Why We Need To Talk About History! The Academic Taliban Is Coming For Western History
Depriving Western Society Of Its Sense Of The Past Is The Key Strategic Aim Of Cancel Culture
They want to end historical dispute
Turning the story of the West into a history of shame has become the key objective of the woke propaganda machine.
At first it looks like an obscure academic dispute over the teaching of history. But the humiliation of James H. Sweet, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, and the President of the American Historical Association(AHA) at the hand of a mob of academic heresy hunters shows that what is at stake is who gets to decide how we view our past.
Sweet came under fire for daring to challenge, what he described as the ‘trend towards presentism’ in academic history. Presentist academic history treats events in the past as if they are statements about today. It reads history backwards to recycle its contemporary concerns through the past. This is a history that gives voice to a powerful cultural trend that condemns the past for failing to live up to the causes and values of the contemporary woke establishment. Through projecting its values into as far back as ancient times, presentism erases the temporal distinction between the present and the past. Presentism constitutes a form of cultural imperialism that attempts to colonise and impose its agenda on the past.
Professor James Sweet
In an article for the AHA’s Newsletter, titled ‘Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present’, James Sweet tried to gently remind his colleagues of the need for historians to respect the boundary that divides the present from the past. Sweet questioned the trend of reading history backwards. He complained that for many of his colleagues the past only mattered when read ‘through the prism of contemporary social justice issues – race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism’.
Sweet asked that ‘if history was little more than “short-term . . . identity politics defined by present concerns,” wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead’? As Sweet discovered, the simple posing of this question is forbidden by an intemperate academic clerisy patrolling university history departments.
This woke academic clerisy is devoted to the mission of imposing a non-negotiable party-line on the way that the past is discussed. It is intolerant of dissident interpretations of the past and historians who do not tow the party-line face ostracism and punishment. The fanaticism with which dissident views are punished bear all the hall mark of the spirit of the Inquisition. The dogmatic zeal with which the presentist version of the Western past is policed was on full display in the explosion of unrestrained hatred directed against Sweet last month.
Sweet’s commentary about the subordination of academic history to the imperative of ideology led to a veritable explosion of condemnation of his professional status and integrity. The venomous hatred directed at him by supposedly educated academics highlights the spirit of woke fanaticism that has engulfed many cultural institutions. He was mobbed on the social media and condemned as a heretic for daring to question the presentist turn of the American history profession. Sweet’s inquisitors denounced him as a racist for questioning the concerns of minority advocates of the cultural politics of identity.
Sweet was condemned for being a ‘white man’ who apparently had no right to interrogate or make a critical comment on how black or African history is interpreted. Questioning the presentist version of history promoted by identity politics was attacked as fascistic. Sweet’s statement was denounced because it supposedly adopted an approach that resembled those of Right-wingers and Nazis, who worked ‘in the service’ of ‘white supremacism and misogyny’. These days the very posing of a view that questions the woke dogma is casually equated with white supremacism.
The reaction of the historian David Veevers, was illustrative of the mean spirited contempt directed at Sweet. Veevers posted on Twitter; ‘One of the worst things about this absolute twaddle is that this guy thinks societal issues like race, gender, and sexuality are “contemporary” and somehow did not exist in the past. How the hell did he get beyond his undergraduate degree, let alone become President of the AHA?’
As it happens contemporary issues such as the obsession with transgenderism and sexuality were conspicuously absent in many societies in the past. But to make this obvious observation about historical variations in societal concerns about race and gender is to court the charge of heresy.
Many of Veevers allies were not satisfied with simply posing the question of how did Sweet become the President of the AHA? They went straight for his scalp. Sections of the Twitter mob insisted the AHA retract Sweet’s commentary and some went so far as to demand that he be disciplined.
Catherine Denial, History Department Chair at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois called for a letter-writing campaign to the AHA. The AHA felt so intimidated by tthe controversy surrounding Sweet’ article that it took the unusual step of making its Twitter account private.
