Another Perspective

Coexisting With Our Forefathers

Will young people ever again try to understand the mindset of their ancestors?

By 8.2.12

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On the Fourth of July a friend and I visited Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, a reconstruction of the old fort as it looked about 1820.

An interpreter, greeting us in uniform and shako, asked us if we'd ever been there before. I said I had, but it had been a while.

"Well, we've made a few changes," he told me. "For one thing, we used to do First Person reenacting. We talked to visitors as if we were actual people from 1820. Now we do Third Person reenacting. We talk to you like modern people. The old way got too difficult. When it came to subjects like slavery and Native Americans, it was kind of uncomfortable."

Understandable. Anyone who's already walking around in a wool uniform on a 100° day doesn't need any more discomfort.

Still, the change bothered me. Or rather, not the change itself, but the cultural forces that (I assumed) had made the change inevitable.

Not that there's anything contemptible in the fact that today's young people have a hard time defending slavery or 19th century Indian policy. And I fully sympathize with any black reenactor who's reluctant to play a contented slave (a surly slave might be personally satisfying, but would probably make a poor tourist guide). That issue is especially relevant at Fort Snelling, because it was one of the places in free territory where an army doctor named John Emerson brought a slave named Dred Scott, in the 1830s. Scott would later sue for his freedom, leading to the explosive Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857.

What troubles me is the thought that we may be heading for a situation where it's impossible for those young people to even begin to understand the mindset of their ancestors.

Students today are taught to empathize with members of all kinds of cultures -- tribal cultures, theocratic cultures, authoritarian cultures. They're taught to respect them and never under any circumstances to presume to criticize them.

Would it really be out of order to ask them to try to understand their own ancestors the same way?

Our relationship to our ancestors in the west is best described, I think I'm safe in saying, as dysfunctional. We've locked up our skeleton-filled closets and repurposed them as crypts. We're like a teenage girl who hates going anywhere with her parents, because she knows they'll embarrass her and she'll just die.

"But what's the alternative?" the liberal asks. "Expect them to find excuses for the horrific crime of slavery?"

"Well, yes," I'd reply. "Just the same way you find excuses for the horrific crime of slavery in the Islamic world today."

If you want to increase the sum total of human understanding, why not?

Slavery is a fascinating study. There are people around who love to find hypocrisies in Christian history (it's a lazy man's sport; no one's ever called it hard), and the fact that Christians have practiced and supported slavery is one of their favorite zingers. They like to claim that the Bible blesses slavery, which is stretching a point. The Bible legislates a non-chattel form of slavery in the Old Testament, and the New Testament treats it practically, as a fact of life, which it was up until the mid-19th century (and continues to be today in places). There's no condemnation of slavery as a specific sin, because it comes under a more basic commandment -- "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." Nobody wants to be a slave, so there can be no justification for making our neighbors slaves.

Why, then, didn't Christians abolish the practice until the times of Wilberforce and Lincoln?

The answer is "civilization." An occasional voice rose to protest the institution (St. Patrick of Ireland seems to have been one), but the answer was always, essentially, "Not practical. Civilization would fall."

Here's the embarrassing truth in civilization's closet: it demands cheap labor. The philosopher can't meditate, the artist can't paint or sculpt, the astronomer can't contemplate the heavens, if he has to spend the bulk of his time tending his own fields, caring for his own livestock, or cleaning his own house. The higher the civilization, the more slaves it requires. It was like that from the beginning of the world until the Industrial Revolution. (There was a brief break in parts of Europe following the Black Death, but that was a demographic anomaly, it seems to me.)

The Industrial Revolution (a blessing from God, in my opinion) made it increasingly possible to carry on the work of civilization using machines rather than slaves for the scut work. And as soon as that happened, the scales fell from the eyes of the Christians, and they said, "Hey! I never noticed it before, but this slavery business is really cruel."

Dred Scott's owner (a different one), heartily ashamed of himself, set him free voluntarily, three months after the Supreme Court decision.

And so the infamy was abolished. Not without a fight, but the thing had become inevitable, so long as the machines kept rumbling.

Understanding these facts doesn't justify slavery. All it does is make it understandable. It opens a door of human sympathy to people who were different from us.

Which used to be a liberal value. 

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About the Author
Lars Walker is a librarian and Norwegian translator, and the author of several published fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book called Troll Valley, available for Kindle or Nook.