There has been a lot of talk recently about slavery, the civil war, and removing “offensive statues” (apparently the jokes the statues were telling were just too rude for civilized society…those offensive bastards).
What I found curious however, was the complete lack of historical knowledge or apparently care to learn history from those who so vehemently want the removal of the statues. I guess it really is the empty can that rattles (I don’t know what that says about me).
I know there are some legitimate claims along the lines of public money being spent to maintain them, about the era in which they were erected (heh erected…it’s low hanging fruit people…low hanging fruit) and assumptions of the supposed racist intent; these are all legitimate disputes.
But what really caught my attention about the whole matter is the historic aspect, or, rather, the seeming lack of any historical context in the outcry. This is not the first instance where historical knowledge, nuance, and context have gone out the window; it seems to be a trend when it comes to liberal outcries. I can point you to the inaccurate correlation drawn between modern day “Islamic terrorism” and the crusades – anyone who conflates the two shows a gross lack of understanding (either intentionally or through ignorance) of either subject.
Slavery (especially US based slavery) is another historical phenomenon that seems to have lost its context in relation to the numbers of people who actually owned slaves and the brief period in which slavery was acceptable and legal in the United States as compared to the global history of slavery.
Even the history of Christianity has a meta narrative attached to it today that completely fails to tell the actual story. There is focus on the evils for the groups that are considered “oppressive” and a real failure to contextualize and even give credence to the good of those “groups” even if the good has generally outweighed the evils by a large margin.
One example of this is in referencing the West and slavery. The meta narrative is that “White men” basically went around abusing, enslaving and stealing resources leaving the “third world” underdeveloped and impoverished (which is why we see the disparity we see today between developing and developed nations). There is often a failure to mention the fact that slavery has been inherent throughout almost all of human history and that every race, empire and nation has enslaved another at one point.
There is not a group from what those who use identity politics would call people of color that has not mistreated others at some point in history either as the spoils of war or because they deemed the conquered populous less then human or less than animals. Whether you look at warring African tribes, the slaves of the Egyptians, or Arab slave traders who raided the eastern coasts of Africa, the north African slavers that raided Europe, or the native tribes of North America or the actions of the Aztecs. No matter where you look the ability of humans to show inhumanity to their fellows has been universal.
What does not fit the meta-narrative however is the fact that it was the Christians within the British Empire that forced an end to the immoral practice of slavery. William Wilberforce died shortly before his life’s mission was fulfilled and slavery was abolished in the empire. But the effect he and the Clapham Sect had on the largest empire in the world was profound, and based entirely in their Christian ethics.
I have a hypothesis, I believe that most of those who buy into the oppressor vs oppressed narrative (be that class based or ethnicity based) have a very limited world view. They likely have never spent significant time living in a country outside of what would be considered the “western world,” and I would go as far as to say many of the leaders of the oppression politics line of thought come from well to do families and speak of oppression, poverty, and other aspects of their platform from a position of middle to upper-class privilege.
The leaders of movements like Black Lives Matter, as well as many of the thought leaders in the recent surge of Marxian thought, are actually trust fund kids, or at the very least are students at prestigious universities (Yale, Harvard, and in Canada the University of Toronto). This is of course not every case, but the vast majority of those pushing a certain thought or narrative – if they were investigated – would likely be found to have come from or be accepted into positions of what they themselves would call privilege.
But I digress, the reason I believe it is important to have at least a cursory knowledge of history is because, as Nietzsche wrote (on the need for an active exploration of history) “…the past flows on within us in a hundred waves.”
He also once said “every past is worth condemning” which brings me to my point: If you look over your life from your childhood to your youth and from your youth to middle age and beyond, if you are honest with yourself, you will likely see many things you regret. The choices you made – choices made in anger, in passion, or in youthful bravado – are a part of your history whether you are proud of them now or not.
In the same (Yin and Yang) way, the great men of the past are remembered for the great actions they took, for one good or bad decision, or if they are in some way exceptional even among the ranks of the great, maybe for a percentage of good decisions made – decisions that affected the fates of millions for good or Ill.
History is a reminder, it is a marker, it is a way to remember and to see what actions and decisions we want to pursue and what we want to learn from (even if it is to learn that we never again will allow such atrocity to occur- as with slavery or genocide).
George Washington is not revered and remembered because he owned slaves but in spite of that fact. He is remembered for the millions of lives he affected when he lead, what at that time was a rag tag group of colonists – to victory over empire and for his contribution for paving the way for a nation to be born that would finally realize that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.” It was that foundation, set by men like Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Hamilton (for all their ignoble faults) that cemented a philosophy within a nation that to this day keeps the fires of liberty and the ideals of a free people alive.
This is what they are (and should be) remembered for. Yes, we can recognize their failings, where they could have done better, but we should then apply that to our lives. Take the good and remember it, and take the bad and use it as a lesson.
What we should not do is begin a witch hunt (though I know as a society how in love with gossip we are) and start to tear down the good that was done because of the wrongdoings that were done. We like meta-narratives, we like the simplicity and the comfort of being able to say this person was good and this one bad. We like our hero’s and our villains clean cut and clearly outlined. But history should not be viewed through an emotional lens, it is a record of what’s happened -the good and the bad – and we need to accept t as such and draw what lessons we can from it in order to have a better future.
We should not either hide or destroy records of the past, we should be honest, and move forward using what our history has taught us, standing on the shoulders of the great men of the past (as flawed as they may have been) to continue to change our world to better protect the life, liberty, and property of all – and to continue our search for truth.
Image: Trinity College