New York City is famous for its fashion runways. Amid the oohs and ahhs and camera flashes, men and women sashay past the clothing cognoscenti hoping for approving reviews.
With a little help from Star Trek technology, the Big Apple was the site of a most extraordinary apparel show just last week. Several people from the past were teleported to a runway in Soho so they could strut their stuff: Cicero from ancient Rome was there. So was Joan of Arc from the 15th Century; medieval Russia’s Ivan the Terrible; and Tastiguy, a cannibal from Papua New Guinea. Even Thag the Bohemian caveman showed up.
Judges in the audience represented some of the world’s most famous fashion houses: Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Prada, Versace, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, and Max Mara, among others. The show, unfortunately, was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. The critics were merciless, their worst epithets so distasteful I cannot repeat them here. But here’s a sample of the less offensive remarks:
“Hey Cicero, is that your mother’s blanket you’re wearing? And what’s with the sandals? Can’t you afford a decent pair of shoes?” cried the Gucci guy.
The judge from Giorgio Armani was especially offended by Joan of Arc’s armor-plated bra. “Where did you get that tin can, Joan? From the dump?” he shouted.
“Ivan looks like an Eskimo in drag” chortled the Prada person. “Hey Ivan, who does your laundry? The sewer treatment plant?”
Poor Tastiguy really got slammed. “Your breath reeks from 40 feet away. Get your act together!” screamed the Ferragamo rep.
Then came the caveman’s turn. “You look like you just stepped out of a Far Side cartoon! And what kind of name is Thag anyway?” the Versace saleswoman yelled. “Is your last name Gag?”
My contrived report may or may not be humorous. You might think it ridiculous. Fair enough. But the sentiments expressed by the fictional fashion show critics are not far removed from 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. Sometimes it takes a little absurdity to illustrate why something is absurd.
Terms for this way of looking at the past range from intertemporal bigotry to chronological snobbery to cultural bias to historical quackery. 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. History should be something we learn from, not run from; if we analyze it through a presentist prism, we will miss much of the nuanced milieu in which our ancestors thought and acted.
As I’ve written elsewhere:
Imagine if we could bring the Wright Brothers back to life for an hour so the 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?!”
Or it would be like attacking Adam Smith because he didn’t give us all there was to know about economics. He completely left out the Austrian trade cycle theory, for example.
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. There are degrees of presentism but 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.”
Paul Bartow, writing for AEI, explains that:
The task of the historian, or the modern university student for that matter, is not to descend from on high and mete out judgment. As historian Herbert Butterfield stated, the historian should be a “recording angel” rather than a “hanging judge.” When one studies the past, it is meant to be a deeply introspective experience. The goal is to enter into conversation with historical figures, to understand their world as fully as we can, to learn from them, and to let them challenge our worldviews. As historian Ashley Cruseturner so aptly states, “History represents the preservation of our collective past as well as the study of change over time… The role of the historian encompasses a sacred duty to offer a multi-dimensional picture of the past (and the people of the past) in the context of the past.”
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 couldn’t help but think,
“If people you might dismiss as natural antagonists could make peace with history and with each other, why can’t we do so today?”
All too often these days, the poison of presentism prevents that very thing. Nonetheless, as writer Rosamina Lowi puts it,
“History demands our humble understanding, not our hubristic outrage.”
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.