What’s Wrong with the World

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History as Justifying Sacrament

Since at least the Enlightenment and perhaps before there has been this notion that our current state of affairs requires the justification of history; or else lacking that the present order is nothing and can be discarded. If injustices were perpetrated against the American Indians, the narrative goes, then the entire present order of private property in America is called into question. If the Hiroshima bombing was immoral, the narrative goes, then entering the war in the first place was unjustified, and indeed the American military and American efforts to defend herself from foreign aggressors is morally suspect generally. If the conditions for a just war were not met in Iraq at the outset, then no obligation to use military power in the present context is metaphysically possible.

Most on the political left and many on the political right buy into this narrative, taking it as true and drawing a conclusion about the major premise from a self-serving reverse-engineering of the proposition. The left likes the idea of invalidating the present regime of private property and of castrating American defense, so therefore the major historical premeses above are true. The right (correctly) resists those conclusions, and therefore (incorrectly) concludes that the major premeses are false. Many on the right conclude that simply agreeing to the major premeses above constitutes "liberalism", as if liberalism is inter alia implied by a particular assessment of the justice of specific historical acts.

It is an odd view of history to take a particular positive reading of it as necessary for justifying grace in the present order, and anyone who holds to the view ought to take a step back and reevaluate. Locke's justification of private property (to the extent I understand this part) is fundamentally flawed: no attempt to revert to a state of nature and man's addition of value to it can justify ejecting a particular trespasser from a particular piece of property, nor should anyone be foolish enough to buy into the premise that this is required and attempt such a justification. The metaphysical conditions which give rise to the attempt to justify private property in this positive-from-foundations way don't exist. The world as such requires no justification; the particular acts of men in the positions in which Providence has placed them do. To ask the world to justify itself through history is to beg for death, because there isn't a living soul today whose very existence is not stained by historical sin. Not one of us would exist at all if men in the past had not sinned.

Among men who attempt to turn war cries from particular conflicts into fundamental principles of order it isn't any surprise that a positivist reading of history as justifying sacrament (or the lack thereof) easily takes hold. But that isn't wisdom, it is folly.

Comments (5)

Without offering an interpretation of Locke (that part of whose theory I don't know enough about), I think you're right. It doesn't follow from the injustices to the Indians that we have to give back the West.

But this subject (or a related one) came up recently when discussing the Crusades. When it comes to conquest, _does_ it matter how one's country came into being, as far as one's present duties? I would think there would be some fuzzy edges. There certainly is sometimes a need to acknowledge political facts on the ground, including land gained by conquest. This is all the more true (it seems to me) if the land was gained by conquest in a war where the eventual winners were not the aggressors. But it doesn't follow that France became part of the Third Reich the minute the Germans drove into Paris. The war was still going on, and that was still a case of occupation in time of war.

(that part of whose theory I don't know enough about)

N.b. I'm speaking completely off the cuff from ancient memories. One of the hazards of being a lazy commentator (and one of the reasons I am utterly unsuited to be a professional one) is that many of my references come with that caveat.

More on the other subject later.

There is certainly a kind of airy moralism that demands absolute purity in past action if the present order is to be considered even relatively just and authoritative. If our iniquities were marked, who could stand?

The rhetorical use of History is often confused. A progressive reformer does not only appeal to past wrongs, but claims history will prove him right. He cites not an actual history of past ways of life but a hypothetical order in the future. A more tradition-conscious thinker can agree that lived experience proves worth, yet he
sees the present order in some sense as a vindication of the past. The problems of traditionalism in an age of rapid change are a matter for another time, but that flux also undermines progressive invocations of a definitive future.

Actually, if you examine the history every country in the world is a palimpest of multiple conquests and migrations, and every human being is the descendant of conquerors and of slaves.

Nor is there any reason to believe the process will ever halt; it was just as true of the American Indian tribes, for example, who butchered and dispossessed each other with bloodthirsty zeal.

There's a well-known incident from the childhood of Alexander the Great; he was out riding with his tutors when he saw a column of captives from the great city Greek of Olynthos.

His father Philip had just taken it; the men were either dead or in chain-gangs in the gold-mines of Pangaion. The women (who'd all been raped) and their children were being sold off and driven south in coffles to be sold in Athens and Corinth and the other cities of the south.

He asked one of his tutors, a soldier: "What's that?"

The man replied: "My prince, that is defeat."

Therefore the proper response to "the Indians were treated badly" is that the Indians received their punishment because they committed the ultimate and unforgiveable sin.

They lost.

To the victor go the spoils and profit of war; to the vanquished, the cost and pain. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Well, yes, but it's wrong to rape people and sell them into slavery, even when you win.

Now, the question is (or at least one of the questions), suppose that my ancestors did some of that wrong stuff to your ancestors. Does this mean anything about how I should treat you?

My own opinion is that in almost all cases it does not, especially when we're talking _ancestors_--even a generation or two back. Reparations are bunk.

It's rather a different ballgame, however, if I'm a German soldier and am right now, at this moment, occupying a city in France that my army just recently occupied in a war that isn't over yet. Then, well, Germany should get the heck out. Not that they would be likely to see it that way in the middle of the war, of course. But that's when a return to the status quo ante is most relevant and most legitimate to call for.

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