When it comes to how we view our history, there’s a trend that’s disturbingly on the rise today. It takes the form of judging people of the past by current standards, a failure to consider them in the context of their time and culture, a narrow focus on certain attributes rather than the whole person.
Terms for this way of looking at the past range from intertemporal bigotry to chronological snobbery to cultural bias. The more clinical label is “presentism.” It’s a fallacious perspective that distorts historical realities by removing them from their context. In sports, we call it “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
Presentism is fraught with arrogance. It presumes that present-day attitudes didn’t evolve from earlier ones but popped fully formed from nowhere into our superior heads. To a presentist, our forebears constantly fail to measure up, so they must be disdained or expunged. As one writer put it, “They feel that their light will shine brighter if they blow out the candles of others.”
Our ancestors were each a part of the era in which they lived, not ours. If we analyze history through a presentist prism, we will miss much of the nuanced milieu in which our ancestors thought and acted.
Imagine if we could bring the Wright Brothers back to life for an hour so the presentist critic could berate them. He would say, “You dummies! You two made this rickety flying machine and didn’t even install seat belts and tray tables, let alone in-flight movies. What good were you?!”
A profoundly good historian restrains his preconceptions, biases and political agenda and seeks to understand the whole of a past event or person. He doesn’t erase them. The most radical form shows up in the destruction of monuments, the banning of books, and the flushing of entire generations down the Orwellian memory hole — all tactics employed shamelessly by history’s worst totalitarian regimes and now by many protestors and their presentist professors.
Amazingly, rioting presentists in Britain recently demanded the destruction of the Egyptian pyramids of Giza because they were built with slave labor. How could such an act possibly improve our understanding of the people of that age? As writer Chip Hughes laments, “We all too often color history with the lens of our current prejudices. Remember, attitudes and cultural values have changed over time.”
My summer 2020 reading included a fascinating book by historian Mark Perry, Grant and Twain: The Story of An American Friendship. It’s about two giants of 19th century America, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain. In the book, I learned that Robert E. Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh marched alongside the casket at Grant’s funeral and that Grant’s wife Julia forged a close friendship with Varina Davis, widow of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. I thought, “If people you might dismiss as natural antagonists could make peace with history and with each other, why can’t we do so today?”
Presentism deserves your attention. If it becomes the conventional wisdom, we will corrupt our history and forget much of the rest. My gut tells me that any people who judge the past by the present will in the future be harshly judged themselves.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .