U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jill Lepore on Presentism

David Sehat

Jill Lepore’s new book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over History (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010), has been garnering much-deserved attention for the past few months. Building on an article in the New Yorker, Lepore seeks to show how fanatical and antihistorical are much of the Tea Party and its many boosters (Glenn Beck, etc.) in their pronouncements about history and their reverence for the Founding Fathers. By juxtaposing pieces of reportage at Tea Party events with stories about the Founders and others in the Founding generation such as Phyllis Wheatley and Jane Mecom, Lepore shows multiple ways in which the eighteenth century fails by our contemporary standards of decency and justice. Yet she also simultaneously manages to humanize the founding generation. It’s quite a trick, one that I wish I could figure out so that I could emulate. Her perspective is clear–she does not agree with Tea Partiers about much of anything–but even when she calls the Tea Partiers devotees of “historical fundamentalism” she seems reasonable and humane, like she is interested in having a conversation rather than simply passing judgment.

If anything, she seems to blame not so much the Tea Party as historians. Or maybe blame isn’t the right word. Lepore argues that the Tea Party’s version of history (or, rather, antihistory) began in the 1970s with the Bicentennial Celebration. Angry at the social protests and dislocations from the late 60s and early 70s, historical fundamentalists reacted angrily to what they as as the besmirching of national character perpetuated by leftists. But Lepore actually places a fair amount of responsibility–a better word than blame–on historians for the sorry state of affairs. She writes:

That reactionary history has simmered for decades and went, for the most part, unchallenged, because 1970 marked the end of an era in the writing of American history: [Richard] Hofstadter would turn out to have been one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time. For much of its history, the American historical profession has defined itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present–and especially to solve present-day problems–falls outside the realm of serious historical inquiry. That stuff is for amateurs, toadies, and cranks. Historians decry the fallacy of “presentism”: to see the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry into shabby self-justification. Hofstadter recognized the perils of presentism, but he believed that historians with something to say about the relationship between the past and present had an obligation to say it, as carefully as possible, by writing with method, perspective, skepticism, and an authority that derived not only from their discipline but also from their distance from the corridors of power.

I read Lepore’s book as an attempt to diagnose the present by looking to the past, providing a model for historically informed analysis of the present and calling on others to do the same. But I also wonder if Lepore isn’t calling for something that is already happening. Off the top of my head, I can think of several recent books by junior scholars that engage the public and have significant relevance for understanding the present: Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart (2009), Stephen P. Miller’s Billy Graham and Rise of the Republican South (2008), Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010), Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009), and (not a junior scholar) James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition (2010). My own book (ahem), The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011), also quite explicitly seeks to explain the present by appealing to the past. I’m sure there are others. All of this suggests to me that the narrowly professional model of historical writing might not be as dominant as it was in the past, with many historians seeking to reach a broader public in order to frame public discussions from a proper historical perspective.

But I also wonder if it matters. Put another way, Lepore seems to suggest that if historians had not abandoned the public sphere to write technical and professional monographs that the Tea Party’s history might have been stopped. She writes, “Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business.” But let’s say we all starting writing the kinds of history that Hofstader wrote. And let’s say that the we did it with even a fraction of his stylistic grace and critical acumen. Given the bully pulpit of Fox News and the fantasy history of Glenn Beck, which after all, tells people what they want to hear, would it actually change anything? After seeing Glenn Beck’s following, his multimillion dollar platform on multiple media outlets, and his ability to twist history any way he wishes, I ask myself: how can I compete with that? How can anyone compete with that?

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David,

    First: Thanks for this post. I’ve been itching to learn more about this book.

    Lepore’s hearkening back to the Bicentennial celebration reminds me of David Lowenthal’s *The Past is a Foreign Country* (Cambridge, 1985), and the problems he lays out in relation to modern desires for the past. It is important, I think, to review his thinking in relation to Lepore and this discussion. Pardon me if the recounting that follows is old hat. I offer it here because I suspect that not all of our readers have encountered Lowenthal (he’s usually assigned for public history types, in my experience).

    In addition to fighting uphill battles against popular (conservative) media, it is important for us to consider that Lowenthal starts his account by telling us that the problems of modernity, particularly its twentieth-century incarnation—dislocations, alienation, etc.—have instilled in “us” a desire for the past. So, our modern/postmodern condition makes these journeys almost necessary. And Tea Partiers are indeed reacting to these conditions.

    As expressed by Lowenthal, the desire for the past plays out in more or less valid ways. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll only lay out a few of those ways—given by Lowenthal as goals and unknown risks, as well as benefits and burdens (all laid out in chapters 2-3)—that have darker implications for this discussion.

    Goals and Risks:

    – Searching for a “golden age” (a time that never was);
    – Presentist language and attitudes result in an inability to cope with the realities of the past;
    – The actuality of the past disappoints when discovered (or truly sought);

    Benefits and Burdens:

    – The past can reaffirm and validate present-day attitudes (especially if twisted to one’s desires);
    – Appeals to history are “integral to…identity”;
    – The past teaches;
    – “The past offers alternatives to an unacceptable present”;
    – The past helps provide continuity;

    All of this is to say that I’m with you, David: it’s not historians who’ve abdicated their duty to write to the present generation. Rather, the potential—indeed the inclination—to misuse history, or the past, is ~part and parcel~ of the modern condition. This is so much so that Lowenthal gave us this thoughtful taxonomy of use and misuse 25 years ago. The battle that historians wage is clearly an uphill one, to say the least.

