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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Down with presentism!

Dear comrade,

When engaging with American media, one ought to proceed with caution. If one is not pre-armed with the correct ideological tools to make sense of a situation as well as knowledge of its prior development and context (historical, geo-political, etc.), media (TV, radio, print, now social media) can be thoroughly misleading, even dangerous. To exercise caution is to cultivate an understanding both of the ideological orientation as well as the embedded biases of America’s polarized and polarizing media houses and personalities. This aids our endeavor of attaining a clear and accurate view of the status quo — if truth is the goal. Otherwise, one risks being misinformed in their pursuit of education. A consistent posture of healthy skepticism about what one consumes in these times is therefore advisable. This situation, though epitomized by American media, is not unique to it.

Recent mainstream commentary on the egregious latest episode in the protracted struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination and the long evasive search for peace in that part of the world inspired these thoughts on the phenomenon of “presentism.” We have Lwazi Lushaba of the University of Cape Town to thank for this term. At a summer public lecture at the University of Limpopo, Lushaba problematized “the uninspiring figure of the political analyst” — a creation of the bourgeois press. We all know political analysts. They are people who pose as experts on any and all issues of politics, have or are in the process of acquiring celebrity status for it and have thus secured invitations to media houses to help the public make sense of the status quo whenever anything is amiss. 

This challenge has not been helped by the democratization of technology and the internet which has rendered everyone an authority on every issue — a political analyst. But the political analyst is anything but an analyst since his default is as Dr. Lushaba shows presentism: a fixation on proffering seemingly objective rational explanations of current manifestations of much larger structural/historical problems. On top of mistaking “journalistic commentary or reportage for thought,” Lushaba shows that the political analyst “has no conception of society as a complex whole wherein always exists an articulation of concrete constellation of contradictions existing in a historically determined way.” Not only do they fail to grasp and articulate the conjuncture (contradictions inherent in society and the historical situation they give rise to), but they also fail entirely to reflect the historical development of the empirical manifestations they recite. This caste has a high propensity for sensationalism. They may be fast-talking, with impeccable diction and a taste for expensive English but nonetheless spew nonsense.

Today’s media house functions like a fast food joint catering to a dedicated audience. This curtails any motivation for self-improvement and allows the wholesale transfer of the attendant pressures of press life and the perverse incentives they offer to their so-called analysts who are readily available to serve their constituency with their lazy thinking often devoid of nuance and/or understanding of history and power. The questions the political analyst glaringly fails to answer are “How did we get here?” and “Why are we here?” It’s a sine qua non for understanding how to move forward. They evade the “why” precisely because it eases the task and serves to obscure uncomfortable truths that may hold them, their audience or their state culpable for the political development in question. The challenge as you might have already guessed is that fundamental change will always be elusive when the “why” is not properly addressed. If you don’t know why you are failing a class, very rarely will you start to do better. If you have no appreciation of why you are fighting with a significant other, tensions will forever remain high. If you don’t know why there’s conflict in the Middle East, you are bound to mislead us in suggesting a solution. Ignoring historical developments leaves us at the mercy of accidents that cannot be relied upon as agents of fundamental change.  As “politician-analysts” in this country have proved in the recent episode in Palestine-Israel, there is also a tinge to outright dishonesty. Many of these people, with presidential candidates in their ranks, neither have an interest in the truth nor in lasting solutions.  

But presentism is a facade. It’s a pretense. The very attempt to obscure history is an attempt to retell it and control a narrative. Why? Controlling the narrative helps the political class secure public support, sleep well at night and justify historical misdeeds. Presentism serves the existing power structure. It helps perpetrators justify atrocities and violence the likes of which we are bearing witness. Presentism masks the fact that society is a motion picture, not a still photograph. It eliminates nuance and questions of justice. What is justice, if stories are selectively told?

As you follow what is happening in Palestine-Israel, be a conscious consumer. Beware of the imposing portrait of the political analyst and politician-analyst. Beware of reductionisms, oversimplifications, lies and bloodthirsty vampires who are not interested in lasting solutions. Beware, too, of armchair quarterbacks. They have extreme views with very little to no skin in the game. Watch out for bullies who like to cry victim. Watch out for the immoral — those who back identity-based hatred of any flavor. Beware of those who try to justify violence of whatever kind, who are enthusiastic for continued human suffering to prove a point. Watch out for those who make obvious solutions appear impossible to implement, particularly when they have the power to make it happen. Beware of those who try to convince you that some lives are more sacred than others. Determine at once not to be like them.  Watch for selective application and convenient interpretations of rules that would otherwise seem universal. Watch out for presentism!

As Mao exhorted:

No investigation, no right to speak.

You must investigate.

You must not talk nonsense! 

Presentism, a bas!

Olemo Gordon Brian is a junior from Apac, Uganda, studying Economics and Political Science. In his free time, he enjoys reading political economy, playing badminton and watching Manchester United play. He can be reached at bolemo@nd.edu or @oneolemo on Twitter.


Olemo Gordon Brian

Olemo Gordon Brian is a junior at Notre Dame studying political economy. He is currently studying abroad at SOAS University of London. He is deeply interested in Africa's development and the emancipation of man. You can contact Olemo at bolemo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.