Posts filed under “History”
From the BBC coverage of the Canadian elections:
“Mr Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, said Canadians had voted for real change.”
Now, you or I might think that real change might involve a prime minister whose father had not been one of the most famous and longest-serving prime ministers in Canadian history, but we would be wrong. And in fact most people who read that sentence probably thought either, “Yes! Real change! Out with the Conservatives, in with the Liberals!” or “Blast it, now that the wicked Liberals are in power things are really going to change around here.” Few probably stopped to think that real change would not look so much like its father.
Meanwhile, the United States election may well match Bride of Clinton against Son and Brother of Bush.
When did North American politics become dynastic? Perhaps it always was, and we had not noticed. And that thought caused Dr. Boli to remember something G. K. Chesterton had said, in which—as usual—he hit on something that ought to be obvious, but is not, and expressed it in terms that could hardly be improved. And even if you are a fanatical admirer of G. K. C., you may never have read this, because it was from an introduction to a collection of stories by Maxim Gorky, and you probably did not know that Chesterton wrote an introduction to a collection of stories by Maxim Gorky.
Russia has far more inherent capacity for producing revolution in revolutionists than any country of the type of England or America. Communities highly civilized and largely urban tend to a thing which is now called evolution, the most cautious and the most conservative of all social influences. The loyal Russian obeys the Czar because he remembers the Czar and the Czar’s importance. The disloyal Russian frets against the Czar because he also remembers the Czar, and makes a note of the necessity of knifing him. But the loyal Englishman obeys the upper classes because he has forgotten that they are there. Their operation has become to him like daylight, or gravitation, or any of the forces of nature. And there are no disloyal Englishmen; there are no English revolutionists, because the oligarchic management of England is so complete as to be invisible. The thing which can once get itself forgotten can make itself omnipotent.
Sometimes one brings the entire Internet down on one’s head, and then one can only pick through the rubble. Dr. Boli has just done that twice in one week, so there is quite a lot of rubble to sort through.
First, there was the article about slavery. After thousands of words in the article and comments, Dr. Boli has only succeeded in obscuring his thoughts rather than elucidating them. He has seen traffic coming in to that article from what seem to be Southern-apologist sites, which irks him to no end, because he meant it to show why radical abolitionism—a demand that slavery be ended everywhere at once and not simply mitigated here and there—was the only sound intellectual position in the time of Robert E. Lee. When it becomes impossible for even a reasonably good man to act on his better instincts, then it is time to turn the world over and give it a good shake.
Here is what Dr. Boli meant to say: If you think that, in the same situation, you would have been a better person than the average Southern slaveowner, you are deluding yourself. You would have fallen down into the same slough of evil. That’s it. Don’t judge the past from a lofty peak of self-righteousness, and you’ll understand both history and yourself a lot better. You will also understand that the fight against evil did not end with a resounding victory in 1865.
Then there was the question of the cranky Web site that proves, beyond all possibility of doubt, or even of reading to the end of the argument, that the Catholic Church apostatized fifty years ago. This brought up an acrimonious debate on the subject of Church history, which Dr. Boli now feels obliged to sort out. It is worth noting, by the way, that the author of the Web site that started it all responded to being called a “crank” with more charity and civility than the rest of us could muster, which made Dr. Boli a little ashamed of himself.
Here is the history of the Christian Church to Constantine’s time, as Dr. Boli sees it, in one paragraph.
The Christian movement began with Jesus and his small rabble of mostly low-class followers, but already by the Acts of the Apostles we see it grown so large that it needs layers of authority. There were heresies from the beginning, but it was always clear from the numbers alone that they were heresies, and that there was a main stream of Christian thought. In fact, many or even most of the heresies gloried in their exclusivity—they were the chosen few, unlike the rabble who didn’t get it. This was, of course, what led to their ultimate extinction in the Darwinian world of Roman religions: you need the rabble if your religion is going to make it to the big time. So by the time of Constantine, the Christian hierarchy was recognizably similar to what we see in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and similar branches of Christianity today. Constantine made no serious change to the structure of the Church; it had the same leaders before and after his conversion. But he made it a lot richer.
What Constantine did invent was politically weaponized Christianity. The Eastern Church regards him as a saint. The West…well, not necessarily.
Incidentally, the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion is much debated, but Dr. Boli thinks Constantine was absolutely sincere, for the simple reason that he delayed his baptism until he was near death. It would have been trivially easy to have himself very publicly baptized if he thought it was a lot of superstitious nonsense that was demographically useful. But he took the washing away of sins seriously, and he had a lot of sins planned for the future.
Since we were talking about the evils of slavery, it seems to Dr. Boli that no amount of argument can demonstrate the pervasiveness of the evil as well as this simple illustration from Mark Twain, which comes from Following the Equator. He has stopped at a hotel in Bombay, and a long troop of Indian hotel employees has followed him to his room, led by a German supervisor.
