From James Rowles, “History, activists, and the truth,” The Eighteenth Century Club, August 29, 2022.
1) Megan McArdle, “A fight among historians shows why truth-seeking and activism don’t mix,” Washington Post, August 29, 2022 (7:00 a.m. EDT);
2) James H. Sweet, “IS HISTORY HISTORY? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present,” Perspectives on History August 17, 2022;
3) Bret Stephens, “This Is the Other Way That History Ends,” New York Times, August 30, 2022.
Further evidence of the weakening belief in freedom of speech is provided by Megan McArdle, who recounts the latest brouhaha over an article by James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, who warned against the excesses of “presentism”, an excessive preoccupation with the present and the influences of current beliefs on the writing of history.
His basic argument is that it is a mistake for historians to allow themselves to be overly influenced by current debates and current views of what are right or permissible opinions.
It is distressing to have our attention called to this phenomenon, which one might term the infinite expansion of the present moment, which obscures the realities of the past and perhaps also the potential and some of the possibilities of the future.
One suspects that the phenomena is related to the growth of social media and its extreme focus on the present, and the increasing focus of television media on what is happening at this very moment, with all the excitement of the latest “breaking news”.
What is most disturbing in McArdle’s report is her account of journalists being criticized not for telling the truth, but rather for telling a truth which does not support the conclusions which activists want to support.
We need to build support among the younger generations for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the free play of ideas–all ideas. One might start with classic texts, like those of John Stuart Mill, and some history of what advocates of the Enlightenment like Voltaire and the Encyclopedists were pushing for in the eighteenth century.
Indeed, we are in great need of a renaissance of the eighteenth century mind, as its devotion to liberty and freedom of thought has come down to us in the last three centuries.
We have experience with Soviet and Nazi systems of thought control, and other examples on the Left and the Right, and the excesses and crimes to which they have led.
What is called for is a renewed and robust system of civic education, in the schools, in churches and other places of worship, and in colleges and universities at every level and in every corner of the land.
The Spirit of Voltaire