of living; the easy sources of fossil fuels have mostly run out (hence the exploitation of tar sands, fracking, deepwater drilling, etc.), and fossil fuels have this *nasty* little climate change externality as well.

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    1. Exactly, the way whale oil ran out in the second half of the 19th century and ended civilization.

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    2. Possible, but seems unlikely. Solar power has become dramatically cheaper, and that will save us from Malthus. Fossil fuel scarcity will cause big disruptions, but it won't derail industrial civilization.

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    3. The part I'm not clear on is why Malthus is suppose to account for the difference between American and European points of view and what happened to the mermaid. We were all Malthusian once. In US maybe even longer than in Britain.

      A more obvious factor would be... um, you know, two world wars fought on European soil, which America was barely affected by (in relative terms) and then "won"

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    4. We were all Malthusian once. In US maybe even longer than in Britain.

      I don't think so. It was only a few decades after the founding of the U.S. that per capita GDP began to explode upward.

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    5. renewables cannot sustain our current world population at even subsistence levels

      An awful lot of sun falls on the Sahara and large parts of the world population would have a long way to fall to get to subsistence. Even if renewable energy can't do the job we have a safety net in nuclear - whether it is based on uranium or thorium.

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    6. Come on Noah, let's not get crazy. While there was some very low growth previously, per capita GDP didn't exactly "began to explode upward" until about mid 19th century in the US. Which might be "a few decades" after the founding of the US but it is also "almost a century" after the founding of the US. And it is about a decade or two after it "began to explode upward" in the UK and maybe a decade or two before it "began to explode upward" in Western Europe.

      Also, not clear on why the founding of the US is the appropriate benchmark here. It's not like those folks materialized out of thin air in 1772.

      But sure, there was a bit more growth in US early on because of the open frontier and availability of land. Same in South and Latin America. Even more actually, where per capita GDP was even higher than in US. And also no WW1+2. So maybe that makes them the appropriate control group. I don't know, are Mexicans, Brazilians, Argentines, Columbians Whigs or Haans?

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  6. I would characterize the Whig view of history as assuming not just that the world is getting better, but that the process is more or less fore-ordained. So no need for revolt, struggle, passion. Just let nature or the market take their course. The opposing position is not "haan" but the insistence that it's the struggle that drives improvement.

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    1. That's right on. There is nothing inevitable about it. Especially as the 20th century was a pretty screaming rebuttal to the Whig vision.

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    2. I would characterize the Whig view of history as assuming not just that the world is getting better, but that the process is more or less fore-ordained. So no need for revolt, struggle, passion. Just let nature or the market take their course.

      That's not how I would characterize it. It's possible to take that view, of course, but I think the Whig attitude is better characterized by the idea that if we try hard, we can always make the world better. Where as "haan" is the idea that - at least in some ways - the world never really can better.

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    3. Whig history is teleological: the Petition of Right (1628) and the Glorious revolution of 1688 were steps *towards* Whig government policies in the 19th century. Compare with evo-devo thinking: fish moved onto land to get us closer to bipedal hominids who talk about history. The methodological objection is that all the contingency and randomness of actual events is suppressed in the interest of treating the past as foreshadowing of the present.

      "To me, the Whig view of history and progress is the only acceptable one."

      Strange word choice: "acceptable". Do you mean "that fits the data"? Or that "I find congenial"?

      A lot of what we call progress relies profoundly on cheap, abundant energy. What happens if that spigot gets tightened significantly? Does Haan suddenly seem more "acceptable"?

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    4. is the only acceptable one

      I think Noah means "is the only one on which one can sensibly build a society". A society obsessed with old grievances is going nowhere collectively.

      Energy could go up in price without everyone suddenly deciding that all of the disappointments in their live are the fault and responsibility of the great grandchildren of someone who wronged their great grandfather

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  7. Anonymous3:47 AM

    Is it possible to challenge Noah Smith to a Starcraft 2 match? ^^

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    1. Anonymous8:41 AM

      League? Code? ;-)

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  8. Please give a credit to The Oatmeal if you're going to use his phenomenal work... http://theoatmeal.com/comics/north_south_korea
    Also, as a friend pointed out on Facebook, add a spoiler alert for The Little Mermaid, please!