There was a vast glazed door which opened upon the balcony. It needed closing, or cleaning, or something, and a native got down on his knees and went to work at it. He seemed to be doing it well enough, but perhaps he wasn’t, for the burly German put on a look that betrayed dissatisfaction, then without explaining what was wrong, gave the native a brisk cuff on the jaw and then told him where the defect was. It seemed such a shame to do that before us all. The native took it with meekness, saying nothing, and not showing in his face or manner any resentment. I had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back to my boyhood, and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the usual way of explaining one’s desires to a slave. I was able to remember that the method seemed right and natural to me in those days, I being born to it and unaware that elsewhere there were other methods; but I was also able to remember that those unresented cuffings made me sorry for the victim and ashamed for the punisher. My father was a refined and kindly gentleman, very grave, rather austere, of rigid probity, a sternly just and upright man, albeit he attended no church and never spoke of religious matters, and had no part nor lot in the pious joys of his Presbyterian family, nor ever seemed to suffer from this deprivation. He laid his hand upon me in punishment only twice in his life, and then not heavily; once for telling him a lie—which surprised me, and showed me how unsuspicious he was, for that was not my maiden effort. He punished me those two times only, and never any other member of the family at all; yet every now and then he cuffed our harmless slave boy, Lewis, for trifling little blunders and awkwardnesses. My father had passed his life among the slaves from his cradle up, and his cuffings proceeded from the custom of the time, not from his nature. When I was ten years old I saw a man fling a lump of iron-ore at a slaveman in anger, for merely doing something awkwardly—as if that were a crime. It bounded from the man’s skull, and the man fell and never spoke again. He was dead in an hour. I knew the man had a right to kill his slave if he wanted to, and yet it seemed a pitiful thing and somehow wrong, though why wrong I was not deep enough to explain if I had been asked to do it. Nobody in the village approved of that murder, but of course no one said much about it.
It is curious—the space-annihilating power of thought. For just one second, all that goes to make the me in me was in a Missourian village, on the other side of the globe, vividly seeing again these forgotten pictures of fifty years ago, and wholly unconscious of all things but just those; and in the next second I was back in Bombay, and that kneeling native’s smitten cheek was not done tingling yet! Back to boyhood—fifty years; back to age again, another fifty; and a flight equal to the circumference of the globe—all in two seconds by the watch!
“My father was a refined and kindly gentleman”—and yet his usual method of addressing a slave was to get his attention with a smack. This is what owning slaves does to the moral sense of refined and kindly gentlemen. There are still—incredible as it is to say—Confederate apologists who argue that slavery was a largely benevolent institution, because it was in the economic interest of the slaveowner to treat his property well. When you hear their arguments, you will remember Mark Twain’s story of his refined and kindly father.
The first in an occasional series on failures of imagination in historical writing.
Suppose, for a moment, that you are a conscientious historian who has decided that Americans must be made to understand exactly how the individual slaveowner of the antebellum South was personally responsible for the evils of slavery. You will do so with a searing appeal to America’s conscience; or, in other words, with an article in Slate. So you sit down to your Macintosh to type, and…
And in the back of your mind you feel a little pricking. For some reason your memory has chosen that moment to replay an article you read somewhere about appalling conditions in Apple factories in Asia—conditions that have more than once been described as “slavery.”
You shake your head to clear your mind. Of course even the worst factory conditions are not the same as African slavery as it was practiced in the southern United States. That is incontrovertibly true.
Still, you remember thinking when you read that article that there was something monstrously evil in those factories. How can you condemn one monstrous evil by participating in another?
“That’s it,” you declare with sudden resolution. “From now on, no more Apple for me. Instead, I’ll…”
There is not a single other computer brand that does not depend on the same sort of exploited labor.
You’ll build your own computer? What a splendid idea! Where will the components come from?
“Fine,” you say with a desperate resolution. “I’ll turn Luddite. I’ll write everything in ink on paper.”
The first notebook you pick up says “Made in Indonesia.”
You can’t escape the web of evil.
In our complex modern world, we deal with all kinds of evil, but we have just run up against what we might call systemic evil, to borrow a term from the medical profession. (We shall fill the tank and take a spin through the car wash before we bring the term back, so everything’s all right.) Systemic evil is evil in which we participate merely by living in our complex modern world. There is no little check box to opt out. You broke the shrink wrap; you used the life that was given to you; therefore you agreed to the evil.
And exploited workers in Asian factories are just one tentacle of the evil that pervades modern life. How about automobile companies that deliberately evade pollution controls? You will boycott them and buy only from non-evil automobile manufacturers? Dr. Boli believes that you are in for a rude surprise when you start trying to find one of those. How about wars and terrorist attacks started by greedy and ambitious politicians who kill thousands as a way of augmenting their own power? You’ll move to Switzerland, which never gets into wars? Dr. Boli suggests you might do a little research on how such wars are financed.
No, the modern world is sufficiently complex that you simply cannot pull evil out by the roots without killing the rest of your crops. This is the meaning of the parable of the wheat and tares:—for the historical fallacy that Dr. Boli has chosen to address today is the idea that things were simpler in days gone by.
