U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Privilege of the Present: A Reply to Keri Leigh Merritt

Editor's Note

The following guest post, yet another response to the vibrant Roundtable we hosted here a few weeks ago on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, is by Varad Mehta, chief historian at Decision Desk HQ.

I must first of all confess my surprise at finding myself participating in the debate about David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, a book far afield from my own areas of expertise and interest. And I won’t be saying anything about the book itself. Instead, I will offer a counterpoint to Keri Leigh Merritt’s rebuttal of the defenses of Potter’s book. There are portions of her provocative and contentious post I’m partial to. Yet as I will argue in what follows, her vision of historical scholarship as a form of advocacy grounded in commitment to a particular political cause rests on several ill-conceived and misguided assumptions, ones which threaten the historical enterprise itself.

Merritt opens with a statement of purpose to which few historians could object.

The study of history is not only important in understanding the past, but it helps to guide the future. It is the examination of magnificence and atrocity, pleasure and pain, love and loss. It is what gives life meaning; in its highest form it is what makes life beautiful.

I read this passage to mean that Merritt regards history as a form of moral inquiry. I concur wholeheartedly. History inevitably has a moral component because, as I have written here previously, historians carry their ethical assumptions about the world and “the nature of their endeavor” into the past.

There is no use decrying this influence; it is unavoidable. The issue is how to channel it so that it complements rather than warps our understanding of the past. As I wrote earlier, “Where historians go astray is not in having these impulses but in prioritizing them over their professional obligations. One’s agenda should serve one’s scholarship, not the other way around.” Merritt’s conception of history violates both these precepts.

The flaw is her formulation of presentism, which she considers fundamental to the historian’s craft. “What I see emerging within the profession – especially over the last few years – has been a sharp divide between the moral relativists and the scholars who believe that history does have a presentist purpose.” Merritt clearly groups herself in the latter category. But it isn’t clear why those who reject the notion that history has a presentist orientation should be classified as moral relativists. Nor is it evident that the discipline can be usefully bifurcated between presentists and anti-presentists.

Now I am the last person to deny that history is presentist. It cannot be anything but. History exists in the here and now. But that is an adventitious, not a determinative property. It can’t exist anywhere but here and now. To quote myself a third time: “History is about the present not because that is its subject but because that is when it is realized. History exists in the present because we do.”

There are, practically speaking, two kinds of presentism, ontological (or temporal) and ethical. The former is the variety I just delineated. It is a product of our location in spacetime: we here now. The perspective that we have on the past is the only one we can have because we do not have access to any other. We can’t reach the past except from the present in which we live.

The fact that we live now instead of then, however, does not confer any moral superiority on us. This is the debility of ethical presentism, which is predicated on the idea that our vantage is superior because we see things that our forebears did not, that therefore our understanding of the past is better, and that consequently we are better.

Merritt’s presentism is of this type. It implores, nay, demands that we use the privilege of the present to our advantage. This is what she means when she contrasts the “moral relativists” to what she styles “activist historians.” What makes them activists? They “are working to change the world” and they do so because they are motivated by the conviction that history has a present purpose.

Absent here is any sense that the activists are historians. Perhaps they are, but that seems subsidiary to their moral and political quest. The irony of Merritt’s dichotomy between so-called moral relativists and activists should be evident. The very moral relativism she indicts has for the last two centuries been regarded as an elemental component of history as a regular and scientific discipline. History as we understand it today would not exist, would not be possible without it. Such moral relativism is a basic facet of historicism. It underlies the idea that the past was distinct and autonomous, that it had an existence apart from us and that it was valid in its own right without any sanction from us.

There is no logical reason that moral relativism and activism in Merritt’s sense should be mutually exclusive. One can be a moral relativist and an activist. If, that is, an acceptance that “history does have a presentist purpose” is the criterion that determines whether one is an activist or not.

Most historians, I reckon, would concede that presentism is innate in what they do. The study of the past occurs in the present and is therefore shaped by its concerns and aspirations. At the same time, we study the past to understand the present. Neither of these propositions is likely to arouse much indignation. So there is no conflict between being a moral relativist and believing that history has a presentist purpose. Most historians comfortably hold both ideas in their head. They wouldn’t be historians otherwise.

