Presentism for libertarians and the rest of us

Jason Kuznicki criticizes what he calls the “new presentism” from the academic left. He notes that questions such as “was Shakespeare sexist?” don’t point to much that’s worthy of discussion:

The problem with presentism is that presentist questions do little analytical work for us. At first they may appear bold, but they are entirely too easy to answer. Rather than digging deep, a presentist reviews only his or her own pre-existing feelings; presentist questions answer themselves almost mechanically. The past becomes an empty canvas, on which we paint all of our least courageous judgments.

He also warns libertarians. The lede for his essay advises libertarians to “engage with the past on its own terms. That means seeing beyond boringly obvious historical manifestations of sexism and racism.” In the essay itself, he urges his readers to remember that presentism is only a (usually poor) tactic:

We should not infer from certain ugly, anti-intellectual tactics used in fighting social wrongs that racism, sexism, or the like are true or good. This is a path down which I see way too many young non-lefties going. As they do, they lose all interest in liberty: except, of course, for those of precisely their own kind.

A few of my own thoughts:

One: People, especially historians, need to realize that pointing out something is ahistorical or “presentist” means that it’s bad history. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. That’s what Jason is arguing, too. But I just wanted to reiterate that.

Two: The question “was Shakespeare sexist” is presentist. But similar questions aren’t, or aren’t as much. “What were Shakespeare’s attitudes toward women as expressed in his work?” or “In what way does Shakespeare ‘construct’ gender in his work?” for example. They reflect present-day concerns in a way that would’ve been unrecognizable in Shakespeare’s day. They also contain certain value-laden assumptions about the “constructedness” and socially contingent nature of gender. But they’re also open questions for which the answers can be interesting and not overdetermined.

Three: It’s very, very hard–and maybe impossible–not to be presentist in some ways. We’d all do well to heed that point and recognize the presentism in our own arguments. Libertarians no less or more so than others. In their critique of government power, they sometimes use certain historically and place bound terms, such as “liberty” and “freedom” as if they be eternal truths whose meaning transcends time and place. And anyone who objects is “against freedom” or “against liberty.”

The system or set of rules that secures one person’s freedom or liberty can be the means to deny another person’s liberty. “Economic freedom” can mean “freedom to starve” or “freedom to be taken advantage of by fraudsters.” “Freedom from want” can sometimes mean “compelling third parties to subsidize others’ lives” and “denying choices to some people in the name of helping them be free from hunger.”

Not that there’s no common ground to be had. Libertarians usually recognize the need to help the less-well off and recognize that such help doesn’t come only from market liberalization. They also recognize the need to protect against fraud. Liberals usually recognize that expanding choice in the marketplace is generally a good thing as long as certain safeguards are in place. But the two freedoms have an inherent tension that becomes clearer when we examine who and in what historical context embraced those freedoms

My point is not that libertarians are uniquely presentist. We all commit and probably can’t avoid committing presentism. And perhaps presentism isn’t always bad, even for historians. Maybe some truths are eternal and transcend time and place. But libertarians, like the rest of us, would do well to recognize and account for that error, too.

Photo: The scholar. Candid coffee shop shot, Taunton, Somerset,UK. Credit: Neil Moralee. Attribution, non–commercial, no derivatives license.


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Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

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72 thoughts on “Presentism for libertarians and the rest of us

  1. A more interesting lede would have been:

    Libertarian scholars should engage with the past on its own terms. That means going beyond dismissing every belief that doesn’t conform with current libertarian dogma as “statism”.

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  2. Presentism is something that is extraordinarily hard to ignore unless you perceive the past as a good thing. If you aren’t inclined to even remotely romanticize a past era and you are more or less fine with this one or at least think it is going in the right direction than the easiest thing in the world is to apply modern standards to the past.

    Libertarians actually have the opposite problem of presentism. Many of them are overly inclined to look to some earlier past like America before the Progressive Era as a time when liberty was at a maximum because regulation was at a low point. If you weren’t from a group that had a rough time at during the late 19th century than the inclination to recognize that it might not have been paradise was at minimal.

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    • Jason comes from a group that had a pretty rough time in the 19th century, but your overall point is well-taken, if I understand it correctly. (And he’s not one of the offenders anyway.)

