"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 8, 2015

Historical Revisionism Makes It Impossible To Learn From The Past

There is a move on to change the name of the Richard Russell Senate Office Building because of the Georgian’s record on civil rights.  While there is no doubt that he supported segregation, he was one of the most skilled legislators in the Senate, influential in supporting New Deal programs for parity, rural electrification, and farm loans, and supported promoting agricultural research, providing school lunches and giving surplus commodities to the poor. He was the chief sponsor of the National School Lunch Act of 1946. He was dubious about the war in Vietnam and advised Lyndon Johnson not to expand the conflict.

Richard Russell

He was a politician, and like any other, knew how to get elected.  To do so in Georgia and in the South during his tenure (1933-71) meant public commitment to segregation. No member of the Georgia delegations to the House or the Senate during that period every strayed from the adamant Southern line.  Yet Russell was known as a man of honesty, patriotism, and unselfish public service – and for those reasons the Senate Office Building is named after him.

How are we to judge the man? Should his stance on segregation be grounds for erasure from American history?

Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites, but their work was notable.  Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”.

Are we to burn their books? Consign them to the trash heaps of literary history?

The Salvation Army – a Christian conservative church – holds traditional views of sexuality which have little or nothing to do with the performance of their mission.  The Boy Scouts also have a conservatively Christian foundation, and their views are expectedly similar to the Salvation Army.  The Catholic Church is very open about its views of traditional marriage, sex, and sexuality. 

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Should these organizations be shunned?  Of course not.  A dismissal of homosexuality on Biblical grounds is not homophobia. 

One issue morality like single-issue politics is never good. For one thing it ignores human complexity, the ability we all have to hold conflicting views, to be inconsistent and to be ignorant and brilliant at the same time. The one belief in others which we dislike is not a virulent disease which eats and destroys the whole being. 

Every period of cultural history is different from every other.  The prevailing views, attitudes, morals, and patterns of behavior are conditioned by events which preceded them.  Few individuals have the intelligence to see outside the confines of their group or have the insight and vision to imagine the future.  It would be nice if participation in or complicity with slavery never existed.  From today’s perspective – one obsessed with individual and civil rights – it would be easy to condemn those in the South and the North ex post facto. Even though in their minds they did not sin, they should be branded, tarred and feathered, and expunged because of our penitential judgment.

Eric Foner has written (The Fiery Trial) about Lincoln, slavery and race – how his early racism was a product of his upbringing and cultural milieu and how it influenced many political decisions; but also how he evolved into the man most responsible for resolving – at least temporarily – the civil strife in the country. David S. Reynolds, writing in the New York Times (10.30.10) says:

One the one hand, Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. There’s no reason to doubt his declaration: “I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” On the other hand, he had a racist streak. He used the words “nigger” and “darky” in conversation, and he thought that blacks, whom he regarded as physically different from whites, should be deported to Liberia, Central America or somewhere else, since they couldn’t live on equal terms with whites in America. No one was more eloquent than Lincoln in describing the injustice of the institution of slavery; yet rarely did he dwell on the actual sufferings of America’s four million enslaved blacks.

Foner reveals that these contradictions were part and parcel of Lincoln’s upbringing and his participation in party politics. Born in 1809 in the slave state of Kentucky, Lincoln was taken at 7 to live in southwestern Indiana, a region, Foner informs us, that was moderate in its views of slavery but pervaded by racism. Lincoln’s later move to Illinois immersed him in a milieu that coupled tepid antislavery politics with, again, fierce racial prejudice.

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Lincoln’s views on race could not have been that different from those of most Europeans who, based on neo-Darwinism and the accounts of Mungo Park, Paul du Chaillu, and other African adventurers of the 19th century who brought back tales of primitive savagery, regarded Africans as uncultured and backward. 

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   Mungo Park, ElectricScotland.com

We forgive Lincoln for his early racism, his willing consideration of Upper South politicians’ desire to repatriate slaves back to Africa, his refusal to force abolition down the throats of states he wanted to keep in the Union.  As a whole, he was a good man and a revered leader.

Who else should be removed from history? Henry VIII  arbitrarily chopped off  heads, and treated women as childbearing concubines; but he challenged the Pope, Catholicism’s aggressive hegemony, and its greed and venality; and by so doing facilitated the structural reforms of Protestantism. The Aryans set up a system of race, class, and caste in India which served for centuries to keep the Indian population docile and obedient and made regal rule and British colonialism easy. Yet the Vedic period was one of the most philosophically rich and productive of any.

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There are thousands of examples of historical events or periods which not only did not conform to modern ethical and moral views, but which were antithetical to them. Today’s avoidance of collateral damage and civilian casualties, is a far cry from the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Many critics even condemn George W. Bush for his invasion of Iraq, and blame him squarely for the thousands of civilian deaths in that country.

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Truman was not an immoral or evil man for ordering the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and neither he nor those horrific events should be removed from the annals of history.

Reparations and apologies are now demanded for all kinds of past events – as though any 21st Century could or should atone for actions which were taken in a very understandable social, cultural, and political context.  Queen Elizabeth should not have to apologize to Kenya for civilian deaths during the Mau Mau uprising.  France should not have to atone for those killed in the Algerian civil war.  White Americans should not have to pay reparations for the system of slavery which had existed for 5000 years, perpetuated by African traders, facilitated by European middle-men and shippers, and accepted as the economic model of the South for 150 years.

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History must be respected, revered, and preserved.  Historians will always put their own particular spin on historical events, but do not deny that they existed. Revisionists today want to airbrush historical reality, thus denying the present generation the perspective of social evolution.  The Edmund Pettus bridge should forever keep that name, even though Pettus was a racist and uncompromising segregationist.  Calling it by any other name denies Alabamans and Americans an important look into a seminal event in US history – the march across the bridge.

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Molefi Kete Asante (New York Times 5.8.15) asks for an Afrocentric view of American history to right the prejudicial, racist accounts that characterize the historical record of the past two hundred years.

Afrocentricity as an intellectual idea takes no authority to prescribe anything; it is neither a religion nor a belief system. It is a paradigm that suggests all discourse about African people should be grounded in the centrality of Africans in their own narratives.

African slavers rounded up Africans who had already been enslaved by tribal chieftains, sold them to Europeans, who in turn sold them on American slave markets.  The accounts of slaves themselves are far less important to the understanding of history than the historical antecedents of slavery (Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome), Biblical exegesis, socio-cultural evolution, etc. A careful analysis of American and European history with an inquiry into the intra-African slave trade is what good historical exposition requires.  Slave journals or other contemporary sources are helpful, often insightful, but marginal.

If one wants to study, understand, and confront racism, it is not as Asante suggests, ‘African centrality’ it is European centrality.

Historical revisionism is always a bad idea.  Asante’s, even though he pays lip service to ‘the integrity of history’, has a political agenda in mind. He, like revisionists who want to tell American history from the Native American point of view, only want to blame, vilify, and condemn ‘the oppressors’.  History has no oppressors or victims.  Only nuts, bolts, cogs, and screws in what Jan Kott called ‘The Grand Mechanism’ of history – predictable, efficient, and unchanging.

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