Debating “Presentism“

To what extent should historians be guided by the concerns of their own time? What does it mean to create a usable past? Is there a point at which historical scholarship can become too political?

Historians have been grappling with these sorts of questions for decades. As structural shifts in their professional landscape have pushed many of them towards new types of work, that discussion has only intensified. But in 2022, a debate that had been largely confined to the academy spilled out into public view, thanks to an essay by the president of the American Historical Association, James H. Sweet.

This collection begins with that essay, and then moves on to some of the reactions it inspired from historians and other writers. The collection also includes a few earlier reflections about presentism from the early years of the Trump administration, when historical analogies were flowing especially fast and furious in the popular media.

Is History History? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present

When historians concede to discuss the past with the terms of the present, they abandon the skill set that makes them historians.
In August of 2022, AHA President James Sweet published a brief essay arguing that history was being misused by those with political agendas. "We suffer from an overabundance of history," he wrote, "not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics."

Two Cheers for Presentism

An essay by the president of the American Historical Association generated a firestorm of criticism — but got some things right.
David Bell was one of the first historians to publicly weigh in, defending the importance of presentism – up to a point. "[G]ood historical scholarship requires maintaining a delicate balance between, on the one hand, trying to convey the sheer strangeness of the past, and, on the other, revealing its connections to the present and to our own concerns."
“The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire,” by Thomas Cole (1835-36), depicting Greek classical style buildings and opulence.

History Is Always About Politics

What the recent debates over presentism get wrong.
Joan Scott was not impressed by Sweet or Bell, writing that "for both men, the charge of 'presentism' is a way of avoiding confrontation with the problem of the politics of history." Those politics have determined what does and doesn't "count" as history, and thus, says Scott, are a legitimate focus of historians' attention.

Responses to “Is History History?”

Responding to a controversial recent critique of "presentism," two historians make the case that history and politics have always been deeply interwoven.
Writing in the AHA's own publication, Malcolm Brian Foley and Priya Satia composed two very personal responses to Sweet's piece. Foley made the case that historians have an ethical responsibility to pursue questions that matter to people in their communities. Satia celebrated scholarly efforts "to recover values that have been silenced or realities that have been whitewashed so that we might envision alternative futures."
Woman standing next to cannons at Ghana's Cape Coast Castle.

Why The Right Hates History Right Now

The real problem the most powerful people on the right and center have with the “new” history — and the humanities in general — is not that it practices identity politics, but that it rejects theirs.
When conservative pundits seized on the controversy over Sweet's piece, journalist Jonathan Katz suggested some reasons why. "The real problem the most powerful people on the right and center have with the 'new' history," he wrote, "is not that it practices identity politics, but that it rejects theirs."

The New History Wars

Inside the strife set off by an essay from the president of the American Historical Association.
As the debate was still raging, The Atlantic's David Frum visited Sweet to get his side of the story. The result was  a sympathetic article that reiterated some of Sweet's earlier concerns: "If old heroes 'must fall,' their disappearance opens voids for new heroes to be inserted in their place—and that insertion sometimes requires that new history be fabricated altogether, the 'bad history' that Sweet tried to warn against."
James Sweet's Article, the American Historical Association publication, and the Twitter logo.

What AHA President James Sweet Got Wrong—And Right

Attacking presentism as a mindset of younger scholars doesn’t solve any of the historical profession's problems.
When historian Jonathan Wilson took stock of the debate, he saw many of the same arguments that historians have been making for decades. But he also saw major problems with Sweet's version of it – most notably in its elision of the structural dynamics making life increasingly precarious for many of the younger scholars who Sweet seemed to be attacking.
Library of Ashurbanipal Mesopotamia 1500-539 BC Gallery, British Museum, London

Stop Weaponizing History

Right and left are united in a vulgar form of historicism.
Taking a step back from the Sweet essay, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai coined the term "pastism" to describe what he sees as a zero-sum weaponization of history by partisans both left and right. "The biggest flaw of pastism," he argues, "is its presumption that all signs from the past are only signs of the past. This flaw prevents us from recognizing both the presence of the past and, worse, of traces of the future that can sometimes be found in the past."
Hawaiian feathered war god.

In Defense of Presentism

The past does not speak to us; we speak for the past.
Earlier in the year, historian David Armitage composed this deep-dive on the various meanings of presentism for an edited volume titled "History and Human Flourishing." It concluded that only by embracing presentism could historians make their greatest ethical contribution."Human flourishing," he wrote, "is at once present-centered, future-oriented, and past dependent."

Beyond the End of History

Historians' prohibition on 'presentism' crumbles under the weight of events.
Many of the same arguments were also hashed out in the Trump years, as historians debated the utility of analogies with 1930s European fascism. In this piece, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins puts those conversations in their own historical context, explaining that anxieties about presentism are a legacy of the Cold War academy, and "are amplified during moments of political uncertainty, frustration, and disruption."

Trump is the New _______

Nixon? Reagan? Jackson? Historical analogies are simplistic, misleading—and absolutely essential.
Commenting on one of those earlier Trump-era debates, Zachary Jonathan Jacobson wrote that like it or not, historical analogies are inevitable. "We use the past to understand the present (and vice versa)." The historian's task, argued Jacobson, is essentially to tease out the good analogies from the bad ones.