The Past Is a Foreign Country
Reader Richao is tired of the ugly Americans passing philistine judgment on past eras of Western history. Here’s a great comment he left in an earlier thread:
Reading through these comments, I find myself wondering: All these committed modern liberals who find any acknowledgement of the accomplishments of prior eras in Western history so threatening – are they boors only with respect to the Western tradition, or does their boorishness pervade every interaction with the unfamiliar and foreign?
I can’t imagine traveling with these folks. Well, actually, I can because I have. Every expression of admiration for how certain things are done in the country one is visiting countered with a but-have-you-seen-how-they-treat-their-pets, or a well-yeah-but-look-how-the-men-treat-the-women, and on and on and on in a never-ending stream of obnoxiousness.
When I reflect on the past and admire certain of its beauties and glories and accomplishments, it’s much like my periodic reflections on my extensive time living in an utterly foreign Asian country. Yes, much of social and business life reflects values that I frankly find offensive or misguided or discriminatory – but I can still admire the admirable and exercise my imagination with sufficient creativity to step into that mode of seeing the world (knowing the language helps) temporarily to savor its particular pleasures without wishing that I were still living there (though even that form of nostalgia has its own pleasures).
Why oughtn’t I practice the same imagination and generosity with respect to those in our own civilization who have preceded us? Why oughtn’t you? Yes, it’s true that life would’ve been more unpleasant in many respects for any of us than the present day – and more unpleasant in particular ways for those of us who are gay or women – but the same is true of life in a third world country (or even, as in Asia, a sufficiently culturally different first-world country). But many of you, I’m sure, continue to travel to these places, in part to find your imagination captured, to savor a different way of life, a different way of seeing the world. But if held to the standard to which you hold those of us who like to periodically visit and admire the past, well, what’s the point? Alternatively, if that’s not part of why you travel – if you carry yourself abroad in as ugly and unimaginative and boorish a manner as you carry yourself with respect to your past – do us all a favor and keep the ugly American (a phenomenon I believe as common on the left as on the right anymore) at home.