THIS IS A ST. PATRICK'S DAY REPRINT (so to speak) AND UPDATING OF AN ESSAY FROM NOVEMBER 2011.
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.
I 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.
It 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.
If 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.)
Sometimes 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 stupid, or incompetent.
Having said that, however, I want get to what is, as I write and update, 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.
And 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.
Since 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.
Roman 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.
There 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.
So 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.
And 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).
There 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.
He 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."
Pinker 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 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."
In 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.
As 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 self-interest.
It 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 are 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 such a return 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.