Is “Presentism” a Good Thing?

Eric Foner thinks “presentism” is a pretty good idea.

Of course, because “presentism” undergirds Foner’s scholarship.

In a recent review of a new book about C. Vann Woodward, Foner concludes that Woodward’s “presentism” helped bring attention to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

You see, to Foner, historical activism in the name of a good cause isn’t really “presentism,” it’s reality.

But is that what Woodward was really doing?

Woodward was a leftist in his lifetime, and his Strange Career of Jim Crow–the book Foner focuses on in his review–was certainly an important intellectual treatise against State segregation.

But in contrast to how Foner tells the tale, the book is not so much a result of “presentism” but an attempt to understand the present (1950s) through a stream of history. Woodward does not shy away from pointing the finger at the North for the origins of Jim Crow. He does not condemn or denounce the South. On the contrary, he is rather sympathetic, and even argues the race relations were never the defining element of Southern politics or history, but a mere result of larger determining factors.

That doesn’t stop Foner from arguing that Woodward was, in fact, a presentist.

By using Woodward as an example, Foner is trying to attach his type of historical activism to past efforts. I don’t think the parallels exist.

Foner is a communist with a clear agenda to remake America. Woodward was a Beardian who sought to understand his native region in light of massive change, change he agreed with for the most part, but change nevertheless.

Foner encourages revolution while ignoring the collateral damage.

Woodward laments the collateral damage while thinking some change was necessary and just.

Modern presentists are ideologues without grounding. Woodward, even in Connecticut, was a Southern man who loved his region regardless of the faults.

Woodward was not right about many aspects of Southern history, but I would take Woodward over Foner any day of the week.

I discuss Foner and Woodward on Episode 726 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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