Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Celebrating Genocide

with 4 comments

So it’s the day after Columbus Day, and I would have posted this yesterday, except that the inevitable happened on a three day week-end:  that cold or whatever it is that has been threatening to hit me all week landed on my head.

That, and I had a screaming fight with Matt the night before.  He hung up the phone and went off to play in Philly with his friends.  I couldn’t sleep.

But yesterday being Columbus Day, I had a number of posts on FB urging me “not to celebrate genocide,” almost all of them from people I like, and I figured it’s about time I said this.

Go ahead.  Celebrate Columbus Day.  You won’t be celebrating genocide.  There wasn’t one.

The great “genocide” of indigenous peoples following on the European discovery of the Americas is in the same class as the “burning times” of witches in Medieval Europe and the “genocide” of aborigines in Australia in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century.

It never happened, and any look at the actual numbers will make that obvious in very little time.  Somewhere in this office I’ve got a book with all the footnotes not only on this one but on the other two, and I’ll post in a day or two.

But in the meantime, I’d like to make a couple of points.

The first is that genocide is a word with a meaning, and it isn’t “killed a lot of people in a war of conquest.”  It means to attempt to eradicate a racial or ethnic group from the face of the planet or, at the very least, from the larger local area. 

It’s not that genocides have never been attempted, or never happened, because they must have.  There was the obvious example–meaning Hitler and the Nazis–but also some other smaller ones here and there. 

I write about Armenian-Americans, after all, and they’re sincerely concerned with what the Turks did in 1915.  And what the Turks did was systematic enough so that there is at least an arguable case that what was attempted there was genocide.

But the fact is that genocide is actually very rare, and vanishingly rare in literate societies.  That’s what makes the Nazi episode so shocking. 

What’s always makes that episode sound so insane is the simple fact that actual genocide is insane.  It’s insane even if we don’t look at the moral level. On a practical basis, it makes little or no sense. 

In the long history of the world, conquest has been a generally good thing for the conquering countries (and on some levels also sometimes for the conquered), but it would not be if it was carried out by invading a country and then slaughtering every last man, woman and child in it.

Ancient peoples had a much more rational alternative to genocide when they conquered whole peoples:  slavery. 

The second thing is this:  while the “burning times” seem to have been made up out of whole cloth in an collective spasm of orgiastic victim-identity politics, the Columbian and Australian “genocides” were at least based on something that did in fact happen.

What did in fact happen were wars of conquest. 

And here’s where I get really interested, because something really interesting is happening here.

And all the pseudo-historical nonsense about genocide obscures it.

Consider this:  wars of conquest are the rule, not the exception, throughout all of human history, in every single society that ever learned how to read and write.

Virtually all the epic poetry that has come down to us is about “war,” but what it really is about is the attempt of some people to take over others by war.

No society prior to the 19th century ever found this circumstance morally reprehensible. 

In fact, Empire was generally considered a good thing, proof that your nation and people were great. 

And Empires were respected as long as they were strong, even by their own conquered peoples, and even when they were simultaneously resented.  Paul of Tarsus was a Jew who later became a Christian–but he was proud of his Roman citizenship to the day he died, executed by his fellow citizens. 

Paul was willing to give his life for Christ, but it may be a good thing that nobody ever asked him to give up his status as a citizen.

The old adage is “civilization spreads through conquest,” and throughout all that history it was in fact true.  When you did come upon a people who had been isolated by geography from being taken over by others, what you found was not pristine pastoral idylls, or great shining civlizations that practiced peace and tolerance.

You found, in general, what the English found when they got to Australia:  people who had not yet emerged from the stone age, who lived on a level that the lowliest slave in Rome would have considered unacceptable.

What interests me is this:  when, and why, did we stop seeing Empire in that light?

I think it’s tempting to believe that we got so morally sensitive that we were able to think of conquest as evil in and of itself, that we began to understand that every society has a right to self determination whether we like its practices or not.