The subject came up because of an article in Slate that an alert reader pointed out to us: “Slavery Myths Debunked,” which begins with an introduction that shows a serious lack, but not a surprising lack, of historical imagination.
Dr. Boli was relieved to find that most of the article is just good sound history. No, Irish indentured servants were not slaves in the way African slaves were slaves; that is true, and it needs to be said. However badly the Irish were treated, they were white citizens with rights. No, factory workers in the North were not worse off than slaves in the South, for the good and sufficient reason that it was at least theoretically possible for a Northern factory worker to stop being a factory worker, or for his children to become embezzlers or prostitutes or something else better than either factory workers or slaves.
It is only in the introduction that we find the parade of fallacies, which of course is a little ironic in an article purporting to debunk historical myths. We shall look at only one of those fallacies, because it will stand in very well for all of them.
In a June column on the legacy of Robert E. Lee that was otherwise largely critical of the Confederate general, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote that, though Lee owned slaves, he didn’t like owning slaves—a biographical detail whose inclusion seemed to imply that Lee’s ambivalence somehow made his slaveholding less objectionable.
The implication seems to be that, because he held slaves, Robert E. Lee was simply evil; there is no mitigation for his disapproval of the institution of slavery.
Now, Robert E. Lee is not one of Dr. Boli’s favorite people. Dr. Boli was not impressed by Lee when Lee was alive, and he is not any more impressed by him now that he is dead. But to suggest that no good person could have owned slaves is to misunderstand the complexity of the antebellum era. It minimizes the evil of slavery by suggesting that it presented a simple choice: one could decide not to have slaves the way one decides not to kick a puppy, and then one’s conscience would be clear.
Consider the actual situation, however. Lee inherits a plantation full of slaves. Let us suppose that he hates the institution of slavery with a white-hot passion (which he did not, by the way, but let us suppose it). What should he do?
Well he should let the slaves go, of course.
Fine. And then what?
What place was there for a free black person in Virginia? With trivial exceptions, none whatsoever. By law, anyone who had visible African traits was presumed to be a slave; there were large rewards for returning a supposed runaway, and the supposed slave’s testimony would not be admitted in court. So a freed slave lived in constant danger of being enslaved again by some unscrupulous or simply mistaken white person. Aside from that, there was almost no reasonable way for a former slave to earn a living, since whatever jobs would be entrusted to a former slave were already filled by current slaves.
But they could go north.
And would they fare better there? At the minimum, Lee’s responsibility to his slaves would require him to find a way for them to live as well as they lived as slaves—that is, to have their minimal bodily needs taken care of. Simply saying “Go north, be free,” would be condemning them to starvation. How easily could a Southern slaveowner find homes and jobs for his freed slaves in the North? And, of course, the Fugitive Slave Laws could make it almost as hard to remain free in the North as it was in the South.
Then he could send them back to Africa. But by Lee’s time, almost all the slaves in the South were born in America. They had no more practical knowledge of Africa than Lee had. Africa was not “back,” and would they want to go there if they were free? Some free black Americans did, but many did not.
Well, then, he could pay them and make them employees instead of slaves. But there were no other positions for free black “employees,” so all the employees would have had to stay in Lee’s employ or starve to death. It seems obvious that the difference between a slave and an employee who can never leave his position to go anywhere else is a difference in name only.
He could sell his slaves to another master and wash his hands of the whole thing. It might allow Lee to feel very smug for a while, but plainly it would be a bad thing for the slaves, probably breaking up families and friendships of long duration among them.
Supposing Lee to be the most tender-hearted humanitarian imaginable, then, he will keep his slaves even if he detests the institution of slavery. He will do so because any alternative he can think of is much worse. If he loves the slaves as human beings, they will have to remain slaves.
That, in a few words, is how thoroughly evil the institution of slavery was. A white southerner born into a family with slaves was stuck with them unless he was willing to treat them with callous cruelty. This is how evil works. It enlists our most selfless motives in its service. You can almost hear the satisfied chuckle of the demons right now. It’s a fine piece of work, they say.
But if it was nearly impossible for an individual slaveowner to get around the problem of slavery, then we are faced with a choice. We can condemn all slaveowners as evil, on the unimpeachable grounds that slavery is objectively evil. But then we create a Calvinistic world in which millions are born damned, with no hope of redemption. A third of all white Southerners owned slaves before the Civil War, as the Slate article mentions; that’s quite a lot of objectively evil people. Our only alternative is charity: the understanding that There is none righteous, no, not one, and that slaveowners, Hitler Youth members, Volkswagen drivers, Apple users, and all the rest of us living in this complex modern world are caught in a vast web of evil not of our own making. When we insist that slaveowners chose to be evil and could have done otherwise, we are missing the magnitude of the evil. And when we trivialize the evil to a matter of individual choice, then we smugly absolve ourselves of responsibility. For if the evil is really that huge and all-encompassing, then it is not a few individuals who need to be changed, but everything; and that would mean we must accept the horrible possibility that we are called to change the world.