    – Tim

  2. David–I really enjoyed this post, especially since I don’t feel like I have time to read Lepore’s book just now. I tend to agree with your final paragraph–I don’t think we as historians can do much about Glen Beck University, etc. And although I, too, try to write in a way that speaks to present concerns, and am no fan of small specialist history, I think this common lament that historians should write for a larger public is overdone. Who doesn’t want a larger readership? Not to let us off the hook, but isn’t the main problem with the reading public?

  3. Fascinating post, David. It bumps Lepore’s book up my endlessly long To Read list.

    A quick question: in how much detail does she discuss the Bicentennial? A couple years ago when I was working in the Robert Goldwin papers at the Gerald Ford Library I came across all kinds of interesting stuff about the celebrations and thought that someone really ought to write a book devoted to it (maybe, better still, a book on the US in 1976 with the Bicentennial celebration as a kind of backbone).

  4. Ben: A friend and prior colleague of mine, who wrote a dissertation on Ford, has been considering a book project on the Bicentennial for a few years. I just wrote him a fresh note encouraging him get going! – Tim

  5. Great note on sources Ben. Do you think there would be material on the Bicentennial at the Ford library worth looking at for someone writing a book on the culture wars–a book that will include a chapter on the history wars?

  6. I completely agree, someone needs to do a thorough job on the Bicentennial. I am touching upon it a bit in a chapter on civil religion and Carter years, but can’t do it justice in the form that this book takes. I think that Wendy Wall, a panelist on the roundtable on civil religion and an associate professor of history at Binghamton University, might be someone to comment on the subject. Her first book looked at the ways a variety of groups attempted to craft “the American Way of Life” out of historical references and religious traditions. By coincidence I am showing Rocky tomorrow night to my movies and American culture class. Yo!

  7. Thanks for reading, everyone.

    Tim: Thanks for bringing up Lowenthal. It bumps up on my list.

    Ben: Her discussion of the Bicentennial comes in and out of focus. Her approach is kind of meandering, writerly is probably a better word, so I don’t think she would claim to be presenting a history of the Bicentennial of any comprehensiveness. Mostly she relies upon newspaper articles and various events around Boston in order to gesture to the wider debate. But she does bring up Ford, who had a more progressive vision of the Bicentennial than Nixon. I’d say that her discussion is a good starting point for anyone wanting to go deeper.

    Andrew: This book should move much higher on your list. It is totally relevant to your present work, especially your history chapter.

  8. Andrew,

    I think the Goldwin papers might be of interest to you. They’re quite extensive. Robert Goldwin was a Strauss student (hence my interest), the official White House intellectual for most of the Ford years, and a confidant of Donald Rumsfeld and later Dick Cheney. He took an interest in the intellectual dimension of Bicentennial planning. And my guess is that there are other interesting Bicentennial-related things in other collections elsewhere in the Ford library.

    Incidentally, the Ford Library is a lovely place to work. It’s the one presidential library that isn’t connected to the presidential museum (the library is in Ann Arbor; the museum in Grand Rapids), so it’s very quiet. The staff is excellent. They have (or at least had) nice little traveling fellowships that will pay at least some of your travel expenses to work there.

  9. David:

    I am curious about a trend that seemed to peak around the bicentennial–the obsession many religious groups had with offering their particular interpretation of US history. I know that many churches had located their origins in US history and believed they had played consequential roles in shaping US history, but from Falwell to Neuhaus to Wallis there seemed to be a rash of commentary on how US history had gone awry (in light of Vietnam and Watergate).

    These different churches offered different versions of US history–Wallis saw it as one long history of oppression; Falwell saw as it as one long heroic struggle to remain God’s chosen people. Was this a period that signaled a new relationship between churches and interpreting US history?

  10. There was a GW MA student called Chris Culig who wrote his thesis on the Bicentennial and the contemporary political controversy around it. I don’t know more about it than that. He arrived right as I was finishing up, so after your time, Andrew.

    David, does it occur to Lepore that it is exactly a kind of presentism that the “historical fundamentalists” were reacting against in the 1970s and afterwards? Otherwise, how the hell can she explain the historical interpretations they opposed? Because, let’s be honest, if people like Jesse Lemisch and Staughton Lynd weren’t acting out their political agendas in their scholarship, then no historian ever has been motivated by politics and/or presentist in their outlook. The charge of presentism has to cut both ways, or it’s meaningless. Of course, for that very reason (and others) I think the charge of presentism is a non sequitur. But that’s a discussion for another day.

  11. As I think I said in the comment thread on an earlier post that dealt with this topic, it seems to me that “presentism” can mean at last two distinct things. First, an epistemological stance that fails to take into account ways in which the period one is studying is fundamentally different from the present. Second, a tendency to ask questions of the past that are grounded in present-day concerns. IMO the former is a problem; the latter, not so much. Indeed, I think some version of the latter is pretty unavoidable and is arguably why it’s worthwhile doing history in the first place.

