Jon Rowe has a blog that I like a lot, and read regularly (it’s right there in my blogroll). But in a recent post he made a point to which I had to take exception. It wasn’t his primary point in his post, but he was making an argument that tends to really annoy me–it was the “they didn’t know better in those days” argument. This goes (generally) “the Founders (or Columbus, or any literary or historical figure you’d like to excuse) lived in a time when nobody really questioned slavery (or genocide, forced conversion, racism, sexism, etc.). So we can’t blame them for just accepting what everyone else accepted and nobody at all ever saw anything wrong with.”
That argument just doesn’t hold up. In the guise of a call for historical accuracy, it’s a whitewashing of history. At the time of the US Constitution, there was a lively, active, and loud abolition movement, with a long and distinguished history. Las Casas was very clear about the immorality of Columbus’ treatment of the Indians, right there at Columbus’ moment in history. Conrad’s racism, or Hemingway’s anti-Semitism may have been more broadly acceptable in their times, but that certainly doesn’t mean that nobody saw the immorality and hate, or that nobody was willing to call it what it was.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read Conrad or Hemingway, of course, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t honor the accomplishments of the Founders. But to let them completely off the hook for their lapses is just as ahistorical (maybe more) than to condemn them completely for those lapses.
To Jon Rowe’s credit, when I pointed this out to him in an email, he promptly and fairly put my email up on his blog–asking for more reader discussion. I hope he gets it. I’ll be interested to read it. (Although I do wish he would just have comments on the blog, rather than waiting for emails).