Political optimism, censorship, and modernity17 Jun 2008
A somewhat-long, but generally fascinating paragraph regarding ‘the future’ in the eyes of (particularly) 18th and early-19th century Evangelical moralists and their political counterparts. The “Society for the Suppression of Vice” originated in 1787 with a corresponding piece of legislation and is particularly associated with Wilberforce in the volume quoted here.
Fortune-telling, for example, was one surprisingly salient target. It was one of the social evils identified by the 1802 Society for the Suppression of Vice, and in 1824 the Vagrancy Act made it punishable by a fine or three months imprisonment. Numbers of plebian women and men were prosecuted, on the understanding that their claims to predict the future were a form of fraud or â€˜gammoningâ€™ money from the gullible. Other methods of telling the future such as weather prediction, dream visions, and prophecy attracted similar suspicion, indicative of the fact that the ruling classes were coming to see the conceptualization of the future as a matter of great significance. While vulgar millenarian prophets such as Richard Brothers were predicting an imminent time of suffering, leading to redemption, governments were eager to hold out the promise of progress. The future was to be conceived as new and betterâ€”fatalism and fecklessness needed to be eradicated. Like the similar conceptual shift in the meaning of the term â€˜revolutionâ€™ from astronomical return to total transformation, the future was now cut free from the past, notwithstanding the irony that industrial capitalism demanded a considerable degree of forward planning. In suggesting that it was possible to see the future, popular predictive or â€˜superstitiousâ€™ practices threw an unquantifiable factor into this planning. If indeed the flow of time was not as equable as Newtonâ€™s definition had claimed it to be, then the outcomes of scientific experiment, political policy, and technological advance were dangerously uncertain.
from McCalman, I. & Perkins, M. â€œPopular Cultureâ€. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. (1999) p.216
The Society were duly attacked in periodicals and all manner of other public forums, as we anticipate they would also be today, for bringing their ‘moralising’ influence to bear upon wider society. But, here at least, the ‘suppression of vice’ does not stem from any overbearingly ‘moral’ source. Certainly, fortune-telling, etc., is decidedly out of step with Abrahamic faith of most flavors (including that of late-18th century Evangelicalism), but the cause given is ostensibly something quite different from that held by these faiths. Particularly, it is on the grounds of fraudulent business conduct that such practices are outlawed. In doing so, there is the tacit acknowledgment that such activities could amount to more than idle entertainment, as most in the West today consider these practices. Yet it is for the preservation of stability, in broader terms, that this probition is made.
In consideration for the ‘future’, we are told, the promise of modernity was held out by censorship.
For what it’s worth, I am against censorship, equally against fortune-telling (considering it either false, accidental, or evil), unconvinced of the necessity of modern-day prophecy but receptive to it insofar as it does not claim that it is, and hesitant to malign Wilberforce, etc. I am also not so much of a modernist as to arrogantly presume the future will bring endless improvement, that people are good, or that humanity at this moment in history is at it’s peak.
All of which leaves me in something of a pickle making sense of this particular episode in history. Thoughts?