Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lowenthal, "The Past WAS a Foreign Country," HNN

Randall Stephens

Over at HNN David Lowenthal responds to my piece, "The Past Is No Foreign Country." He uses it as a launching point for a larger discussion about the ways presentism continues to plague our culture. (He also describes the revised version of his classic book.) Lowenthal points out, as John Fea did too, that "flagrant presentism is no right-wing monopoly." Right on. I put too fine a rhetorical point on that in my essay.

"The Past WAS a Foreign Country"
By David Lowenthal

David Lowenthal is Professor Emeritus of Geography at University College London

Randall Stephens [The Past Is No Foreign Country, HNN, June 28, 2010] 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.>>>


Anonymous said...

Alright, I'll bite: could you give us a concrete examples of Beck-style equivalents on the Left? I'm sure folks on the left are entirely capable of ahistoricism; it's a difficult concept and runs counter to many cultural tendencies, especially in the US. Still, it strikes me that the right is particularly susceptible this particular ailment.

Randall said...

This might be a stretch . . . but I suppose one could throw in Howard Zinn or Francis Jennings as examples of the presentist distortion on the left. In some ways, their past only exists as a mirror for us to reflect on how morally superior contemporary radical politics are. The past can't be understood as much in its own terms, but by the standards of one strand of politics in the late 20th century.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Also, I think what one might call the popular culture left often implies that people in the past were all environmentalists and egalitarians before their time. I think part of the problem is that people (I'm thinking here of my students) want to identify with the past, and they can't sympathize with those who are racist or sexist. This leads to left-leaning (as well as right-leaning) anachronisms in movies/tv shows and also the seeking out of those who were exceptional for their time in seeing equal rights, etc. It is hard as a teacher to get students to understand and sympathize with people who held ideas they find reprehensible--or to decide that they might like one aspect of Martin Luther's thinking, say, but not perhaps his anti-Semitism. In general I attribute this presentism to the understandable desire to see people in the past we can sympathize with--and it is my constant job as a historian/teacher to get students to try to understand those that they are extremely different from.

Honestly, if they can't do this with people in the past, they won't ever learn to do it with people in the present and that is the concern I have with our increasingly balkanized intellectual worlds--we only talk to people we already agree with. We look for people in other parts of the world who reflect our own thoughts and hope that they are "representative" rather than trying to understand people who are really quite different from us.

Randall said...

Lisa: That makes good sense to me. There is always this latching on to heroes of the past. That's a good thing in many ways. But we so want a usable past that we make certain groups or individuals--say, populists, abolitionists, or free thinkers--into more or less than they actually were.