Merritt’s distinction succumbs to its internal contradictions because it carries an unspoken assumption in its second term. Merritt isn’t contrasting moral relativists with historians who believe history has a presentist purpose. The divergence she posits is really between different kinds of presentist. The dispute isn’t about whether history has a presentist purpose but what that purpose is. It is this shortcut that permits her to conflate presentism and activism. But this leap of logic just happens, it is not reasoned out.

She characterizes her side of a split that “has always existed within the profession” this way:

activist historians are suddenly starting to become involved at a policy level. They are working to change the world, from prison reform to labor rights to immigration and racial justice issues. They are winning Pulitzers and Bancrofts and selling books in several languages. They are speaking to an American public who desperately (and increasingly) want to hear what they have to say.

She later contends that historians “must devote our precious little research time to things that are generative and beneficial to society.”

What is beneficial to society is not a question history can answer. It is a matter for the political arena – which is just where Merritt wants historians to be. For Merritt, history is a mode of political commitment. That is the kind of presentism she has in mind when she lauds it as a form of activism. But this is a presentism that has little to do with history.

Here too Merritt leaves herself an out. The presentism she espouses can be severed from the past because it serves a higher truth than the mere understanding of history. “Most activist historians, I would assume, believe that there are certain immutable moral truths in this world.” Once more what is left unsaid is what does all the work, as there is no logical relationship – negative or positive – between her terms.

There is no reason to assume an activist historian must believe there are timeless moral truths just as there is no reason that someone who believes there are natural laws (as they were once called) should therefore be an activist historian. It is quite possible to be one and not the other. One may even argue that Merritt’s sort of presentism and the belief in immutable truths are inimical. For what is timeless must be measured by standards which stand outside history, and therefore a commitment to presentism cannot be sustained by an appeal to what is properly speaking ahistorical.

This is not the only fallacy Merritt commits here. As they are entangled, I reproduce the paragraph in question in full:

Most activist historians, I would assume, believe that there are certain immutable moral truths in this world. We believe that if we had been born 50 years ago or 500 years ago that we wouldn’t harm or abuse other human beings. I have no qualms at all in stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths. I believe in social and racial justice, and in righteousness. The time and place of events make no ethical difference to me.

Merritt asserts that activist historians believe that if they lived in the past they would not injure a fellow human. This is shorthand, I think, for another unspoken assumption, namely, “If I lived in the past, I would have the same moral ideals I do today.” Maybe. There’s no way to know for sure. But Merritt gets out of this jam by stating these are assumptions and beliefs.

Unfortunately, she runs aground shortly after and this time can’t extricate herself as easily.  “I have no qualms at all,” she avows, “in stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths. I believe in social and racial justice, and in righteousness.” I agree with Merritt: there are moral truths. But five hundred years ago if she had said one of those truths was racial justice, she would have met with puzzled looks. No one in the sixteenth century had any inkling what “racial justice” was. That is a precept of much more recent vintage. In the space of two lines, Merritt contradicts herself by offering as an example of immutable morality a principle so timeless it didn’t even exist at the start of the modern era.

Worst is this: “The time and place of events make no ethical difference to me.” Whatever this attitude is, what it is not, is historical. To claim that time and place don’t matter is to say that history doesn’t matter. We can distinguish past from present because we take time and place into account. Their recognition makes history possible. To say they make no difference is to substitute one’s own values for those of the past before one has even attempted to investigate what those values were. Nor is the qualification that it makes no ethical difference exculpatory, since one of the historian’s primary responsibilities is to realize that past and present aren’t the same and treat them accordingly.

Merritt supposes a priori that the present is right and the past is wrong. But this is something that can only be ascertained after the fact. Holding otherwise is to treat the past not as something to be understood but as something to be judged. But historians cannot judge the past because no verdict we render can alter it. The past, as I have argued, can never be “a proper arena for our intervention.” To adhere to the view that it is and should be is to succumb to a profound philosophical naivete. Conceiving of history this way is, in effect, to blame people for having lived in the past.

What, then, makes historians activists – that they believe in immutable moral truths or that they are, well, activists? The answer is of course the latter, but that sounds a bit shabby, a tad undignified. Using the past to serve a political agenda isn’t particularly respectable, even for academic historians. The way around this is to shroud the endeavor in high moral purpose. But hiding one’s motivations will no more disguise one’s activities than it will turn what one does into history.

