It’s Sunday, and I’m still reading Thomas Aquinas and getting agitated over on FB, which seems to me to be what FB is doing to me at the moment.
But right now, I want to go back to a different FB conversation, one I started on the day before Thanksgiving, and that sort of dropped off the radar.
Except that I’ve been thinking about it.
While I’m doing it, I have Anonymous 4 doing medieval Christmas music behind me (The Holly and the Ivy at the moment) and snow in the back yard.
My impossible world seems operational, at least for the moment.
In the possible world, this started when somebody posted one of those FB image cards with a quote from Ayn Rand on it, saying that the settlers in North America had been entirely right to move in and take the Native Americans’ land because the settlers had art and science and philosophy and whatever while the Native Americans “didn’t even have property rights.”
What ensued was a small hail of comments of the kind that make me hold my head and wonder how we’re ever going to survive into the 22nd Century. Or even to next week.
These started with declarations of what an evil woman Rand must have been to think these things, followed by derisive comments of the “and she must be stupid too” variety–mostly chortling over the idea that “they didn’t even have property rights!” was a significant point in the argument.
It amazes me, really, that so many people these days seem to have NO idea what things were like in even the very recent past.
The idea that there was something wrong–never mind “evil”–in what Rand said in that quote dates back less than a century, and as a commonly accepted idea it dates back to less than half that.
What’s more, even today, when we in Western Europe and the United States think that such an attitude to indigenous peoples is completely unacceptable, most of the rest of the world simply and emphatically disagrees with us.
As far as China, Russia, the Islamists and most other societies are concerned, there are superior societies (their own) and inferior societies, and the superior societies have the right to conquer, occupy and control the inferior ones.
How we got to a place where we in the West think it’s wrong to conquer and control other societies is a long story, and not the point for the moment.
What got to me was this–it’s not as easy as people think to look at the history of this and say it shouldn’t have happened, that in every case the unambiguously right thing to do would be to leave the people as they were and not “interfere” in their cultures.
To begin with, cultures and societies are not only not alike, they are not even close to being equally capable of providing the people living in them with advantages, comforts, and the opportunity to live even a minimally decent life.
Contrary to the romanticization of all things indigenous and primitive, life in preliterate or nonliterate societies is not a romp of wonderfulness feeling one with nature.
Hobbes called it solitary, nasty, brutish and short, but even he underestimated the sheer awfulness of living through the daily grind in such societies–the nearly endless warfare, the deaths in childbirth that take almost half of all women, the epidemics, the famines.
And that’s just the problems brought on by impersonal nature. Any unbiased investigation of such societies uncover evidence of practices that should make any modern Westerner cringe.
For instance, analysis of the skeletons of Native Americans (yes, even the Iroquois) shows the stereotypical brittleness found in the bones of people who do not get enough protein–but it shows that only in the women, who were considered to be inferior to the men.
The arrival of literate invaders bringing not just agriculture but rationalized methods of farming, reading and writing and figuring that meant that knowledge learned could be stored, and the protection of persons and property in codes of conduct and law almost always resulted in a rise in the safety, security and standard of living of those of the conquered that managed to survive.
Of course, not all the conquered managed to survive, and sometimes none of them did–but genocides and near genocides were not invented by literate peoples. They have existed throughout history. Before the people we call Native Americans arrived here, there was an indigenous people already in place in North America. They were wiped out–completely. No trace of their DNA has ever been found in any living person.
When civilizations spread, they open up possibilities that we don’t even notice any more, but that are crucial if we want people to lead materially decent lives, or spiritually decent ones, for that matter.
A society at peace and protected by law is one in which individuals with ideas can try out those ideas and disseminated what they learn from the tryouts–better, more reliable, more efficient ways to grow crops; the way the human body works and what that means for treating disease; strategies for defending borders against raiders looking for loot; strategies for conquest that, if successful, meant that your society could grow and prosper even more.
It’s to the conquest and the growing and prospering that we owe things like the germ theory of disease, the principles of crop rotation; the understanding of such public health innovations as the scientific management of human waste; and a whole lot more.
To say that it was always and unambiguously evil when a more developed society conquered and controlled a less developed one is to say that such societies were always and ambiguously better off when their people starved half the time, were exposed to the elements and helpless in the face of natural disasters, and died in childbirth at rates that defy understanding.
To do this at least as much to deny the humanity of the people of the less developed society as conquering and controlling them is.
