This afternoon my students will be selecting a sticker from an envelope that will determine whether they become a 1912 election advocate of Woodrow Wilson, Democrat, or Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive (but a longtime Republican). Accordingly, the Wilson stickers are blue and the Roosevelt stickers are red... but I became curious about when this red state/blue state dichotomy emerged and found an interesting article in the NYT archive that tells the story. Turns out the pattern emerged as recently as the 2000 election; prior to this date, red and blue were used more or less interchangeably.
I was already aware the pattern didn't extend as far back as 1912, so I am intentionally engaging in a bit of historical anachronism for the sake of student clarity and the opportunity to introduce the term "anachronism" in class. Anachronism is, of course, the misapplication of ideas, beliefs or artifacts in a different historical context. That extra wearing a wristwatch in a movie set in Roman times? Definitely an anachronism. The capri pants Beezus wears to school in my daughter's recent edition of Beverly Cleary's 1952 book Henry and Beezus? Also an anachronism (and one that drives me slightly batty).
More problematically, we tend to apply our ideas, principles and presuppositions to earlier times in an attempt to make sense of our past. We would never have done x, y or z because we would "know better." We project our beliefs about a given time period upon the period itself, failing to recognize that inherited tradition can vary drastically from past reality. Does this mean we cannot judge the serious deficiencies in our past, or use the lessons of the past to inform our present and future decisions? No, I'd argue it does not. If we understand the context of time and place, we can draw informed conclusions and avoid presentist positions. This is one of the central enterprises of historical scholarship. Careful understanding is necessary, however, if we are to avoid the pitfalls of anachronistic thinking. So, I'll pass out my stickers and prompt our discussion of the term... and I hope the lesson takes hold.