Jason Kuznicki has written a post critical of what he calls the “new presentism” from the academic left. He notes that questions such as “was Shakespeare sexist?” don’t point to any worthy of consideration. The answer is “yes, he was probably sexist” but uninteresting because it tells us too little and relies on a present-day category [read the whole thing, etc., etc.]:
The problem with presentism is that presentist questions do little analytical work for us. At first they may appear bold, but they are entirely too easy to answer. Rather than digging deep, a presentist reviews only his or her own pre-existing feelings; presentist questions answer themselves almost mechanically. The past becomes an empty canvas, on which we paint all of our least courageous judgments.
He also warns libertarians. The lede for his essay advises libertarians to “engage with the past on its own terms. That means seeing beyond boringly obvious historical manifestations of sexism and racism.” In the essay itself, he urges his readers to remember that presentism is a tactic:
We should not infer from certain ugly, anti-intellectual tactics used in fighting social wrongs that racism, sexism, or the like are true or good. This is a path down which I see way too many young non-lefties going. As they do, they lose all interest in liberty: except, of course, for those of precisely their own kind.
A few of my own thoughts on Jason’s essay:
One: Historians need to realize that just pointing out that something is ahistorical or “presentist” means that it’s bad history. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. That’s of course what Jason is saying. But I just wanted to drive that home because historians (including yours truly) make that error a lot.
Two: The question “was Shakespeare sexist” is presentist. But the questions “what were Shakespeare’s attitudes toward women as expressed in his work?” or “in what way does Shakespeare ‘construct’ gender in his work?” are less presentist. They may reflect present-day concerns in a way that would’ve been unrecognizable in Shakespeare’s day. They also contain certain value-laden assumptions about the “constructedness” and socially contingent nature of gender. But they’re also open questions for which the answers can be interesting and not overdetermined.
Three: It’s very, very hard–and maybe impossible–not to be presentist in some ways. We’d all do well to heed that point and at least recognize the presentism in our own arguments. Libertarians no less or more so than others. The terms they use to critique government power–“liberty” and “freedom”–sometimes shade into shibboleths that libertarians use as if those terms are eternal truths whose meaning transcends time and place. And anyone who objects to the way that shibboleth is used is “against freedom” or “against liberty.”
One person’s freedom or liberty can be something that to another person helps justify the denial of liberty. “Freedom from want” can sometimes mean “compelling third parties to subsidize others’ lives” and “denying choices to some people in the name of helping them be free from hunger.”* “Economic freedom” can mean “freedom to starve” or “freedom to be taken advantage of by fraudsters.” Not that there’s no common ground here–libertarians usually recognize the need to help the less-well off and to protect against fraud, and at least some liberals recognize that expanding choice in the marketplace is a good thing–but the two freedoms have an inherent tension that becomes clearer when we examine who and in what historical context embraced those freedoms
My point is not to say that libertarians are wrong. We all commit and probably can’t avoid committing presentism. But libertarians would do better to recognize that error, too.
*I forget the page number, but somewhere in The Road to Serfdom (I think in a footnote), Hayek notes that Britain’s post World War II Labour government, probably concerned about fuel shortages, seriously considered a plan to force people to work in the mines because too few people were willing to do the work.
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