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The Arrogance of Historical Memory

October 9th, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Social media is abuzz with excitement on October 12: variously known as Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day and there are other names for it. As if we didn’t have enough to be concerned about some of us need to take time out to denounce Sr. Colombo, laying the blame for all that happened in the Americas after 1492 on him. We should not be so quick to pass judgment.
As a historian one of the things I learned early on is that many of us use history as a hammer. We apply our 21st century standards of what we think is right and wrong to actors who lived in a world completely alien to us, so that we can associate our political enemies with their supposed historical misdeeds. This may give us some sense of moral superiority but it doesn’t serve any positive purpose. If we look at history through the lens of our own time we can’t possibly understand it. Then what is the purpose of looking at all? It just becomes another way of dividing ourselves up and casting blame at the “other.”
The historical profession is not about rehashing the crimes of the past. It is not only useless it is redundant for us to smugly condemn historical actors, because their actions wouldn’t be considered crimes if history had not already made that judgment. Our more difficult and profitable task is to try to see the world through the eyes of historical actors, not to excuse them, but so we can understand why they thought what they were doing was legitimate.
When Columbus sailed for the Indies he didn’t start out with the intention of finding geography previously unknown to Europe so that he could rape, pillage and enslave people he had no prior knowledge of. He set out on a perfectly respectable expedition to seek trade in Asia. He carried with him an entire worldview that saw what happened in the Americas as justifiable, even admirable. What kind of thinking would allow that? If we learn that, we can avoid repeating it. Understanding historical actors does not mean we agree with what they did. In fact, if we understand them, we can prevent what they did from recurring.
There is plenty of injustice to address today without casting stones at the past. Much if not all of the injustice that surrounds us is abetted by our failure to understand the past. If we spend our effort working for justice today, maybe our descendants five centuries from now will not remember us as criminals.
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