Interpreting History Part II: Oppression Has Never Been Universal

5 Aug

(“Samurai Kiss” via)

 

Nothing divides a country quite like a national holiday.  When I was studying in St. Petersburg ten years ago, there was as much apathy as there was celebration on the Russian Federation’s June 12th decennial.  German reactions to Reunification Day every October 3rd are anything but united.  And on the United States Fourth of July last month, Chris Rock tweeted, “Happy white peoples independence day, the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.”

Amid the outbursts of “unpatriotic!”, conservative blogger Jeff Schreiber shot back, “Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS. #GoFuckYourself.” 

Schreiber has since written a post on his blog, America’s Right, apologizing for cursing and conceding that the slave trade was unconscionable.  But for all his insistence that he never intends to diminish the horrors of American slavery, he adds that President Obama’s policies are now “enslaving Americans in a different way.”  (Real classy.)  And for all his reiteration that slavery was always wrong, he still hasn’t straightened out all the facts skewed in his Tweet.

“Slavery existed for 2,000 years before America.”  He uses this supposed fact to relativize the oppression, as if to shrug, “Well, everyone was doing it back then.”  His tweet implies that the ubiquity of the slave trade makes America’s abolition of it exceptional, not its participation.  This argument hinges on fiction.  Slavery did not exist for 2,000 consecutive years.  In the West, it was pervasive in Antiquity and the Modern era, but it was downright uncommon in the Middle Ages.  (While anathema to our modern ideas of freedom for the individual, medieval serfdom was not slavery.)  Slavery was re-instituted in the West roughly 500 years ago with the advent of colonialism.  And the United States held on to it long after most other colonial powers had abolished it.  Critics can say what they want about the effectiveness of Chris Rock’s rain-on-a-parade tactics, but his argument did not distort history.      

In my last post, I argued the risks of concealing the human rights abuses of the past for the sake of nostalgia, if anything because it is the height of inaccuracy.  But portraying history as an unbroken tradition of straight, white, able-bodied male dominance like Schreiber did is also inaccurate.  The universal human rights movement in its modern form is indeed only a few decades old, but the idea of equality for many minorities can be found all over in history at various times and places.  The Quakers have often been pretty keen on it. 

And almost no minority has been universally condemned.  People with dwarfism appear to have been venerated in Ancient Egypt.  Gay men had more rights in Ancient Greece and in many American Indian societies than in 20th century Greece or the United States.  Muslim women wielded the right to divorce long before Christian women.  English women in the Middle Ages were more educated about sex than their Victorian heiresses.  Much of the Jewish community in Berlin, which suffered such unspeakable crimes culminating in the mid-20th century, were at earlier times better integrated into the city than Jewish people were in many other capitals of Central Europe.  In short, history does not show that racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and our current beauty standards are dominant social patterns only recently broken by our ultra-modern culture of political correctness.  The oppression of minorities may be insidious and resilient throughout history, but it has never been universal. 

Downplaying the crimes of the past by claiming everybody did it is both historically inaccurate and socially irresponsible.  It is perverse when such misconceptions fuel arguments for further restrictions on human rights.  In 2006, Republican Congress member W. Todd Akin from Missouri claimed that, “Anybody who knows something about the history of the human race knows that there is no civilization which has condoned homosexual marriage widely and openly that has long survived.”  Even if this were true, the argument is absurd.  (It appears that no civilization has regularly chosen women with dwarfism for positions of executive power, but does that mean it’s a bad idea?)  But the argument collapses because it relies on facts that are untrue.

Granted hyperbole is a constant temptation in politics.  Stating things in the extreme is a good way to grab attention.  In an earlier post on sex, I asserted that mainstream culture assumes women’s sex drive is lower than men’s because female sexual expression has been “discouraged for millennia.”  Patriarchy has certainly been a major cultural pattern around the world and throughout history, and we cannot emphasize its power on both the collective and individual psyche enough.  But patriarchy is by no means a cultural universal.  Ethnic groups in Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal continue to practice polyandry into the present day, while history shows many others that have done the same at various times.  These exceptions question the biological theory that heterosexual male jealousy is an insurmountable obstacle to sexual equality.  And prevents any conservative excuse that insists, “Everybody’s been doing it.”    

They haven’t been.  Xenophobia has never been universal.  Humans may have a natural fear of the unfamiliar, of what they perceive to be the Other, but our definitions of the Other change constantly throughout time and space, as frequently and bizarrely as fashion itself.   This makes history craggy, complex, at times utterly confusing.  Like the struggle for human rights, it is simultaneously depressing and inspiring.  But whatever our political convictions, we gotta get the facts straight.

Despite what Stephen Colbert says.

 

 

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One Response to “Interpreting History Part II: Oppression Has Never Been Universal”

  1. mummpei August 7, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    Excellent follow-up to the “Nostalgia” Blog. It’s so important to remember that no era and no group has ever been it’s without its own faults nor without its own accomplishments.

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