We are not history’s heroes

George Washington as a Greek God

George Washington, ordinary person

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for inspiring this post.

I write about horrible things here, mostly revolving around slavery. I read about many others. A friend has told me that he doesn’t understand how I can take this stuff and not collapse into despair or give up the whole project in disgust. I suppose it’s a morbid hobby, but the structures and nuances of historical horrors fascinate me. They naturally magnify the normal inclinations of ordinary people to such a degree that you can really get into their heads and see how they saw the world and how each step naturally led to the next. My interests generally incline toward people we would call villains too; I’ve read more about slavery’s defenders than I have about its foes.

But dividing history up into heroes and villains has its problems. We can forget that people back then, like people now, did not see themselves as evil. They didn’t even see themselves as necessarily complicit in the misdeeds of others. The past, like the present, overflows with ordinary people doing and believing ordinary things given their time and situation. I write all of this because when we imagine ourselves, most of us probably don’t imagine an ordinary person. We may know on some level that even those of us who buck various trends in some ways still have that core of ordinariness within us.

Then we go and try to imagine ourselves in the past. Naturally we want to avoid the sorts that we loathe. After Kennedy caught a bullet in Dallas, people who voted for Nixon back in 1960 evaporated despite the close election. Who would admit to that? Likewise few people eagerly leaped up to confess their part in Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972 after Watergate and the resignation. Those events remain in living memory, though I’ve noted over my own lifetime how Kennedy’s halo has dulled. Time and distance help with objectivity.

But the Kennedy assassination kindly sits at a single point in time. It happened and finished fairly neatly, conspiracy theorists aside, long ago and ultimately cost only two lives. While nobody rushes to cast themselves as the next Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby, nor do we exert much effort casting ourselves as their opposites. When the subject shifts to slavery, suddenly everybody sees himself or herself as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, or even Nat Turner. Make slaves of us and we will rise up. Slavery in our country? Not on our watch! I’ve done it myself.

The vast majority of us, of course, would do just the opposite. If you grow up in that world, then you grow up with its injustices. You breathe them in the air. You hear all of power’s customary justifications for itself. Ordinary people do not, by and large, rise up and stand against the tide of their culture. We may not love it. We may find small ways to preserve our pride and dignity if we find ourselves slaves. But taking up a revolutionary course means taking on risk. We could imperil our property, our prospects for employment, our safety, even our lives. We could do the same with the lives of our loved ones.

In 1860, most of the white people among us would not care much about slavery unless we lived in the South. Those of us there would generally prefer it. Most who did dislike slavery would mostly care about how it threatened our fortunes than about how it impacted the slaves. And most slaves would not run away. It risked too much. You could get killed. You could end up sold away from your family and home. In a world with the roles reversed, most of the white people among us would pick the cotton. That makes us neither heroes nor villains. Rather our lives and actions come not from some mysterious black box but largely out of the societies and events that shape us.

I don’t know how to tell what role the Freedmen’s Patrol of 1854 who have been any more than I can tell what it would be in 2054. I can make guesses based on my personal background. I can point to what I see as the great moral issues of the day and declare myself of the party of angels. But so can the other people who live on the other side. The experiences and circumstances that shaped us this way might have shaped us another way in the past or been replaced by other experiences and circumstances that did much the same. We can call ourselves latter-day abolitionists, or Lincoln men. We could do the same the other way, but that’s harder and doesn’t let us trumpet the easy virtue of siding with the victorious past instead of the uncertain present or unknown future.

I don’t know how to fix that. We all want to think well of ourselves. It hampers our understanding of the past, reducing real lives to cheap morality plays and so robbing it of the ability to teach us what it can about how people convince themselves to embrace cruel injustices. Without that lesson, we find it much easier to do so ourselves. I try to imagine the ways in which future generations will condemn me for things I do every day and I think that helps…but then I would say so. By thinking of ways that I could do better, I also think of ways that I am, in some fractional way, better for thinking of ways I can improve than I otherwise would be. Step right up! Look at all the virtue I display right here, so much better and more exalted than mere lesser bloggers with their heads stuck up their navels only to halfway. FP goes for the whole skull!

Just like everyone else does.  I don’t know if this post has a real message to it or not, but the whole backwards self-congratulatory self-flagellation sometimes helps me keep an eye on my biases when discussing historical actors. This, of course, makes me better in my own mind at understanding them. Or it elaborately disguises and smuggles those biases right back into the world, but lets me absolve myself from them. I really don’t know. I try for the former, but we all excel at fooling ourselves. We know just what we want to hear. Ordinary people, after all, hardly deserve marble statues.


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