Presentism

In high school, I learned that writing offered an opportunity to display one’s vocabulary, and thus, presumably, one’s erudition. Complex sentence construction was laudable, save for the dreaded “comma splice.”

Then I arrived at Amherst, where Theodore Baird dominated my freshman year. Baird lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright “Usonian” house, and was a friend of Robert Frost. In his course for freshmen, English 1-2, Baird taught writing. He rewarded simple straightforward sentences. He derided complex constructions.

A few years ago, Dan Chiasson reviewed Baird’s book, English at Amherst, and said, “It would be an exaggeration to say that getting Frost right was the great mission of English 1-2. For one thing, the course read no Frost. In fact, after its early, provisional years, it read nothing: no literature, no text of any kind. But I think it is true to say that the air of Robert Frost pervaded English 1-2.”

I agree.

With this background, I was drawn into a recent New Yorker book review titled “The Illiberal Imagination” by Adam Gopnik, a long-time staff writer for the magazine. He pulled me in with two sentences. “Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it.”

The review covered three books: Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus. I understood very little of Gopnick’s commentary, which was obviously erudite and involved quite a lot of Rousseau and Voltaire. On the other hand, I really liked the concept of “presentism.” More accurately, I liked Gopnick’s identification of the concept as faulty.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say!” I thought. That’s what I had in mind when I wrote that I wanted to capture the perspective of the reader who is delighted to have a month-old newspaper arrive on the mail packet.

Thinking about presentism seems important to me. The past is debatable. For instance, the slogan “make America great again” seems patently false. What was great about the Depression, polio, segregation, the Cuban missile crisis, or the Viet Nam war?

The future is, by definition, unknowable. This leaves us with the present. Here and now is what we have to work with, and where we have to become engaged. We must not fall into “the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening.”  Presentism is disheartening, paralyzing.

But this is when the month-old newspaper arrives, like the cavalry coming over the hill. We read it. My goodness, that was terrible! But whatever it was, it ended. By now, something else has happened. The present, whatever it is, will change. How invigorating!

Shaping the outcome of today, shifting a bit toward something better, becomes the relevant question for us. This is the antithesis of presentism. How do we bend toward better without breaking something? Ah ha! Read the month-old paper, carefully. Did yesterday’s crisis require solution, or did it self-resolve? How did the leadership muddle through? Just as important, what were the unintended consequences of what they implemented?

Chiasson had another thought about Theodore Baird. He wrote, “If you can convince a large number of 18-year-olds that making up sentences is an act of deep moral imagination, you do it, no matter how much work that entails.” By extension, recognizing good sentences when reading can also be important. So thank you, Mr. Gopnick, for those good sentences.

“Déjà vu all over again”

In keeping with longstanding Packet policy, I’m offering readers some well-seasoned news for the sake of context. This is not intended as humor, although some may initially view it as such. My point is serious. Without the context of the past, we have no basis for evaluation for current events.

The facts for this post, and all of the otherwise unattributed quotations, come from Robert Strauss’s book, Worst. President. Ever., a history of James Buchanan’s term as President of the United States.

The first year of James Buchanan’s term, one hundred sixty years ago, was not a good year for the United States.

First, two days after the inauguration, came the Dred Scott decision from Chief Justice Roger Taney and the Supreme Court. “In March 1857, in one of the most controversial events preceding the American Civil War (1861-65), the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. The case had been brought before the court by Dred Scott, a slave who had lived with his owner in a free state before returning to the slave state of Missouri. Scott argued that his time spent in these locations entitled him to emancipation. In his decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, disagreed: The court found that no black, free or slave, could claim U.S. citizenship, and therefore blacks were unable to petition the court for their freedom.” Buchanan, before his inauguration, had vigorously lobbied the Court justices for a broad and binding decision; they went along with him.

Buchanan chose a mediocre cabinet. “There was not a rival or a grand thinker” among them. Lewis Cass, his choice for secretary of state, “was growing senile and Buchanan would essentially be his own secretary of state.”

The Panic of 1857, one of the periodic major financial downturns that plagued the country, was largely a response to Buchanan’s reduction of tariffs. “The Panic of 1857 was … caused by the declining international economy and over-expansion of the domestic economy. Because of the interconnectedness of the world economy by the 1850s, the financial crisis that began in late 1857 was the first worldwide economic crisis.” Buchanan’s  (ineffective) solution was to reduce the physical size of U.S. coins. These smaller coins required less gold and silver to mint. Thousands lost their jobs, and several major companies went bankrupt.

“Buchanan’s personal attitude [was that] …rugged individualism would triumph over adversity; the buoyancy of youth and the energy of the people would enable them to recover.”

As the year wore on, a dispute in the Utah territory between Mormons and federal justices became heated. Without any effort to determine the validity of the Mormon’s claims, Buchanan sent federal troops to “defend American law.” Brigham Young “formed an army of his own and ordered them to burn everything – every building, every tree, every piece of hay – that the federal force might capture on the way toward the presumed invasion.”

“Thousands of Mormons …lost their homes and livelihoods, scorching all, as Young had ordered, and fleeing in the face of the army.” The Mormons, for their part, were responsible for the deaths of more than 120 innocent settlers on their way to California, the Mountain Meadows massacre.

BEAR
Russian Grizzly and her cubs, 8/19/2013. KZM photo.

In summary, 160 years ago, in his first year of his first and only term, Buchanan had a mediocre cabinet, a Supreme Court crisis, and a major financial crisis precipitated in part by the fact that America had become part of a global economy; in addition, he directed the power of the federal government against a specific religious sect.

So, we’ve got that goin’ for us, which is nice.