A Selfish Kind of Historical Relativism

Americans have been having a lot of trouble with historical relativism lately, and not just when it comes to the past.

It’s no secret that we are too prone to apply modern standards to historical figures and conduct. The most obvious examples relate to slavery and our heroic leaders of the past. George Washington did not have enlightened views on slavery and race by our standards, but for a Virginian who entered public life in the middle of the 18th century, he was morally advanced. 

I don’t bring this up to defend George Washington, because he does not need my defense. Indeed, it would be far harder for most politicians today to conform to Washington’s standards on everything else—e.g. ethics, service, duty, dignity, self-denial—than it would be for Washington to get in line with modern thinking on matters of race if he were plopped down in the 21st century. 

That’s why I bring up Washington and the giants of American history. We are suffering with a kind of inverted historical relativism. Like the now infamous San Francisco school board that tried to remove Abraham Lincoln from the name of a high school after 81 years carrying the banner of the great emancipator, Americans are getting very good at holding figures of the past to impossible standards of the present. But some of these same people have shown a real gift for excusing their own dubious conduct by imagining that the moment in which we live is somehow a chaotic historical aberration, rather than fairly typical of the human experience.

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