It is to say that these people–unlike you and me, unlike everybody else on the planet–do not value comfort and security, good health and healthy children.
There is no indication, even now, that indigenous peoples, given the choice, would choose their traditional societies over material progress.
In fact, when they ARE given the choice, they ditch their traditional folkways with a haste that would make the Road Runner look slow.
We aren’t losing the Amazonian rainforest because big, evil corporations are ravaging Mother Earth. We’re losing them because the local indigenous tribes have figured out that clearcutting means money which means a better and more reliable supply of food, and education so that that modern medicine stuff can move in and stay and…
Indigenous peoples are not pets. They want the same things we do.
And they’re not going to thank us for forcing them to be “authentic” in misery.
None of that, unfortunately, answers the question of whether or not it should be considered wrong for more developed societies to conquer and control less developed ones.
“It’s for your own good” is not a rationale I usually accept for initiating the use of force.
Among other things developed and developing societies bring with them is religion, and one of the things this developed society brought with it was philosophy.
Religion and philosophy brought with them chances in the way we define the human and the understanding of the obligations we owe to our fellow human beings.
I think I’ve come to this conclusion:
In antiquity–really until relatively recently–conquest was the only way civilization COULD spread.
Capitalism didn’t invent the creation of wealth–successful agriculture is a way to create wealth–but it came damned close, and it is only after the rise of capitalism that any societies create enough wealth to lift the vast majority of their peoples out of destitution.
If what you need to do to advance is marshall enough resources to allow a solid little segment of your population the leisure to think and invent and take risks, to acquire knowledge both practical and theoretical–if that’s what you need, and no wealth creating machinery exists to provide it, what you have to do is go out and conquer it.
I can’t say I’m sorry they went out and conquered it. I am benefited by too much of what they produced as a result of their conquests–books, medicine, food all year round without ever having to worry about it, a rate of death in childbirth so low that nobody even thinks about it any more…
At the same time, we’ve gotten to the point where we can afford to worry about the ethics of the thing, and I think we should.
We don’t need to go out and conquer somebody to acquire the resources we need to find the cure for cancer or send a manned mission to Mars.
We also understand, in ways in which we didn’t before (and which societies like China and groups like the Islamacists don’t even now) the sense in which we are, as Mr. Jefferson put it, created equal.
So I think I would say, right now, that we should not be in the business of conquer and control, that we should leave other people to make their own decisions about how they want their own societies to develop.
But we should do that in full knowledge of the consequences of what we are advocating.
Decisions like this are not neutral. They have immediate effects, and some of them are really, really bad.
There are, as we speak, societies in Africa whose governments deny their citizens polio vaccine and AIDS drugs–both considered plots by Western nations to render their men sterile.
There are societies in Latin America that are truly “rape cultures”–the Yanamamo, for instance, treat gang rape as a sport for young men.
There are all those African Muslim countries where female genital mutilation is passed off as female “circumcision.”
Never mind the ones that execute people for being homosexual.
I have absolutely no compunction in saying that my society is not just different from these, but objectively and demonstrably superior.
To say that, though, is not to say that I have the right to go in and fix what’s wrong.
I admit that I think that, in the long run, if we can keep from committing cultural suicide, most of the people of the world will vote with us, one way or the other.
Many of them already are. That’s why we have an illegal immigration problem. I spent half an hour the other day watching video of mothers and children marching steadily over bare ground to get to the Texas border, just walking, wearing backpacks, not knowing if it would work, not really knowing where they were going, only absolutely sure that they wanted something better and they wanted something else.
But while I’m waiting for people to choose voluntarily, there are people in the world today–right now today, right this minute–who will suffer at least in part for my fastidiousness.
There are girls in Africa who will have their clitorises sliced away by rusty knives, children in Southern India who will go blind for lack of beta carotene, women who will be stoned to death on mere accusations of adultery and gay men who will be beheaded for simply being themselves.
I think far too many of us get our kicks feeling morally superior to people whose politics we don’t understand and whose commitments we declare “obviously” wrong without ever having thought about it, or even tried.
But I’d like every one who wants to play that game–all cultures are equally valid! anybody who says one society is superior to another is an idiot! anybody who says superior societies have the right to conquer and control inferior ones is evil!–that the people they’re sneering at may have looked at the reality o n the ground and decided it might be even less moral to let all of that go on.
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