At the first meeting of a class I teach about the causes and consequences of World War I, each student is assigned a seat at a table with the flag of one of the combatant countries in the center. I explain that, during the semester, they will be asked to speak about and defend the actions of “their country” from the perspective of a citizen of that time and place. Hindsight is not permitted; they are to put themselves as much as they can into the position and the mind-set of the French, British, Germans, Austrians, Russians or Turks of a century ago.
We spend a part of the first class discussing the fallacy of “presentism,” through which the values, mores and conventions of the present day are used to judge, almost always harshly and sanctimoniously, our predecessors. Will Durant wrote of the tendency for humankind, at each point of the modern era, to imagine that history is a straight line upward, leading to the “us” of the current day. We seem especially vulnerable to this conceit these days.
The European peoples of a century ago fell hard for the errors of presentism. They were riding the tide of a century of stunning economic improvement and technological advances, every bit as transformational as those of the past few decades. Between 1815 and 1914, Britain’s per capita gross domestic product grew nearly three times as fast as it had in the preceding century. The steam engine, the sewing machine, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane and so many more breakthroughs convinced the people of 1914 that a Golden Age had arrived, in which a benevolent science was on its way to conquering distance, want and the tedium of daily work.
Moreover, humanity was not only wealthier but so very much wiser. The barbarity of war was surely a thing of the past, left behind by the more mature, enlightened and sophisticated people of the time. A runaway best seller, absorbed by elites across the continent, was Norman Angell’s “The Great Illusion,” which asserted that the “interdependent” industrialized nations would see and avoid the stupidity of fighting, or that if a war did start, the obvious economic damage would lead them to put a quick stop to it. A few years later, 20 million were dead, most at the hands of machine guns, aerial bombs and other recent products of scientific progress, and perhaps 50 million more by a war-spawned influenza their “modern” medicine proved powerless to stop.
Even worse, the collapse of their golden age ushered in a new dark age over much of the globe, in which totalitarians such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot murdered tens of millions and enslaved the survivors within their reach. It is presentism’s smug folly to assume that we in the present day are superior intellectually and morally and that the past has nothing to teach us.
Presentism’s principal tributaries are a lack of knowledge and a deficient capacity for empathy. One of today’s premier historians has written that “historical illiteracy is the new normal.” How dismally true that is. The list of basic facts today’s Americans don’t know is too embarrassing and discouraging to repeat. The fundamental civic concepts of which majorities of both young and old are ignorant is equally appalling.
The quality of empathy, the ability to discern and understand the feelings of others, was denoted by Adam Smith as the most distinctive of human traits. Evidence of its erosion is everywhere these days, in the burgeoning cultural estrangement we now aptly call tribalism.
It finds further expression in the sneering denigration of America’s history and, it seems, almost all those who made it. A better reading is that the story line of America, with all its imperfections past and continuing, is about the steady expansion of human freedom and unprecedented, widespread material prosperity.
That ongoing journey took its longest step forward in the lives and work of the so-called Founding Generation. Their work was incomplete, but essential, and all that their times made possible. They made — gasp — compromises. They declined to let the ideological perfect be the assassin of the achievable good. And so a world of freedom, justice and equality was brought much nearer by their heroic efforts.
Those who indulge in the arrogance of presentism can be assured that, a century from now, we will be looked on by our descendants (or whatever genetically enhanced or computerized species has displaced us) as hopelessly ignorant and morally backward, in ways we cannot foresee. More time spent trying to understand and empathize with those who struggled with harder problems than ours might enable us to learn from their accomplishments as well as their mistakes, and look a little less absurd to our successors when their “present” comes.