Merritt implies that one can be a historian and an activist at the same time; perhaps even that to be a historian is to be an activist. But in practice one will likely take priority over the other. And if one is a historian second, that is the same as not being a historian at all.

The historian Carl Paulus commented on one of the earlier entries in the roundtable that “placing our moral stamp on the past will only create works of history that are fleeting and reveal little of what really happened in the past and why.” Paulus is right: turning the past into a battleground for the moral dilemmas of the present only distorts it. Merritt protests that this is a “reductio ad absurdum” because she was inspired to become a historian by “morally-righteous histories” composed by “[s]cholars who were personally passionate about their subjects – people who had something moral and right and good to prove.”

Merritt doesn’t explain why Paulus’ statement is an “absurdity.” The only way it can be is if there is an incompatibility between the “morally-righteous histories” she esteems and those which meet Paulus’ test of not “filtering the past through a presentist worldview.” I don’t know if she means to, but by juxtaposing morally-righteous histories and those bearing the present’s moral stamp she is in effect declaring that only presentist histories can be morally righteous.

Once again, Merritt links what bears no necessary relationship. History can have moral import without being tainted by presentism. Moreover, Merritt uses her own example to argue against Paulus’ general principle. She was drawn to the field by histories that wore their indignation on their sleeves. But an individual testimony cannot disprove a rule or establish one.

“Presentist history is bad.”

“No, I was inspired by these moralist histories, therefore, you’re wrong.”

This is erroneous reasoning on multiple levels. The main problem, again, is that Merritt never successfully connects presentism and moralism. A work of history can be all the things Merritt cherishes and remain faithful to the canons of the profession. Indeed, I would argue that it is because of their fidelity that Merritt praises them. She lauds scholars who had something to prove. “These are the scholars who continually challenge the profession to move forward. They shatter old beliefs and invent new possibilities. They make history matter.”

They made it matter, though, precisely because they used all of the historian’s art instead of abandoning it. The reason Merritt can admire these texts is that they weren’t “fleeting and reveal[ed] little of what really happened in the past and why.” Their authors didn’t take the concerns of the present as paramount over those of the past. They did just the opposite.

Merritt takes it for granted that historians will challenge the profession, move it forward, shatter old beliefs, create new possibilities, and change the world. Why they are so obliged isn’t explained. But that they should is implicit in her broader argument about presentism and activism. Historians ought to do these things because they can only discharge their moral duty in the present and to the present. The historian’s purpose, as Merritt envisions it, is to rewrite the past in order to write the future. This is why she must frame presentism in ethical terms, for it is only then that she can represent activism not only as part of the historian’s task but as the necessary consequence of it.

It is notable, therefore, that she never utters the term “revisionism.” Its absence is conspicuous. But it is not curious. Revisionism has frequently served as a dirty word, a charge leveled at historians precisely on the ground of moral relativism, that by revising our understanding of the past they violate objective truth and smuggle in their wisdom for that of the ages. Often those accused of being revisionists are the very activist historians Merritt champions. Merritt, however, must eschew revisionism because it isn’t sufficient to her purposes. It simply doesn’t go far enough. It cannot, for revisionism is an epistemological phenomenon, not a moral one.

The historian, proposed R. G. Collingwood, can see history “only from the point of view which at this present moment he occupies within it.” History changes because we change, and with it our methods, our interests, our ways of thinking. “Because of these changes . . . every new generation must rewrite history in its own way.”[1] Revision thus understood carries no moral significance. History changes because we do and along with it not only how we see the past but how we are able to see it. This is neither good nor bad. It just is. It is a kind of metaphysical necessity. The past doesn’t change; we do. The mistake is in thinking that because we change we must change the past along with us. It is an understandable mistake. But it is still a mistake.

As I read Merritt’s essay, I couldn’t help feeling that it was suffused by a kind of moral panic, that the fierce urgency of now, to coin a phrase, was summoning historians to seize the moral imperative of speaking (historical) truth to power. Merritt phrases it like this:

In a world where everything is in flux, where everything seems to be careening out of control, people want moral and intellectual surety. They crave simplicity. They want passion about a subject matter. Detached, professorial types are simply not going to inspire anyone to learn more about the nation’s history.