      Those people who would romanticize the 19th century in the way you mention are, I suspect, guilty of presentism inasmuch as they assume that we’d have everything we do now, except at 19th century government levels. Or they seem to. I’d need to actually read someone romanticizing the 19th century to see what they mean.

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      • I have to say, I generally find that such a weird criticism.

        It’s one thing to pull someone aside when they say, for example, “everyone was better off in the is country in 1850 then they were today!” And there are certainly a lot of people who make ridiculous statements such as this, and it deserves some pushback.

        But more and more, I see someone say, “I kind of love [historical period X],” meaning that there is something from that era that they love and wish they could have experienced first hand. And then they get called to answer for everything bad that happened in that era, as — say for example — someone liking Cay Grant movies was meant to be code for they hate [insert group of people who had fewer rights in the past here].

        I can’t decide if I find that really weird, really lazy, or both.

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        • One of the things that I tell my clients a lot as a lawyer is that every word of question they are asked is important because selectively listening might cause them to not exactly understand what a question is asking. When it comes to the past I suspect that when people say something like the 19th century was interesting because of X, most listeners are hearing that the 19th century was better than the present completely.

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        • Tod,

          I also think we find what you’re talking about in the following two cases.

          1. Someone says they’re “a 19th century liberal.” They usually don’t mean that the 19th century was a just a jolly old time. What they usually mean is “liberal” had a certain meaning in the 19th century (one that fought against many of the very bad things Lee describes) and when that person calls themselves “liberal” today, they’re referring to that meaning.

          2. Someone says something like “the US economy was better in the 1950s.” Although that statement ignores the way in which things really weren’t so good in the 1950s, what people often mean is that compared to today unions were stronger, the US was stronger relative to other countries, and the federal government had a greater commitment to helping the economy. (I’m not sure how true the last one is, but it’s different from a more simplistic assumption about people just being better off.)

          (ETA: I see Brandon beat me to the 1950s example.)

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    • Leftists, of course, do the same thing with the fifties. Sure, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but check out the unionization rates on that decade! And inequality!

      And many have explicitly taken to labeling themselves as “Progressives,” after a movement that even by the standards of the time was not so great when it came to treatment of marginalized groups.

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      • Most of the people who romanticize the 1950s that I’m aware of tend to be Republican politicians. None of the leftists and liberals that I know romanticize the 1950s at all even if they do point out the higher rate of unionization.

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          • {Not that I’m disagreeing with you, BUT…}

            History is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. (Just doin my part, here!) I think what tends to happen in this sorta thing is folks conflate two concepts of history, one being the actual events which occurred long ago and the other being the study of, including writings about, those events. I think it’s fair to say that history isn’t morally ambiguous on the first understanding of the concept (since history is amoral), and could be morally question-begging on the second.

            Which is to say that the study of past events will include a presentist framework only insofar as one is interested in arriving at a judgement about past events. And it’s perhaps an open question as to whether people are capable of a retelling that doesn’t include (presentist) judgment.

            Course, the more ismatic retellers will be inclined to include ism-based judgments, and radical ismatists are sorta definitionally retelling for the express purpose of including ism-based judgments. Seems to me anyway.

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            • I’ll push you a little bit on your argument, Stillwater. Even if you (the generic you) wish to study only the “amoral” aspects of the past, you still have to choose what to study and what not to study. And you also have to choose what sources to use, and the available sources are always going to be incomplete, so you have to decide how much weight to give each source.

              And if you decide to write–or even just tell–what you’ve found out, you have to pick and choose from the facts you learned which you’re going to include or highlight and which you’re going to excise or lowlight. You may also need or want to make certain claims about causality.

              I think that in that process, it’s probably impossible to escape one’s understanding of the present and it’s impossible not to make judgments. Perhaps that’s what you’re getting at when you say, “it’s perhaps an open question as to whether people are capable of a retelling that doesn’t include (presentist) judgment.”

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              • I think you’re probably right about that, but as I said above, it’s because (in my view anyway) the decisionmaking, narrative-forming impetus behind telling the story a certain way is to make a judgment about certain processes or states of affairs. And what you’re saying is that’s part and parcel of what constitutes the presentation of historical information. I don’t think we’re disagreeing all that much except perhaps the extent to which a presentist judgment is entailed by the mere presentation of historical information. In my view it isn’t. On the other hand, I think that contemporary historical reconstructions are interesting, valued and encouraged by the Academy moreorless precisely to the extent that they “interpret” historical facts and events in presentist terms which can be evaluated in terms of current theories. More or less, ya know?

