A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Thomas Jefferson and the curse of 'Present-Mindedness'.....

One of the spider-holes into which the modern historian can too easily fall is that of 'Present-Mindedness' about past generations, whereby history is rewritten anachronistically by reference to constructs and knowledges that post-date the period in question.

I have just, sadly, read a classic example of this curse in the latest issue of what is usually such a sound magazine, namely History Today. The offending piece is entitled 'Thomas Jefferson and the environment' (History Today, 54 (1), January, 2004, pp. 48 - 53). In essence, this critiques the role of Thomas Jefferson by a full frontal assault on order, rationality, and the Enlightenment project itself.

A deconstruction of the language employed in the article is revealing. I will give four brief examples [my comments are in square brackets]:-

(a) Picture caption, p. 48: "Belfield Farm by Charles William Peale, c. 1816, a romantic image of farming that was swamped by Jeffersonian rationalistic practice." [Note the use of the emotive word 'swamped' which immediately denegrates the idea of 'rationalistic practice'.]

(b) Text, p. 50: "Yet this Enlightenment-inspired imposition of order on the unkempt farm landscape was environmentally devastating." [Note the use of the word 'imposition' and, more openly, the attribute of 'devastating'. Others, of course, might argue that the process was part of the creation of one of the greatest states the world has ever known! Note also the favourable contrasting of 'unkempt' with the (unfavourable) idea of 'order', for which read another blast of anti-rationalism.]

(c) Text, p. 50: "His faith in the superiority of a rationalist order, however, obscured the need to adapt production goals to sustainable environmental parameters." [What can one say about such a passage in a history article? "Sustainable environmental parameters"! For goodness sake, this is a trope that didn't come into being until nearly 200 years later and, even today, it is largely nonsense. And what about the pure New Labour-speak of 'production goals'? And then there is the gauche language - it is hardly "... all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights", is it? As the new draft European Constitution exemplifies so painfully, we live in a lesser age where language is concerned. But again, note the attack is on 'a rationalist order'.

And many thanks to Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels for pointing out to me the egregious use of the word 'faith' at the start of this passage, relating to Jefferson's faith in (her lovely word) 'pesky' Enlightenment rationalism. It always has to be faith - science, religion, whatever.]

(d) Picture caption, p.48: "Thomas Jefferson, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, with the typical American gridded field patterns for which he is ultimately responsible." [Note the use of the word 'ultimately' to make sure we know precisely who is to blame for modern America. Some people, by the way, (including my old Professor of Historical Geography) find these immensely beautiful.]

This is pernicious stuff, about Jefferson, about the history and development of America, and about the Enlightenment itself. It is part of the new cuddly bunny thinking about the world which bedevils the post-agricultural and post-industrial paranoid rich North. And, by Jove, the article is not going to let poor old Jefferson off the 'New Age' hook: "It might be argued that Jefferson himself is not historically culpable, that these are unintended consequences, the product of processes of which he and his contempories had no knowledge. But they did flow from a will to power that is inherent in Enlightenment rationalism..." (p. 53).

If I'm allowed a touch of 'Present-Mindedness', I would say a resounding: "Thank goodness for Jefferson and his Enlightenment project. We could do with more of it around today!" I vote for Jefferson (minus slaves - and that was condemned in his own lifetime and is thus fair criticism) any day.

Philip for science, reason and order. And wine!

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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