Compared to What?

A plea for context.

In our modern Western society, a disturbing trend has become incredibly prominent in the media, education, and common discourse: the complete decontextualization of historic and current events so as to present the West as uniquely evil or especially horrible. One often sees this coming from people – usually on the political left – who use it as a cudgel to demean modern Western societies as part of a project of radical change to those very societies. This seems to be more present in the Anglosphere than in other developed societies. Much of the radical activism we’ve seen over the past year or two has emanated from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, where statues have been toppled, history decried as uniquely genocidal, and modern societies seen as evil and immoral simply for existing in previously-colonized lands. Don’t get me wrong, all nations have blemishes and blights on their histories and each and every country has injustices in the modern day; still, these cannot be understood in a vacuum or without context.

It’s worth starting off with a brief discussion of how this decontextualization destroys any ability to properly understand history or appreciate distinctions between places and times. One often hears progressives and the historians who support them decrying the horrible evils of the United States or the British Empire in the past, yet those misdeeds – and indeed these countries committed misdeeds by the modern definition – are never compared to other events at the time, instead either being compared to modern-day ethics and mores or to a fictionalized and utopian ideal. This is a profoundly narcissistic approach. Every generation sees itself as the height of moral virtue and the paragon of proper ethics; this has been the case for almost all of human history. British colonizers, now the stock villains in so many progressive morality plays, were during their age the height of civilized morals and enlightened behavior. America’s founding generation saw itself – not wrongly – the same way; they were radical progressives in an era of monarchical regimes and nigh-universal slavery. Both of these groups are now judged harshly by their modern counterparts, all without a hint of understanding or self-awareness. We are all doomed to be judged by narcissistic know-it-alls in the future who see our modern practices are brutal, evil, or entirely unnecessary. Who knows which modern practices – meat-eating, lithium mining, abortion, use of machines for manual labor – may be the fodder for future revisionists? By thinking about oneself this way, it opens one’s eyes to the reality of the nuance of the past.

When someone brings up the history of atrocities committed by any past society, it is worth pondering one question: compared to what? “The British Empire was evil and forcibly subjugated many different peoples, not bringing them any benefit.” Compared to what? Was the British Empire worse than other European imperial powers at the time? Was it worse for the inhabitants of these areas than was the government – or lack thereof – which preceded British involvement? Did it bring increases in life expectancy, technology, rule of law, and ‘civilization’, more or less so than other peer nations?

“America has a uniquely evil past replete with slavery, imperialistic wars, and rapine capitalism.” Compared to what? Were slaves present in other societies? Was America unique in its use of slavery during its history and compared to other, prior historical periods? Were America’s wars in the 19th and 20th centuries any different from the wars conducted by other major powers at the time? Is American capitalism more or less successful at increasing prosperity and standard of living than its competitor ideologies?

This is not to excuse any historical atrocity, but instead to better understand those actions in the context of their time and in the eyes of the people who lived then. Projecting our modern morality on the past is a fool’s errand and isn’t at all useful in gaining knowledge or context that is crucial for a better comprehension of history. This context-heavy approach does not entirely eliminate the ability to judge a historical event as bad or evil. For instance, the Holocaust was seen as an atrocity by most – if not all – contemporaries, the Belgian colonization and rule of the Congo was similarly viewed as horrific by other colonial powers, and the Terror of the French Revolution – rife with extrajudicial executions and mob murders – was seen by most Europeans as a gross example of violent extremism. These and other events like it were called out for their horror by contemporaries at the time, which is a good signal that they were not only immoral by our modern standards, but also by the standards of the time. The issue comes when we project all of our modern preconceptions, biases, and politics onto the events of the past; this process distorts what actually happened and can present the untrained eye with a historical mirage, confusing one’s understanding instead of broadening it.

This is frequently the case when discussing colonialism, as colonizing powers are easily depicted as villains in a modern age which is obsessed with intersectionality and indigeneity. These narratives efface the nuance of colonial relations with indigenous peoples, flatten the actual pre-colonization history of these peoples, and remove the agency from historical persons. Let’s take the example of so-called ‘land acknowledgements’, which are meant to be spoken before events to properly recognize the indigenous ‘owners’ of the land. These are entirely farcical. They cement one period in time – the arrival of Western colonists – as the only important period to be acknowledged and make it seem like the native peoples of the Americas (for instance) were not only completely stable and immobile in their lands, but also perfectly peaceful and utopian. None of this is true. Native populations, like all other human populations, engaged in wars, atrocities, population movements, genocides, and other ‘harmful’ actions. These societies deserve a more complex view to properly understand them as the fascinating and complicated peoples they were. Indigenous populations had their share of colonization and repression – just look at the Aztecs, Comanches, or Sioux, all of whom were considered far worse by their native neighbors than the Western colonists who are universally seen today as the ‘real villains’. In a similar vein, look at the colonization of Central Asia by the Russians and British – the Great Game as it is colloquially known. Before Western intervention, these khanates and despotates were egregious violators of human rights (coincidentally a concept invented and promulgated by those Western imperialists so widely panned today) who routinely abused women, murdered dissenters and those deemed irreligious, and practiced a particularly nasty form of chattel slavery. Although Russian and British dominion removed the possibility of self-government from these regions, one would be hard-pressed to say that Khivans, Bukharans, and the like were worse off than they were under the personal autocracies they had long suffered under.

This may be uncomfortable for many modern people to hear, but it is the truth. None of these past societies were utopias, contrary to the popular myth; part of this is due to the circumstances of the time, but most of it is due to the fact that utopias don’t exist and never will. That utopian streak in the progressive movement, one which has long been in existence, harms their ability to properly understand context, including in the modern day. Modern day American (and Canadian, British, Australian…) society is routinely decried as morally unjust, incredibly racist, and supremely unequal. This is a sentiment that is encountered almost daily if you read any left-wing publication or even more supposedly moderate mainstream presses like the New York Times. The constant pushing of these narratives of failure, evil, and decline are not at all useful in actually understanding the world as it is. Again, one must ask the crucial question: compared to what? Is American society more unjust, racist, or unequal than its peers? Does anyone actually think that a global order led by the next-closest competitor – China – would be better in the metrics which count to progressives? America is called Islamophobic all of the time, but does anyone making that claim actually look at any other non-Islamic society? For that matter, do they look at how Muslims are treated in Muslim-majority countries? Are countries like China labeled Islamophobic, ones which actually repress their minority citizens? What about places like Iran and Saudi Arabia where people essentially have no rights? Would a Muslim rather live there or here? I would contend that immigration statistics prove that people all across the world – of every faith, ethnicity, and race – are clamoring to get here to a land where they see only opportunity. The mindset of decontextualization blinds people to reality: Anglophone societies are incredible magnets for immigration precisely because they are not as bad as other places and afford people rights and opportunities that are inaccessible nearly everywhere else on Earth.

We should celebrate that achievement and the society which drives so many people to want to strive for their dreams. America has always been seen as a beacon of freedom, despite our failings, and is still seen that way by billions of people who only wish that they could have a piece of the American Dream. We who have lived our entire lives in this unimaginable luxury debase ourselves when we smear our own society as uniquely terrible and the worst on the planet. It betrays a narcissism like no other when we refuse to ask the question: compared to what? It is fairly clear that those who refuse to ask such an important question when discussing history or modern life do so for one reason: they wouldn’t like the answer.

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