I'll start with a disclaimer of sorts.
The word "presentism" apparently has technical uses in philosophy and for literary and historical analysis,
but I found an almost colloquial usage more immediately useful. In this
sense, "presentism" is the dumb-ass cousin of a belief in progress and
is shown when people too literally think, "In every day / In every way,"
people have grown "better and better and better," and believe the way
we live today is, across-the-board, the norm. If that's the case, then —
given where we are today — our ancestors must have been pretty damn
stupid and unsophisticated.
ran into this attitude when some of my 18-20-something students made
clear they thought pretty ignorant and unsophisticated such folk as
noble and royal politicians in the courts of Richard II and Elizabeth I,
or London theater fans ca. 1600. There are a lot of things you can say
about rulers and courtiers in the late medieval and early modern periods
—words like "criminal" and "immoral" are frequently apt — but, as a
rule, unsophisticated they were not. King Richard II had some weird
weaknesses of character, but he wasn't stupid, and when it came to
running the family business (England and such), the Tudor Queen
Elizabeth was very, very, very bright, sophisticated, and good
at her job. And, of course, London audiences ca. 1600 supported a good
deal of crap, but they also saw, heard, and apparently appreciated some
of the best drama ever produced.
is useful to avoid "presentism" in this sense when doing literary
criticism so you don't find yourself thinking that the writing of
Chaucer and Shakespeare and such couldn't be as sophisticated as
your instructors have suggested because Chaucer and Shakespeare and
their audiences couldn't have been that sophisticated. Now one or more
of your instructors may have been overly ingenious or, well, even just
full of shit with a reading or two — but not because an idea we can have was necessarily too clever for the likes of our ancestors.
useful to avoid presentism in this sense in LitCrit, it is actually
important to avoid it when doing politics — nothing in LitCrit is truly important
— it is important to avoid presentism in talking politics since we
shouldn't often change current practices on the assumption that our
ancestors were idiots when they came up with them. (For
example, after the 2008 financial crises, the "Glass-Steagall" Banking
Act of 1933 looks like a really good idea after all.)
our ancestors were stupid, of course; see above on professors sometimes
being stupid and apply the rule broadly: even bright humans, even
bright humans acting where we're experts say dumb things and do even
dumber. But not all that often: Usually our predecessors knew what they
were doing, thank you, and the conservatives are correct in the
traditional conservative belief that we shouldn't muck around changing
things unless we have strong reasons to change things.
So, our ancestors weren't generally stupid, or incompetent.
said that, however, I want get to what is, as I write, a newly-released
movie I have not seen (and may not) and to the serious implications of
the idea a character in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness summed up in his reference to his "criminal ancestors": i.e., us and those predecessors I've been defending.
The movie I want to take off from is 12 Years a Slave (2013) and
the inevitable viewer reactions to the cruelty of nineteenth-century
Black slavery in the southern United States. The reactions are better
nowadays than with Roots in 1977, when I heard and read from some of my fellow Americans — adults, and people who could read — "Why didn't they tell us?!" i.e., why weren't we told that slavery was so bad. Well, indeed they didn't tell
us as much as they should have, but the basic information was there.
People are told more nowadays and at least quieter about being shocked
("Shocked!") that cruelty was going on, but I want now to point out that
in many ways, important ways, things were worse in the past than most
of us assume.
Sorry gang, but you need to know this — and the upshot will be rather hopeful.
In Origin of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Hannah Arendt makes clear that people won't understand the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews if they think of it as the Holocaust and don't put the Shoah
in its historical context, including a tradition of massacres.
Furthermore, those of us who talk of the eleven million victims of the
Hitlerian Holocaust, and not just the five to six million murdered Jews,
sometimes have the prudent political motivation of reminding people who
are not Jews that they have more at stake here than sentimental
sympathy for victims. The "First they came for …"
litany has become a cliché, but it remains one of the most practical
bits of wisdom that history can teach. "The Final Solution of the Jewish
Problem" was central to the Nazis systematic slaughter, but the
machinery of exterminations found a variety of victims and had roots in
soils in addition to anti-Semitism.
even as you have to have some feeling for the history of massacres to
understand the Hitlerian Holocaust, even so you need to know the
continuity of the cruelty of slavery, and you need to know that slavery
was at the extreme end and a logical extension of a continuum of cruelty that lasted into modern times, and came back for a season of hell in the 20th century.
my form in these blogs is the meditation or personal essay, I'll start
with a personal observation from my PhD candidacy in the late 1960s,
when, in theory, I learned to read Latin.
