Monday, May 2, 2016

An American Bible and The Dangers of Presentism

Were America's Founding Fathers Good Guys or Bad Guys?
Authenticists and Postmodernists approach this question
using divergent methodologies.
The purpose of this article is to outline the dangers of a practice called "Presentism."

What is presentism?

According to Ross K. Baker, a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University, presentism is a "term used in academic circles to describe the application of contemporary moral standards to people who lived long ago." [1]

When historians and others engage in presentism, they set themselves up as judges in an anachronistic court of condemnation.

Who are the targets of these postmodern revisionist judgements?  The answer to this question is varied.  However, the favorite targets of presentist historians and postmodern judges are often historical figures who are, in many regards, worthy of our just admiration, commendation, gratitude, and respect.  Postmodern purveyors of presentism are particularly fond of demonizing the Founding Fathers of the United States while glancing over, or entirely ignoring, their august lives and unprecedented achievements.

An American Bible in my personal Library
From an early age, I have had a love of great books.

I was born in an obscure, diminutive, magnificent little hamlet in the four corners area of the United States (Monticello, UT).  This area is so out-of-the-way (it is a 4-5 hour drive from the nearest major metropolitan area) and is surrounded with such an eclectic and surreal panorama of topographical scenery that when Hollywood movie director Andrew Stanton needed a filming location resembling the extraterrestrial planet Mars for his movie, John Carter, he chose to roll his cameras in the Four Corners area!

I'll never forget seeing the movie trailer for John Carter back in 2012 because I immediately recognized the iconic monadnock known as Shiprock—located in the northwest corner of New Mexico.  Any Monticelloan would recognize this famous landmark, which, on a clear day, you can see from elevated parts of town, despite its being located nearly 100 miles away.

Click HERE to watch the trailer for John Carter.

Despite being born far beyond the reach of most of the outside world and before the days of the Internet, I was blessed to be born to a family with educated parents who valued books.  And thanks to the civic-minded contributions of community pillar Dorothy Adams—a great aunt of mine—Monticello had a public library.

The Monticello branch of the San Juan County Library was not large; all of the books were contained in one big room.  Nevertheless, it was sizable enough to contain thousands of books—more than I could ever hope to read in my youth.  As such, it provided me with a perpetual supply of books and other materials I could check out and study at my leisure.  Even better, the librarian had a portable cart of books that was kept stocked with out-of-circulation books for sale; and the price was usually right for a poor teenager's budget!

Thus it was that I happened upon one of the most cherished volumes in my personal library—An American Bible—which is a wonderful anthology compiled by Alice Hubbard, the wife of American essayist and philosopher, Elbert Hubbard (author of A Message to Garcia).  I purchased the book for the sizable sum of 50 cents!  It was perhaps the best half-dollar I ever spent.

The American "Prophets" as Hubbard dubbed them, are as follows: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Robert G. Ingersoll, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her husband, Elbert Hubbard, whose writings she lovingly, albeit nepotistically, lavished nearly half the book's contents, despite his relative obscurity compared to the other "Prophets."

From my earliest memories, I have enjoyed studying about the men and women who founded our great Nation, as well as the gifted writers, philosophers, and poets who have enriched our Country's vast canon of literature.  Like many other books containing the history and writings of great men and women throughout our nation's history, I have benefitted from reading An American Bible.  The men lionized in Hubbard's anthology, and other men and women like them, contributed much that was good, right, and true to our Nation's unfolding story.  The lives and legacies of these leaders are, in fact, one of the primary reasons that America became the greatest nation in the history of the world.

It is true that these men and women were not perfect—no mortal leader in our country's history (or any other's) was or is.  But it is in our collective interest to hold up the positive aspects of their lives and legacies and thereby allow their powerful examples to positively influence our own walks through life.

Unfortunately, postmodernists tend to focus only on the negative aspects of America's founding fathers and mothers—and America in general.  While the fundamental tenets of postmodernism posit that there really isn't any objective right and wrong, postmodernists are always first in line to hypocritically point out all of the "Sins" of those who, in actuality, made our Nation great.

For a postmodernist, there is no such thing as "Truth" with a capital "T."  But when it comes to their own truth, they are ironically certain and intractably inflexible.  Whimsical or evolutionary as their deconstructed "truth" may in fact be, postmodernists are quick to capitalize, star, asterisk, bold, and underline their own homespun dogma.  They also like to add obtrusive neon lights that shine forth in a militant attempt to coerce others to embrace their view through social intimidation, political fiat, or any other culturally tenable means.  Those who don't agree with them are castigated as misguided heretics and unenlightened cretins.

Postmodernists focus on
faults and failings
while downplaying
or even ignoring virtues.
To postmodern presentists, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were not great men who helped win our War of Independence and build our country by assisting in the framing of its two masterful founding documents.  No, to a postmodernist, these men were evil, prejudiced slave holders whose legacy of slaveholding has left an irrevocable blight of darkness upon American history for all of us.

Postmodernists like to apply the perverse paint of presentism to the pages of history. To a presentist, George Washington is an evil man because he should have been following every accepted standard and mores of the twenty-first century even though he never even lived to see the nineteenth.  Is that realistic?  Is that even fair?  (I should note here that unlike many of his contemporaries, Washington actually freed his slaves in his will).

