Salon.com has just published an amazing article about American’s first actually 100% real gay president, not one who is just pro-gay- James Buchanan. It’s a rebuttal of sorts to this week’s Newsweek cover on Obama as “America’s First Gay President” for his support of gay marriage.
But, what impressed me so much wasn’t that the article focussed on trying to prove Buchanan was gay, but the emphasis it placed on what it terms Chronological Ethnocentrism. (I’d probably just have called it Chronocentrism, but that’s just me.)
From the article:
Despite such evidence, one reason why Americans find it hard to believe Buchanan could have been gay is that we have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall story line is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically. Thus we must be more tolerant now than we were way back in the middle of the 19th century! Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now.
This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.
Chronological ethnocentrism plays a helpful role for history textbook authors: it lets them sequester bad things, from racism to the robber barons, in the distant past. Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all “know” everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now. Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past. It makes us stupider.
I’d never really considered this before, especially the part about it being what makes history seem so dull to most, or how it prevents us from learning from other societies and times. (We’re “better” than them, so why should we learn from them?) It’s an excellent point, and the article does a great job going into further detail about it, so give it a read!