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  9. The regimes of oppression always last longer than the processes of change. For an ordinary human life, the Haan view might be the correct one. Only if one looks at centuries, the Whig view is correct, but that's not really helpful to the people as they are "trapped" in their time.
    Slavery in the USA (and the colonies) was an era of 200 years and then the Whig era of Reconstruction lasted about 12 years. Then segregation in the South and Jim Crow lasted another 90 years, until the Civil Rights Movement. It seems that these regimes ALWAYS require a bit of a revolutionary event to pass. Maybe Obama's election marks another one of these, future will tell if the remaining economic and political differences between people of different color disappear.
    Progressive processes often seem to be reduced to a small élite for a long time until a short revolutionary process "spreads the wealth". The era of globalization and the Information Age have not led to increasing real wages for most people in the West in the past 40 years. Working class people at age 60 and younger have every economic right to feel themselves stuck in a Haan world. However, one gets the feeling that revolutionary energy is being accumulated at the moment, e.g. the Occupy movement, and even the Trump campaign on the Right. Though instead of the socialist revolution, it is more likely that the collapse of the old capitalist régime (caused by planetary growth limitations?) breaks down the resistance to change, much like the Great Depression paved the way for the New Deal and a Whig era of about 40 years.

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  10. The regimes of oppression always last longer than the processes of change. For an ordinary human life, the Haan view might be the correct one. Only if one looks at centuries, the Whig view is correct, but that's not really helpful to the people as they are "trapped" in their time.
    Slavery in the USA (and the colonies) was an era of 200 years and then the Whig era of Reconstruction lasted about 12 years. Then segregation in the South and Jim Crow lasted another 90 years, until the Civil Rights Movement. It seems that these regimes ALWAYS require a bit of a revolutionary event to pass. Maybe Obama's election marks another one of these, future will tell if the remaining economic and political differences between people of different color disappear.
    Progressive processes often seem to be reduced to a small élite for a long time until a short revolutionary process "spreads the wealth". The era of globalization and the Information Age have not led to increasing real wages for most people in the West in the past 40 years. Working class people at age 60 and younger have every economic right to feel themselves stuck in a Haan world. However, one gets the feeling that revolutionary energy is being accumulated at the moment, e.g. the Occupy movement, and even the Trump campaign on the Right. Though instead of the socialist revolution, it is more likely that the collapse of the old capitalist régime (caused by planetary growth limitations?) breaks down the resistance to change, much like the Great Depression paved the way for the New Deal and a Whig era of about 40 years.

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    1. Hmm, I don't know about that. When I was a kid, there was a Soviet Union. And the U.S. and the Soviet Union had five times the number of nukes they have now.

      When I was a kid there was no gay marriage. There were very few non-closeted gays, period.

      When I was a kid the murder rate was double what it is now. Same is true of all violent crime.

      So sometimes the world does get better within our lifetimes. In fact, the violence that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes growing up with has become more rare, as any violent crime statistics will show.

      But yes, I think you're generally right.

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    2. The murder rate thing isn't a great example: you're ignoring the massive ramp-up that preceded the massive drop. To a person born in 1950 the world really did appear to be going to hell in a handbasket until the early '90s. (The graph is here; the violent crime rate bump is clear even if you don't accept the lead explanation.)

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  11. Anonymous8:12 AM

    I'd like to correct one point you've made: John Gray is not a leftist. He is simply a vicious (and not very smart) misanthrope who opposes the concept of progress simply due to a hatred of the concept of ideology.

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  12. This Whig v. Haan analysis of history/political philosophy strikes me as unconvincing, but in any case, I really wish you had left Coates out of it. It makes you look ignorant of your privilege. Worse, it gives yet another opportunity for racist commenters. Ugh.

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    1. Anonymous12:41 PM

      Yes. The holy Coates cant be criticized by whites. Only by the French.

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    2. It's perfectly legitimate to criticize Coates, but criticizing him on the grounds that he's "anti-Whig" is stretching to the point of cluelessness. And several of the comments here were racist.

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    3. I don't think Coates is entirely anti-Whig. I think most people, including Coates, have a blend of the two types of thinking. "Whig" and "Haan" are meant to characterize ways of looking at the world, not individuals. Coates' recent articles seem to indicate a surge of what I would call "Haan" thinking following the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

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    4. And so far, the racist commenters have been surprisingly absent from this post.

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    5. Anonymous3:35 PM

      Noah is right. The last 2 years -- as he becomes more famous and spends more time getting circle jerked by the elites he rails against at Aspen institute meetings and the Times -- Coates became more depressed in his writing.

      Noah says 'Look, a black president, desegregation, increased interest in police brutality and prison reform' and Coates says "One dead black is too much. I am so depressed! Fuck it, I am moving to France where *I* can enjoy elite privilege without guilt"
      The reality is that Coates and the rest of his ilk are a perfect characterization of millennial angst -- if the world is not perfect instantly then its imperfect forever AND it must be destroyed by some kind of vague future mechanism.

