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But Trump and Brexit, the rise of populist strongmen the world over, and what appears to be a new Cold War with China, have all rendered the inevitability of the liberal international order less and less plausible. And the disorientation has only been deepened by the pandemic, and by growing civil unrest at liberalism’s long-term inability to solve social, racial, and economic inequality, as demonstrated by the global protest movement in response to the killing by the police of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd. History has returned with a vengeance.
Little wonder, then, that the press has been awash in historical analogies trying to make sense of things. The new watch guards of fascism, like the Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder, the journalist Anne Applebaum, and the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, make recourse to Europe’s fascist past of the 1930s to explain the contemporary political right. Their critics have been quick to claim that their reading of history is rather politicized, and that their appeal to historical analogies obfuscates, rather than clarifies, the complexity of current events.
The coronavirus crisis is another case in point. Some scholars have offered historical analogies to the war economies of World Wars I and II, while others have insisted that looking to past wars for inspiration could mislead us. In the words of one historian, “Wars lead us to look for enemies and scapegoats, war solutions are directed from the top rather than resourced from local communities.” Others still, most prominently the economic historian Adam Tooze, have stressed the historical uniqueness of the pandemic.
With the eruption of the George Floyd protests, pundits and scholars such as Niall Ferguson, David Frum, and Max Boot have suggested similarities with the May 1968 protests, even as other scholars have pointed out the shortcomings of this historical comparison.
Scholars and nonscholars alike are struggling to make sense of what is happening today. The public is turning to the past — through popular podcasts, newspapers, television, trade books and documentaries — to understand the blooming buzzing confusion of the present. Historians are being called upon by their students and eager general audiences trying to come to grips with a world again made strange.
But they face an obstacle. The Anglo-American history profession’s cardinal sin has been so-called “presentism,” the illicit projection of present values onto the past. In the words of the Cambridge University historian Alexandra Walsham, “presentism … remains one of the yardsticks against which we continue to define what we do as historians.”
It is difficult to grasp the force of the prohibition on “presentism” without understanding the political backdrop against which it developed: the Cold War and the liberal internationalism endorsed by most Anglo-American historians. The profession’s current anxiety over presentism is a legacy of the Cold War university, which sought to resist the radicalism of a new generation of historians emerging in the 1950s and ‘60s, as well as push back against the postmodern turn of the 1970s. This inherited resistance inhibits a more thoughtful engagement with our current crises. We have been left strangely ill-equipped to confront history’s return.
We have been left strangely ill-equipped to confront history’s return.
Prohibitions against presentism are typically couched in philosophical or ethical terms. To commit the error of presentism, says the Yale American Studies scholar Wai Chee Dimock, is “to be blithely unaware of historical specificities, to project our values onto past periods without regard for the different norms then operative.” This is a kind of “narcissism,” she says, which “erases the historicity of texts.” Michel Rolph-Trouillot could claim, in 1995, that “academic historians tend to keep as far away as possible from historical controversies that most move the public of the day.”
How do we square such exacting proscriptions with the actual present-oriented work that many historians are doing today? Indeed, there is a blatant contradiction between the profession’s standards and the actual presentist work of many contemporary historians. Presentism refuses to go away — but the anxieties it induces continue to plague the profession.
The ethical standard is summed up in what the Yale historian Samuel Moyn describes as the demand to respect the “alterity” of history: “Our ancestors,” he writes, “were trying to be themselves rather than to anticipate somebody else. The past is not simply a mirror for our own self-regard.”
The failure to respect the alterity of history might have negative real-world consequences. Timothy Snyder, for instance, has drawn widespread criticism from his fellow historians for his warnings about totalitarianism under Trump. As Udi Greenberg and Daniel Bessner argued in a piece titled “The Weimar Analogy,” Snyder’s appeal to the Weimar Republic — whose political instability led to Hitler’s rise to power — to explain Trump might lead liberal elites to believe that democracy cannot be trusted, given that a fascist was voted into office by those pesky deplorables. From there, one might conclude that for democracy to survive, the state must curtail freedoms — a position with antidemocratic political implications.
