I was talking with a colleague the other day about the difficulty modern American culture has with facing history. More particularly, we all too easily dismiss consideration of past actions of our culture that were, by our present standards, wrong. We don’t even want to talk about the facts, much less the characterization/judgment of those actions.
In this we are not alone. Recently, I alluded to the widely varying responses to genocides undertaken by a wide range of cultures over the centuries. Few have been willing to acknowledge the actions taken by their historical cultures. The Turks vehemently protest against classifying their mass murder of Armenians in 1915 as a “genocide.” The Japanese refuse to recognize that they committed brutalities against most of their neighbors during their mid-20C imperial expansion. Don’t expect acts of atonement from the Russians for their starvation of Ukrainians under Stalin or from the Chinese for the frenzies of death and harm during the “Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s.
The US list starts with the treatment of native Americans, continues with slavery and racism vis-à-vis Black Africans, and includes a lengthy list of oppression, discrimination, and other harms to women and a wide range of ethnic groups. European empires, while proudly proclaiming their devotion to Christian ethics and civilization have much to answer for on every continent. Indeed, as far as I can tell, virtually every culture which amassed power over the past 5,000 years has used that power to harm others, both domestically and internationally.
I could go on…. If you’re into blame, invective, moralizing and table-pounding, history is a target-rich environment.
There are multiple references in the Bible (Deuteronomy, Exodus, Numbers) in which the LORD says HE can punish children for their parents’ sins; but more modern individualistic thinking rejects blood taints. And besides the necessary humility incumbent on recognizing that “we are all sinners,” Ernst Renan pointed out in 1882 that, given the history of conquests and destruction almost universal in the amalgamation of peoples over the centuries, forgetting the past is the only way for a people to go forward together.
It’s usually much easier to blame the other folks than to acknowledge one’s (my) own failings which contributed to the current crisis du jour. As long as I rant about the others’ ethical defects, I don’t have to worry about the future. They have to defend themselves and riposte by attacking me. It feels good at a certain level, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.
In South Africa, in the aftermath of apartheid, a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” was established to lay out the past as the basis for clearing the decks and allowing the future to move forward; other countries have undertaken similar projects. It may seem strange for a historian to want to put the history on the shelf. After all, discovering and utilizing the past is what we’re about. However, as Renan pointed out, hurts from the past—and recriminations—are best left on the shelf; we have to agree to move beyond the past (as best we can).
This usually takes some time. But, by 1952, parts of Europe had already started to come together in what would become the European Union. The past was being left in the past.
In my current research project about the decolonization of the British Empire in the mid-20C (See my posting on “Empire and Democracy” 052623), it was plain that the local political leaders in the colonies were “in tune with the times” in terms of demanding independence and human rights. They rejected the ideas and concerns of the morally bankrupt representatives of European “civilization.” It didn’t matter that the British were generally right, however, that most of these groupings were not ready to be stand-alone, full-fledged independent countries; lacking social cohesion, plausible economics, and governmental infrastructure. Rejection was more important that building a strong foundation for the future; and few of these colonies can be said to have been successful in the ~60 years since.
This demonstrates another problem with being stuck in the blame game: it’s a distraction. Time spent urging someone who (or whose parents or great-great-grandparents) did something bad to admit the sin (and, similarly, time spent in self-defense) is time not spent on today’s issues. The bad blood engendered in such debates further complicates the ability to come to useful solutions. In particular, the poisoned atmosphere usually leads to discarding whatever valid perceptions or good ideas might be advanced by the (descendants of) the miscreants.
Stone-throwing is a normal part of revolution and revolutionaries’ violence weakens their moral standing. Incumbents’ abuse of power undermines their claims to attention and respect. Yet, in the aftermath, the norm is to fight about the past rather than build the future. We can look at most of the international and “Civil” disputes around the world—Northern Ireland, the Middle East, most colonial changeovers of the 20C, Myanmar, India-Pakistan, a slew of post-colonial coups—and it’s hard to find those “without sin,” but pretty easy to find cast stones.