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        • You have to be very far to the right to defend the 1950s for its’ racism, sexism, and homophobia openly. What conservatives usually do is praise the 1950s as a decade of the nuclear family, suburbia, which is ahistorical because most of the rust belt cities hit their peak population in the 1960 census and suburban growth did not occur in earnest outside of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago until the 1960s, and prosperity but without linking it to the devastation of World War II and unions though.

          I think that the people who point out that the GDP is higher today than it was in the 1960s and that material prosperity was greater are kind of missing the point of 1950s economic nostalgia. People might be more prosperous today than they were during the 1950s but the emotional component is missing. I think that most Americans probable felt a greater sense of stability and security economically during the 1950s than the do in the 2010s.The emotional component of prosperity is often overlooked.

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            • having checked Wikipedia pages dealing with American cities, you are right. The 1950 census represented peak urbanism in the United States. However, the differences between the 1950 and 1960 census for the population of the old big cities was generally small, often less than ten thousand. The growth of suburbs took off in earnest during the 1960s rather than the 1950s.

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              • Lee,
                All due respect, but quantifying what the hell a suburb is isn’t just about looking at the damn map.

                Single Family Detached Housing is a good metric for suburb, be it streetcar or motorcar. That puts me, despite being in the city, in a suburb.

                I can trace “reactions to suburbanization” to the 1960’s (East Liberty). I can trace deliberate racism in suburbanization to the 1950’s around here (white people: have a free loan on a house. black people: to the projects). I know when the suburbs got going in a major way (Monroeville). These are 1950’s, because we had the new development of cookie cutter housing (This improvement facilitated a lot of suburbia).

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          • I suspect that much of that sense of security and stability is retrospective. Americans in the 1950s didn’t know that the next world war wouldn’t come in their near future or that the next really big recession wouldn’t come for another 20 years or so. And poverty and the instability and lack of security that came with poverty was still very much with a lot of Americans, as Harrington’s Other America (1962) argued.

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            • There were big problems with poverty and uncertainty in post-War the United States. Its just that a confluence of factors ranging from the rest of the Industrial world either being in shambles, engaging on a really bonkers economic system, or both combined with the New Deal reforms and strong unionized labor in the United States made the post-war boom a lot more stable than other booms.

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                • Based on contemporary media representations, which I admit aren’t entirely reliable but do possess some evidentiary value, many or even most White Americans seemed to feel a keen sense of stability.

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                    • Personal snowflake stuff trying to address the larger issue:

                      To me, the 70s are a real Golden Age. I had just survived a war and had come home to a fine and lovely mate and a university education and the whole of my life to come looking pretty darn good. I was cheerful as hell for the whole decade!

                      How many people (well, Americans) in the 50s could say essentially the same thing? Millions. You bet the mood was happy and upbeat.

                      I know there’s a great deal to be said concerning race and nuclear warheads and McCarthy, etc., but think of the cumulative effect of millions of people counting their blessings, enjoying the land of plenty, loving the new technologies, and just basically glad to be alive.

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  3. The guidance about “accepting the past on its own terms” and condemning “presentism” isn’t without some drawbacks itself. Consider the beneficent slave owner. By the standards of his day, he was a kindly, noble figure, who practiced kindness and charity and managed his affairs generously. …But he also owned slaves. We give too easy a moral pass to that by saying it was the way things were and he had little economic ability to break away from that, um, “business model.” Down that road we will find good Nazis and earnest Communists and the Luddites.

    We can admire the writings and career of a figure like Thomas Jefferson, at the same time we can note his moral failures in recognizing the perniciousness of his own attitudes about slavery and race, while doing nothing to actually alter them. Jefferson, like a lot of people, is a morally ambiguous figure. And it’s OK to say so.

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    • One must engage with the past on its own merits, in its own time — judgement can come after you understand it.

      For, after all, American Indians also owned slaves. And their slavery was fundamentally different from the one practiced by white landowners.

