Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Charles Jeanes, "History and Identity: must Westerners feel shame and apology for our history?"

I once attended a spiritual May 1st celebration, a synthetic Celtic Beltane and Native traditional dance and meal, where the woman leading us poked gentle fun at Canadians who “wanna-be” anything but white middle-class people but can't escape those markers. She was humorous, accurate, and understanding, describing how it felt for the mostly young members of the gathering. They felt envy for other cultures and wished they had one too. She told us we did have traditions. And she sketched some history.

All the progressive, liberal, fairly-well-educated people in my social circles are secular non-Christians, all are “white” from a European ethnic origin -- and all feel embarrassed by their Western imperial and colonial roots. They are definite that Native Americans or aboriginals anywhere in the world, and Africans and Asians, naturally have to assert pride in their histories and cultures.

I ask Western friends why they do not assert pride in their origins and “our” culture and civilization and history; they expect that I know the answer. Nothing in our history deserves mention in a congratulatory way when balanced against the crimes our civilization has perpetrated in our history of dominance over the globe for the last half-millennium. We have so much to apologize for to other peoples, there is no appropriate room for taking pride in our cultural origins. Shame is called for when we talk to others from outside the traditions and nations of the West.

I reject this simplicity of malevolent Westerners and virtuous non-western peoples; but when I do, I might seem to put myself at risk of inviting the company of truly reactionary and even racist Westerners, the ones who aggressively say that we have “a superior civilization,” or that Christianity is a “better” (truer, higher?) faith tradition. Neither is true for me.

Still, chauvinism ruled out, some of Europe's accomplishments are no small things. Should we in the Western tradition and culture and “civilization” not point out that our sciences,technology, philosophy, or medicines have done some very fine things for humanity? that material wealth spread amongst numerous, educated middle classes is a remarkable accomplishment, and that the democratic government that often goes with such middle classes is praiseworthy? I don't see why not. They are not my accomplishments, but I have every bit as much claim to “pride” in that past as non-Westerners feel for their historical cultures.

At bottom of my reasoning that I owe no apologies for Westerners' crimes against other peoples, and even against ourselves, there is my very rejection of one idea: the idea that I have some responsibility for what my ancestors' civilization has imposed over the world of non-western peoples. No one can play the card of guilty racist Euro-Canadian patriarchal Christian male on me, say I. Not for what others did in history, at any rate. Only what I personally have done in my lived history. I will not accept a role as symbol of the West for others to use as their scapegoat. Responsibility for the acts of my foreparents has not passed to me in my DNA.

I cannot feel a personal debt that I must repay to women or blacks or Natives, the planet, etc.; I can only act in the present to do what I can for redressing historical wrongs that persist, without ever saying I had a hand in perpetrating them. When I act to correct what I think has been wrongly done and persists now, I am not acting out of guilt or sense of responsibility, I am acting from my judgement, weighed by internal and integrated principles of what is right.

If readers can accept this argument, then I think they and I could have a stimulating exchange of ideas about the assets and liabilities of the Western historical contribution to humanity's endlessly fascinating web of relations.

I am grateful to Jim Terral for inviting me to have a place on World Report's blog.

Charles Jeanes is the host of History's Hour (CJLY 93.5 FM).
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1 comments:

Jim said...

At bottom of my reasoning that I owe no apologies for Westerners' crimes against other peoples, and even against ourselves, there is my very rejection of one idea: the idea that I have some responsibility for what my ancestors' civilization has imposed over the world of non-western peoples.

I think the issue of "liberal guilt" is a concoction of illiberal racists. Whether we apologize or not, you and I are beneficiaries of those crimes. The line in the bar is, "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

Do we reject the fruits of imperialism? or hegemony? It's very difficult, on a personal level, even more on a collective one, to extract a meaningful opportunity for action from the tangle of individual benefits and costs.