History is one of the key battlegrounds in the war for social progress. When used correctly, history confers not just a sense of tradition and legitimacy but also a sense of inevitability: Why bother fighting to change society when things have always been the way they are? Why bother fighting to overthrow the status quo when history tells us that there are no viable alternatives to the existing model? To control history is to control the narratives that govern society and to control the narratives that govern society is to govern society’s moral compass.
Once a group controls all the narratives and sets the moral tone of the discussion, all they need to do in order to win an argument is to present themselves as being history’s natural endpoint. Indeed, it is one thing to criticise the morals of the ruling elite and the moral righteousness of the status quo but it is quite another to pick a fight with the implacable Darwinian logic of human history. By staking out the historical high ground and claiming to be the culmination of long-standing historical processes, defenders of the status quo can make their critics appear not merely wrong but ignorant and downright delusional. One spectacular example of this type of thing is Francis Fukuyama’s infamous decision to celebrate the end of the Cold War by asking whether America’s victory over the Soviet Union marked the end of history. By attempting to claim American liberal democracy as history’s logical end point, Fukuyama was making a bold political claim namely that in the grand scheme of things, All Paths Lead to Us. Thus, the Soviets were not merely wrong; they were fighting against history’s oceanic tide. Another example of the battle to control a society’s historical narratives can be found in the evolution of the cinematic Western.