Lowenthal, "The Past WAS a Foreign Country," HNN

Randall Stephens

Over at HNN David Lowenthal responds to my piece, "The Past Is No Foreign Country." He uses it as a launching point for a larger discussion about the ways presentism continues to plague our culture. (He also describes the revised version of his classic book.) Lowenthal points out, as John Fea did too, that "flagrant presentism is no right-wing monopoly." Right on. I put too fine a rhetorical point on that in my essay.

"The Past WAS a Foreign Country"
By David Lowenthal

David Lowenthal is Professor Emeritus of Geography at University College London

Randall Stephens [The Past Is No Foreign Country, HNN, June 28, 2010] commends my The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985) for tracing post-Renaissance awareness of the past’s difference. He chides Glenn Beck and likeminded conservative ideologues "incapable of coming to terms with change over time" for ignoring that difference. But flagrant presentism is no right-wing monopoly; it now suffuses all popular culture, from evangelical biblical literalists and strict constitutional constructionists to bleeding-heart apologists for ancestral iniquities from slavery to sexism to class hierarchy. In appropriating the past, partisan heritage domesticates it by purging or bowdlerizing its unpalatable oddness. Discussing the Victorians in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, old Mrs Swithin says, "I don’t believe that there ever were such people, only you and me and William dressed differently." Like Mrs. Swithin, we don’t believe in history.>>>