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History as Love and The Presentist Trap: Responses to James Sweet

AHA president James H. Sweet’s September column for Perspectives on History, “Is History History? Identity Politics and the Teleologies of the Present,” generated controversy and discussion in venues ranging from social media to the op-ed pages of major newspapers and the academic press. Perspectives has invited two critics of the piece, Malcolm Foley and Priya Satia, to respond.



I’m glad that James H. Sweet wrote this column. It did what he intended it to do: it opened a particular conversation about how we “do” history, something that Sweet, in his apology, noted as his initial wish. There is much to reflect on from his piece, whether it is the continuing redefinition of “identity politics” away from its radical coining or its singling out of The 1619 Project as a point of critique. I’d like to widen the conversation, however, and make a suggestion about the relationship between history and politics—namely, that the relationship is a necessary one, and if we flee from it, we do our students and our world a disservice.

As someone who initially intended to do theological work about the influence of early Greek theologians on the Reformation theologian John Calvin, I had very little intention, when I embarked on the journey to become a historian, of uttering the words of the previous sentence. As I learned and imbibed historiographical methods, my own understanding of human activity continued to expand. I became aware of the ways in which religion, economics, and politics shape human and institutional action and change. But one thing that I found most interesting is that there is an idea that binds historians and theologians together: everyone is one, but not everyone is a good one. This also leads to significant academic anxiety: Wherein lies what makes us special? Is it in our language? Our guild is one that relies not on jargon but rather on intelligibility. Is it in our content? Who has the right to police what is or is not the historian’s content? As Norman Cantor and Richard Schneider said in their framing of the field for undergraduate students, “What a historian does is obtain information about the past and then make judgments about the significance, meaning, importance, and relevance of these bits of information.” The field is lively because we have so many people looking at the past while asking different questions. These historians also make different judgments. But central to the work is the understanding that the past matters today, a truth that every thinking human being assumes and regularly acts in light of. Yet this is also fundamentally a political act, insofar as politics are understood to be the exercise of power by groups and individuals. As Sweet stated, bad history does indeed yield bad politics. The opposite, however, is also true: just history yields just politics.

This is, of course, distinguishable from doing history to justify current political stances and agendas. But the desire to live well is not an agenda; it is something common to the human experience and something we each bring to everything we do. We all ask particular questions and focus on particular data because of what we think is important. 




My email to the AHA about president James H. Sweet’s damaging column elicited an invitation to respond. I felt it a duty to accept, as someone in a secure position and author of a recent history of the discipline’s political engagement. But rather than honored, I felt exhaustion at having to explain the harm of Sweet’s condescending portrayal of African Americans’ understanding of history and of his attempt, from his influential office, to delegitimize scholarship on essential topics like race, gender, and capitalism (in a manner that has now drawn the approval of white supremacists).

Sitting down to write, I found relief in T. J. Tallie’s (Univ. of San Diego) protest, upon being asked to respond to Sweet, against the constant demand that marginalized peoples offer up free labor to defend their own humanity. The appropriate course, he explains, was a retraction and apology. Here, in solidarity, I offer my free labor amplifying Tallie’s demand. [As I’ve finished drafting this, I’ve learned that Sweet has issued an apology (albeit reaffirming his complaint about “presentism”) and that I will receive Perspectives’ standard $100 honorarium for this essay.]

Retraction is appropriate because the essay’s flaws are pervasive and obvious. It chastises the discipline for producing scholarship that fails to respect the “values and mores of people in their own times” without offering a single piece of evidence. Who are these historians who have betrayed their disciplinary duty? In a column subject to normal vetting, editors would immediately have cried “straw man.”

The essay blames historians’ increasing focus on the very recent past on a culture of “presentism,” though we know (partly through the AHA) that the decimation of programs and jobs in premodern periods is shaped by structural factors. The devaluation of the humanities—partly because marginalized people are more visible among them as subjects and practitioners—and the corporate values that hold American higher education hostage render history programs and scholars precarious throughout the academy.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History