These days very few public figures have the courage to stand up against the powerful pressure exerted by the twitter mob. Almost every target of this pressure gives in, rolls over and offers a grovelling apology. That’s how things work in Anglo-American institutions of culture and higher education. Sadly, but predictably, Sweet issued a forced apology for ‘harms’ that his statement caused.
His use of the word harm is significant!
Anyone who understands how Cancel Culture works knows that it insists that criticism and offensive words cause harm! Cancel Culture validates its demand for the policing of language on the grounds that criticism and words that offend can traumatise and damage people’s mental health. The medicalisation of speech forces people to watch their words, especially when they are involved in an argument or dispute that touches on someone’s identity. The mere questioning of woke conventions is itself, often portrayed as damaging and harmful, which is why Sweet felt obliged to state that ‘I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA’.
One might ask how can a commentary disputing a version of academic history damage historians? The answer lies with the way that therapeutic censorship has turned robust verbal exchange into a medical problem. From this standpoint, a criticism is not simply the questioning of an idea or of an intellectual perspective but an attack on the identity of the person whose view is challenged. Thus the questioning of presentism is represented as an assault on the identity of the historians who subscribe to its tenets.
In an act of self-abasement Sweet stated ‘I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning’. The tone of abject humiliation with which Sweet promised to re-educate himself came across as a woke version of a Maoist Struggle Session. Sweet’s hope for redemption is likely to be dashed because the guardians of woke dogma do not do forgiveness. These days an apology invites a metaphorical slap in the face and a gloating expression of contempt.
In a practice reminiscent of the forced confessionals of the Stalinist Era, the response to an apology is to demand further acts of contrition. Sweet’s apology was swiftly denounced as insincere and condemned as a ‘faux-apology’. In the Stalinist era such a response to a confession would have led to a one-way ticket to the Gulag. Sweet is lucky he only faces ostracism and marginalisation within the academic profession
Lora Burnett, scoffed at Sweet, announcing “this apology was basically, ‘sorry I made you sad but I’m still right.’” She continued: “lamenting ‘inartful expression’ is apparently easier than admitting to flawed argument, unsupported claims, and factually incorrect assertions.”
Targeting The Legacy Of Western Civilisation
Opponents of Western civilisation regard history not as something that relates simply to what happened in the past but as a battlefield where contemporary conflicts over cultural values must be fought out. To be sure, history has always been politicised but today its weaponisation coincides with the tendency to use it to settle scores in the present. This leads to a narcissistic mode of historical research; whereby various identity groups re-discover their grievances and concerns within just about every historical setting.
Presentist history interprets just about any event through the prism of contemporary obsessions with transgenderism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, toxic masculinity, slavery and of course, race. This narcissistic compulsion to rediscover oneself in the past turns history into a subject of fantasy. Through reading history backward, even the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome can be recast as the cradle of modern racism. That is why the Cambridge University’s archaeology museum decided to display warning signs to highlight the ‘whiteness’ of the sculpture plaster casts that it displays.
The Museum justified the use of trigger warnings and scare-signs on the ground that the white sculptures give a ‘misleading impression’ of the whiteness and ‘absence of diversity’ of the ancient world. As it happens, the ancient world was not in the least bothered by diversity. Greek sculptors were not interested in diversity but in creating great art. Were they alive today they would be surprised to discover that their use of white marble could be construed as a political issue.
It requires the imagination of a historically illiterate simpleton to frame our understanding of the ancient world through the language of diversity. What this anachronistic sensibility exposes is a reluctance to understand the past in its own terms. Judging Greek art according to contemporary conventions represents a failure of historical imagination. It subjects the achievements of the people of Ancient Greece to the demands of 21st century propaganda. It both devalues their legacy and distorts the past.