      Noah says 'Well, we stopped mass hangings of blacks and Jews dont go to gas chambers' and his commie friend responds with 'A transsexual was killed once somewhere! CAPITALISM AMERICA IS EVIL'
      Pathetic. At least 1950s Commies had the balls to blow something up, these malcontents just narcissistically drag world injustice into their depression.

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    6. What's the Aspen Institute?

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    7. And several of the comments here were racist.

      Would you consider it racist for someone to suggest that lifestyle choices being made by blacks today have a bigger impact on their life outcomes than something that happened to some of their ancestors 160 years ago?

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    8. "What is the Aspen Institute?"
      See
      http://www.aspeninstitute.org/about/blog/ta-nehisi-coates-mayor-mitch-landrieu-discuss-whether-violence-function-culture

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  13. It may not have been your intention, and it could be just me, but the implication I'm seeing in your choice of header comic is that North Korea is in the throes of Haan (or at least anti-Whiggism), and South Korea is Whig. There are plenty who have made that argument or similar ones openly (Stephen Pinker, for instance), but it's a lot to imply in the header without expanding on it in the article proper.

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    1. Oh, I wasn't being that subtle. I was just using it to illustrate my belief that social improvement is real and shouldn't be discounted.

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    2. Nor should it be over-valued.

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  14. The people who respond to “The Better Angels of our Nature” with "but there is still violence and injustice!" or "using statistics trivializes all the atrocities of the 20th century!" are certainly frustrating. But it seems to me that the stronger criticisms of “The Better Angels of our Nature” go through those “reams of data” and argue that much of it is made up (quite a few numbers in Matthew White's dataset are just wild guesses or appeals to earlier guesses) and Pinker does not understand enough to use the rest (glossing a woodcut from 1484 illustrating Mars and Saturn as proof that life in “the middle ages” was crude and brutal). Its hard to deny that few places on earth today are as violent as most parts of the world a few hundred years ago, but demonstrating this is trickier than it seems at first glance.

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  15. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Talcott Parsons, une figure importante de l'histoire de la sociologie américaine, a écrit que la contribution fondamentale de Malthus à la théorie économique est d'avoir écrit que les humains pouvaient, grâce aux institutions, répondre efficacement, par la solidarité, à la misère et à la faim. Le débat whigs versus Haan fait abstraction de cela. Piketty montre, en filigrane, dans "Le Capital au XXIème siècle, qu'il a compris cela.

    Translation

    Talcott Parsons, a leading figure of american sociology, wrote that Malthus most fondamental contribution was to suggest that humans can, through institution created for that purpose, resist and survive, through solidarity, the ravage of hunger and poverty. The debate between whigs and Haan does not take this into account.
    In hos biik, "Capital in the XXI first century" Piketty show, indirectly, that he understood the importance of this contribution by Malthus.

    Here is Malthus quote on which Parsons partially base himself: ...imperious necessity seemed to dictate that a yearly increase of produce should if possible be obtained at all events, that in order to affects this first great and indispensable purpose, it would be advisable to make a more complete division of land, and to secure every's man property against violation by the most powerful sanctions....The institution of marriage, or at least of some express or implied obligation on everyman to support his own children, seem to be the natural results of these reasonnings in a community under the the difficulties that we have supposed (Thomas R. Malthus, 1888, 277-279).

    Nicolas Béland

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  16. This is all just another skirmish in the centuries old struggle between the forces of the reason driven enlightenment and the forces of emotion driven romanticism. It is a good thing for the human race that reason builds better weapons than raw emotion does.

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    1. Anonymous7:41 PM

      The world is divided into two kinds of people, those given to simplistic dualisms, and those refusing to do that.
      Oops.

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  17. Doc at the Radar Station11:39 PM

    "But there's another challenge to historical optimism that's much less easy to overcome. This is the notion that no matter how much better things get, society is fundamentally evil and unfair."

    If you take this to the individual level instead of the societal one, aren't we discussing whether or not any *individual* human is fundamentally evil and then gets redeemed through religious or secular means (the Haan view), or are they fundamentally good and then they are corrupted by their environment instead (the Whig view)?

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  18. Anonymous12:28 PM

    I am not sure how you go from an emotional haan feeling of "oppression, pain, resentment, desire of revenge" to a vision of history. Feeling of injustice and happiness do not have a baseline obviously. I don't see how Haan and Whig visions are actually challenging each others, it is just a matter of sensitivity. The results, striving for something better, are the same.