Click HERE to learn more about Postmodernism

Click HERE to read more about the AGE of AUTHENTICISM aiming to replace it.

Authenticists acknowledge shortcomings
& sins, but focus on virtues and victories.
Objective truth demands that we admit Washington and Jefferson's categorical moral error of slave holding.  I don't think anyone in possession of any moral sense would counter this reality.  I certainly don't.  Slave holding for any reason in any era can rightly be condemned as immoral.  But does this moral lapse when slavery was deeply embedded in the culture of the time discount the extraordinary contributions of these remarkable men to our Nation?

To this question I answer with a resounding, No!

Unfortunately, in their eagerness to focus entirely on the sins of those they don't like or agree with, postmodernists cynically toss out the proverbial "baby with the bathwater."  Instead of heralding what a great man or woman did right in his or her life and honoring whatever meaningful service they contributed to our nation, they choose instead to hold up and even actively promote a legacy polluted by their sins.

There are many problems with this practice.  First, it places the focus on what "not to do" rather than what "to do," which is a pedagogical recipe for failure.   Second, instead of seeking out objective truth about the panoramic dynamic of history's multi-dimensional realities, it strives to rewrite the narrative altogether, casting it subjectively in whatever light pleases one's own ideological prerogative.   Third, it exposes an agenda that is skewed in favor of a particular constituency.  Fourth, it divides rather than unifies by perpetuating divisions that existed decades or even centuries ago into contemporary society.

In what is sometimes a postmodernist's well-intentioned efforts to objectify history, what actually occurs is the reopening of wounds that could and should have healed long ago.  By continually reopening wounds instead of striving to heal them, the erstwhile divisions linger—and in some cases widen—ironically taking us backwards instead of forwards in our understanding of, and reaction to, historical narratives.  As a result, we become an increasingly divided nation both socially and culturally.

Professor Baker of Rutgers University (quoted at the beginning of this article) recently wrote a compelling argument against "Presentism" in a USA Today newspaper op-ed.  According to Baker, presentism:
"Mercilessly subjects history and historical figures to contemporary social enlightenment.  It is smug and self-satisfied and pats itself on the back for its own high-mindedness, but it is ignorant of context and erects impossibly high obstacles to which virtually no major figure can measure up.  Certainly no one who had to endure the give-and-take of politics and the chore of dealing with people with whom they did not agree." [2]

Perhaps the most prominent example of extended presentism in the last generation was Howard Zinn's famous book of revisionist history, "A People's History of the United States."  While Zinn is correct in wanting to lend an objective and fair voice to ALL people and groups throughout history, and while there are undoubtedly elements of history that are not properly covered for objective accuracy, the overall tone and tenor of Zinn's treatise suggests that America is ultimately an evil country led by corrupt, white leaders who made life hell for everyone except for themselves.

Postmodernists and presentists are famously cynical and pessimistic; they are also profoundly contradictory and hypocritical.  They hand down merciless judgments regarding who was good and who was evil while simultaneously suggesting there really is no objective good and evil in the first place.  Moreover, they concurrently spend their lives and careers focusing on the sins of whoever they don't like or disagree with, implying all the while that they and their historical acolytes live and lived lives that were beyond reproach.

In answer to these postmodernists, I issue a clear and unapologetic message.  My message comes from the only man who ever claimed—and for which a third of the world's population believes—to have actually lived a perfect life. The message is simple and lucid: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Since none of us can make a legitimate claim on perfection, let's ALL stop throwing stones at each other and strive to study objective history (insomuch as we possibly can) with an emphasis on the redeeming qualities of history's actors, rather than continually trumpeting the worst angels of their nature.

FREEDOM FOCUSED is calling for a reset on the relationship
with our imperfect, but noble Founding Fathers.
Authenticists do not turn a blind eye to the sins and horrors of the past or present.  They do, however, choose to focus on the positive with regards to historical figures and present actors.  They are quick to identify evil in all of its forms, eschew its variety of insidious influences, and fight against its menagerie of diabolical impacts; but they devote the majority of their time and effort to focusing on whatever good exists in everyone in an effort to create more good in their own lives and the lives of others.  They are practitioners of appreciative inquiry.  They accomplish this by holding up the good examples of people, rather than focusing unduly on magnifying their shortcomings, failures, and errors—especially when those errors are judged by anachronistic moral standards that are simply unrealistic.

I invite ALL Americans to reconsider the virtues of our Founding Fathers.  I do not ask you to excuse or pardon their moral failings (which they, like ALL of us, certain had).  I simply ask you to look at them for what the really were—imperfect, yet extraordinary men and women without whom we would not possess the liberty we enjoy today; a liberty which has made possible our respective rights to write out our diverse viewpoints on the subject.    

If you want to get off to a great start, I encourage you to buy and read a book called "The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution" by W. Cleon Skousen, and "The Real Thomas Jefferson" by Andrew M. Allison and edited by W. Cleon Skousen et al.

Click HERE to buy a copy of The Making of America.

Click HERE to buy a copy of The Real Thomas Jefferson.


[1] Baker, R.K. (2015).  Voices: Democrats foolishly purge heroes: By Applying Today's Standards, Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson & FDR Get the Boot.  USA Today. 10 August 2015.  URL:  Click  HERE  to access article 

[2] Ibid

God Bless the United States of America—a blessed land of promise—now, and always.

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