W. Joseph Campbell

He may be arrogant, but he’s right about presentism

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Watergate myth on November 29, 2010 at 6:57 am

Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, is a bit of an arrogant twit. But he was absolutely on-target in dismissing as “presentist” an inane question raised yesterday by host Bob Schieffer on the Face the Nation interview program.

Morris on 'Face the Nation'

Schieffer asked Morris, who recently completed the third of three volumes about Roosevelt’s life and times:

“What would Teddy Roosevelt think of today’s politics, Edmund?”

To which the Kenya-born Morris, who has lived in the United States since 1968, replied:

“You keep asking these presentist questions, Bob. As the immortal Marisa Tomei said in [the movie] My Cousin Vinny, that’s a bullshit question. Because you cannot pluck people out of the past and expect them to comment on what’s happening today.

“I can only say that what he represented in his time was that what we look for in our presidents now, what we hope for in our presidents now and we’re increasingly disappointed. He was somebody who understood foreign cultures. He represented the dignity of the United States. He was forceful but at the same time civilized.

“And what I really feel these days is we’ve become such an insular people … I see an insular people who are insensitive to foreign sensibilities, who are lazy, obese, complacent, and increasingly perplexed as to why we are losing our place in the world to people who are more dynamic than us and more disciplined.”

Morris’ comments–especially his profanity and his condescending swipes at Americans–quickly drew flak in the blogosphere.

And it’s true enough, as Matt Schneider of mediate.com observed with tongue in check, that “nothing compares to the thrilling unpredictability of an uninhibited guest like Morris who in one breath idolizes America’s ‘immortal’ movie stars, but in the next laments the rest of America as fat and lazy.”

Still, Morris was quite right to challenge Schieffer’s question. He was quite right to say that “you cannot pluck people out of the past and expect them to comment on what’s happening today.” It was a useful lesson.

Morris in effect was calling attention to the fallacy of presentism–that of applying contemporary standards and ideals to events and characters of the past. In other words, reading the present into the past.

Earlier in the show, Schieffer had asked Morris:

“What would T.R. have thought about what’s going on today? … Is there any correlation that you see between what he thought about and his vision for the country and, say, the rise of the Tea Party movement?”

To which Morris replied: “Well, I’m not going to pluck him out of the past because you can’t do that. He lived in his time. And he represented his time.”

Presentism is one of the fallacies David Hackett Fischer discussed 40 years ago in his superb study, Historians’ Fallacies.

Fischer noted: “The fallacy of presentism is a common failing in historical writing by men who have never been trained in the discipline of history.” He also wrote: “Academic historians are not exempt from the same error.”

Morris, whose Colonel Roosevelt has just been published, appeared on Face the Nation with three other authors of recent historical or political books. Among them was Bob Woodward, he of the Washington Post Watergate fame and author most recently of Obama’s Wars.

I’ve previously discussed at Media Myth Alert another, even more common fallacy of history–the “golden age” fallacy.The fallacy also is addressed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent myths about the news media. Among them is the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–the notion that the tireless reporting by Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the “golden age” fallacy is a “flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring”—the time, say, of Woodward and Bernstein.


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