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:
If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn’t.
In writing these lines, Professor Sweet restated a core element of the ethics of our profession. Rather than the “soul-stirring history” narratives first sought by German nationalists in the 19th century, and subsequently replicated by a variety of politically compliant scholars, historians in the modern profession have obligated themselves to search for evidence that may or may not confirm their own political views. Those who repress inconvenient facts or produce fictitious evidence to nourish a politically convenient story are simply not historians—they are activists or propagandists whose desire to produce “positive political results” takes precedence over the historian’s goal of seeking truth based on evidence. Such politicization of our profession has led to the destruction of history as a serious enterprise in dictatorships of both the Right and the Left in modern history.
Projection of the present onto the past can occur in historical work about both pre-modern and modern periods. For example, many participants in contemporary discussions about the state of Israel assert that the Jewish state was the product of British or American “imperialism.” Yet, as I demonstrated in my recently published book, Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949, the “imperialists” in the British Foreign Office, the US State Department, and the Pentagon sought to frustrate the establishment of Israel while American leftists and liberals, French Socialists and Communists, and the states of the Soviet bloc offered diplomatic and, in the case of Communist Czechoslovakia, military assistance to the Jews in Palestine and then to Israel. That is, the “anti-imperialists” and “anti-fascists” of 1947–49 rallied to the Zionist cause, while former Nazi collaborators played a crucial role in the decision of the Palestine Arabs to wage war rather than accept the 1947 UN Partition Plan for an Arab and a Jewish state.
An accurate account of the constellation of forces in the moment of Israel’s creation does not comport with widespread contemporary conventional wisdom about that time, which projects the American alliance with—and Soviet-bloc antagonism toward—Israel back into the years of Israel’s establishment. This is one of the most influential and misleading forms of presentism circulating today, and it can be found both in world politics and, unfortunately, in too much scholarship. The American alliance with Israel did not really blossom until after the Six Day War of 1967, over two decades after the state was established. A presentist approach fails to grasp the reality that “the past is a foreign country,” even the past of quite recent history. This initially politically driven effort to obscure the realities of the years of Israel’s establishment offers a telling example of a presentism that leads to what Sweet called “a predictable sameness of the present in the past.”
In his essay, Sweet describes an experience he had while on a trip to Africa that many historians will recognize. He came across historical errors at a site of historical tourism regarding the slave trade, a subject about which he has written a great deal. The desire for a convenient narrative that he had noted in some writings about the past had diffused into historical tourism. The tour guide asserted that Africans “unknowingly” sent fellow Africans into slavery. As Sweet points out, historians have demonstrated that some Africans knowingly participated in and benefited from the trade. The exhibit focused on the North American aspects of the slave trade but did not mention that “less than one percent” of those who passed through Elmina Castle in Ghana went to North America, while the vast majority went to the Caribbean and Brazil. In his essay, Sweet objected to these factual errors as well as to the version of history of heroes and villains offered by the “1619 Project.” In short, James Sweet did exactly what a historian should do. He contrasted the results of years of scholarship with a narrative presented at a site of historical tourism.
Professor Sweet’s tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is secure. And he is the president of the American Historical Association. Yet, with nothing at all to fear, he apologized and has thereby inflicted unnecessary damage on his profession and on the AHA. He had nothing to apologize for, but in history and in life, those who have done nothing wrong are often those most ready to apologize, while actual criminals and miscreants offer only denial and excuses. It is impossible to be a serious historian dealing with crucial issues such as the history of slavery—or in my case the history of Nazism, Communism, and antisemitism in modern German history—and not offend someone. That is not our intention, but it comes with the demands of our profession. Seeking truth and evidence about important matters is, inevitably, going to offend someone who has an ideological interest in suppressing the truth and who seeks instead to employ history in the service of their present purposes.
Instead of apologizing for expressing views that drew on a lifetime of scholarship about Africa and the slave trade, James Sweet should have restated the core principles of our profession. His apology stands in contrast to those many scholars and intellectuals around the world who have faced prison, show trials, and death for expressing thoughts that offended the powers that be or contradicted popular passions. In the face of real threats and ostracism for “giving ammunition to the enemy,” they refused to apologize for expressing what they believed to be true. They defended their intellectual and scholarly freedoms. Sweet, on the other hand, gave in to those whose expertise lies in writing angry tweets or group emails.
Given his position in the historical profession, Sweet has sent a terrible message to three audiences. First, he informed those within the organization who denounced him that if the president of the AHA apologizes, then certainly there are many other historians who can be cowed into silence or submission.
Second, his apology tells the majority of the AHA membership that their current president is not likely to defend those who express views that dissent in any meaningful way from contemporary conventional wisdom. While some scholars will ignore popular moods or Twitter mobs, many others will test the prevailing winds before expressing potentially dissenting views. Why should they stick their necks out if the AHA leadership apologizes for trying to tell the truth?
Third, the message to the public outside the profession is that the current leader of the country’s largest and most important organization of historians is not willing to stand up to political intimidation within the profession. Why, some may ask, should professors be given lifetime tenure if the president of the AHA apologizes for speaking truths that some find offensive?
In the public sphere, Trumpism views our profession as a group of liars with fancy footnotes. Attacking the profession and the critical history that James Sweet and hundreds of other colleagues have published over many decades has become a standard feature of American right-wing politics. In this case, however, the attack comes from advocates of identity politics on the political Left. This assault comes from schools of journalism, and education, and now has some advocates in departments of history. It seeks heroes and role models more than facts and evidence.
The AHA needs leadership that will defend the autonomy and freedom of historical scholarship from an intolerant Left within the academy as well as the anti-intellectual and censorious Right outside it. The scholarship published by members of the American Historical Association on the most controversial issues is a source of pride, not a cause for apologies. Professional self-respect and the autonomy and freedom of scholarship demand that historians firmly rebuff and not appease those within our ranks who seek to replace scholarship with politics.