The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ahistoric Blame Game

It happens every now and again, admittedly less often now that I live in Fresno, that I will be speaking with someone from Europe, and they will say something ot the effect of "I don't think that you Americans should assume that you have any right to talk about racial relations, after slavery and what you did to the Native Americans!"

They never seem prepared for my response, which is "yeah, you're right, our nation did continue to implement and further develop the policies put into place by England, France, Spain, Germany, etc."  I usually follow this up with "so, let's talk about your country's history in Africa/India/Asia/etc."

It has been my experience that Europeans often accuse Americans of being the slavers and genocidal maniacs who went after Native Americans, despite the fact that anti-Native American policies originated with early European colonists from throughout Europe, and the racially-based African slave trade as we would come to know it originated in Portugal and spread throughout Europe, from where it eventually spread to the Americas along with European colonists.  And, indeed, one of the reasons why slavery continued as late as it did in the U.S. is because cotton markets, including those in Europe, were comfortable with purchasing the products manufactured through slave labor.

Within the United States, we tend to blame the south for slavery, despite the fact that many northerners were not opposed to (and some even supported) slavery, and even where slavery was outlawed it would still appear under the guise of indentured servitude, prison-based hard labor passed out out of proportion to the crimes of the accused, and debt labor.

And on it goes.

The problem with this blame-game is twofold:  1) it is ahistorical, it requires us to be willingly (and often intentionally) ignorant of history; 2) it allows us to view the "others" who engaged in these policies as separate from us, different from us, and therefore allows us to ignore the role that our nation, or even we ourselves, may play in this.

Obviously, as someone who professionally deals with history, I have a special concern about #1.  I strongly feel that we should know our past, as accurately as possible, warts and all, and ignoring the culpability of our own culture in the sins of the past counts as a failure.

But #2 concerns me as a human who has to live in this world, in the here and now.  When we portray ourselves as being more enlightened and fundamentally different as creatures from those who committed past atrocities, we not only ignore the capacity of our own culture to produce equivalent atrocities, but we also ignore that we are sometimes culpable in the atrocities.  It's why the people of Ohio can feel superior to the American South's history of slavery and Jim Crow laws while fostering conditions in cities that have continued racial conflict.  It's why European government officials can persuade themselves that they are better and more enlightened than the U.S. in terms of race relations, despite the fact that Europe has increasingly worse problems with immigration and assimilation than the U.S.

Ahistoric blaming isn't just lazy scholarship, it's also a problem for those who are concerned about what is going on in the here-and-now.  It's a shell game that people (en masse in the forms of both regional and national electorates) use to tell themselves that their decisions are alright, or even good, while equivalent past decisions of other nations were horrible and should be looked down upon.  It allows us to put a false distance between "us" and "them" and therefore falsely assert that our decisions are better, smarter, and more just, when they are, in fact, almost identical.

1 comment:

Allison said...

This is so relevant to what I've been dealing with in my Thomas Jefferson studies lately. He wrote all that eloquent Revolutionary rhetoric, yet he was a slave-owner. Its hard not to demonize him for it since slavery is such an atrocity. At the same time, he used the same rationalizations for it as other southern plantation owners. I think his case is an interesting study in what you're talking about in this blog. His life shows some of the best and worst in human potential. Putting him on a pedestal and making him to be a complete villain are both wrong.