The animosity directed against the sculptures exhibited at Cambridge University reflect a very visible spirit of hatred towards the classics. The classics are often denounced as elitist and very, very white. But it is also much more than that. The legacy of Greece and Rome are integral part of the foundation of western civilisation. That is why there is now a systematic attempt to call into question the legitimacy of this legacy. That is also why Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey are not just the foundational works of Greek literature but also of western civilisation is treated with contempt by the presentist mob.
‘Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!’ boasted one Massachusetts high school teacher recently on social media. When an English teacher boasts that Homer’s Odyssey has been cancelled and expects her followers to give her signs of approval, it becomes evident that what is going on at Cambridge is echoed by sections of the teaching profession in the classroom.
The crusade directed at the classics is not unlike the sentiment that drove radical jihadists to destroy ancient temples, statues and works of art in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. In Cambridge the sculptures have not been physically destroyed. Instead, they have been morally tainted and the cultural heritage that they symbolise has been called into question. How long before Homer is reinvented as an insensitive racist or a homophobe?
That the Academic Taliban is coming for the classics is not surprising. After all many of most important and enduring themes and ideals emerged in ancient Greece and Rome. The spirit of inquiry and experimentation of Ancient Greece, which led to science and the early, though partial formulation of freedom and democracy, are ideals that are foundational to Western Civilisation.
Woke historians perceive the legacy of Western civilisation as toxic and act as if their task is to protect students from its influence. Even professional historians have become complicit in subordinating their discipline to the demand of promoting woke causes in the here and now. In effect the temporal distinction between the present and the past has been eroded as cultural crusaders have sought to attack and condemn historical figures as if they are their contemporaries.
Presentism is a form of accusatory history that aims to condemn every dimension of the western past in order to de-legitimate its history. The goal of cancelling the legacy of Western Civilisation is pursued through reorganising society’s historical memory and disputing and delegitimating its ideals and achievement. To achieve this objective the project of cancelling the legacy of Western Culture has consciously erased the temporal distinction between the present and the past. That is why protestors target historic symbols of western culture as if these statutes constitute a clear and present danger to their wellbeing. Many of the great historical figures of Western science and philosophy – David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin – are attacked and condemned for their behaviour and values as if they are our contemporaries.
Through treating the present as if it is indistinguishable from the past, prominent historical figures are humiliated because their views do not accord with those of their woke inquisitors. From the standpoint of a 21st century academic Taliban, John Locke, whose philosophy contributed to the development of the idea of tolerance is simply a dead white male and a 17th century racist. Adam Smith, a towering figure of the Scottish Enlightenment is casually dismissed as an irredeemable racist. Why? Because according to 21st century critics of this 18th century thinker, Smith’s sin was to make a distinction between ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ nations.
The erosion of the boundary between the present and the past has important implications for the way society understands its place in history. The expansion of the present backwards in chronological time has the effect of dissolving the past as a distinct entity. In effect it serves to detach western society from its past. In effect it prevents society from understanding its true origins and the traditions that underpins its conventions practices and identity. In effect it deprives society of its historical legacy. This is bad news. It is difficult to develop a sturdy sense of collective identity without a shared memory and a common attachment to conventions or customs that are rooted in the past.
When Sir Winston Churchill stated that ‘a nation that forgets its past has no future’ he had no idea that decades later a consciously promoted condition of historical amnesia would gain a foothold in society. Churchill’s warning is all too prescient. Through erasing the boundary between the present and the past many people are imprisoned in a timeless presentist vacuum. Instead of confronting the problems of our time they are busy fixing the problems of the past. It is almost as if they are determined not to move on. An obsession of rewriting the past as a history of gloom leads to the condition of temporal paralysis.
We must stand-up to the presentist crusade against Western history. Our challenge is to promote clarity about how to draw the line between the present and the past to assist society to face the future.
You will be hearing a lot more about presentism and the cultural war against the past from me in the weeks to come. Though often unremarked they constitute the most important threats to civilisational norms.
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