Monday, August 29, 2022

History and Its Discontents

I am not an academic, let alone a professional historian. Thus, in the normal course of events, I probably would not even read - let alone comment on - an August 17 column, "IS HISTORY HISTORY? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present," by the President of the American Historical Association in the AHA's newsmagazine Perspectives on History, which (I presume) is primarily an internal publication intended for fellow members of the profession. What academic historians say to one another in their professional communications is normally of little or no direct interest to us non-academics - except, of course, when it concerns how we non-intellectuals also use and misuse history in our ordinary understanding of the world.

(The column can be found at

The author of the column a current AHA President is James H. Sweet,  Vilas-Jartz Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2004. He is a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, with a particular focus on the cultures and politics of enslaved Africans in the Americas, which explains some of the particular examples he employs in his column.

Sweet begins by recalling his predecessor Lynn Hunt's 2002 column "Against Presentism," which "lamented historians’ declining interest in topics prior to the 20th century, as well as our increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present." Echoing Hunt's worry form 20 years ago, Sweet worries whether "historical analyses are contained within an increasingly constrained temporality" and "interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates." His concern is that often this novel history "ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines" and that an "allure of political relevance" is encouraging a "predictable" but "ahistorical" and unacceptable "sameness of the present in the past." 

This, in turn, has bled beyond the academy, resulting in "an overabundance of history, not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics." In this competing politics, history has become "a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity," but "not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time." Americans, he argues, "have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions, a trend that can be seen in recent US Supreme Court decisions." He illustrates this with examples of Justice Thomas's recent egregious misuse of history in the Bruen case and Justice Alito's equally egregious misuse of history in Dobbs. "This is not history," he writes; "it is dilettantism."

History done with integrity, he argues "requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time."

Professor Sweet's timely reflections reminded me of Archbishop Rowan Williams wonderful little book, Why Study the Past?: the Quest for the Historical Church (Eerdmans, 2005). Williams starts from the conviction that "good theology does not come from bad history." Thus in Church history, he argues, "traditionalists sometimes miss the point because they don't expect to be surprised by the past; progressives miss the point because they don't expect to be interested or questioned by it." Historical figures "are not modern people in fancy dress; they have to be listened to as they are, and not judged or dismissed - or claimed or enrolled as supporters - too rapidly." A particular concern for us when doing Church history has to be a consciousness that we are "engaging with fellow participants in prayer and eucharist, fellow readers of the same Scriptures, people in whom the same activity is going on, the activity of sanctifying grace.

American political history is obviously not Church history. The communion that connects us in the present to our predecessors in the past is not some sacramental one. Even so, especially insofar as those predecessors remain real and relevant to us, the temptation too quickly to judge or dismiss - or, alternately to claim or enroll as supporters in some contemporary cause - remains a dangerous temptation which needs to be resisted, especially when as now contemporary culture so eagerly seeks to collapse everything into the present moment.

Photo: Metropolitan Museum Art bust of Herodotus (c. 484 BCc. 425 BC), who is often called the "father of history" in the Western world.

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