      But, please take note, I’m pulling the “fundamentality” of the difference, the difference in objectionability… from the slaves own perspective.

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    • The version of this that I encounter in my baseball research is the sliding scale of racism. Blacks were just as quick to adopt baseball after the Civil War as whites, and middle class black clubs adopted similar institutional structures as did their white counterparts. But where the white clubs also adopted higher-level state and national associations, they excluded black clubs, which in turn lacked the critical mass to form parallel structures.

      Within this context a wide range of individual attitudes can be identified. You have Thomas Fitzgerald, a Philadelphia newspaperman and early president of the Athletics. He did a lot that in retrospect was on the side of the angels. He pushed for black clubs to be allowed to join the state association. That didn’t work out, but a couple of years later he was able to organize the first inter-racial baseball matches, breaking down the color line at least on the level of setting the precedent that a black and a white club could play a game against one another. This goes a long ways toward helping me overlook that Fitzgerald was also something of an ass: thin-skinned, always ready to offer asked advice, and fully capable of pursuing a grudge for years.

      At the other end are the active racists. Adrian Anson is famous for (along with being a great player) pushing to end the limited integration of the 1880s.

      So we have a clear hero and villain. Goodie! But the thing is, I fully expect that Fitzgerald would be considered racist by 21st century standards, if only on the “your daughter wants to marry one of those people” standard.

      Presentism is unhelpful here because it leads us to condemning both, even if not equally, which in turn obscures that Fitzgerald was indeed fighting the good fight. Worse, it obscures the discussion of the day. If we get caught up in judging everybody by modern standards we aren’t judging them by the standards of the day. They were participating in an ongoing discussion of race in America. We should be trying to understand their discussion, rather than merely inserting it into ours.

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    • Burt,

      I think there are more presentist and less presentist ways to address the issue of the benevolent slaveowner who “was a kindly, noble figure, who practiced kindness and charity and managed his affairs generously.” The more presentist thing is to say just what an awful, racist man he was. And that statement would be right. Another “more presentist” thing is to say that “oh well, he was a man of his times, so what do you expect. At least he honored his debts and raised his kids well.” And depending on the man, that statement could also be true.

      The question is, how useful are these statements. I’d say not very, but I suppose it depends on to what end someone wants to put them.

      A less-presentist approach might be to examine the social and political forces that enabled that man to hold slaves, and perhaps the legal and economic mechanisms that tied him to owning slaves so that even if he wanted to free some of them, it wasn’t as simple as manumitting them because creidtors might have liens on them. Or you could look more at that slaveowner’s personal responsibility. He didn’t choose what society he was born into and perhaps didn’t choose to own slaves in the first place, but he still made participated in and benefited the ownership of slaves in the first place, and because slavery was an inherently violent institution, he participated in that violence at least half-heartedly. (Such, I think, was part of TJ’s critique of slavery. It harmed the slaveowner because it gave him the opportunity to let loose his violent “passions.”)

      Yet another less presentist approach would look at the many critiques of slavery that coexisted with slavery itself and to reach some sort of understanding of how slaveowners tried to justify to others and to themselves (and very often coming up short) their participation in the slave economy.

      That “less presentist” approaches have the disadvantage of seeming to excuse the slaveowner. And in some ways perhaps they do. But they tend to make the types of moral judgments made by the “more presentist” approaches much more devastating in some ways. We realize that the institution of slavery didn’t exist “because that’s the way things were” but because a large number of people and institutions worked to establish and maintain it and reproduce it.

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  4. This seems silly to me. Look, obviously we’ll be interested in how the gender attitudes present in Shakespeare stack up versus those today. Likewise, we’ll be interested in how they stood relative to those in his era. We’ll want to know how Elizabethan England handled this topic in comparison to the same era in France. Did it vary by class? How did women feel about this, given that we mostly receive the views of men?

    This is all to say, there are various ways to read a text, for various reasons. We want to understand the contours of the past, but we live in the present.

    Of course, we should know when we’re doing each different thing.

    This feels a lot like, “Don’t ask these questions. We don’t like the answers.”

    (I actually had dinner last night with an English professor. Anyway, we talked a lot about Jane Austin, and indeed, we discussed the nature of sexism in Austin’s era, the pressures on women, the options available to them. This is an obvious and well-explored topic.)

