Historical Repentance

One of the most difficult issues for any history student is the problem of context. Should we judge historical actors according to our own values, or do we need to take the views of the time into account?

There are problems with both choices. If we decide who is a ‘good’ person in accordance with twenty-first-century values- then the vast majority of people who have ever existed should be considered monsters. This clearly won’t do; accepting that most people in history are evil as a starting position is a mistake.

Whereas approaching the past with an uncritical eye, willing to forgive all historical misdeeds because ‘it was normal at the time.’ Does not represent a better alternative.

History is complex. The countless people that have passed away since humans started writing were individuals. They possessed hopes, dreams and desires. They are not cosmic dust, helpless victims of circumstance for us to pour scorn on. How we judge them is something we must consider. We must think about it carefully.

Writing in The Guardian this week the columnist Afua Hirsch wrote an article about feminism. At the end of her article, Hirsch made a remark about Emeline Pankhurst:

“We are all quoting Emmeline Pankhurst. Mention the fact that Pankhurst was a staunch imperialist, blind to the colonial exploitation of African women, however, and you stray outside acceptable feminism. Such feminism is still seen as threatening – and it may well take another 100 years to change that.”

For this Guardianista, the comment was probably a throwaway line. Yet it encapsulates everything that is wrong with the modern social justice movement. It reminds me less of a ‘political project’ and more of a modern iconoclasm. A spasm of anger aimed at destroying all historical symbols of racism and sexism.

It turns out that Hirsh also called for the toppling of Nelson’s column last year. What the social justice movement doesn’t understand is that iconoclasms have tended to be temporary, and extremely violent.

  1 comment for “Historical Repentance

  1. Paul Marks
    Feb 12, 2018 at 8:41 am

    In almost every case (not every case – but almost every case) British rule was better, or less bad, that the rule it replaced. For example the left thinks the British Empire created slavery – actually the British turned against slavery (due to the influence of, boo-his,s evangelical Christians) and fought a century long war against slavery (this century long struggle by the Royal Navy and others is now forgotten), which was endemic almost everywhere long before the British arrived. And the left would scream “racist” at anyone who even mentioned such things as human sacrifice – but local tyrannies often practiced such things, before people such as Lugard turned up and stopped them. And, by the way, the British government did not really welcome the expansion of empire by men such as Lugard – who essentially acted on their own authority (both the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone and the Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury were NOT generally in favour of Imperial expansion). And nor were the motives of men such as Lugard a matter of “capitalist greed”.

    The knee jerk “anti imperialism” is in-its-self a form of racialism – because it ASSUMES that British rule was worse than the local (unelected) rulers they replaced or limited. Why? Because the British are white and therefore bad – and that assumption is racialist.

    On the other hand almost everyone in Britain (not just the official left – but people such as Prime Minister May as well) would support the history of domestic “social reform” – it is ASSUMED that every regulation and government spending scheme from the Victorian period onwards is a Good Thing (TM) and to be supported, the idea that these interventions (although good intentioned) might have made things WORSE than they otherwise would have been would never cross the minds of the “educated classes” in Britain. Living standards have improved and the state has expanded (in both regulations and spending) THEREFORE the latter must have caused the former – and there is no chance (in the minds of the “educated”) that people would be better, not worse, off today if the regulations and spending schemes had not been passed. The modern “educated” are as dogmatic and closed minded as Edwin Chadwick (and other statists) were at the start of the Victorian period. They assume, as Chadwick did, that anyone who opposes their regulations and spending schemes must WANT people to be poor and in distress.

    So, neither on foreign policy or domestic policy, is the problem “looking at the past with the eyes of the present” – it is a matter of looking at the past via wrong assumptions, regardless of time period.

    For example, Mrs Pankhurst was quite correct (from her point of view as a someone who supported women’s rights) to support Imperialism – as it meant less tyranny and oppression of women than under local rulers. The Guardian reading classes (the academics and media people) might scream “racist” at that – but it remains the truth.

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