History Won’t Vindicate Me
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?