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    • I think presentism is a bit more different than asking probing questions about the past. Noting that gender relations in Elizabethan England aren’t the same as 21st century England is one thing. With presentism, there is often an urge to through out the baby with the bathwater and find that one simply should not enjoy Shakespeare because gender relations in his work do not conform to modern standards.

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      • And Wagner,and the other notorious antisemites?

        There’s a Nobel Prizewinning Author who has the n-word throughout one of his famous plays. It’s… not used in a flattering sense, no.

        Do you really think that’s the best we can come up with, for American playwrights to teach in class?

        Or would you rather be teaching August Wilson?

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  5. So, I’m a bit late to the party, but I kinda see this thread, and the way it’s developed, as a case for why we should more often incorporate presentist critiques.

    Look at how much digital ink has been spent above writing about slave-owners in the conversation above, and the degree to which we should evaluate them by the relative morality of their own society. By contrast, consider how little has been written about the experience and perspective of the slaves. About their experiences and perspectives. It’s really not surprising–there’s a reason “History was written by the winners” is a saying. I’m reminded of this Vox article, written by a tour guide for a plantation, and the way in which it illustrates that people who absolutely knew slavery to be an evil system so often incorporated the value system of slave-owners as they learned about the experiences of the plantation’s slaves.

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    • I think that–the need to incorporate the perspectives of slaves–is a good point, Alan Scott, but why should that be a reason for particularly “presentist” approaches to history? If anything, looking at the experiences of slaves, strikes me as anti-presentist.

      I think you mean, but correct me if I’m wrong, that questions which arise only because we’re interested in such things today (e.g., the experiences of marginalized people, the meanings behind racism, etc.) means that we shouldn’t disregard those questions just because they arise from present-day concerns? If that’s what you mean by presentist, then yes, I agree we should be more presentist, and in being so, we’re like most (all?) other historians.

      Even the apparently loaded question that seemed to start this discussion–“Was Shakespeare sexist?”–might be less presentist than it appears at first glance. (And perhaps I was too unfair to when he pointed out above that liberals don’t really frame things that way.) “Was Shakespeare sexist?” could be the entryway to talking about the more “historical” issues of gender roles, etc.

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    • Additionally, to what extent is it appropriate for me to judge foreign cultures?

      Is there a significant difference between my judging India or China (or Qatar) and my judging the 1700s?

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      • It seems like the conservative intuition is to say that you cannot judge the past (but it’s okay to judge foreign cultures) while the progressive intuition is to say that you cannot judge foreign cultures (but it’s okay to judge the past).

        Is that grossly inaccurate?

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      • The difference, as I see it, is this:

        India and China are still there. The 1700s isn’t.

        When our society says that Middle Eastern Cultures encourage religious and ethnic violence and oppress women, we use that to justify bombing campaigns in the Middle East. When we say that Middle Ages Cultures encouraged religious and ethnic violence and oppressed women, no bombs are going to be forthcoming.

        What we say about India and China largely guides how we interact with India and China. What we say about the 1700s can only ever guide how we interact with the present day. When we criticize Shakespeare’s use of gender, we’re not going to change Shakespeare’s mind about women, or make things better for the women of the late 16th century. But we might affect how or whether a modern theater company stages “Taming of the Shrew” or how present-day playwrights portray gender in their own works.

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          • I’m not sure Alan is talking about “should’s” so much as he’s talking about “why things are that way.”

            I’m also going to add to what Alan said. Sometimes historical caricatures are part of how we define other contemporary cultures. I don’t know if it’s common or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised, if crusaders against “Islamo-fascism” point to an alleged history of backwardness and oppression against women that has supposedly characterized Islam for all time. (Nevermind the arguments that the extreme fundamentalism is in many ways a modern-day creation. My point isn’t that the crusaders are right, but that they’re using some form of history to justify present-day judgments.)

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            • I can understand the attitude that says “I need to treat any and every given person with the thought of ‘there but for the grace of God go I'”,

              I can understand the attitude that says “I have this ruler right here and, dang it, I will measure with it.”

              When people use this one, then that other one, then shift back to the former depending on what they are judging, it makes me wonder what is really going on and whether there is an attempt by the judge to put his or her thumb on the scale.