  12. Ben, I’m not sure the two varieties of presentism really are distinct. I think rather they are two sides of the same coin, if that.

    The first seems to me less an epistemological stance than an ethical imperative. It’s a moral failing to treat the past as the precursor of the present, since we are not treating the past and those who lived in it as having their own intrinsic validity. But given that we can only how “fundamentally different from the present” the past is via our own examination of the past and comparison of it to the present in the present, the epistemological difficulty is built-in. I’ve always been of the view that positing such a fundamental difference renders the past effectively unintelligible. If it’s really that different, on what grounds can we comprehend it. Hume found the past intelligible because he argued (from history) that human nature was uniform throughout time and space, and could therefore be interpreted as a humanistic inquiry, i.e., humans studying other humans. The anti-Humean position, which could be described as post-modern, would be that in fact the past isn’t intelligible at all, what we call the “past” is merely a fiction created in the present.

    Whatever the path, the same destination awaits: the inscrutability of the past. Either it’s inscrutable because wholly different and alien from the present; or it’s inscrutable because it is merely prologue and therefore identical to the present, and so not really the past; or it’s inscrutable because it doesn’t exist and we make it up ourselves. The idea that the past is a foreign country seems the best cipher. They do do things differently there, but we can visit it, and it’s inhabited by humans, not aliens.

    This brings me to the reasons I think the second kind of presentism negates the first, or makes it the other side of the coin. That kind of presentism is inevitable, as you say, but that is itself an epistemological problem. A philosophical presentist (whether philosophy of history or philosophy of time doesn’t matter) would contend that the present alone exists, and that therefore we only know the past in the present by what has endured (or perdured, depending on which philosophy of time you adhere to) of it into the present. By definition the historical enterprise is presentist because it takes place in the present. It cannot be but that our contemporary concerns guide our study of the past, as it would require us to remove ourselves from space-time and/or be different creatures than human beings for it to be otherwise. Or to put it another way, the past is in the past, but history is in the present.

    Ranke avowed that every historian should aspire to behold every epoch as “unmittelbar zu Gott.” Kant claimed that we could not know a thing-in-itself and that we can only have the perspective that we have. Those two propositions are irreconcilable, I think. God may be able to get out of the world, but we can’t. And that’s why I think the charge of presentism, in whatever form, is a non sequitur. Of course history is presentist. What else could it be?

  13. Ray: I talk about the issue of religious commentators and history a little in my book and so does Daniel William’s in God’s Own Party. I think the jeremiad came into more intense use in the 1970s (as a result of the 1960s), but I’m not sure I see a qualitative difference between what they were saying before and after. I could be wrong, though. Do you see a difference?

    Varad and Ben: Lepore argues that the desire to conflate the past with the present, which is what the Tea Party does, is bad. This is the first kind of presentism that Ben lays out. But Lepore also argues that we can and should write with an eye to explaining the present, which is the second kind of presentism. The difference may not be all that clear in practice, but I do think the distinction can and should be made. And, actually, I don’t think Lepore is just criticizing Tea Partiers for presentism in Ben’s first sense. She is criticizing them for antihistory and saying that historians need more presentists (of Ben’s second variety) to counter the antihistory of the Tea Party.

  14. The discussion reminded me of having seen David Lowenthal, “The Past WAS a Foreign Country” – HNN 7.5.10 – Lowenthal wrote:

    Randall Stephens [HNN 6.28.10] commends my The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985) for tracing post-Renaissance awareness of the past’s difference. He chides Glenn Beck and likeminded conservative ideologues “incapable of coming to terms with change over time” for ignoring that difference. But flagrant presentism is no right-wing monopoly; it now suffuses all popular culture, from evangelical biblical literalists and strict constitutional constructionists to bleeding-heart apologists for ancestral iniquities from slavery to sexism to class hierarchy. In appropriating the past, partisan heritage domesticates it by purging or bowdlerizing its unpalatable oddness. Discussing the Victorians in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, old Mrs Swithin says, “I don’t believe that there ever were such people, only you and me and William dressed differently.” Like Mrs. Swithin, we don’t believe in history.

    Over the past quarter-century, historians have stressed the manifold differences of humanity’s complex past, so unlike our own circumstances they seem bizarrely incomprehensible. But the public at large increasingly domesticates that past, refashioning it in modern terms, and then praising it for echoing with their own precepts or damning it for failing to conform to them. The foreign past gets reduced to exotic sites of tourism or filmic period fantasy; the past cherished at home becomes a haunt of chauvinist heritage, nostalgic tribalism, and retro remakes. The wholesale perversion of history persuades me, in revising my book for publication in 2012, to retitle it The Past WAS a Foreign Country.

    Today’s presentism has multiple causes: idealizing wished-for pasts to compensate for loss of faith in the present and fear of the future; media stress on the very recent past and schooling devoid of all but stereotypes of earlier times; privileging memory over history, empathy over critical understanding; website promotion of personal memoir at the expense of shared historical experience.

    Bill Fine

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