Who will inspire Americans to learn about their past? Historians who are as much political combatants as they are scholars, viz., the activist historians whose spokesman Merritt appoints herself.

Merritt mandates this oppositional stance because “Bill O’Reilly and Peggy Noonan aren’t only popular because they peddle historical lies to white supremacists.” They make “bold and forthright assertions [that] are commanding Americans’ attention.” To seize it back, historians must be equally bold and forthright. Why they should be because Bill O’Reilly and Peggy Noonan are peddling lies to white supremacists is left to the imagination. Why O’Reilly and Noonan? Why not, say, David Barton? And who are the white supremacists, all their readers or only some of them? No matter. Fire must be fought with fire.

The problem with fighting fire with fire is that you risk immolating yourself. At this point it should be noted just how radical Merritt’s vision is. She rejects historicism in favor of presentism and places the present in judgement of the past. Neither has been considered appropriate conduct for a historian for a long time. The fire burns, but what it is burning is not one’s political enemies but the norms of the discipline as they have existed for decades.

So here, too, in the end we find looming over everything the shadow of one Donald John Trump. One of greatest fears about Trump’s presidency is the corrosive effect it will have on norms. Trump indeed is destroying norms. Many institutions, in their rush to man the barricades of “resistance,” have been gripped by a compulsion to shred norms just as wantonly as Trump does out of the conviction that this is the only way to stop him. But destroying our own norms won’t stop him. All it will do is destroy our norms. And we have more to destroy.

Already I fear that the lure of activism has enticed historians to embrace dubious interpretations and betray core values. The most galling example might be Jennifer Delton’s bizarre, egregious encomium to McCarthyism. Because alt-right activists have grabbed the mantle of free speech, Delton argues, university officials and other authorities should consider deploying a similar strategy to the one that was used to repress communists in the 1940s and 1950s, a strategy devised by the anti-communist left. “Subsequent liberals (and most of my professors) condemned these anticommunist liberals for opening the door to McCarthyism and Cold War militarism. But given our current political moment and the threat posed by the actions of alt-right provocateurs,” the justifications for suppressing communists “may bear revisiting.”

When your argument is literally “new look at McCarthyism?”, it isn’t Donald Trump who’s the problem. If this is the sort of activism informed by history Merritt desires, it will poison both activism and history. Apparently it is not only the norms of the discipline that historians are tearing down in the name of political expediency, but those of the civic order, too. Down this path lies only the dark side.[2]

If you want to fight for a cause, great. But do it in the cause’s name, not history’s. “History is dying out as a major,” Merritt asserts. As are, indeed, all the humanities. For this malady are there many causes. One of which, I would proffer, however unwelcome the suggestion, is that they have become concerned not too little with the present but too much.

Merritt’s aspirations are noble. But her pursuit of them is destructive both of her means and her ends. She, as do we all, enjoys the privilege of the present. But this privilege can obscure as much as it reveals, distort as much as it clarifies. Merritt is right about this much – we do know more. But knowing more isn’t the same as knowing better, let alone being better. It is the equation of the two that forms the trap into which Merritt falls and never escapes. Presentism isn’t an ethical status, it’s a temporal one. History is presentist because we are. And that can never be anything but an accident.

“Many of the truths we cling to,” Obi-Wan Kenobi tells an incredulous Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, “depend greatly on our own point of view.” So what he told Luke about his father’s death in Star Wars “was true – from a certain point of view.” If we take Obi-Wan at his word, he could mean one of two things: that the truth doesn’t change, only our perspective on it; or that truth is in the eye of the beholder, and as the eye changes so does the truth. Which, then, is the morally relativist stance, and which the activist one?

The past, much like the Force, surrounds us and penetrates us. It may even bind the galaxy together. And like the Force, if we call to the past, it calls back to us. But to hear it we must first clear our minds and let go our feelings. It is natural to want to listen to the past in order to speak to the future. But in order to do so we must first ensure that the voices we hear are those of history and not our own.

[1] R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, ed. Jan van der Dussen (rev. ed., Oxford, 1994), 248.

[2] Merritt claims that Americans are increasingly desperate to hear from historians. But on issues like the fate of Confederate memorials, where public opinion is directly at odds with the consensus of the historical profession, just the opposite seems to be true. When historians are prodding the public to reconsider McCarthyism, you can hardly blame it for ignoring what historians have to say.