But there are a couple of problems with this formulation, not the least of which have to do with its practices.

Do we really think that it is better for the people of the Sudan, for instance, to go on practicing slavery, executing homosexuals for their homosexuality, and repressing and murdering their women–than it would be for them to be ruled by someone else who would establish a rule of law and begin to eradicate those things?

Was it really better for India before the British came, when the practice of suttee was widespread?

Does it matter that even the Indians don’t think it was?

The actual practice of imperialism and colonialism was much more complicated than we allow for these days.  The Brits could be first class sons of bitches, but most of the leadership of the Indian generation that sent them packing was educated at Eton and Harrow and Rugby and Winchester and Oxford and Cambridge.

And to this day, Indian standards of education are based on the British public school system you’d think they’d reject and resent as a vestige of “colonialism.”

I’m not, as I said, in favor of a return to colonialism.  But I do think we’ve gotten so knee-jerk to the term that it’s become unuseful as an intellectual category.  Calling a country “colonialist” or “imperialist” is like calling a person “racist.”  All discussion comes to a halt.  The charge is meant not to uphold moral standards, but to strangle even the possibility of debate on a hundred questions and more.

So let’s stipulate that we are none of us in favor of colonialism, or imperialism, or conquest.

Do we have any obligations to the peoples of places like the Sudan?  Does it matter that slavery is practiced there, and in other places, in the 21st century?  Does it matter that homosexuals are executed for their homosexualityor that women are murdered and mutiliated for being raped or on the slimmest charges of adultery? 

In the 19th century, the British–imperialists that they were–went on a crusade to end slavery, everywhere.   They didn’t care if your self-determination meant that you thought you ought to have slaves.  They put their boats out into the ocean and made the slave trade virtually impossible for anybody, anywhere.

That was imperialism.  Was that a bad thing?  Would the world have been a better place if the Brits hadn’t done it?  Would the Brits have been a better people if they hadn’t done it?   Is Africa better or worse off, in the long run, because those same Brits put an end to the kidnapping of one set of tribesmen by another and the selling of the kidnapped to Arab slave traders?

Maybe it’s just that we’ve gotten to the point where we no longer feel confident that any of our standards of morality and civilization are universal and objectively true. 

The British Empire did not think that they were “imposing their values” on anybody.  They thought that at least some values applied to everybody.  Slavery wasn’t “wrong for them.”  It was wrong for everybody.  And therefore they could put an end to it.

We’re not going to go back to colonialism and imperialism any time soon–and there are enough drawbacks to both that that’s a good thing–but there are other ways of spreading civilization these days, and I’m not sure we’re doing that, either.

In Sweden, the law enforcement system has begun to turn a blind eye to honor killings among the immigrant Muslim population.  After all, that’s they’re culture, and what right have the Swedes to impose Western culture on these others?

Is that really a more moral course of action than…well, than all kinds of colonialism and imperialism down the ages?

Do you think the women murdered in those honor killings would think so?

Written by janeh

October 12th, 2010 at 6:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Celebrating Genocide'

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  1. The Sudanese I know claim that what happens in the Sudan isn’t really slavery. I’ve also read enough about detailed descriptions of actions in other parts of the world as well as Africa that are called ‘slavery’ and are really more reminiscent of local arrangements in which children were sent to relatives or friends or friends of friends to be fed and clothed in return for work to be a bit dubious about such claims. Methods like that for providing for children who can’t be fed and clothed at home are wide open to abuse (even more so than the present-day foster care system, but the stories that come out of that can be pretty bad, too), but they aren’t really slavery, not in the usual sense of the word.

    And Canada’s main ‘war of conquest’ was the British against the French. The French started off settling, trading, and getting involved in pre-existing wars (between the Huron and Iroquois, IIRC), and the British were happy enough to trade with the first lot they met (round about my area, actually), until conflicts over access to fishing areas and theft took off – and disease started spreading.