On the other hand, one of the most eloquent defenders of the Weimar analogy is the Harvard historian Peter Gordon. “Looking at Trump’s conduct and the conduct of many of his operatives and his most ardent followers,” Gordon told me, “I have become convinced that many of them no longer really feel at all committed to the rules and procedures (constitutional and local) and the broader political culture of American democracy.” What strikes Gordon as most important about the analogy is that the Weimar Republic offers a reminder of the intrinsic fragility of democratic institutions. “Democracy in the U.S. has never been all that secure, and it has surely never been fully realized.”
Gordon criticizes Greenberg and Bessner’s rejection of the Weimar analogy. “Just because the Weimar analogy could be deployed by Cold War strategists in the past,” argues Gordon, “it hardly follows that the Weimar analogy means and must mean the same thing when it is invoked today. Ironically, the inference itself appeals once again to an analogy: the Cold War politics of the past is presumed to recur.”
A further concern about presentism is philosophical. The ethical responsibility of the historian to respect the alterity of history is predicated on the debatable assumption of radical discontinuity between historical periods. Take, for instance, Lynn Hunt’s highly influential essay “Against Presentism.” The University of California historian’s argument postulates that a history for the present can only result in wild extrapolation and the elimination of essential differences, since no two eras can be alike. Any strong argument for resonances between different periods is impossible, because of the past’s radical contingency and particularity.
But as many have pointed out, this critique rests on a simplified depiction of presentism, and assumes the ability of historians to disconnect themselves from their own context. As Moyn puts it, “Whatever respect we owe the dead, history is still written by — and meaningful to — the living. If so, abuses of the past call for uses in the name of a better future.” On this view, some level of presentism appears unavoidable, since the work of historical reconstruction is mediated by the present from which it is conducted.
Here we find a yet another reason for the profession’s longstanding opposition to presentism, which is rooted in political anxiety. Presentist histories are viewed as disruptive of contemporary political norms and the standard historical accounts of their emergence. These disruptive challenges become all the more threatening during times of political crisis.
In his book, In Defense of History, the historian Richard Evans argues that a major reason the British history profession of the 1950s and early 1960s was so receptive to the influential work of Lewis Namier — the famed modern European historian whose scientific approach to history involved the meticulous reconstruction of minute facts — was that its political implications for the Cold War were reassuring to conservative British historians.
The conservative guard of the profession, argues Evans, was threatened by the Labour Party’s successes after World War II. In the hands of the newly empowered masses, history could all too easily be used for an ideological agenda threatening to the conservative political values of Oxbridge dons. Namier’s accuracy and scientific objectivity were appreciated because they were devoid of a threatening ideology. As it happens, Namier himself also despised the masses. Evans suggests that Namier’s empirical approach served as an alibi for silencing alternative historical narratives that would challenge the conservativism of the profession — an anxiety brought on by the Cold War.
Much the same story applies to the United States. The Cold War university spawned an academic work force dependent on global anti-Communism. It invariably embedded postwar anti-Communism in the academic work of liberal humanists from across disciplines. Works by historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Hofstadter reflected a “Cold War consensus” that emphasized the democratic qualities of American citizenship. Schlesinger himself believed that New Deal liberalism had resulted in an end of ideology, meaning that the great ideological debates of the past had been settled.
Little wonder that the neutralist establishment of the history profession during the 1960s entered into battle with the “useful history” historians of the New Left, who accused the profession of touting the liberal status quo (under the pretense of scientific objectivity) and ignoring the voices of the marginalized. In turn, the old guard accused the New Left of presentism. For decades, then, the profession’s anxieties over presentism were mediated by the Cold War.
