The allure and the dangers of "presentism"

Michael weighs in on our impulse to judge historical figures by the moral and ethical standards of the present day.
Nellie McClung statue unveiled at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on Friday June 18, 2010. Honored for her role in getting women the right to vote, she was also a supporter of eugenics. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Winnipeg Free Press-Ken Gigliotti)
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Five years ago, after many heated arguments, a statue of Nellie McClung was unveiled on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature. She was being honoured and recognized for her pioneering work on behalf of equal rights for women. It was largely because of her efforts that Manitoba became the first province to grant women the vote. At the time, a prominent Winnipeg civil rights lawyer argued against the erection of any statue to McClung because of her belief in the practice of eugenics.

Wildly popular and morally repugnant, eugenics was the nutty theory that the human race could be mightily improved by sterilizing the disabled, the mentally ill, the developmentally delayed, all the lesser breeds among us. A young Tommy Douglas was an early believer. 

Fast forward five years. The controversial statue issue has again come up, this time at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. The university had plans to erect statues of Canada's 22 prime ministers as part of the country's 150th birthday celebrations next year.
Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/National Archive of Canada)

A petition signed by a number of representatives of native organizations condemned the idea of any statue honoring Canada's first prime minister John A. Macdonald. The petitioners' objections? MacDonald was a racist in his treatment of aboriginal people. It didn't matter that without MacDonald, there would be no Canada.

In England, Oxford students are furious that their university has decided to keep in place a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the man who colonized much of southern Africa and gave his name and fortune to the Rhodes Scholarships. Keeping the statue, say the students, is proof positive that Oxford doesn't care about black people.

All of the argument about who should be honored and who should be condemned is an example of the philosophical notion of presentism. Presentism is the practice of judging historical figures by the moral and ethical standards of the present day. For example, T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh both reflected the casual antisemitism of the Twenties and Thirties. Should we then condemn the poetry of Eliot or the novels of Waugh because we now realize that any form of antisemitism is pernicious and downright dangerous?

How do you condemn one action or series of actions by one person, and exculpate others? In the Waterloo case, if you reject the MacDonald statue would you not have to reject the statue of the man for whom the university is named?  After all, Laurier imposed and increased the notoriously racist head tax on Chinese immigrants. Thanks to social media, we live in an era of harsh, instantaneous judgement. People, especially well known people, are condemned on the slightest evidence without any reference to the context or complexity of the time.

In this age of identity politics, political careers are quickly smothered with the discovery of a long ago remark which may offend some group or other. What might be considered at one time as a high school prank, can blight a hard-won reputation. Let's face it, we have all done or said many really stupid things in our lives. As might be expected, historians are caught in the middle.

The American Historical Association has condemned what it calls "the tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms." It argues that "presentism encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior."

It is vital that we come to terms with our history. But before we rush to condemn, we should work harder to understand.

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