    All caveats aside, we can’t support imperialism unless we are confident in our own beliefs and willing to fight to expand them – neither of which are the case now in most of the west. And we won’t do it even if both these conditions are filled unless we can see some way of profiting from it. If we have no financial interest in some distant country, the only people who will make the slightest effort to improve the situation there are a tiny number of assorted humanitarians – aka missionaries, although nowadays some of them won’t be religiously motivated.

    I also agree entirely on the use of slurs, like ‘imperialist’ or ‘racist’ to stop debate, not to engage in it.

    If you murder someone in Canada, you are usually charged with a crime, whether it’s an ‘honour killing’ or not. Google ‘Mohammad Shafia’, ‘Aqsa Parvez’, I’ve forgotten the name of the woman whose mother arranged a contract killing in India…

    Of course, you’ll get off with a slap on the wrist, if that, if the relative you kill was elderly, disabled and/or depressed, but probably able to communicate suicidal ideas to you. (If the relative was unable to communicate prior to death, you may serve a prison term for murder, but you’ll get a lot of sympathy from the public anyway).


    12 Oct 10 at 7:26 am

  2. I don’t think you can describe what happened to Australian Aborigines as wars of conquest. Certainly not wars such as the US had with native Americans.

    What happened in Australia and America were “virgin field” epidemics. Native people with no immunity were exposed to diseases that were common in Europe.

    But I see no point in blaming 18th and 19th century people for not having 20th century knowledge of disease.


    12 Oct 10 at 3:48 pm

  3. “Why?” is often difficult, but “When?” is fairly straightforward. The earliest group of serious and influential people I can find opposing their own country’s imperial mission is in the United States following the Spanish-American War. Mark Twain and Finley Peter Dunne come to mind. Twain engages in the sort of bad logic and abuse of statistics which is all too common today. Dunne is more subtle. He points out–rightly!–that we were extending our rule, but not our constitution: water torture, but not trial by jury, or the presumption of innocence. [This would change, but not in his time.] The counter-argument is that (a) you can’t fight a counter-insurgency campaign in accordance with the Common Law and the Bill of Rights, and (b) the state of the conquered society doesn’t admit of trial by jury, or even perhaps self-rule. This may be true, and makes no difference to Assyrians or Romans, but if you claim that your rule is justified by the benefits the locals receive. it leaves a bit of a dent in the theory.
    When Australia got half of New Guinea as a League of Nations Mandate, Woody Wilson told the Prime Minister of Australia that the area should be ruled “respecting the beliefs of the inhabitants.” The PM replied that “the inhabitants believe that people should be eaten.” The PM won that round, but I think you’d have to give Wilson the past century on points.
    After WWI, no one even calls the new territories “colonies,” and by the mid-1920’s, the British sacked a general for firing into a crowd to suppress a riot. When word got out, there was a wave of banditry all over India, because there was no telling what the English would now permit.

    So the end, generally, of the moral impetus behind colonialism and empires, seems to come between 1900 and 1920, and it’s hard to shake the impression that WWI tarnished the legitimacy of the West. But whether it accelerated an existing trend, or lent authority to beliefs which would have been eccentric had the troops really been home before the leaves fell, I don’t know. I don’t know how you’d find out.

    In absolute fairness to the anti-Columbus crowd, I think it’s fair to say that there were a LOT of Americans from the 17th to the 19th Centuries, not prepared to slaughter women and infants themselves, who would have been neither surprised nor displeased if the native peoples had died out–and others who certainly were willing to bash an infant’s head against a rock. It is also true that many native Americans harbored similar sentiments. But it’s a little unfair to beat up “the West” for a set of attitudes not held by French, Spanish or Portuguese, nor even by all the British.


    12 Oct 10 at 4:41 pm

  4. Weird! I can leave a reply to this thread but not to the latest (Cold in October).

    Here’s an interesting article from Quadrant Online dealing with the genocide thing which has become something of an industry down here among left-wing historians in Australia:



    13 Oct 10 at 6:52 am

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