I was using for homework The New Collegiate Latin & English Dictionary
(1966) and one day noticed how often on the way to looking up something
else — we were mostly reading Aesop's Fables, for God's sake! — how
often I saw Latin words referring to things military, violent, and/or
violent in relationship to managing slaves. Slavery was woven into the
fabric of the Latin language, as was the idea that slaves had to be kept
in line, fairly often through terror: beatings, blindings (altero oculo captus 'to blind in one eye'), breaking bones, branding, … well, a series of horrors up to and including crucifixion. Educated and valuable slaves might be treated well; however "Unskilled
slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms,
in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were brutal, and their
lives short." Legal testimony from slaves was admissible only after slaves had been tortured.
slaves gained rights as time went on, but there was continuity, with
some slavery in the European Middle Ages, moving more toward serfdom, which got into full gear in parts of Russia in the 17th century and lasted until fairly recently: 1861. Literal slavery in Russia got a significant boost from the medieval Mongol and Tatar invasions and lasted until 1723.
was also continuity of slavery in areas in more constant contact with
western Europe than most of Russia: The Mideast slave trade lasted from
the 7th century C.E. through the 19th, and it ranks #8
on Matthew White's list of "The One Hundred Deadliest Multicides" in
human history, accounting for some 18.5 million deaths, to say nothing
of families torn apart and lives reduced (by definition) to slavery.
slavery was known in Europe from their neighbors, and when the
Reformation and Renaissance got into full swing, such knowledge was
increased by reminders that slavery had been regulated but accepted in
the now much-translated and much-read Bible and had been accepted and
defended by the now born again, so to speak, classics: the revitalized
and revitalizing admiration of ancient Greece and Rome and their
cultures (renaissance). If the Hebrews practiced, and the noble Greeks and Romans accepted, practiced, and, as we used to say in academe, theorized slavery — how bad could it be?
In his "General Introduction" to The Norton Shakespeare
(2000), Stephen Greenblatt has a beautiful little quotation attributed
to Elizabeth I referring to Her Majesty's Loyal Pirate, John Hawkins and
his first slaving voyage, where he transported "some three hundred
blacks from the Guinea coast to Hispaniola." She "is reported to have
said of this venture that it was 'detestable and would call down the
Vengeance of Heaven upon the Undertakers.'" As I said, Elizabeth was
bright and sophisticated, and as Head of the Church of England she knew a
wicked act when she learned of one. However, Hawkins's venture grossed
£10,000 — a huge sum during the period — and so "she invested in
Hawkins's subsequent voyages and lent him ships" (23); business is
business for some was most excellent in the early part of early modern
times as the voyages of exploration and discovery discovered silver
mines in the New World and empires loaded with gold to plunder and new
marketing opportunities with sugar and then tobacco and rum (making
fortunes through drug-dealing is old news in the Americas).
There was money to be made, and if some of the methods were "detestable," well …. Well, by the late 17th century, racism would theorize
why a little detestable slavery was OK for Black people, and there was
the tradition of slavery from the Holy and semi-holy scripture of the
Bible and the classics. Say what you will about the Romans, they were
equal-opportunity oppressors. If they could enslave the two known races
of White and Black, plus every ethnicity they could conquer, surely
Europeans could enslave Africans, who could be presented, in a Christian
variation on Aristotle, as by nature servile and, indeed, who could
profit infinitely from contact with Europeans, and getting Christianized
(although that Christianizing bit got problematic with conservative or
proto-liberal Christians — depending on how you saw them — who
disapproved of enslaving other Christians).
is one other item to add to the hell-broth as we moved into the slavery
inherited in the New World colonies that became the United States. The
detestable cruelty of slavery in itself, the terrorism required to
maintain people in slavery, was less obvious in its time, including in
the years of the Atlantic Slave Trade, from 1452-1807 (#10 on Matthew
White's list, with 16 million dead), until the end of slavery in the
United States in 1865. Slavery was indeed opposed by an abolitionist
movement that over time moved from the political fringe to the
mainstream; but that movement took a long time, in part precisely
because Black chattel slavery was the extreme end of a continuum of
cruelty but definitely part of a continuum.
