2013-07-08

The Wrong Side Of History

Americans are unanimous in the shame they feel over the great scar on our nation's history: slavery. This is right and natural. Like citizens of every nation, we feel a sense of national pride (well, most of us, anyway). It's hard to square a sense of national pride with awareness of such a terrible national mistake. It creates cognitive dissonance: If America is the "land of the free," how could we have ever tolerated human slavery at a time when most civilized nations had already given it up?

The Abolitionists were on the right side of history. The slave-owners were not. The national sense of shame America feels over slavery and Jim Crow is the shame that goes along with being on the wrong side of history, and that is the topic of this morning's blog post.

Horrifying
Looking back, it's difficult to believe that so many people consented to an American system of slavery. It's also difficult to believe that so many people consented to Japanese internment camps during World War II. Likewise with the so-called "Guatemala syphilis experiments," in which the United States Public Health Service flagrantly infected innocent Guatemalans - including children - with syphilis. On all of these issues, the US government and anyone who defended its actions were on the wrong side of history.

No one can offer any credible defense against actions of this kind. There is no justifiable sense of "the greater good" to which we can appeal that will make these and other atrocities any less horrifying. Anyone who defended them when they were occurring should be ashamed of themselves. On this, we can all agree.

Nor could it ever make sense to state that, had the US government not committed these atrocities, we would otherwise be living in a state of anarchy. True, a world in which there is no human slavery, no internment camps, no genocidal science experiments, is a world in which our government has far less power than it did at the time, and indeed less than it has now. However, the power required to carry out these kinds of atrocities is not one that any government should be entitled to wield.

Upon this, we all agree. We did not tolerate it of Nazi Germany, and we should not tolerate it of contemporary or historical America. Horrors are horrors, even when our own "side" is the one committing them.

But what amazes me is that, at the time, few of those committing such atrocities seemed self-aware enough to understand that they were on the wrong side of history. Did people in 19th Century America really believe that human slavery was an institution that would extend to perpetuity? Did they not realize that its days were numbered? Did employees of the US government fail to understand that their reckoning day would come, and they would be held to answer for why they imprisoned Japanese-Americans in naziesque ghettos and/or injected little children with syphilis?

Did they really think time would not reveal them to be the monsters that they are?

The Wrong Side Of The Present
Sure, it's easy for me to say: I wasn't around in the 19th Century; I wasn't around for Jim Crow; I wasn't around for Japanese internment camps or Guatemalan science experiments. I didn't live back then. I live now.

Today, our governments engage in a wide array of actions and policies that will, I am sure, fail the test of history. The challenge for us as citizens and individuals is to try to identify the right course of action and advocate for it.

The reason I bring history into it at all is that one gains a much different perspective on, for example, daily drone bombings in Pakistan when one views such a policy as a chapter in a history book than when one views it as a column of text on Page 6 of the newspaper. From the Page 6 point of view, drone strikes are what we have to do to fight the terrorists and bring our troops home. From the historical point of view, drone strikes on Pakistani villages stand out as being one of the greater US-waged atrocities of the past fifty years.

Imprisoning hundreds of people at Guantanamo Bay, to cite another example, and denying them the same human rights that our Constitution guarantees ordinary citizens certainly does not sound like the kind of thing we will have been proud of defending over the next half-century. I am fully aware of the political "challenges" associated with bringing this nightmare to an end. But when will we realign our policies with the course of history? Obviously, we cannot commit to a long-standing policy of secret prisons, even if we think we can. Perhaps you can stand for it today, but there will come a day when the vast majority of human beings will not stand for it and will fight against it. It has happened before.

So, I encourage you to ask yourself when you consider such issues: In 50 years, will I be proud that I defended the practice of bombing Pakistani villages? Will I have been on the right side of history.

Immigration
It certainly sounds reasonable at first-blush to say that we should "secure the border." But in another 200 years, what will our descendants have to say about a global system of keeping human beings inside fences unless and until they can prove through the magic of paperwork that they have more economically valuable skills than a large proportion of the country in which they want to attempt to make a living? In truth, the notion that a species of hunter-gatherers who, for tens of thousands of years, have been wondering the globe and forming settlements according to their own whims and capacity to survive, could somehow be contained by imaginary lines is a truly breathtaking level of stupidity.

The Great Wall of China failed to keep the Mongols out. What happened instead was that the Wall's stated intent changed from "protection" to "regulation," and ultimately, to antiquation. The Mongols and the Chinese intermixed and interbred. The result was not a cataclysmic erosion of Chinese culture so much as a gradual evolution from two or more ancient cultures to one, modern Chinese culture. In time, as history progresses, that modern culture will also change as the Chinese further intermix with the nations and communities that exist today. The lesson here is clear: not even the greatest wall ever built by human governments can come between peaceful people who wish to interact with each other.

The fact that the Great Wall of China still stands, and yet some in the United States actually believe that building a fence along the US-Mexico border will fix the immigration "problem" is all the demonstration we need in order to understand that some people simply aren't on the right side of history here.

As with the Guantanamo Bay issue, I am aware of the political "challenges" associated with allowing increased immigration. The reason I am not too concerned with those challenges is because immigration is an inevitability; it is human nature; it is a fact of human history; it cannot be stopped. If it could be stopped, The Great Wall of China certainly would have done it. The Berlin Wall would have done it.

We have tried these fences many times and many different ways. Ultimately, in the scope of history, they fail. Those who continually argue against immigration are on the wrong side of history. What they say today, and even what they might achieve politically over the next few months or years, will ultimately prove futile. Trade, travel, and migration are facts of human existence, demonstrated irrefutably by the course of history.

Conclusion
Some of you might object to my comparing immigration with internment camps, slavery, and genocide. Those who typically raise this kind of objection also tend to be those who suggest that countries like Mexico are culturally inferior to countries like the United States. I am not sure how to assess the merits of a culture, and I am not even sure that "culture" is a thing the merits of which can be assessed. It suffices simply to remark that "cultural inferiority" is one of the justifications that have been used - again, historically - in support of slavery, genocide, apartheid, etc.

The question is simply this: which side of history do you want to be on?