James Sweet Shouldn't Have Apologized for the TruthRoundup
tags: historiography, teaching history, Presentism, James Sweet
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park, and the author most recently of Israels’ Moment (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
On August 17th, 2022, James Sweet, President of the American Historical Association and Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published a column in the AHA’s newsletter, Perspectives, entitled “Is History History?: Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present.” Sweet’s scholarly work has focused on the social and cultural history of Africans in the Atlantic world, and his essay criticized the impact of “presentism”—that is, the effort in much recent historical practice to view the past primarily through the lens of contemporary politics. He bluntly warned, “If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise.”
As if on cue, a Twitter storm broke out. Some users on the platform demanded that Sweet resign—his article was reprehensible, they said, because it gave ammunition to the political Right. Two days later, on August 19th, 2022, rather than defend his essay, Sweet issued a distressed and distressing public apology. He wrote in part:
I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark. Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.
It is not Sweet’s original essay but his apology that has caused damage to the historical profession.
Sweet’s criticism of presentism was two-fold. First, echoing the concerns of a previous AHA President, Lynn Hunt, he lamented the decline of work on periods before 1800 and what he viewed as undue attention to modern history. From 2003 to 2013, he reported, the number of PhDs awarded to students working on topics post-1800, across all fields, rose 18 percent, while those going to scholars studying pre-1800 topics declined by four percent. A decline of four percent in pre-1800 scholarship is not in itself a cause for alarm, and Sweet’s figures suggests that there are still a considerable number of doctorates in that field.
Further, there are good reasons to celebrate the increased interest in modern and contemporary history. As a historian of modern and contemporary German history, I note that it is a particular contribution of the historical profession in Germany and around the world to focus on modern and contemporary history, including that of Nazi Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust, but also the history of the Soviet empire, the Cold War, and of democracy and dictatorship in Germany since 1945. The critique of “presentism” should not become an excuse to escape from examination of crucial events of more recent history. On the contrary, this type of research by historians is an essential complement to the writings of journalists and partisan contemporary observers and participants in such events.
However, it was the second meaning of presentism that caused a Twitter mob to erupt in indignation. The president of the AHA dared to suggest that contemporary political passions are leading some historians—and the journalists who contributed to the New York Times’ “1619 Project”—to view the past primarily through the lens of contemporary interests.
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