Thursday, October 14, 2010

Let's Not Reconsider

Matt Yglesias, just back from Israel, responds to a video urging Americans to reconsider Columbus Day:
When you think about it, though, part of what’s great about America is that political dialogue in this country isn’t dominated by calls to reconsider Columbus Day or any kind of deep effort to ponder the meaning of being a nation founded on ethnic cleansing and slavery. That’s not to say that we don’t still grapple with the consequences of those events or that mainstream white America couldn’t stand to grapple harder with them. But unlike in some countries I’ve visited recently, it’s perfectly possible to probe an American for a while about his political views without being treated to a lengthy ax-grinding historical narrative.
Absolutely. I think that a lot of things about contemporary American culture are the result of past horrors like slavery and the Indian wars, but I agree with Yglesias that too much worrying about the past makes for bad politics in the present. No amount of apology will undo those harms, and what we know about human character and success tells us that focusing too much on past oppressions only exacerbates ethnic tensions and makes it harder for the children of the oppressed to succeed. I am aware that as a member of the most privileged ethnic group in world history I open to accusations of bias on this, but I am not talking about me. I am a historian, and I spent a lot of time pondering past injustices. I read about them for pleasure. My experience with black political and business leaders is that they don't want to hear about slavery and would rather celebrate stories of black success, if they want to deal with the past at all. Which many don't. So while I wouldn't personally participate in a Columbus Day "celebration," I think we should all celebrate living in a world where nobody much cares.


David said...

On the one hand, I'm glad I don't live in a country where to be an idealist is to obsess over the Drogheda massacre or how to get Abkhazia or Hebron back. On the other, Americans do have a tendency toward historical complacency, especially where a) slavery and the Confederacy and b) the seriousness of military adventurism are concerned. The ongoing and general conviction that the Confederates were a species of Robin Hood is especially wrong, pernicious, and annoying.

John said...

True, but I think a major effort to correct neo-Confederatism would just lead to another loud and angry public debate and not change anyone's mind.

David said...

What we need is a well-done blockbuster movie, with very hot people on the Union side, to do it.

How about Russell Crowe as U. S. Grant and Angelina Jolie as his wife? Or better yet, as Lee's frustrated wife who finds bliss in the arms of the bluecoat general.