Presentism for libertarians and the rest of us
Jason Kuznicki criticizes what he calls the “new presentism” from the academic left. He notes that questions such as “was Shakespeare sexist?” don’t point to much that’s worthy of discussion:
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 only a (usually poor) 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:
One: People, especially historians, need to realize that pointing out something is ahistorical or “presentist” means that it’s bad history. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. That’s what Jason is arguing, too. But I just wanted to reiterate that.
Two: The question “was Shakespeare sexist” is presentist. But similar questions aren’t, or aren’t as much. “What were Shakespeare’s attitudes toward women as expressed in his work?” or “In what way does Shakespeare ‘construct’ gender in his work?” for example. They 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 recognize the presentism in our own arguments. Libertarians no less or more so than others. In their critique of government power, they sometimes use certain historically and place bound terms, such as “liberty” and “freedom” as if they be eternal truths whose meaning transcends time and place. And anyone who objects is “against freedom” or “against liberty.”
The system or set of rules that secures one person’s freedom or liberty can be the means to deny another person’s liberty. “Economic freedom” can mean “freedom to starve” or “freedom to be taken advantage of by fraudsters.” “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.”
Not that there’s no common ground to be had. Libertarians usually recognize the need to help the less-well off and recognize that such help doesn’t come only from market liberalization. They also recognize the need to protect against fraud. Liberals usually recognize that expanding choice in the marketplace is generally a good thing as long as certain safeguards are in place. 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 that libertarians are uniquely presentist. We all commit and probably can’t avoid committing presentism. And perhaps presentism isn’t always bad, even for historians. Maybe some truths are eternal and transcend time and place. But libertarians, like the rest of us, would do well to recognize and account for that error, too.
Photo: The scholar. Candid coffee shop shot, Taunton, Somerset,UK. Credit: Neil Moralee. Attribution, non–commercial, no derivatives license.