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          • No, you just shouldn’t judge foreign cultures in ways that contribute to an attitude that will result in deaths. I think you have to get pretty far out into the weeds of liberal zanyness to find people who say you should literally never judge any culture not your own. Objection tends to be in the method or nature of that judgement.

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        • Regarding this comment:

          And most of the churches in my neighborhood in Big City look more to Constantinople than Rome.

          Do you actually live in a city with more Eastern Orthodox Christians than Catholics? I thought the former was basically a non-entity in the US.

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          • Not the city as a whole. I presume at least a majority are either Roman Catholic or some version of protestant. But my neighborhood has a lot of people from eastern Europe. Within a square mile of my apartment, there are at least 3 Orthodox Churches. There are also a couple (maybe more) Roman Catholic Churches. So maybe even here the Orthodox folks are in a minority. And I have no information as to how well-attended the Orthodox churches are.

            So, I guess I was speaking rather glibly.

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  6. The better question in my mind when looking at the past is ‘Does this person seem to ahead of the curve or behind it?’

    I.e., with Shakespeare, yes, parts of his writing is rather sexist, and predetermined gender roles abound. OTOH, half the time he seems to be taking the piss out of those. His women often seem to *talk* more about the limitations of women than actually *have* limitations. And apparently, put a woman in pants and she can pass perfectly as a man, not showing any of this supposed weakness at all. All in all, he seems ahead of the curve.

    But even if that wasn’t true…who cares? There is no point in try to say he’s ‘sexist’ as some sort of attack on him. As others have pointed out, nothing you do is going to change his mind about women, and it’s not like he’s some sort of oft-cited expert on gender relations where people cite his work and it needs discrediting. I have no idea what lowering the ‘hat of sexism’ on him would be trying to accomplish.

    OTOH…the article linked presents no evidence that this is *actually happening*. I suspect it, like trigger warnings on the classics, is just something that maybe was suggested once, by some college student somewhere, and now mysteriously it’s ‘the left’ demanding it. There are no examples at all.

    It seems to be a conservative rule: Any very stupid thing that can *possibly* be considered liberal (or at least not conservative) that someone (Especially any college student.) *might* have done or suggested once is now Official Policy of the Left and will be treated as such.

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    • My problem with the curve theory is that it seems to be a more open-minded form of presentism insofar as it looks at “way back when” and “a hundred years after way back when” and makes determinations on the former by how well it lined up with the latter.

      While, at the same time, there is no way whatsoever to use that measure on ourselves.

      If someone is not in step with our social conventions, are they deviant or are they ahead of the curve? Where we currently are can be used as a measurement of some sorts, I guess… is the deviant more in line with his grandparents or does the deviant hold some version of some small minority’s views only turned up to 11? And then, 100 years later, we can look at all of the “turned up to 11″s and see who turned out to be right and then cheerfully point out that they were ahead of their time?

      Using this view, the only thing we can be confident of is how those around us who hold the same views as their not-ahead-of-the-curve grandparents are wrong. We can’t say who is right… just who is going to be judged the most harshly for not being ahead of the curve.

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      • My problem with the curve theory is that it seems to be a more open-minded form of presentism insofar as it looks at “way back when” and “a hundred years after way back when” and makes determinations on the former by how well it lined up with the latter.

        You either *can* judge people in the past, or you *can’t*. There’s not really any middle ground.

        And, of course you can judge people in the past, because Hitler. Most people refuse to live in a moral universe where we *can’t* judge him.

        Now, there is the argument that ‘the curve’ is a bit simplistic, because in reality, humanity does regress.

        But the problem is that I’m not actually comparing things to any point in ‘the future’ of the person. I’m comparing things to *what I believe*, in the here and now, and asking if that person seems to be closer, or at least not farther away, than the average person in his time and place.

        While, at the same time, there is no way whatsoever to use that measure on ourselves.

        …well, duh?

        If society agreed on what society was already going to think it in the future, (And that such thoughts were good things) it would already think those things.

        If someone is not in step with our social conventions, are they deviant or are they ahead of the curve?

        I said I look at people in the *past* that way, not people in the present.

        Using this view, the only thing we can be confident of is how those around us who hold the same views as their not-ahead-of-the-curve grandparents are wrong. We can’t say who is right… just who is going to be judged the most harshly for not being ahead of the curve.

