In an essay about Quentin Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained, Susan Neiman, who says up front that she is not a Tarantino fan, compares the way Germany has confronted the Holocaust with the way the United States has dealt in its public memorials with the majority culture’s treatment of blacks and Indians. For example, the construction of a Holocaust memorial in the heart of rebuilt Berlin. Excerpt:
By comparison: can you imagine a monument to the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage at the heart of the Washington Mall? Suppose you could walk down the street and step on a reminder that this building was constructed with slave labour, or that the site was the home of a Native American tribe before it was ethnically cleansed? What we have, instead, are national museums of Native American and African American culture, the latter scheduled to open in 2015. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian boasts exhibits showing superbly crafted Pueblo dolls, the influence of the horse in Native American culture, and Native American athletes who made it to the Olympics. The website of the Smithsonian’s anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture does show a shackle that was presumably used on a slave ship, but it is far more interested in collecting hats worn by Pullman porters or pews from the African Methodist Episcopal church. A fashion collection is in the making, as well as a collection of artefacts belonging to the African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman; 39 objects, including her lace shawl and her prayer book, are already available.
Don’t get me wrong: it is deeply important to learn about, and validate, cultures that have been persecuted and oppressed. Without such learning, we are in danger of viewing members of such cultures as permanent victims — objects instead of subjects of history. The Jewish Museum Berlin is explicit about not reducing German Jewish history to the Holocaust. One section of the museum is devoted to it, but the rest of the permanent collection features things such as a portrait of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, filmed interviews with Hannah Arendt, a Jewish Christmas tree, and a giant moveable head of garlic. (Don’t ask.) The exhibit is awful, but presumably useful for those visitors whose only association with the word ‘Jew’ is a mass of gaunt prisoners in striped uniforms. In the same way, some Americans, no doubt, still need to see more than savage Hollywood Indians or caricatured Stepin Fetchit black people in order to get a more accurate picture of the cultures many of our ancestors tried to destroy. But more importantly, America’s museums of Native American and African American history embody a quintessentially American quality: we have always been inclined to look to the future instead of the past, and our museums follow suit. It’s impossible to compare what’s on display in our national showcase with what you can find in Germany without feeling that America’s national history retains its whitewash — and that a sane and sound future requires a more direct confrontation with our past.
After we’ve confronted the depths to which our history sank, we can — and we must — idealise those who moved it forwards. Tarantino’s heroes are as delightful as they are unbelievable; interestingly enough, his strength lies in depicting villains. Inglourious Basterds features two Nazis who are appealing, and very differently so. This is as it should be, if we are ever to understand how all kinds of ordinary, and even appealing, people commit murder, whether in Majdanek or in Mississippi. But it is equally crucial that we get our heroes right, too. Heroes close the gap between the ought and the is. They show us that it is not only possible to use our freedom to stand against injustice, but that some people have actually done so.
Yet, without some cultural experience of the violence that was a part of building this country, we risk the sort of liberal triumphalist narrative we would deplore if used elsewhere. There is much to be said for the American tendency to accentuate the positive. Rather than looking at the history of Jim Crow, we turn Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday and put his statue on the Mall. Yet we would be disturbed by a German lesson plan that mentioned the Holocaust as a terrible thing, and then went on too quickly to described those heroes — Willy Brandt, Sophie Scholl, Claus von Stauffenberg — who opposed it. With far too few exceptions, America’s history of freedom-fighting — from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall — is doing just that. It works for inaugural speeches, so long as you emphasise, as President Obama did, that we as a nation are on a journey in which there’s still a long way to go. Meanwhile, Tarantino’s approach is an antidote to triumphalism that’s all the more effective for being a roaring good film.
Read the whole thing. I think she makes very good, deeply unsettling points about the use of history, and the responsibility of the present to the past.
In my parish (county), we’ve had a festival for the past 40 years that celebrates antebellum houses and culture. It’s how the town takes pride in its architecture and historical legacy. But a third of the parish is black; what we are celebrating is the culture that enslaved their ancestors. Now, if you ask any white person who supports and participates in the festival, they would in all good conscience deny that. The thing is, how do you celebrate what was good and beautiful about a time and a place while ignoring an evil so great? Maybe it can be done, but I don’t know how. Me, I don’t begrudge anyone participating in it — I did when I was a kid, and my kids did last year — but I have to admit that I have a bad conscience about it.
I think all of this is hard to talk about, and not just because white people don’t want to hear it. A friend of mine who was involved years ago in a black civil rights history project said that local black people didn’t really want to participate. Was it that they were afraid to say what had happened? Was it that they didn’t want to bring it up, for fear that it would imperil the civil peace that has held between white and black for a couple of generations? What was it? My friend didn’t know. I think I can say too that many white people who do not hold racist views would be reluctant to get involved with a project like this because once you start digging into what your ancestors did or failed to do back then, you do not know what is going to come out of those shallow graves.
