Not So Sweet

UW Madison history professor James Sweet should have known what was coming.

Sweet, who is also the current President of the American History Association, wrote a much needed essay in the AHA publication about the dangers of “presentism”, that is the tendency to apply present day perspectives and values to historic events.

Predictably, the academy and hard-left activists went nuts. Sweet should have understood this would happen and been prepared to defend his position. Instead, he tarnished his fine essay with an unnecessary apology in which he wrote about the “harm” his essay had done and how “ham-fisted” his arguments were. In fact, his essay was eloquent and, far from doing any harm, he made a strong case for doing better history.

It’s incomprehensible to me that Sweet could not have anticipated the reaction to his piece and prepared himself for the onslaught. A spirited defense of his work would have advanced an important discussion. His hasty retreat is intended, I guess, to short-circuit it.

In any event, one good thing that has come of it is that millions of people became aware of Sweet’s essay thanks to extensive national coverage of the controversy. I read about it in Bret Stephens column in the New York Times last week. You can and should read Sweet’s full essay here and then decide for yourself, but I’ll quote parts of it that I think are most relevant.

I thought this paragraph best summed up his entire essay (the emphasis is mine):

Hollywood need not adhere to historians’ methods any more than journalists or tour guides, but bad history yields bad politics. The erasure of slave-trading African empires in the name of political unity is uncomfortably like right-wing conservative attempts to erase slavery from school curricula in the United States, also in the name of unity. These interpretations are two sides of the same coin. If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise.

Sweet then goes on to highlight two Supreme Court cases from the last term where this misapplication of history yielded results that his mostly liberal audience abhorred — the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the expansion yet again of gun rights.

Too many Americans 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. The word “history” appears 95 times in Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion overturning New York’s conceal-carry gun law. Likewise, Samuel Alito invokes “history” 67 times in his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Despite amicus briefs written by professional historians in both cases (including one co-authored by the AHA and the Organization of American Historians), the court’s majority deploys only those pieces of historical evidence that support their preconceived political biases.

He then goes on to detail how Thomas and Alito “cherry picked” historical points that supported their own conclusion while ignoring those that conflicted with it. He may have thought that this would establish his liberal credentials and fend off criticism when he applied the same reasoning to liberal arguments. He would have been wrong.

None of his critics objected to his criticism of Thomas and Alito. But what got Sweet into trouble was when he applied that very same analysis to the most recent liberal sacred texts. And there is none more sacred than The 1619 Project, which has become a cottage industry that seeks to do nothing less than rewrite America’s origin narrative. According to 1619, America was born not in 1776 and freedom but in 1619 and slavery.

Look folks, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t attack Sweet for insisting on scholarly rigor when it comes to 1619 but then agree with him about how conservative justices abused history in the service of their conservative ends. It’s the same bad history applied by each side of the culture wars.

This goes to a deeper problem that has developed in our political culture, well beyond academia: the refusal to be fair. Both hard-left and hard-right now see our political disagreements as so existential that they view it as okay, even necessary, to be intellectually dishonest. Some of Sweet’s critics attacked him, not for being wrong, but for pointing out flaws in orthodox liberal arguments that could be used as ammunition for the other side. But Sweet’s job as a scholar isn’t to take one side or the other on the issues of the day. His job is to construct narratives based on all the facts at hand and even to change that narrative when more facts are unearthed that demand it. Sweet’s job, and the job of all professional historians, is to shed light on the past, not to use the past in the service of my political aims or yours.

Sweet’s point was not only fair, but vital. The hard-left reaction to it is more evidence, as if it were necessary, of the illiberalism of a portion of today’s liberals. And, ironically, the controversy has indeed provided fodder for conservatives. But the ammunition isn’t Sweet’s plea for nuance and accuracy in 1619; it’s the intolerant liberal reaction to it. The right loves to jump on these examples of liberal intolerance. Hence Stephens’ column, and he’s right-center in his views. You can imagine what kind of hay the hard-right made of this.

For me, at the heart of liberalism (both in the classic and current ideological sense) is the idea of fairness, objectivity and openness to new information, the ability to be intellectually deft enough to change your point of view in response to new information or better arguments. Educate yourself and allow yourself to be educated, but also develop a sense of critical judgement. (I sometimes get messages from readers urging me to take seriously claims that climate change is a hoax. Well, no. That’s not being open minded. That’s going down a rabbit hole.)

We don’t need history to tell us that slavery was a moral wrong and that its harmfulness has echoed down the generations and that we have to keep dealing with it in some fashion. And, in fact, as the historian Joseph Ellis has pointed out, most of our nation’s founders understood the contradiction between declaring all people equal and the institution of slavery. They ignored the issue for practical political reasons: it was the third rail that would have blown up the new republic.

The hard-left wants reparations. I want America to make good on its promise of a true meritocracy. But no thoughtful person can deny that American slavery was an evil that didn’t stop harming people in 1865. To me, it’s unnecessary as well as wrong and unhelpful to redefine the whole idea of America.

Let’s commit ourselves to this: If we’re going to try to employ history to bolster our arguments let’s employ it carefully, honestly and with all its nuances and caveats intact. And let’s not lug our 2022 sensibilities into past centuries and hold historic figures and past generations accountable to standards and values that would have been inconceivable to them. That would be sweet.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “Not So Sweet

  1. Interesting to consider the idea that we shouldn’t judge the past by modern standards, and contrast it with the converse: should we judge the present by ancient standards? After all, billions of people in the world believe that texts written thousands of years ago, under completely different social contexts, provide infallible guidance for the correct way to live right now.

    I personally think it’s just fine both ways – I think truth is truth and right is right and wrong is wrong, no matter where or when it happens. I feel perfectly comfortable judging historical figures and events by my own moral standards without regard to their historical context and I think it’s a great thing when others do as well.

    The idea that things like the 1619 project “redefine the idea of America” (and that it’s a bad thing) rests somewhat on a notion that the definition of the idea of America was *ever* conceived from a neutral viewpoint. Past definitions haven’t been any more or less neutral than the 1619 project. All serve particular political/social ends.

    If the idea of America that is being referred to is “all people are created equal”, the 1619 project brings us closer to, not farther from that ideal by highlighting the reality of the struggle to achieve it. It’s a disservice to the “all people are created equal” concept to promote a myth that it was achieved in 1776 by the stroke of a pen.

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