December 29, 2005

Judging the past

I was rereading Michael Beran's article about the Founding Fathers and was thinking about the term "context." The Founders, for all their forward thinking and genius, were products of their time -- meaning, yes, many of them owned slaves, among other vices. But, of course, in the context of the times, well-to-do white men owning slaves was not much a vice.

Back in grad school, I took a course titled "Ethnic Studies and Multicultural Education" just for the "fun" of it. The readings were essentially what I expected, but at least the prof. wasn't openly hostile to different points of view. We were assigned a Howard Zinn reading one week titled "Christopher Columbus and the Myth of Human Progress." (The article was culled from something called the "Open Magazine Pamphlets Series" which also featured -- advertised on the front page -- articles by Noam Chomsky on "Media Control" and "The New World Order"; the late Edward Said on "Peace in the Middle East"; George Carter on "ACT UP and AIDS"; and Tom Athanasiou on "The US & Global Warming." Quite a "balance," huh?)

In the article, of course, Zinn blasts Columbus and the West in general. What I found most interesting was Zinn's inclusion of Bartolome de las Casas, the Dominican priest, as the "hero" for speaking out against Spanish atrocities inflicted on the Natives (Indians). Of course, including that de las Casas advocated the importation of black slaves from Africa would have put a monkey wrench into Zinn's proselytizing. Even a high school history text, A History of World Societies, notes that de las Casas recommended black slavery because "the Church did not strictly forbid it, and he thought blacks could better survive South American conditions." My prof. indicated she had no idea about this when I brought it up in a "thought paper." She commented that this was "interesting."

In his article, Zinn remarks:

You probably heard -- as I have, quite often -- that it is wrong for us to treat the Columbus story the way we do. What they say is: "You are taking Columbus out of context, looking at him with the eyes of the 20th century. You must not superimpose the values of our times on events that took place 500 years ago. That is ahistorical."

I find this argument strange. Does it mean that cruelty, exploitation, greed, enslavement, violence against helpless people, are values peculiar to the 15th and 16th centuries? And that we in the 20th century, are beyond that? Are there not certain human values which are common to the age of Columbus and to our own? Proof of that is that both in his time and in ours there were enslavers and exploiters; in both his time and ours there were those who protested against that, on behalf of human rights.

To quote from Zinn in that very same article: What arrogance! (Zinn directed these words at George Bush the 41st after Bush remarked in 1988 that the 20th century was the "American Century.") What arrogance to think that Zinn would have been right out there protesting the treatment of the downtrodden 500 years ago (without, at least, extreme consequences!) What arrogance to believe Zinn would not have been a product of his environment! What arrogance to claim Bartolome de las Casas as a paragon of human rights in Columbus' time because he protested the treatment of Indians -- but then advocated enslavement of Africans to replace the Indians! (The latter of which Zinn makes no mention; however, when searching the Internet for a possible online version of this Zinn article [without success, by the way], I discovered a reference where Zinn claims that las Casas later came out against African slavery, too.)

Why not go even further, Professor Zinn? Why not go back 1000 years ago? Cruelty, exploitation, etc. were even more present then. Why not judge a man of the year 1004 by 2004 standards?

It is preposterous to do that, of course. The "anointed," such as Zinn (to use a Thomas Sowell term) are no better than those who want an opposite view of history, like what school kids got in the 40s and 50s. And to utilize what Zinn believes means one has to assume that humanity and civilization cannot grow. Why has slavery been virtually abolished? Why has exploitation been reduced massively? Why do average people enjoy more and more rights every single day?

As Thomas G. West notes in his excellent book Vindicating the Founders, Thomas Jefferson "thought that the chief value of studying the past is

... rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty...History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; ...[I]t will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

Jefferson was describing the kind of history that Thucydides and Winston Churchill wrote: "loyal to the truth but not afraid to distinguish between justice and injustice, honor and villainy, greatness and degradation."

Zinn, in his zeal to "undo" the incomplete histories of past centuries goes to the other extreme -- and only sees the injustice, villainy and degradation.

Posted by Hube at December 29, 2005 11:23 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Think about our system of government. The founding fathers invented a system of government that has lasted 230 years (so far.) They built in enough flexibility that it has been able to adjust to changing times and circumstances.

A few years ago I was working on an article about the 2000 election and started reading through some of the Federalist Papers.
Remarkable stuff.

The one major thing they got wrong was that they disdained political parties. They figured that states would have their unique interests and didn't think that there would be national parties ( or that the ties of those parties would be stronger than a politicians interest in his state.)

