Not to know what has been transacted in former
times is to be always a child.
When I first came across the word “presentism” in a magazine article, I thought it was a newly coined word and wondered if it would catch on in the media. Well, it didn’t become a buzz word, but it is a bona fide word.
According to the Oxford Dictionaries web site, “presentism” is defined as “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.”
Much to my surprise, I also discovered that presentism is not a neologism. Historians have been using it for at least a century. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to at least 1916 and possibly the 1870’s. So why hasn’t the word escaped from the history department?
After all, the suffix “ism” has been liberally attached to any number of words. Racism gave birth to sexism, heterosexism, ageism, heightism, weightism, ad nauseam. All these terms are pejorative, as they connote prejudice. Presentism also implies prejudice, but it does not fit into the current cultural narrative of feminism, misandry, and gender equity. In fact, it has the potential to subvert all of them.
When people take a detailed objective look at the past, they inevitably compare it with the present. When that is done, there is always the danger that people might find our brave new world wanting. Best to leave people ignorant of the past lest they figure that the status quo ain’t what it used to be, and need not be what it is today.
Progressives exhort us to shrug off “the dead hand of the past” (great name for a horror movie, eh?) in favor of whatever form of social engineering they propose. As George Orwell said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Hence we have the endless re-writing of history, not in light of new artifacts or documents being unearthed, but because of contemporary politics.
Consider a women’s studies major offering a feminist interpretation of gender roles in, say, 13th Century France. Such a study would be historically pointless because the concept of feminism was unknown in that era. But the real point of presentism is to use the past to promote “social justice” today, so in that sense, such a study would serve its purpose.
But we don’t have to go back eight centuries to learn lessons from history. Old-timers, for example, typically refer to the way things were in the good old days when they were young. Indulging in nostalgia is largely a private reverie, but it also serves to remind the young whippersnappers that the world as they know it has not been around that long; in a sense, the past is an alternative lifestyle, and not necessarily an ancient one.
The drawback to nostalgia is that no matter how old you are, the world – your world – began when you came into it. That is your baseline. As you age, you notice changes from that baseline; unless you study history, you will not be aware of the changes that preceded – and resulted in – your baseline.
For example, my grandfather was born in 1895, so to him female emancipation was linked with suffragettes and flappers drinking and smoking. I was born in 1950, so for me, what we now call tradcon was normal. Female enfranchisement was a given. Cigarettes and booze for women was not an issue, though overindulgence in the latter might raise eyebrows.
In late adolescence, when I first became of what is now known as the second wave of feminism, it seemed abnormal to me. Someone who was born a generation after me (say 1980) would have grown up in a world where the tenets of that stage of feminism had been assimilated by mainstream culture. But such a person would perceive the third wave of feminism as abnormal. The new normal is always touted as though we have no choice but to shrug and accept it. Can’t turn back the clock, you know. You some kind of reactionary or what?
Well, in a sense you can turn back the clock by reading history, but only if it is real history – in other words untainted by presentism, which uses contemporary tropes to describe the past.
Presentists (if that’s not a word, I just made it one) smugly roll their eyes at the benighted sods and clods of ages past and wonder, “What were they thinking?” We never consider the humbling likelihood that people in the future will look back at us with the same attitude.
In fact, it could work the other way around. Imagine a time machine filled with men from before the industrial revolution. If they were brought to our world and disembarked here, they would look around and wonder, “You let your women rule you? What are you thinking?”
I cite the industrial revolution as the dividing line because the seeds of female emancipation were planted during that era. The first manifesto of feminism is often considered to be A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792 by Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s probably no accident that she was British, as the industrial revolution began in Great Britain.
At the same time, the American and French Revolutions, right behind the Age of Enlightenment, were pushing democracy and egalitarianism, which were more likely to be conducive to inchoate feminist urges. It was only a matter of time before someone looked at The Rights of Man, and said, hey, what about the rights of women?
When one speaks of equality, it’s important to specify which two entities are being compared. Feminists, of course, compare their lot to men, now and in the past. But what happens when men turn away from presentism and compare themselves to the men who came before them?
In considering the plight of contemporary men, you might compare yourself to your father and realize that you have to put up with more crap from women than he did; you might look at your grandfather and realize that he had to put up with even less crap from women than your father did. Is that fair? Is that equitable? Depends on who’s being compared to whom.
Go back far enough and you find a time when the subject of women’s rights never came up. Men didn’t worry about what women wanted. If that attitude predominated in days of old, there is no reason why men couldn’t adopt that attitude today. If they did, what could women do about it? Judging by the early returns of the MGTOW movement, not much.
The upshot of all this is that we are not stuck in the present. Reading history enables us to imagine a world very different from the world we live in. We are imagining not what might be but what has already been. That makes a big difference. It’s not blue sky, utopian thinking. In other words, we are dealing not with ideals but reality. If you want to know what humans are capable of, it’s not a bad idea to start by taking an objective look at what they’ve already done.
Presentism is a form of ignorance. Technological progress deludes us into thinking that social progress is an inevitable concomitant and that our society is superior to past societies. This is not to say they got it all right in the past any more than we do today. We’re not talking golden age mythology here. But maybe folks got some things right in the past and we get some things wrong today.
Maybe we can’t turn back the clock, but we can stop the clock. We can just unplug it or stop winding it by turning our backs on contemporary society. We can actively fight the status quo, or simply do the MGTOW thing and minimize involvement with it. It may not be possible to effect change to make society better for men, but it may be possible to reboot society after it collapses. I can see the bumper stickers now: “Society has been canceled due to lack of interest.”
We know civilization can exist without feminism. History offers us thousands of years of proof. But the powers that be don’t want men to ponder this point because they might conclude that the present civilization and future civilizations can exist without it. History must be filtered through presentism to (1) maintain the status quo, or (2) enable progressive social engineering.
We know men are no strangers to visions of the future, as science fiction has been overwhelmingly male since Jules Verne was a young buck. Envisioning the past also requires imagination, and it’s more likely to shed light on the present. Also, we are on firmer footing when we study history. Going in the other direction is just educated guesswork.
The concept of presentism is worth passing on. When appropriate, try to introduce the word in conversation. Explain to people that it is a form of (gasp) prejudice. And it applies not just to feminism but to other contemporary social toxins.
Spread the word.