Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Does History Teach Us About Ourselves?

The biggest thing I've learned from studying history is that good and evil are rooted in the mundane stuff of life. Even the most barbaric atrocities can become, and indeed are often marked by, their routine banality in the hands of their perpetrators. There are not many monsters or saints. Most of us never get the chance to rise to the most momentous occasion or descend to the depths. But we need not face the intense pressures of war or starvation to find out a little about ourselves. If I'm the sort of person who curses a driver in traffic, or lies to get ahead, I'm probably the sort of person who would participate in genocide. If I think I could never kill, I'm probably quite dangerous.

We ought to think on those things for a minute.

There are two great mistakes people that are often considered by their societies to be "good" make. The very ubiquity of these mistakes can hide their destructive power. They become just another part of the landscape, what we expect of ourselves. In some respects they are mirror images of each other, yet they both produce hatred, war, slavery and genocide.

The first mistake that good people make is exemplified by the object of my thesis study, John Stennis. A segregationist senator from Mississippi, he appeared to be nearly universally loved and respected by those who knew him personally. But John Stennis wasted his life. He spent half a century fighting for white supremacy, with all the violence and suffering that entailed. He didn't do it because he was bad. He did it because the boundaries of his empathy were small. His circle of moral concern excluded millions of people with no good cause. Somehow, the man who was held up as a paragon of virtue and integrity, "the conscience of the Senate," has to be reconciled with the man who refused to even answer the letters of his black constituents for a quarter of a century. That makes people uncomfortable.

We have to come to grips with the fact that people of high personal moral character, whose word is reliable, who are faithful to their families, who are humble and hardworking, can at the same time promote death and destruction for millions of other people. They care about people even as they destroy society.

The second mistake is that of the idealist who cares about society but can't be faithful to the people right in front of him. In trying to change society, the individual becomes unimportant. This is part of the reason communism should be held in the same opprobrium as Nazism. Besides the fact that it has caused many millions more deaths than Nazism did, it is important to realize that those deaths were not innocent mistakes. They were acknowledged by communist leaders at the time, not as a bug but as a feature! They would pave the way to the utopia.

It doesn't really matter how much good I do in the world if I'm a distant father. Nor does it matter how good a father I am if my empathy for those unlike me is shallow. Genocide grows up in the soils of indifference and othering. It doesn't require any monsters to do its work.

1 comment:

  1. I am thinking about this (no, not Stennis. Good luck with that) because a subject that came up is that apparently the church I attend is too inclusive for the comfort of some.

    This is supposed to turn into a post in a day or so. Maybe even a rant.