FIGAROVOX/TRIBUNE – After challenging presentism in the treatment of history, an American professor was reprimanded and ordered to apologize. Olivier Amiel returns to this polemic, which he considers symbolic of the backsliding of political debate across the Atlantic.
Olivier Amiel is a doctor of law and former deputy mayor of Perpignan. He is the author of See the worst. Alterity in the work of Bret Easton Ellis (ed. Les Presses Littéraires, 2021, 90 p., €9).
It’s an American story about history.
On August 17, Professor James H. Sweet, president of the American Historical Association (AHA), published a column in the association’s magazine entitled “Is History History?”.
Referring to the position in these same pages a few years ago of another renowned historian, Lynn A. Hunt, who specializes in the French Revolution, James H. Sweet today notes the failure of his discipline in his colleague’s warnings against presenteeism, whether “the waning interest in pre-20th century affairs” (support figures) and above all the “increasing tendency to interpret the past through the prism of the present”.
It is this second point that is the subject of courageous developments by the author in his column.
In fact, when asking openly whether a historian is not doing work that counts without reading “the past through the prism of contemporary issues of social justice, race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism”James H. Sweet throws a stone into the pond in a country affected by the madness of “cancel culture” that wants to judge past individuals and eras with present morality.
By ignoring any historical perspective, values and customs of the periods studied, all history can be burned, all statues can be unscrewed…
By the regression of the political debate we find this presenteeism almost everywhere, whether in the United States, but also in France, where we call ourselves “fascists” or “Bolsheviks” at all costs.
Even more courageously, James H. Sweet, whose specialty is Africa and the African diaspora, dares to support his point of view, taking as an example in his column the presentism of the untouchable subject that is slavery.
First, he questions once again the iconoclastic “Project 1619” launched in 2019 by a journalist from New York Timeswhich became the spearhead of “wokism”, having the landing of slaves on August 20, 1619 and no longer the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 recognized as the founding act of the nation of the United States. For James H. Doce it is a very effective way of doing journalism and partisan politics, but not history.
Likewise, James H. Sweet evokes a stay in Ghana during which he corrects a guide’s directions during a visit to Fort St George in Elmina focused only on African Americans while the slaves who passed through this 99% of the site went to other countries, and also regrets the absence of references to indigenous slavery.
Finally, he corrects the forgery of the recent film “The Woman King”, which suggests that Dahomey warriors fought the slave trade when they promoted it.
These three examples are not serious in themselves, but they reveal a deeper evil:
“Hollywood doesn’t have to adhere to the methods of historians any more than reporters or tour guides do, but a bad story makes bad politics.”.
This is where the shoe pinches, when the same falsified use of history is made for political ends. Taking a legal debate over firearms as an example, James H. Sweet shows the use that can be made of anachronistic historical facts to justify personal positions in contemporary debates.
SEE TOO – USA-France: How far will the agreed movement go?
By the regression of the political debate we find this presenteeism almost everywhere, whether in the United States, but also in France where we call ourselves “fascists” or “Bolsheviks” at all costs, where a president can compare colonization in Algeria to a “crime against humanity” and where a former prime minister might justify wanting to rename a hall of the National Assembly after Colbert…
But beyond presentism in the small political-media landscape, James H. Sweet wants to warn, as president of the AHA, his colleagues of the danger that this utilitarian and short-term interpretation of history runs the risk of taking his scientific discipline seriously.
Unfortunately, by dint of judging, we end up, almost inevitably, losing even the taste for explaining.
On our side of the Atlantic, another great French historian, Marc Bloch, wrote the exact same thing in 1940 and 1941: “History is a mode of scientific knowledge. Therefore, it does not need to make value judgments, which are (in their summary characters) within the realm of action. (…) However, for a long time, the historian was seen as a kind of judge of the Underworld, responsible for distributing praise or blame to dead heroes. (…) Unfortunately, by dint of judging, we end up, almost inevitably, losing even the pleasure of explaining”.
Full of common sense and courage, James H. Sweet’s column was, however, the target of an immediate smear campaign, a barrage of attacks and a lynching on social media accusing him of racism, sexism and cultural appropriation.
So much so that two days after it was published, because it was an American story, a tearful note of apology was added to the column by the president of the AHA, in which he regretted having offended colleagues and being clumsy in his demonstration…
It’s an American story for now… Let it stay that way!