Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sorta political: "flawed America"?

When I was in middle school I knew a girl who came from a Jewish family. I put it that way because she didn't think of herself as Jewish and neither did her parents. She knew that was her heritage but her parents had made it clear that was a largely contingent and unimportant thing.

She'd been told about the Second World War and the concentration camps but hadn't thought about it much. Then, one day in Grade 8, she began reading a magazine article that recounted the experience of war time Jews and it really hit her for the first time. For the first time in her life she thought about it as something that happened to people like her. The thought hit her hard. She had nightmares about it. And she began to think of herself in a completely different way.

I've seen the same thing happen to other people since. It happens a lot with the Irish here in North America. I was close friends with a family of people of Ukrainian descent in university and saw one member of the family, get really swept up by the discovery of what the Soviets had done to her ancestors.

I was thinking about that reading Ta Nehisi Coates post "A Flawed America in Context" this morning. In it, you really should read the whole thing, he quotes a long account of Europe at the end of the Thirty Years War, a time when people were so hungry they ate the raw flesh off corpses. The lesson he draws from that is this: "the history of white racism and its attendent victims is horrifying, but it should be seen in scale".

That's a good enough point. But it's also important to remember the effects that come from thinking of historical crimes as crimes against yourself. To this day, for example, the British and people of British descent not only deny the incredibly brutal oppression of Catholicism that took place there but actually brag about their history of "religious tolerance". Sometimes the temptation to take it personally can be very strong.

The question that should occur to us, however, is, would the story be any different if the shoe had been on the other foot. Suppose a more technologically and militarily advanced Africa had begun importing Europeans to work in plantation farming. Is there any reason to believe the history would have been different?

Brutality such as Coates cites during the Thirty Years War also happened in Africa and among aboriginals in North America before the arrival of Europeans.

If anything, it seems to me that the correct lesson to take is that brutal oppression of peoples by peoples is the norm in human history. The thing that needs explaining because it is exceptional is why some people amazingly decided that this was wrong and began fighting to change their own societies to stop being oppressive. Why did that ever happen and why did it happen in the places and times where it did happen.

The other lesson is that this sort of liberty and respect for human freedom is always and everywhere only possible when backed up with military force. The liberty of classical Greece was only possible because the Greeks were better at fighting Persians than the Persians were at fighting Greeks. The emancipation of the slaves in America happened because the North was more powerful than the South. The military might of the United States is a necessary condition for the peace and prosperity I enjoy today here in Canada. The same is true of European prosperity—it depends absolutely on the USA.

All of which makes it seem a little silly, if you ask me, to be writing of a "flawed" America. What is this supposed to mean? As opposed to other countries that are "unflawed"?

No comments:

Post a Comment