Arguing to keep “presentism” out of history sounds like a simple argument from a recognized historical scholar, doesn’t it?
Bad. Not these days.
American Historical Association President James H. Sweet published an essay last week arguing that scholars should exclude “presentism” from history.
Sweet’s column in the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History, argued that “making history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the lens of the present but in the world of our historical actors”.
Pretty basic stuff.
Shortly after, Sweet was mobbed by those who clearly didn’t like his views, then released what sounded like a forced confession to his crime.
The entire episode shows how American and Western institutions have been completely radicalized in a short time, squandering their reputation and authority.
Here’s how it went.
The president of the American Historical Association argued that academic historians should simply focus on bringing to life people’s world in the past as it was and as they saw it, instead of framing each historical person or event through a modern “social justice” lens.
Sweet laid out the problem that he believes is transforming the historical profession:
This tendency to presentism is not limited to historians of the recent past; the whole discipline is teetering in this direction, including an increasingly small minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues – race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism – are we making history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their time, as well as changes over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.
For an example of this, I would cite the recent book “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe”, written by two history professors. The book devotes a great deal of space to demystifying “whiteness” and travels through the history of the Middle Ages making often factually dubious assessments and value judgments about people and events from more than a century ago. millennium.
This is becoming the norm, especially for social history, not the exception.
Here’s the part that really got Sweet in hot water. While advancing his argument, he offered a rather restrained critique of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, writing that the reimagining of United States history “was about the political moment”, but that there “was never primarily thought of as a work of history”.
That’s a pretty lukewarm way to describe the 1619 Project.
The Times effort was full of inaccuracies and ahistorical revisionism. His essays have been shredded by historians and writers across the political spectrum, from some of my colleagues at the Heritage Foundation to the World Socialist Web Site.
Sweet also challenged the growing portrayal of slavery as a problem unique to the United States. He noted that most of the transatlantic slave trade took place in Brazil and the Caribbean, and wrote that it was historically problematic to whitewash the leading role that African nations played in promoting the slave trade. slaves.
Sweet threw a few obligatory jabs to the right, perhaps to assure the Ivory Tower left that he was poised in his room and the real bad guys are on the right.
It did not work.
The trial did not go well with the seemingly all-powerful woke left. Sweet’s generous description of the 1619 Project as not really history and his inclusion of a fuller historical record were too much for activists posing as historians in academia.
He wrote that his gentle rebuke of presentism and the politicization of history has caused “harm to colleagues, to discipline and to [American Historical] Association.”
It is a characteristic of awakened activists to claim that arguments they dislike cause “harm” just before censoring them. The “words are violence” school of thought is apparently universally accepted among the ruling class clergy today.
The ridiculous excuses went on and on. Here’s more of Sweet’s grimacing prose:
I sincerely regret how I alienated some of my black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to the methodological flaws of purposive presentism, I have left the impression that the questions posed by absence, grief, memory, and resilience matter less than those posed by the positions of power. This is absolutely not true. I had no intention of leaving that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.
The American Historical Association then locked its Twitter account. When it unlocked the account, the association issued a further apology, blaming the incident on “alt-right trolls”.
The episode – for historical comparison – seemed like a modern, Americanized version of a Maoist wrestling session.
It’s not just that leftists have responded hysterically to Sweet’s article, but they apparently have so much power over the American Historical Association that they can actually force the group’s president to apologize by a snap of the fingers.
Are we going to put a dunce cap on the professor and allow the mob to hurl insults and rotten fruit at him too?
This is just the latest example of how American institutions have been quickly and utterly captured by radical leftist revolutionaries. The response to the exaggerated opposition to Sweet’s article should have been an offer to debate or at most publish another point of view.
And if that didn’t work, Sweet’s ridiculous reviews should have had their way.
This did not happen and a wrestling session ensued.
Imagine how different things would be if institutions and bureaucracies simply said “no” or refused to comply with extremist demands? Because even the slightest resistance has been suppressed, we end up with situations where, for example, a small tribute to Abraham Lincoln is suppressed in a university because only one person complained about it.
Our institutions, public agencies, businesses, and professional organizations are both becoming heavily censored of dissent from the mainstream “narrative,” while allowing woke Twitter mobs and campus activists to dictate their policies.
In a way, Sweet was right in his apology. His words caused “harm”. The fact that he apologized to the crowd indicates how thoroughly compromised and radicalized the history profession and America’s elite organizations and institutions have been.
As activists and crowds destroyed historic statues they found offensive, a “measured” response from the left was that the offending history and statues should be removed from public display and placed in a museum. You know, for “context”.
But do you trust organizations like the American Historical Association or James Madison’s Montpelier, which now aligns itself with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to provide faithful and accurate depictions of the past?
Perhaps the way forward is to keep history in the public eye and out of the clutches of ideologically one-note institutions that are fanatically obsessed with, as Sweet wrote, “race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism”.
It is in the people and in the alternative institutions that we must place our trust.
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