Canadian Radio Addresses Waugh and “Presentism”

This weekend’s broadcast of The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright on the CBC addresses the issue of “presentism,” which is the practice of applying the moral and ethical principles of today to the beliefs and statements of those living in the past. Enright offers several examples, including the demand that the statue of Cecil Rhodes, benefactor of the Rhodes Scholarships, be removed from an Oxford college because of his racial views. Another question posed is whether the casual antisemitism of writers such as T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh means that we should dismiss their poetry and novels because, by today’s standards, all expressions of antisemitism are regarded as pernicious and downright dangerous. The CBC’s commentator believes not, citing the American Historical Association’s condemnation of  “presentism” as encouraging moral complacency and self-congratulation. The past, according to these principles, shouldn’t be condemned until it is understood.

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