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17 October 2017

Opinion: Presentism Dooms Us to Repeat the Mistakes of the Past

Historical presentism is the act of applying modern morals, standards and values to the past.

Many historians warn against historical presentism. Presentism, they say, does not promote understanding of bygone eras. We're not asking how historical events occurred. We're not asking why historical figures made their decisions. We are passing judgment upon the past, not learning from it.

A debate rages across the country about the role monuments to great men of the past should play in modern society. This question started anew following the violent Charlottesville, Virginia protests.

Should statues of former Confederate leaders, like Robert E. Lee, come down? A reporter asked President Trump this exact question.

"So this week it's Robert E. Lee," the president replied. "I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

Where does it stop?

Vandals in Yonkers, New York decapitated
a statue of explorer Christopher Columbus. Maryland removed a statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, from the state capitol steps in Annapolis. A Chicago pastor demanded a new name for Washington Park because its current moniker honors a former president who owned slaves.

Each of these incidents is textbook presentism; present-day values applied to the past.

Dr. Lynn Hunt, a distinguished research professor at UCLA, had this to say about the historical fallacy known as presentism:

"Our forebears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards."

"Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior," the former American Historical Association president concluded.

Presentism runs rampant across the United States these days.

To quote a few lines from "Fahrenheit 451," "It came from the people; the people demanding not to be offended; the people demanding that something be done about this language and that language they don't like.

A not-so-original-observation from Spanish philosopher George Santayana goes like this:

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

We aren't learning anything. By engaging in presentism, we're just finding new ways to make the same old mistakes.