In 2011, Steven Pinker published an impressive book on The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,
which required him to come up with some strong hypotheses on Why
Violence Has Declined but more so required for him to demonstrate that,
indeed, violence has, in fact, declined.
was able to perform that demonstration for a reason crucial here:
Violence in our time is less than in earlier times, even acknowledging
the horrors of the "hemoclysm" (blood deluge) of the two world wars of the 20th
century; but violence is less not because this generation is all that
good but more because life for many people before quite recently was
very, very bad. As Pinker summarizes much of his book: "Tribal
warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th
century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times
what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous
executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then
suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries
have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of
the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes,
deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals — all substantially down."
has been critiqued, and figuratively attacked, for his conclusions, but
they jibe with a Latin-English dictionary of decades earlier with no
political agenda, and with such works as Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), and the fictional but very well researched BAROQUE CYCLE
by Neal Stephenson (2003-4). They also go along with a side comment by
the US Army colonel who taught my American military history course ca.
1961. In 1776, the Continental Congress increased the maximum number of
lashes a court martial could order from the Biblical 39 to the decimal
100; as the colonel noted, it could have been worse, since the 100 limit
"at least meant it was unlikely you'd be whipped to death," as could
happen in the British tradition of having someone "whipped through the
fleet" or receiving up to a deadly 200 lashes. And then there was
reading Herman Melville's, White Jacket (1850), the book
arguably most responsible for ending flogging in the US Navy. One
memorable and undoubtedly effective — if problematic — sentence: "The
chivalric Virginian, John Randolph of Roanoke, declared, in his place in
Congress, that on board of the American man-of-war that carried him out
Ambassador to Russia he had witnessed more flogging than had taken place on his own plantation of five hundred African slaves in ten years."
the words of an old joke, as H. Rap Brown (of the Black Panther Party)
might've said of the chivalric slave-owner John Randolph, "damn White of
him." Still, the point remains that sailors and soldiers, servants and
prisoners were often treated with great cruelty. As Pinker stresses, it
was part of everyday life to encounter brutality toward non-human
animals, children, wives, and others in positions of weakness, people in
culturally-sanctioned and enforced inferiority. And one definition of
"liberty" included the liberty to practice such brutality without
interference by the state in family matters or labor management or doing
what the social superior thought right to do with "my own."
Books like Pinker's Better Angels
and essays like mine here are — or should be — unpleasant to read, but
there is that hopeful upshot. Things really have gotten better, and
there is hope for getting them actually pretty good for increasing
numbers of people.
part of that improvement, it's necessary to remember that sympathy for
the oppressed is nice as a form of altruism, but politically more
effective when aspects of good character are reinforced by insightful
wasn't just Jews caught up in the Nazi exterminations, and it was not
just Blacks who suffered: these atrocities happened in worlds that kept
up traditions of cruelty and fitted them to newfangled ideologies of
racism and very old-fashioned sins of pride and greed. Jews and Blacks
are strong contenders for the "Grimmy Award" for some areas of worst suffering, but there are many out there to join us.
Americans in the 21st
century or not particularly exceptional nor are we all that much
smarter than our ancestors; and our current relative decency is a matter
of culture, inheritance, and, in a sense, fashion. There was great
continuity of slavery and other oppression, and bad old days can return.
One way to prevent them is to be at least smart enough to do the
arithmetic: slavery is a great way to live, for a rich slave-owner; an
oppressive hierarchical society is great, if you're on the top. But
that's not how the numbers work: If we return to worlds with a long
continuum of cruelty, there's a good chance each of us will be receiving
most of that cruelty, not dishing it out.