Friday, August 25, 2006

History Won’t Vindicate Me

I grew up down South surrounded by public schools named after men like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who led an armed rebellion against the United States that left a half-million Americans dead. Our history books portrayed the likes of Davis and Lee as good and noble men who, through an unfortunate series of accidents, happened to fight on the wrong side. (The books didn’t say much about General Nathan Bedford Forrest, instigator of the Fort Pillow Massacre who after the war went on to start the Ku Klux Klan.)

Maybe the books were right about Davis and Lee. They fought for an evil cause, yet I’m not convinced they were evil men in day-to-day life. And all those men, pre-1920, who insisted that I can’t be trusted to vote or own property because I’ve got the wrong equipment between my legs — well, it would be easy to dismiss them by saying “they’re all evil,” but it wouldn’t be true. A lot of people in the past who held evil beliefs were more misguided than evil, most likely. Products of their time.

I thought of this the other day when I read Harry Turtledove’s novel Guns of the South, a combination alternate-history and time-traveling tale. Here’s a brief synopsis: the Confederates won the war because in the year 2014, white South Africans resentful over the end of apartheid traveled back in time and gave Southern armies AK-47s and other modern war technology, with which the Confederates utterly trounced the Federals.

The Afrikaners hope that a stable slave-holding Confederacy would help prevent the worldwide spread of racial-equality ideals, so that by the late 20th century, situations like apartheid in South Africa would be the norm rather than the exception. But they don’t say this to Lee; instead, they tell the Confederates that after the South lost the war, vengeful Northerners put black people in charge and utterly terrorized the South. Because of this (said the Afrikaners) by 2014 the whole world was consumed in a bloody black vs. white racial war, with whites facing extermination.

The Confederates are horrified by this bleak vision of the future, though they also find it reassuring in a way: see, we told the Yankees that Negro slavery was a just, moral and necessary thing! This proves us right! Eventually, however, Lee gets a copy of a history book printed in 1990, and learns what the future really thinks about Confederate devotion to racism and slavery. And when he shows members of the Confederate government how future generations will regard them, this compels them to reluctantly start freeing the slaves of the South, and giving black people some rights.

Our society, I believe, holds certain attitudes which future generations are likely to view with disdain: laws and prejudices against homosexuals, drugs and the use of pain medication top that list. But I wonder if Turtledove got it right about human nature. If Confederate slaveholders knew how the future would view them, would that impel the slaveholders to free their slaves, or work harder to convince future generations that slavery’s a good thing? If modern supporters of anti-gay legislation knew for a fact that people a century hence will consider them bigots, do you think that would change any of their minds?

These people don’t mind the condemnation of fellow humans in the present. Would they feel differently toward opinions from the future?

7 Comments:

Anonymous Abidemi said...

I've already read that one, but, for the sake of people who haven't, it might be best to post a spoiler warning.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Brad Warbiany said...

Would a lot of these people change their minds? No. You're right that many of the people who were against the idea of women voting, or in favor of black slavery, weren't necessarily evil, they were products of their time. Just like people who are anti-gay now aren't necessarily evil, they're just wrong.

I hold what I consider to be the right opinion, and I trust that 100 years from now, the rest of the world will agree. But if someone came back from the future and told me "well, in 100 years, gays will be hung for their sins like they are now in Iran", I won't consider myself wrong, I'll consider the future one I don't want to live in.

I think the best goal is to try to help other people realize why you believe, and convince them to realize they're wrong now, not based on what people will think 100 years from now.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Good point, Abidemi. I am trying to edit this post to stick a spoiler alert at the beginning, but Blogger seems to be down. Can't edit, and can't post the new thing I've got ready.

I'm surprised the comments are working.

1:12 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

The reason you don't want women voting isn't plumbing but estrogen bathing of the brain.

40% of women (a minority! but a big one) deal in soap opera, and vote that way.

That's a huge bloc.

The other 60% vote like men and are not a problem.

So let the men vote for them, and cut out also the 40%, and you're better off.

The difference comes from how interested the respective sexes are in

1. relating unresolved problems, and thinking of how everything is tied together (women)

2. clamping down on a single issue and solving it, before dealing with anything else,
including dinner and anniversaries (men).

Each sex can do the other thing, but it doesn't sustain their interest, so they tend not to.

40% of each sex let their interest take over all the terrain.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I dunno, Ron, I'd say at least 40 percent of men are idiots, too, though not in quite the same way. Yes, there are lots of women who will vote for a candidate because he was so sweet to that poor sick kid they saw on Oprah, but also lots of men who will vote for a candidate because Jeff Gordon dislikes him, and an enemy of that sonofabitch spoiled Daddy's boy Jeff Gordon is bound to be a damn fine man, y'know?

7:00 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

I dunno, Ron, I'd say at least 40 percent of men are idiots, too

Kinda depends on what age group they're in. The 16-30 crowd is more like 70%, the 30-60 crowd is down in the 20th percentile, gradually increasing to around 80% by the time you get into the 90's. The women I know who get that way tend to kinda stay that way from 18 on.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Brad Warbiany said...

I thought of an analogy to this. In our modern world, the United States as a whole is looked upon with disdain because we don't have socialized medicine. Even within our country, some think it is crazy that we don't provide free health care to everyone.

Ask yourself this. If someone looked at our government today, went back in time, and gave any of the founding fathers a snapshot of it, what would they think? I think they'd do everything in their power to make the Constitutional limits on governmental power STRONGER, not think that they were wrong and that the government should be a cradle-to-grave caretaker.

10:36 AM  

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