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September 2015

The New Presentism: Leftist Banality in the Academy

Libertarian scholars should engage with the past on its own terms. That means seeing beyond boringly obvious historical manifestations of sexism and racism.

It’s good to keep a well-stocked intellectual toolkit. One tool I’ve found useful lately is the concept of “presentism.”

A presentist confronts the past only with an eye to present concerns. “Was Shakespeare a sexist?” is a quintessentially presentist question. It doesn’t ask about what Shakespeare might have seemed like to his contemporaries, or what sort of commentary he might have been making about them. It doesn’t inquire about his relationship to his contemporaries at all. It takes one idea that we already know – sexism – and preforms a sort of historical extradition: If Shakespeare were brought to the present day, would people think he was a sexist?

And of course the answer is yes.

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.

One might even say that no genuine confrontation with the past has taken place in a presentist inquiry. A few elementary facts may have been absorbed, but little has been gained in the way of insight into how ideas and values develop over time, or even of where they actually stood in any particular era.

Historians of all political persuasions have sometimes produced presentist history. One group commonly criticized as presentist is the so-called Whig historians. These have tended to view history as the uninterrupted march of progress and enlightenment, often in the form of liberal democracy. There’s some truth to this; while we are freer today than at nearly any other point in history, and while even the poorest among us are certainly richer, there has been nothing uninterrupted or automatic about the process, and there are no guarantees that it will always continue. Least of all should we think that the present is a perfected age, an idea that may have been more plausible in Victorian England than it is here and now.

I learned about presentism while earning a degree in intellectual history. I write about it today because it seems like so much I am hearing from the academy lately is in fact the crassest sort of presentism – the kind that liberal arts majors of just a few years ago would have recognized and derided.

Except that this presentism is the presentism of the left: After centuries of Latin scholarship, this generation – uniquely fragile, I suppose – demands trigger warnings for the classics. Works are interrogated only with reference to how they make present-day people feel – not what those works make us think, and certainly not they made other people think, in other times and places. (Either would appear to require too much abstraction.)

That’s a big problem for the latest iteration of extreme political correctness in our universities. Not that we should lack sensitivity, because there’s nothing actually wrong when a work of literature moves us deeply; if it does, it is performing as intended. But to stop there suggests a lack of insight.

And let’s face it: by any decent modern person’s standards, Shakespeare certainly was a sexist. The problem with the statement is not that it’s false. The problem is not that sexism isn’t a problem. It’s that Shakespeare’s sexism is banal.

In addressing these issues libertarians in particular should be on guard against mere contrarianism, against the temptation to embrace whatever our opponents happen to despise. (Yes, Rothbard did it. It also stunk back then.) I dislike the “social justice warriors” nearly as much as anyone on the right, but the things they profess to oppose are often altogether worthy of opposition. It’s the method that’s wrong. To return to Shakespeare, sexism is no good. But there are better and worse ways of opposing it. Only some conduce to free inquiry. Others close it off. 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.

In doing so, they become the very thing that they hate. They also walk the same path that liberalism as a whole has traveled. The classical liberals stood for free inquiry above all else. They were skeptical about power because they had seen what happens when power is concentrated, not just in the wrong hands, but in any hands at all. They saw that inquiry was the first thing to disappear.

Much like their ancestors, modern liberals claim to want to dismantle privilege. Yet so often they arrogate an extraordinary privilege to themselves: The privilege of never having to move beyond, or even question, their own feelings. The result is a patronage network built around a set of highly moralized thoughtcrimes and verbal taboos.

To state the obvious, this is not an environment conducive to education. Scholars who wish to do actual work need to move past it as quickly as they can. They must focus relentlessly on scholarship. And so must the dissenters of the present-day academy: Make it about texts and ideas, all the time, not about the silly games that have captivated certain other segments of the campus. A dedicated classical liberal scholar would embarrass them, not with hurtful words, but with the depth of his or her knowledge. While they pick at their feelings, let us be in the archives.