Perhaps things are already changing. A new generation of historians, who came to maturity after the Cold War was over, is offering courses with titles like “History of the Present,” “The History of Now,” and “Understanding America Today.” Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago, recently taught a “History of the Present” course with 90 students, an impressive enrollment (“a big lecture at U Chicago normally has 45 students,” she told to me). In the spring of 2019, the Yale historians Samuel Moyn and David Magaziner taught a course titled “The World Circa 2000,” which enrolled 140 students. At the University of Wisconsin, the historian of Latin America Patrick Iber offered a seminar titled “The History of Now” that was filled to capacity, as was the U.S. historian Seth Cotlar’s course, “History of the Present,” at Willamette University.
Perhaps such classes signify that the profession is reconsidering its anxieties over presentism. “Confusion about the meaning and import of presentism,” David Armitage has written, “has led to multiple babies being thrown out with the bath water.” In other words, some forms of presentism avoid the pitfalls that have made it a bad word to the profession. Armitage points to the fruitful work that emerged out of Foucault’s call for a “history of the present” and François Hartog’s idea of “regimes of historicity” — approaches that relativize the “omnipresence of the present” by comparing the present with other historical regimes. Perhaps it’s time to think more systematically about how to write and teach the history of the present.
Debates about presentism are amplified during moments of political uncertainty, frustration, and disruption.
My own experience with such challenges grew out of a class I taught at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, also called “The History of the Present.” Did I need to teach my students the methodological grounds that justified when a contemporary political phenomenon — such as Trumpism — could be elucidated with reference to the dying years of the Weimar Republic or Mussolini’s fascist Italy? Would I need to address the challenges of doing comparative history, for instance during the week we spent on “fake news” and the “post-truth society,” when I made recourse to Nazi and Soviet propaganda campaigns? What about historical analogies involving the Cold War and what some describe as the “new Cold War with China” — how do I teach students to distinguish between analogies that clarify present events and those that obscure them? Would explaining the challenge of presentism give my policy students the impression that I have a political agenda?
One way to approach the present is through what the Princeton historian David Bell describes as a “deconstructive” approach to history, calling into question assumptions about the past that are baked into current political discourse. “This includes assumptions,” he tells me, “that certain concepts, categories, and practices are ‘natural’ and timeless (regarding gender, religion, nationalism, etc).” Here, Bell argues, the historian can usefully illuminate categories that are presumed to have existed everywhere in the same form.
Victoria Smolkin, a professor of Russian history at Wesleyan University, sees one of the main purposes of her class, “The Russian World: Past and Present,” as giving students what she describes as “the historical literacy” to understand how historical tropes get deployed in contemporary political contexts. “You see this throughout Russian history,” she writes, “for example, with the recurring revival of the so-called ‘Time of Troubles’—a period of political disunity and strife in the early 17th century, which was finally brought to a close when the people came together to expel foreign invaders and elect a strong leader to reconstitute the state.”
When, in 2005, Russia adopted National Unity Day to commemorate the end of the 17th-century Time of Troubles, “it was deliberately echoing the trauma of the post-Soviet 1990s and the arrival of Vladimir Putin in 2000 as the strong leader Russia needed.” She notes that we see a similar recourse to the historical trope of Holy Rus
and the Baptism of Rus, which have been evoked in justifying Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For Smolkin, the lesson is clear: We must go beyond merely reconstructing historical events in their own context. “The invocations of history in different presents,” she observes, “destabilizes some of the comfortable narratives about what history is and what it does that many students bring with them into the college history classroom.”
The Stanford historian of the British Empire, Priya Satia, echoes this sentiment. In a forthcoming book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, she shows how historical writing about the past shapes the understanding of contemporary politics. As Satia told me, “The world we live in, who we live among, the customs and mores — all that is an inheritance that structures our present day lives, thoughts, actions, and so shapes the future too.” That past is present with us now.
“I know people say, ‘the past is another country,’” Satia says. “But the present is another country too — that is, it is a totally contingent outcome of the past.”