Memory  /  Comment

Stop Weaponizing History

Right and left are united in a vulgar form of historicism.

The recent debate over “presentism” among historians, especially those based in the United States, has generated both heat and light. It is a useful conversation to have now, at a moment when the public sphere, and even more so the university’s space within it, seems to consist more of mines than of fields. Debates about Covid-19, affirmative (in)action, antisemitism, sexual violence, student debt, Title IX, Confederate monuments, racist donors, resigning presidents, and rogue trustees combine to occlude the daylight of classes, books, and learning.

It is no wonder that the hills are alive with the sound of presentism. Absent a serious space for reflection, debate, and deliberation in or on the actually existing present, it becomes easy to claim that my history is bigger than yours, or more ethically relevant, or more marginalized. In this weaponized sense everyone is in the history business, and it is only in the relative calm of graduate programs, annual meetings, journal submissions, and the recruitment of professional historians that the soothing hum of sources, chronologies, periods, and methods can still be heard.

The weaponized present is always lurking. In the swamp of presentism, the right controls the “Make America Great Again,” anti-diversity, pro “boys will be boys” spaces. And the left controls the equity and diversity portfolio and the history for justice spaces. In between, the liberals are on life support, since the unbearable lightness of their historiography could not carry them from the Greeks and John Locke to John Rawls and Charles Taylor.

So, these are bad times for the past but great times for what I call “pastism” — weaponized history, history as “ism,” the go-to common ground of many voices from both right and left.

As a vulgar form of “historicism,” pastism tends to create a false democracy between high and low cultural expressions. It thus undercuts the real importance of avant-gardes, tastemakers, innovators, and other elites in the making of all societies, past and present. It therefore occludes the workings of power, while claiming to contextualize it. Andrew Sullivan gives us an example of this in his gushing 2018 review of Jill Lepore’s mammoth history of the United States, These Truths. Lepore’s conceit — that a special preoccupation with the truth characterizes both the historian’s craft and U.S. history itself — becomes a springboard for Sullivan’s avalanche of exceptionalist statements about American history. Here, high-brow exceptionalism disguises low-brow American nationalism, and thus undermines genuine innovations in American political history.