        Uh, yes, if that rule of thumb was *literally the only moral guide we had*, we’d have no idea how to think about anyone in the present.

        Of course, it’s *not* the only moral guide we have, so I’m not really seeing the problem. I don’t have problems with people’s behavior because, in the future, people will disapprove of it when looking back…I have problems with people behavior because *I* disapprove of that, in the here and now. I’d have that same opinion regardless of how society moved in the future. (Unless *my* beliefs changes.)

        All I am saying is, in the past (and, to some extent, even in the present), I make allowances for *starting conditions* of that person. I make allowances for what they were taught by society. And people can either stay at that location, move in a better direction (Which is *coincidentally* closer to present thought), or move in a worse direction.

        Of course, none of this actually matters anyway. People running around condemning dead people for things doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

        The only reason it might make sense to talk about Shakespeare’s sexism is *in the context of his plays*, which are still being performed, but those are so obviously archaic, are so hard to understand the nuances of, and have all sorts of other problems anyway that prevent people from just wandering across them without any context. So I don’t think we need to run around making sure that people understand that women *aren’t really* weaker like the plays say…and, as I said, often Shakespeare appears to be mocking that idea anyway.

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        • Of course we can judge Hitler. We can judge ourselves. We can judge Shakespeare.

          It just seems really, really weird to use measures on others that they themselves could not have used and, indeed, the implication that we would use such a measure on ourselves merits a “duh”.

          We can judge Hitler not on where he was on the curve (imagine, if you will, a society that says “man, he was vilified at the time but, seriously, he was ahead of the curve!’) but on a yardstick that we agree applies to him and applies to us and we’re pretty confident will apply to our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

          You say a very interesting thing in your parenthetical here:
          (Which is *coincidentally* closer to present thought)

          I’m not sure it’s a coincidence.

          I’m pretty sure it’s the measuring stick.

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          • It just seems really, really weird to use measures on others that they themselves could not have used and, indeed, the implication that we would use such a measure on ourselves merits a “duh”.

            Why does that seem weird?

            Part of this problem is the idea that we’re ‘judging’ people. We are not. Well, we are, but there is nothing we are going to do to them, or not do to them. We don’t need to be ‘fair’. We’re judging them for *us*, not for them.

            The only reason we care about them is basically ‘How should *we* think about something they created that we’re still talking about?’ (These thing might be fiction, or political philosophy, or a country, or anything, but the important thing is that here, in the modern day, we still care about those things.)

            There are only three options there:
            1) We consider everyone as if they were modern day, which essentially means almost *everyone*, in all of history, falls short, and we should discard the musing of all those obvious sexist racist homophobes or whatever.
            2) We completely ignore how we currently think about the world, and consider them only in the context of their own society, which is not actually possible, and, if it was, would have us nodding along to all sorts of nonsense.
            3) We look at them from a starting point of their society, but with *us* defining what is good and bad in *their* society, and judging them on that scale.

            #3 is sorta what everyone does.

            I just described it, and pointed out the thing we should be looking at is ‘better than average’, not ‘the absolute perfect best’. A lot of people sit down and write the scale, and then are disappointed everyone isn’t a 10 out of 10.

            Yes, people *could* have freed all their slaves, or even spent all their money buying other slaves and setting them free, instead of just treating their slaves fairly…but *you* could have turned your house into a homeless shelter and given all your money away to the poor, and *you* didn’t do that. (I assume.)

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            • (Sorry, didn’t see this until today)

              I like this solution because it seems like it could be used to apply a yardstick to more contemporary cultures. Like, say, any of the number mentioned above.

              It even allows for a little bit of feedback given that we can imagine such cultures going on to judge us using their own rulers (but from a place of similar humility).

              Sadly, we have no way of knowing how Shakespeare or Aquinas or Alexander would have judged us. (That’s a criticism I would *LOVE* to read!) We can, however, look at us through the lenses of, say, China, or Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or Mexico, or any number of countries… and say “well, those places just don’t ‘get it'” (or similar when they see how we treat this or that social issue that they’re still backwards on).

              While, at the same time, judging them and being judged.

              Though I admit to feeling a little irritated at the thought of Saudi Arabia judging us for our treatment of women, though. Where do they get off?

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