By Erik Dolson
Over coffee, The Editor introduced me to a new word: presentism.
We were trying to make sense of current debates about the teaching of racism, and revisions to American history. History is an arena of The Editor’s expertise. He pointed out that “presentism,” the evaluation of “past events in terms of modern values and concepts,” is recognized by historians as fallacy.
I’d not encountered the word before, and think it’s an important one.
Presentism is a filter through which one interprets the world. Like other biases, including racism itself or anti-semitism or sexism or a number of others, presentism inhibits understanding. It also invites backlash when cultures collide, as they inevitably do in a dynamic society.
Few in any battle are willing to give up their sword, and presentism has been weaponized. Which is why I point out that presentism cuts both ways. If self-inflicted wounds take longer to disable, they also take longer to heal.
Let’s cut through the abstract and invite a downpour of disapproval.
The founders of America owned slaves, and slavery has done unspeakable harm. Native Americans suffered genocide. Chinese railway workers were regarded as disposable. Women have been and are used and abused via imbalance of power. These horrors ripple through time into today’s world.
But as we accept these truths, we must also remove the filter of presentism to acknowledge these actions were not always illegal or even immoral in their time. Of themselves, they do not lessen the greatness of men and women who founded present day America with all her contradictions, nor the bravery of those who traveled west by covered wagon seeking opportunity, nor the vision of those who financed railroads.
Not to look at who we are today and where we came from with honesty is to perpetuate falsehoods and inhibit the understanding needed to fight injustice against which we still struggle. But presentism is a deliberate selection of facts that ignores the whole truth. Presentism is not a more accurate telling of the admittedly incomplete “American story.”
Saying they were not crimes in their day does not minimize the horrors of slavery, murder and mayhem, abuse. Bringing to light the events and impact of bigotry and rape does not lessen what America, and the revolutionary (then) concept of individual liberty, has done and can be.
It’s often quoted that “history is written by the victorious.” If now we recognize America was founded by both the victorious and the vanquished, that the history of America is the history of all Americans, we also must recognize it is a complicated history and within it are tragedies and triumphs that impact all Americans today.