WALSH: Condemning Historical Figures For Racism Is A Slippery Slope


Laura Ingalls Wilder is the latest historical figure to be posthumously exiled from polite society by people who think “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an instruction manual. The legendary author of the “Little House on the Prairie” series has had her name dropped from a prestigious children’s literature award given by the American Library Association. Wilder is guilty of being culturally insensitive, it seems. She is no longer safe for children.

The president of the Association explained it this way:

Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.

The New York Times catalogs some of Wilder’s most egregious offenses:

Despite their popularity, Ms. Wilder’s books contain jarringly prejudicial portrayals of Native Americans and African Americans.

In the 1935 book “Little House on the Prairie,” for example, multiple characters espoused versions of the view that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” In one scene, a character describes Native Americans as “wild animals” undeserving of the land they lived on.

“Little Town on the Prairie,” published in 1941, included a description of a minstrel show with “five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms” alongside a jolting illustration of the scene.

In other words, the characters in the book (and presumably Wilder herself) had attitudes and beliefs common to their time and place. This, we have determined, is unforgivable. Only books from the past that do not read like books from the past may be read today. Only people from the past who live up to our modern standards of racial enlightenment can be remembered and honored today. Of course, the only problem is that almost nobody in the past can live up to that standard.

Racial bias was a simple fact of life across the world, across every race, across history, up until the last few decades or so. Even today, racial bigotry is quite common and mainstream in many places — non-western countries, especially. It is safe to say that you will find considerably less racial tolerance in, say, Saudi Arabia or Egypt or India, than in the United States. The idea of complete racial equality is uniquely modern and uniquely western.

Historically, even ethnic tolerance was not ethnically tolerant. Lincoln wanted to free the slaves. He also wanted to ship them all back to Africa because he certainly didn’t want to live among them as equals. Grant’s wife owned slaves and Grant himself was an alleged anti-Semite who famously attempted to expel all the Jews from the areas he controlled in western Tennessee. These men were more progressive on racial matters than most people of their time, but they’d be depraved, backwards, slobbering bigots if we plucked them from their home in the mid-19th century and plopped them into the American society of 2018. Is that how we should judge them? Should we judge them as if they lived in our time? And if so, who, in all of history, could possibly pass through that filtration system and emerge on the other side as a safe and enlightened figure worthy of our admiration?

Here’s another question: why do we only apply this impossible standard to white, western historical people? Why aren’t we shaming Native Americans for cherishing an ancestral heritage that almost always included wars of conquest and slavery, and sometimes included cannibalism and human sacrifice? Why don’t we scold those of north African descent for the historical sin of the Barbary slave trade? Why don’t we look with disgust on Mongolians who build monuments to Genghis Khan? It seems that even Genghis Khan’s never-ending campaign of rape and pillage, and the Aztec (or Mayan or Incan, etc.) habit of slaughtering children to appease their deities, can be seen in the context of the time — but a few harsh words in “Little House on the Prairie” is enough reason to send Laura Ingalls Wilder to history’s proverbial ash heap. This seems a bit unbalanced.

But I could perhaps tolerate the blatant double standard if the standard applied to white people made any sense at all. It doesn’t. A rational person ought to be able to see that the racism of a 19th century pioneer or a 17th century pilgrim is not nearly as indictable as the racism of a 21st century white supremacist. Racism itself is an objective evil and has always been an objective evil. But the moral guilt of the racist person obviously begins to lessen considerably as you go further back in time.

People in the past did not possess the information we possess. They did not have the same biological understanding of the human species as we have. They did not look at things from the global perspective that we do. When they encountered people from another race or culture, it was akin to modern man making contact with space aliens. Indeed, if we ever did have a close encounter of the third kind, and we noticed that these alien creatures are similar to us yet profoundly different, and they have habits and customs that, to us, are strange and gross and sometimes horrifying, there would certainly be a debate about the exact moral standing of this new and unknown species. We would probably be wrong in all of our conclusions.

This doesn’t justify any of the racism in the past, but it does put it into some perspective. I am not suggesting that we see racism from a morally relativistic vantage point. I am just suggesting merely that we see it within its historical context. (And this should be no trouble for the actual moral relativists in our culture, yet they are precisely the ones who become stringent moral absolutists when it comes to pre-modern white people.)

If we must now line up and spit on the graves of all of history’s “racists,” we will be doing quite a lot of spitting. We will have to spit on every grave, basically. We will have to spit on history itself. And that might make us feel very good and very superior, but, in the end, the real fools and bigots will be ourselves.

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