The 1619 Project is not history but an assault on history, a poisoning of any historical discussions for the purpose of intimidation and power for today’s ruling class. Similarly, the violent destruction of memorials that our ancestors erected (to honor people they knew much better than we do) follows the venerable game-plan of communists and other totalitarians to create bitter resentment between groups of people—better to divide and rule them.
An important element in the success of this evil stratagem is the normal human tendency to engage in presentism: the tendency to judge people of the past by standards of the present moment, with little consideration for the vastly different context and culture of the past. Chronological snobbery, in other words.
As “the past is a foreign country,” it is difficult to put ourselves into the mental positions of those in that “foreign country.” The modern writer of historical fiction has difficulty putting herself into the mind and spirit of a woman of the past who lacked birth control (and for whom pregnancy outside marriage was the road to utter ruin), who lacked hundreds of inventions taken for granted in the present that minimize muscle advantage, and who therefore oriented her life accordingly.
How could the physician who bled the ailing George Washington have done it? How do we identify with the confidence the physician probably felt that the Humoral Theory of Medicine, which had been “settled science” for hundreds of years, was correct and that his action was therefore absolutely correct?
How do we comprehend that all the most influential ancient thinkers…Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, et al…were so enmeshed in the hierarchical cultures that ruled the world before 1776, that it never occurred to them to question slavery as anything but normal? Just another step down in the hierarchy.
Both the word and the concept of racism is a 20th-century creation. If one spoke the word “racism” to the Founding Fathers, they would have been as confused as if you had said something about “bacteria” or “storing data in the cloud.” Before the 20th century, every ethnic group had the same natural ethnic chauvinism that different species of birds like Robins and Cardinals still have regarding one another.
To avoid falling prey to presentism, we must remind ourselves that the people of the past are more different from us in their cultures, capabilities, limitations, and beliefs than devout Muslims are from atheists (neither of which would be comfortable being judged by the other). And the more generations back you go, the more extreme the differences.
Those transitional generations — roughly 1776-1876 — that followed thousands of years of the hierarchical societies which included slavery tend to be judged with gleeful brutality. But think how remarkable it is that those particular generations of Americans and British were the ones who initiated the end of slavery, a worldwide norm that had prevailed since the beginning of time!
When we approach history as a playpen for moral judgments, we ignore that all the marvels of modern life we enjoy only exist because of the people of our past. We stand on the framework they built through immense struggle.
Let us study the past to understand and learn from those who went before us. To understand the vastly different beliefs, constraints, and complexities that shaped them. To learn from their successes and mistakes. Just as those who follow us should study our successes and mistakes. For the future is a foreign country as well
Will Ferrell of High Point is the author of the North Carolina set historical novel The Secrets of Sterling Shearin: the Noblest Cause.