One thing professional and amateur historians have long understood is that the scholarship around given topics often evolves over time. What is fiercely debated by one generation can become the consensus opinion of the next, while a sudden upset of conventional wisdom may itself be thoroughly debunked by later research. We are witnessing this process unfold in the current “reckoning” with racial inequality in the US and around the globe. Whether such a reevaluation will turn into accepted truth and fixed policy, or turn out to be a political fad, remains to be seen.
There is no doubt that European colonialism and the African slave trade changed the world. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people died with the conquest and settlement of the Americas and the capture of forced labor from the west coast of Africa. The unprecedented economic might of the United States from the Nineteenth Century onward was derived in part from a racial caste system built first on bondage and then on second-class citizenship. None of this is news, but today there is a renewed drive to acknowledge these facts at all levels of governance and cultural life. Previously downplayed or ignored altogether, oppression, plunder, and genocide must now be moved from the margins of global history to the very center.
Must they, though? The trouble with this kind of reckoning is that virtually everything that’s ever happened since 1492 gets a moral asterisk affixed to it. Victory over fascism in World War II doesn’t mean much if it was won by a lot of white racists and America’s segregated military; the invention of the steam engine and the resultant Industrial Revolution matter only insofar as they provided new ways to exploit slaves and their descendants; William Shakespeare wrote some nice plays, but only because Elizabethan England was growing rich off subjugation and murder overseas, et cetera. Framed in these perspectives, any reconsideration of history is both too late and far too broad to do much about.
It also distorts the past, to claim that the experiences of some people directly determined what everyone else did – that no idea or achievement of the last 500 years, no matter where or with whom it originated, would exist without a foundation of race-based imperialism. Should they all be discarded, then? How much of our human heritage is any of us prepared to renounce, because it might be tainted by somebody’s cruel dominance over somebody else? That’s an awful lot of renunciation. In 2019, Douglas Murray wrote in The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity of how history had become “hostage…to any archaeologist with a vendetta.” And as the late Robert Hughes put it in his 1993 book Culture of Complaint:
The need for absolute goodies and absolute baddies runs deep in us, but it drags history into propaganda and denies the humanity of the dead: their sins, their virtues, their efforts, their failures. To preserve complexity, and not flatten it under the weight of anachronistic moralizing, is part of the historian’s task…You cannot remake the past in the name of affirmative action.
Of course, similarly sweeping reappraisals have been suggested by feminist and socialist historians; Karl Marx himself may have come up with the most influential version of world history in, well, world history. And I always liked the quip attributed to Gandhi, when asked what he thought about western civilization: “It would be a good idea.” Yet the latest account, which just emphasizes race over class or gender as the fundamental power imbalance of all time, only shifts discredit on to a different set of accomplishments and puts permanent blame on a different set of people – the accomplishments can’t be undone and the people can’t be uncounted. Nor, in the end, can the discredited, blameworthy realities we have always lived with be unmade.