It simply will not do to ignore the brutal past. The problem with this is that the brutality is not the only thing about the past of either the dominant culture or the culture of its victims. To believe so runs the risk of making the abused into permanent victims, as Neiman says, and denying that they have any significant moral status apart from their victimhood. And it may also deny that members of the victimizing culture have any moral status or worth apart from their sins. It would be wrong to say that the antebellum culture that entailed slavery is all evil and should be forgotten; it would be equally wrong to say that slavery was ancillary to that culture, and that we should focus only on the good and beautiful things about it. How do you find a balance?
For me, reading about the French Revolution while in Paris last fall gave me a useful perspective on this question. I don’t think the issue can ever be definitively settled, in part because each generation will view the past through the lens of its present-day struggles and interests. Regarding the French Revolution, there is the American part of me that rebels against the idea of absolute monarchy, and that despises the abuses the monarchy and aristocracy — including the Church — heaped on the peasantry. But there is also the politically and culturally conservative part of me that fears and loathes what the mobs did in revolutionary France, and that despises the terror-mad utopianism of the Jacobins. And there is the Christian part of me that looks in horror upon the massacres of priests and faithful Catholics, and the desecration of holy places.
But then, I don’t have any personal stake in the French Revolution. None of my ancestors fought in it, suffered from it or for it, or had things stolen from them because of it. For me, thinking about the Revolution is important and interesting, but it’s only an intellectual exercise. This isn’t about my family, or my people. Slavery is. The Civil War is. The Civil Rights Movement is. To some extent, who we are is who we were. Many of us on the Right are understandably resistant to Leftist victim narratives, because they are often deployed in the service not of gaining moral understanding, but rather gaining political power. Plus, the answer to a right-wing denial of the ugliness of the past, and the moral crimes of the past, is not a left-wing obsession with them. That is just as distorting in its own way. Nevertheless, the Left sometimes has a good point about the political uses to which the Right puts its own take on history. This is something we conservatives ought to take seriously.
And it’s something Americans ought to take seriously as we strive for understanding. History should not be treated as therapy, or in any other instrumental way, either for guiltmongers and America-haters of the Left, or jingoes and would-be patriots of the Right. Neiman is right, though, that there does seem to be something about the American character, though, that doesn’t like to dwell upon the past, but rather look to the future. Is it just us, though, or is that the human condition, this deep need to believe in original sinlessness? I have not lived anywhere else but America, or studied other nations and cultures sufficiently to know the answer. Tell me.
I decided, by the way, that I want to understand the history of my own Southern people — black and white — better, so this fall, I’m going to read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth Of Other Suns. Credit for this goes to Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose own readings in history outside his comfort zone are an inspiration.
UPDATE: Don’t miss this great comment below by KSS:
Unlike the rest of the world, the United States was founded not in response to a common past, a tradition, but on a vision of the future. It was founded by a singular messianism: it was founded against history. For both the Puritans and the Founding Fathers, history was the root of perdition and all evil. For the former, history signified the legacy of the Roman perversion of primitive Christianity; for the latter, the privileges and injustices of European hierarchal society. The United States were to be the new, democratic Jerusalem, built against history, and with the pure material of the future. That utopia became what is now the United States: a democratic empire, that is to say, a social reality with all the defects and qualities that belong to history . . . Americans have been the colonizers of the future and today, disillusioned, they’re starting to discover the charms and the horrors of the present.
It’s overly broad and can’t necessarily be proven, but there’s something to that. As has been noted on this blog at times, Southerners probably have to grapple with history a bit more than most of us northerners, who do not (or like to pretend we do not) have the same, complicated history. As you say with the French Revolution, we don’t have a stake in it.
History can be very problematic when people fall back on old resentments or get caught up in lamenting things that are either lost or could have been, but were not. But it does bring with it an incredibly rich cultural inheritance. More Paz, on Latin American history:
Something from the past always remains. It’s very arrogant to condemn our ancestors: they don’t need simply our judgment, adverse or favorable, but our faith. And faith means sympathy: maybe I would have done the same as you, if I’d been there. There’s a norm we’ve forgotten: respect the adversary and honor the defeated . . . our history–more precisely, that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–has been an immense failure. But defeat does not degrade; the real degradation is not knowing what to do with the defeats. Turning a failure into art is beautiful . . . We’ve made a few very admirable things out of our failures: a handful of poems, a half dozen novels and collections of stories. Moreover, we’re not dead: we’re a living culture. This has been a great triumph. Latin America has character; it has a soul. This is our great victory.