But however our system of government has changed and even been corrupted over time it still keeps going and generally keeps us safe and allows us to be prosperous.

Posted by: David Gerstman at December 29, 2005 07:39 PM

Hube, a very thoughtful post and it raises some important issues concerning how we talk about the past and its relationship to the present.

This is my take on it and I don't know how much it accords w/ Zinn's view. There was a time when it was simply unthinkable for dominant cultures to conceive of social & economic relationships w/o slavery. There were a few bright exceptions to the mainstream point of view and even some of those, by today's standards, had racist reasons for opposing slavery. For example, many of the USA's 1st abolitionists wanted to end slavery because they believed the presence of African persons in North America would be socially catastrophic for white Europeans in the long run. They wanted to end slavery so they could return the slaves to Africa.

But as I think we can agree, what I just mentioned is in the "fine print" of what we are taught about the history of abolitionism in the USA. It's usually "So & so opposed slavery and he was an impt person in USA history, so, see, he is another noble figure who is not the least bit motivated by any meanness, selfishness, prejudice etc., etc." We get the headline but little or no fine print.

Now, from my perspective, this way of presenting history is dangerous in the extreme and, at the very least, stultifying. Here's why: it presents a view of our founders and their values as one so beyond reproach that we dare not question if their laws (e.g., our constitution) and values are useful for our time. Such thinking, I believe, impedes progress.

As to relationship of the past & the present... Assuming my statement above is true ("There was a time when it was simply unthinkable for dominant cultures to conceive of social & economic relationships w/o slavery"), I think a tendency exists to believe that because we no longer have injustices as egregious as slavery, then we no longer have any egregious injustices. In other words, we could as easily be in a situation where it is simply unthinkable for dominant cultures today to conceive of social & economic arrangements that are not fundamentally predicated on competition but on cooperation [you probably saw that one coming ;)], and future generations will look at the lot of us (as all generations should that pursue human progress) and, say, “Wow, weren’t they a bunch of yahoos.”

Of course, you are probably correct about Bartolome de las Casas. (I really know nothing about him, but I will look it up since you’ve got me interested.) So I guess I would say that although I believe Zinn’s effort to make us stop believing that our founders were veritable saints is fundamentally worthwhile, my approach would be to say, “You see, Bartolome de las Casas was the best humanity could produce 500 years ago and, in part thanks to him, he isn’t nearly good enough as a model of justice for us today. So when we make social and legal policy today and when we are tempted to cite, say, a Jefferson, the limits of the debate can’t be set by the fact that Jefferson believed we’d all be better off w/o slavery. Let’s not also forget that the limits of Jefferson’s notions of freedom and justice were also informed by the fact that he also would stroll down to Sally Hemmings place, his slave and a minor, and have sex w/ her. And, apparently, he lied about it.”

I think you probably understand my point even if you don’t agree w/ it, but here it is in a nutshell: the past should inform the present but never limit it. Otherwise human progress grinds to a halt.

Posted by: Dana Garrett at December 29, 2005 10:03 PM

I do see your point, Dana. My instructor (she wasn't a professor) mentioned pretty much what you state, i.e., that Zinn wasn't really "interested" in presenting a balanced view. He was interested merely in presenting "the other side" -- which is fine, but it doesn't satisfy a casual reader's expectation (or need) for as balanced a view as possible.

I further agree that famous historical figures should not be above reproach. Obviously Zinn very much agrees with this; indeed, to the extreme. Your statement There was a time when it was simply unthinkable for dominant cultures to conceive of social & economic relationships w/o slavery"), I think a tendency exists to believe that because we no longer have injustices as egregious as slavery, then we no longer have any egregious injustices doesn't quite address Zinn's contention that it's a "cop out" to dub Columbus, Jefferson, or whoever a "product of their time." To me, it is quite a conceit to state that such figures can (and should) be judged upon contemporary norms. And, Zinn cannot even find someone other than las Casas -- obviously a "flawed" individual based on such norms -- to denigrate Columbus. IOW, Zinn's zeal in deconstructing Columbus becomes a waste when he utilizes arguably as flawed an individual (las Casas) as Chris C.

But, all in all, I cannot argue with your "nutshell" point. I'd like to think most people would desire a balanced view of Columbus, the Founders, etc. rather than that presented in textbooks of 30+ years ago, and, on the other hand, that of the Zinns of the world.

Posted by: Hube at December 30, 2005 07:05 PM

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