Thursday, May 9, 2013

Historical Apologism – Apologize For No One

A stroll down Memory Lane.

Can we judge historical people by the standards of our times?

It’s a popular topic of discussion amongst high school and college students the world over. I know, because I get into conversations like that all the damn time.

In the vampire community, it’s a hot-button political issue that has never been resolved.

For me, it’s even a relationship problem.

I was born during the Reconstruction after the Civil War. I was born into a family of abolitionists who supported the Radical Republicans – who, among other things, had representatives who supported racial equality a century before we actually achieved it in this country.

My parents weren’t exactly perfect on race relations. I still cringe whenever I think of things they said about the Native Americans, especially my father. And I know that if someone more liberal had ever called them out on it, they probably would have said something like: ‘I refer only to the wild Indians – there live some civilized Indians’ – yeah, that’s not much better.

But if I can think of one group my parents taught me to hate, absolutely hate with no caveat or qualification – it would be the Southerners. Especially my father. My mother was fresh off the boat from Norway; when I was born, she’d been living in Wisconsin for less than five years. My father was a born and bred Norwegian American whose own father was killed in action in the Civil War. Seeing as how my father was born in 1851, he was still a child by today’s standards. Goddammit: he was a child one way or another.
Young adults in any era.

I grew up being told that the South was an evil society who wanted to own people like us Northern folk owned livestock, and that those traitors to our country deserved far worse than what our overly lenient government dished out to them. My father tended to call them ‘rebel bastards.’

I was twenty years old when I first fell in with the vampire community and met Cathy. She confessed that she’d been a slave-owner. An English one, mind – she didn’t come to America until after the Civil War. But she was a slave-owner.

And yes, this was when she was a vampire. She was indeed using the slaves for as much blood as they could give and still survive.

She didn’t kill any of them. And she did eventually set them free. To her credit, she never tried to use that to rationalize what she did.

Also to her credit, she did disclose early on. And when I met her, she was a huge supporter of racial equality, labor rights, women’s rights, temperance – the very model of a modern major Progressive Era progressive, even for a progressive of the era.

That’s what I kept telling myself, as I obsessed about it over and over again and tried to square it in my head.

It wouldn’t have affected my decision to be sired, I can tell you that much. I might have asked to be switched, so Charles could sire me instead (I was just friends with both of them at the time, and there wouldn’t have been a conflict of interest).

He’s done his own share of unethical things, but most of them fall into the category of: ‘he was poor and desperate and starving to death, and while no society on Earth ever legalized what he did, most juries would be lenient.’ At this point in my life, I’m not much better.

Charles didn’t do much socially sanctioned evil. Not even in Byzantium. During the Enlightenment, he was a liberal on the Jeremy Bentham level and more. As for Cathy – yeah.
Jeremy Bentham: a product of his time.

Given my own attempts at being the very model of a modern major Progressive Era progressive, I tried to tell myself that ‘those were the times.’ Yep. I was going through a huge period of self-education at the time, and that probably only made it worse. 

Shockingly, Cathy didn’t actually agree with me, and was somewhat disturbed by my opinion, as she is by any modern person who makes the same argument. I just dismissed that as her being extra redemptive: not, you know, correct.

Yes, what she did was horrible – but should I really be putting early 1900s standards on 1700s people? I mean: here we were living in a time of great social and technological progress beyond what the people of the 18th century could even have comprehended. I mean, look at us – we’re on the verge of getting the vote, we’re showing the Robber Barons who’s boss, we’re conquering the vile specter of drunkenness – we’ll be in a utopia before we know it, and any point in history is going to pale in comparison.

Of course our standards would be better – that’s what supposed to happen. History is, of course, the process by which we get better and better morals and learn from the mistakes of the past, and should we blame the people who couldn’t have known better and managed to suffer them for us?

Yep, that was pretty much what I convinced myself, well into my forties.

Then people started saying the same things about the Progressive Era.

Circa 1912
I still remember the day in the 1960s when I got into an argument with a then-modern feminist about the Suffragette Movement and the bastards that tried to stop us.

Her: Oh, Lyddie. You can’t judge those guys by modern standards. You shouldn’t hate them for what they did – you should understand that they did what they did because it made sense in their time.

Another anti-suffrage cartoon, showcasing the conservative position on the issue.

Bear in mind, anyone who calls me ‘Lydia’ or some variant is a member of the vampire community, human or non, because that’s only my Masquerade name and has never been my legal one. She did indeed knowingly say this to someone from the Suffragette Movement. In fact, here’s what happened next:

Me: Yeah? I sure hated ‘em then.

Her: Well, I guess that’s okay; you’re actually from those times.

Me: But I can’t hate ‘em now?

Her: No.

Me: So when was I supposed to stop hating them? 1920, when we got the vote? 1930s? 1940s? Does this shit have a half-life?

Apparently, yes.

In my culture, we call this phenomenon ‘historical apologism.’

That’s okay. Nowadays, people do the exact same thing to the 1960s. Sometimes.

Sometimes the 60s were those crazy liberal times when everyone was all crazy and liberal. Sometimes they were those terrible times in that primitive conservative dystopia where no one was crazy or liberal. Other times, they were those nobler conservative times when everything was as it should be: ten years of conservative nostalgia.

I know, that used to be the 1950s. It still is, mostly, but now it seems that the 1960s are making that transition. Just in time for the 1950s to fade out of living memory. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

As far as living memory goes, people who were children in the 1950s certainly don't count. 

Trigger Warning

I expected this phenomenon to level off at some point during my lifetime. Not a chance. I at least figured the 1980s were untouchable. No one’s going to say that the 1980s were a time before liberalism, when, among other things, professors who sexually harassed their students couldn’t be held accountable for their actions.

Then someone said that to Naomi Wolf. About her own experiences being harassed by a college professor in the 1980s, I might add.

Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf: historical figure from an earlier age.
Who is currently living.

What amazes me the most is that those people were probably under the impression they were being sensitive and enlightened.

Oh, but don’t worry. It’s happening to the 1990s too. Yes. The 1990s. Any conversation about the homophobia in movies in the 1990s, and some people will be falling all over themselves to talk about how you can’t blame people from the 1990s – everyone was homophobic back then!

Yes. Gay marriage was a hot-button issue in the 1990s and a major topic of national discussion, but somehow, if someone was homophobic in the 1990s, it was the decade’s fault and not theirs.

I can’t wait to see what won’t be someone’s fault two decades from now. I can’t wait to see someone defend Bush and Cheney. I mean, geez: that was five whole years ago – it’s totally a separate era completely out of the bounds of contemporary moral judgment, right?

Well, I fully expect and predict that it will be in twenty years. 

God knows, Bush may beat us to it.

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