Bill Maher strongly defends the past on its own terms

Bill Maher is a leftist (and proud of it), but he's neither a fool nor a fantasist.  Of late, he's been one of the more prominent leftists pointing out that his side of the political aisle has gone too far and is destroying itself.  Maher's latest effort hit home with me because I was a college history major and have always understood that the past is a different place from the present.  Rather like medieval man himself, the left doesn't get that, and Maher at least made the effort to remedy that situation.

Why do I say leftists are like medievalists?  It's because, if you're at all familiar with medieval art, you know that Jesus and those around him are always portrayed as fair-skinned Europeans wearing up-to-date medieval European garb.  Here, for example, is the Virgin Mary from Jan van Eyck's exquisite 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece:

It would have shocked van Eyck were he told that the actual Virgin Mary would have been a dark-complected woman in shabby desert garb.  For the average medieval man, the past wasn't just a prologue to the present; it was exactly like the present.

Leftists have a similar myopic view of history.  For them, though, the past isn't exactly like the present — it is, instead, a failed version of the present, filled with people who are insufficiently woke and must therefore be denigrated and forgotten.  Take James Madison.  That he came up with one of the most brilliant political systems in the world is irrelevant because he had slaves (just as humans have had since the dawn of mankind).  Madison is a bad person by modern standards, so his timeless and humanist ideas must be jettisoned.

Image: Bill Maher.  YouTube screen grab.

In August, Steven Hayward wrote about an essay by the president of the American Historical Association, James H. Sweet, calling out what's been termed "presentism" — that is, applying present standards to history and, on that basis, dismissing history entirely.  Hayward predicted an imminent apology, and he was correct.

Sweet was gentle and polite, but that wasn't good enough.  The left attacked hard, and Sweet issued what the World Socialist Web Site calls a "groveling apology."  (The true socialists, by the way, are on the side of history, not presentism.)

Somehow word of this debacle got to Bill Maher, and he worked up a monologue about the idiocy of applying present standards to the past.  His thesis is that human development parallels each person's development.  Both individual humans and humankind as a whole move from immaturity (characterized by bad decisions) to wiser maturity.  If Maher had read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Maher would also know that, barring massive convulsions (such as the rise of leftism in the 20th century), modern people are, on average, less violent than their forebears.

But even without Pinker's book, Maher's monologue is pretty good.  The audience seemed enthusiastic, although you could hear a collective breath-holding when Maher touched upon the realities of slavery, something that was the human norm, with our anti-slavery Western civilization being the exception.

It would have been even better if Maher could have added that one of the things that ended slavery was fossil fuels, which provided a more reliable and less troublesome source of energy than slaves.  Heck, even the Arab camel-racers stopped using child slaves as the riders — not for moral reasons, but because they were shamed out of it and they discovered that robots were better at the job.

The only historical error in the monologue is when Maher castigates the presentist crowd because the mindset is "just a way to congratulate yourself about being better than George Washington because you have a gay friend and he didn't."  Au contraire, Mr. Maher.  Yes, Washington did have a gay friend.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben, AKA Baron von Steuben, was one of Washington's most important generals, for it was he who turned the Continental Army into a disciplined fighting force.  Von Steuben was also suspected of being homosexual.  Washington didn't care.  He cared only that von Steuben was turning his men into fighters.

If you experience technical problems, please write to