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RR. Reno’s lament concerning the breakdown of civility in political discussion arrived just as I was finishing Lynn Hunt’s excellent new book, Writing History in the Global Era. In their different ways, they describe symptoms of the same underlying problem.

Hunt’s concern is the crisis in the historical discipline. Now, “crisis” is an overworked term, yet it is arguably legitimate here. The self-confidence of the historical profession has not fared well in recent decades. Post-structuralism, deconstruction, and post-colonial theory took a heavy toll. Old categories of analysis—geographical, social, economic—were subject to devastating critiques. Finally, once the immediate ecstasy of the postmodern jouissance passed, nothing was found to replace them. The result is the chaos that the historical discipline now embodies, and underlying this is the fact that there is no longer any consensus on what constitutes the self and thus on how the self connects to society. As selves have become individual psychological constructs, the plausibility of any kind of agreed social consensus has disappeared.

That is not just bad news for historians. It is bad news for us all. Political legitimacy rests upon an acknowledgment of a common social identity and a shared understanding of selfhood. When these are gone, social cohesion is seriously jeopardized. Political and legal institutions become not so much agreed contexts for resolving conflicts as arenas of heightened and polarized combat. Thus, the particular instance that Reno observes—the complete inability of the new left to find any common ground even with the old left—is rooted in the chaos of categories which has undermined the historical discipline and which now dominates social and political discourse. The political struggle is rapidly becoming a simple matter of who shouts loudest and who can impose their will on the rest. And we should note that this attitude is no monopoly of the left: The libertarianism of the right shares similarly impoverished notions of self and society.

Hunt does not draw practical political conclusions from her analysis but she does note at one point that the European Union needs more than a common currency and border policy to succeed. It needs a common identity too. People need a shared history, or at least a shared set of historical assumptions which themselves rest upon an agreed understanding of self and society. That has always been the E.U.’s weakness, as English political thinkers such as Roger Scruton have pointed out. The E.U. is a legal/political construct built upon nothing more than a shared bureaucracy and the imperious will of politicians. But with the collapse of consensus on self and society, the lack of legitimacy we see in the European project looks set to be everybody’s problem in the near future. Indeed, I suspect that the imperious invective Reno witnessed at Trinity Church is likely a cloud the size of a man’s hand.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary

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