Don’t judge the past by contemporary values
John A. MacDonald
(1815 - 1891)
In November 2015 I enjoyed a handful of Facebook exchanges with people over the question of the nobility of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, gracing our Canadian $10 bill. Due to racist comments directed towards indigenous Canadians attributed to him there has been some talk about removing his face from the currency. Personally, I disagree. Being overly apologetic about history is currently a fashionable way some people have to feel better about themselves. It's another form of selfishness and self-centeredness. People are apt to judge the past by contemporary values because contemporary people overwhelmingly think that we are the only ones who matter, that our values are the most evolved and progressive, and that we are obviously in the right. More than learn about/from history, it seems they are intent to re-write it. I'm not down with apology history because I think it’s bad history, it’s bad education, and it’s bad morality. It might be bad public policy, too. As our first Prime Minister MacDonald deserves a place on the $10 bill despite what we might now think of as his shortcomings. Next year there might be a new feel good fashion, like banning Facebook posts showing images of our currency. Who can tell about fashions? They are fickle. Did MacDonald harbour and profess repugnant ideas? Maybe. Too bad, deal with it. I mean, deal with it some way besides removing him from the currency.
If you want to understand people properly you can only do it by regarding them within their own setting.
Some people are prone to insist that some things are so repugnant that their repugnance transcends place and time. Yeah, right. Interestingly, this is comparable to the formulaic atheist criticism of the Christian Church - that it can rightly be condemned for past behaviour because morality is universal and timeless, and past behaviour does not conform to (modern) morality. Atheists do not recognize “modern” as a qualifying adjective. I complain to atheists that the god they reject bears no resemblance to the God I know from the Bible, and in any event one may not legitimately judge the past with contemporary values. If you want to understand people properly - contemporaries or historical people - you can only do it by regarding them within their own setting, in situ.
I question whether atheists understand what morality is, and if they know the difference between morality and ethics - or that there even is a difference? Atheists like to resort to some standard arguments: theosophy; slavery; and, killing. These concerns are almost irrelevant to me because I interpret them differently than your average atheist.
I believe in the proposition that human beings can be said to have a moral obligation to be intelligent.
Judging the past by contemporary values inaccurately treats historical people as if they were less intelligent than us - that their intellectual shortcomings led them into abhorrent deviance from a universal and timeless moral standard. Judging the past by contemporary values inaccurately discredits the intelligence of our ancestors. I believe in the proposition that human beings can be said to have a moral obligation to be intelligent, and so for me intelligence is somewhat of a synonym for morality. Deliberate stupidity in particular is immoral. I like to think of stupidity as the true immorality. John A. MacDonald was as intelligent a person as we come. His beliefs and language were the result of his intelligence and his surroundings, not a deviation. Sure, he was an alcoholic, but that’s hardly the point.
In anticipation of a critique that my consideration of intelligence is off the mark I would say that questions of a person’s intelligence do relate directly to their moral character because of my belief in the proposition of the moral imperative.
Of course, many are apt to bring up Hitler and the Nazis as undeniable examples of pure evil. It’s an extreme example, but people are apt quickly to go to extremes in order quickly to test the boundaries of an adversary’s position - maybe to discredit them. First, my response is that today in 2015 we are still contemporaneous with Hitler and the Nazis, so condemning them would not be an example of judging the past by contemporary values. The Nazis are contemporary and the values that condemned them are our values today. Second, I would admit that the defendant’s Nuremburg trial defense - that they were simply following orders - is inexcusable and no defense at all. But I want to note that it has not prevented some of the Nuremberg prosecutors’ heirs traveling an ironic moral journey to end up defending torture at the Bagram military facility in Afghanistan with precisely the same language - a defense that, not surprisingly, was deemed credible by the George W. Bush administration while rightly rejected by everyone else. So it seems tht the Nazi defense is not entirely rejected. There are some potentially unsettling implications there, as there should be. Third, I would say that consideration of the Nazis in this debate is a legitimate consideration and not an example of Godwin’s Law - the observation that sooner or later, in any debate, Hitler or the Nazis will be referenced as the hyperbole accelerates. That’s not what this is, just in case anyone wonders.
Black American writer and social activist Langston Hughes called shielding historical figures from judgement by contemporary values something that white folks do - to protect the reputations and pedigree of their ancestors, maybe - painting it as a racist strategy to avoid moral responsibility. I take his point, but I’m not in agreement with him. It is not a question of denying or avoiding responsibility. It is a question of properly understanding what history is, how people behave and what makes us who we are. People who judge the past by contemporary values speak with a ridiculous and unsustainable moral superiority. It is their hubris, and a significant flaw in their argument - an argument that I think is untenable because it fails to account for the extent to which we are products of our settings. People who talk like this profoundly overestimate themselves.
Only a hundred and fifty years ago, John A. MacDonald is a near contemporary. He was a responsible man. In the context of his world he may not have been wrong to hold and speak racist attitudes. As a human being he was a product of his time, and as a politician he was both a reflection of and responsible to his constituency. We might condemn his language and beliefs today, but we can imagine that people of his day would equally condemn us for our modern multi-cultural, women-ordaining, marijuana-smoking, abortion-providing, same-sex marrying world.
It is also largely irrelevant to me if John A. MacDonald was a racist. I almost expect it in people of his time, and my interest is hardly piqued. And, I’m not much interested in politically correct people whose feelings are hurt so easily that they can’t tolerate hearing a contrary idea, read about unpleasant episodes, or socialize with different people. If it is the case that these accusations date from MacDonald’s own time - that he was incongruent with his own time - would be a highly significant point in this debate about sanctioning his image on the $10 bill.
I'm a little surprised by such approbation for MacDonald. I mean, I expected if Canadians got so upset with a former PM then Mackenzie King (1874-1950) - a very capable politician but a seriously twisted guy - is a more obvious target. I can think of other worthy candidates to sanction, from much more recent times.
If a Canadian thinks MacDonald's image on the $10 bill is a disgrace then she thinks Canadians are a disgrace. She thinks she herself is disgraceful. That might be accurate and positive mental health, but I don’t think that’s how Canadians see themselves.