    Maybe the delivrance from Haan is vague and ambiguous, but so is Whig's progress.
    Maybe you should define "better" and "progress". A lot Pinker's data is noisy, lacking and of relatively low accuracy. Also these kind of broad aggregations are just silly.
    Hapiness is notoriously unlinear. If the decrease in physical violence is a sure sign of progress, then maybe a Brave New World society would be heaven on earth.
    Also to your economist eyes earning a few more dollars and consuming more may be a sign of progress. To the rural migrant in a new urban center, with dislocated culture and family relationships, it may seem otherwise.

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  19. Well, especially since most of us including me don't really know a lot about Haan, you've started a very multi-threaded and to my mind mostly meandering and pointless discussion here. Maybe you would have been better off framing it in cultural terms we all better understand, such as the idea that God has made this world full of suffering as a test and that revenge will come to the evil-doers in the apocalypse and afterlife.

    Getting back to Coates, the conflict over him is about how liberalism should treat the wrongs of the past and the obvious reality that they are a big part of the reason we all have very unequal starting points in life. There was a very optimistic view that those will all naturally fade and be overwhelmed in time by the meritocratic opportunities of liberalism. And today you see that idea morphed in modern American society into a very pessimistic and judgmental attitude that deems the descendants of slaves to have wasted the opportunities liberalism gave them. That's what Coates is attacking, not optimism itself. And I think he has probably been very wise not to specify what he means by reparations, because that would only divert the argument at too early of a stage to one over specific policies.

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  20. judgmental attitude that deems the descendants of slaves to have wasted the opportunities liberalism gave them.

    But there is some truth in that judgment. The immigrant experience proves that opportunity continues in the United States for a wide range of ethnicities and is a rebuke to Coates. There are billions of people on this Earth who would be willing to risk their lives to get the opportunities available to every black child born in America. Obsessing about inequality of opportunity is standing in the way of exploiting the opportunity that exists.

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  21. "To me, the Whig view of history and progress is the only acceptable one."

    Assuming you've characterized Whig and Haan correctly here, I would agree.

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  22. Anonymous1:44 PM

    I think this is the best thing I've read from you.

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  23. Anonymous6:39 PM

    Do you disagree that history used to be in a Malthusian trap? Because thinking about history in terms of the emergent properties of everyday people, underlying economic processes instead of heroic leaders and glorious battles, and the non-inevitability of progress is very much not Whig History. One can believe in the desirability of progress while still taking a more scientific and less narrative view of history.

    Whig History tells a grand narrative where great men (i.e. the famous people we identity more with in modern times) inevitably overcome the ignorant and villainous (i.e. people who are not easy to identify with in modern times) due to their more enlightened (i.e. closer to the current status quo) ways. It is triumphalist and lacks both empathy and understanding of what living in the past was actually like.

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  24. "Suddenly, the old Malthusian cycle of boom and bust was broken, and living standards entered a rapid exponential increase that is still going today."

    Are you sure it is still going to day? (At least I doubt that it is still exponential (and GDP is a really bad measure of "living standards").

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    1. Are you sure it is still going to day?

      Ask the Chinese middle class. Their experience over the last twenty years has pretty clearly been exponential in every sense of the world. For those in the developed world, growth at 1% per year compound is still exponential. If we look beyond GDP (as we should for the developed world where all basic material needs are met) then growth in "utility" is probably still exponential at the 2% level when we factor in improvements in choice and quality of products and medical advances.

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  25. o. nate1:21 PM

    Around 1800, history had a structural break. Suddenly, the old Malthusian cycle of boom and bust was broken, and living standards entered a rapid exponential increase that is still going today. No wonder Americans love the Hollywood ending. In an economic sense, that's all we've ever really known.

    By that logic, Germany as a nation-state only dates back to about 1870, so shouldn't Germans be even more congenitally optimistic? Of course, both Americans and Germans have a history that pre-dates the formation of their government, and for both that history is rooted in Malthusian struggle if you go back far enough. I guess the question is why Americans have experienced a collective cultural amnesia. No doubt travelling across an ocean to a new country was part of it.

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  26. Hi Noah, love the blog.

    I'm having trouble seeing where you are coming from with regards to Coates.

    Do you disagree with his premises that black americans face massive structural oppression in the present day? That bad effects of past crimes against them continue to accrue?

    Or do you agree, but wish that victims of oppression would be more careful to infuse their arguments with optimism and gratitude for whatever progress has occurred? Do you believe that they ought to do this?

    I'm also curious to hear you flesh out what you mean by "Whig History". Until this post, I had only heard "whiggish" used as a criticism. I don't know what you mean by "the notion that everything gets bettter and better", but it sounds dramatic, so I would like to hear the idea fleshed out.

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  27. Anonymous7:30 PM

    Seems to be a Coates derangement syndrome functioning very much like Krugman derangement syndrome. Why is that?

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  28. Noah confirmed Fire Emblem player

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