Bryan Caplan  

Twilight of the Idols

Will Supplies Last?... Bryan Takes Over the Treasury...

Putin defends Russia's new history textbook with the classic excuse of "The other kids are doing it too":

Mr Putin ...described Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, in which 1.5 million people were imprisoned and 700,000 killed, as terrible “but in other countries even worse things happened”. Discounting the Soviet Union’s long history of oppression, he said: “We had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance.”
Nevertheless, we can learn something from Putin's remarks. If it's wrong for the Russians to apologize for their most heinous crimes to bolster their national pride - and it is - then it's wrong for any country to do it. If we want to avoid Putin's moral blindness, we need to seriously ponder whether we've allowed some true villains into our hall of national heroes. And if it turns out that villains predominate, we've got to clean house, not make Putin-esque excuses.

Now if you've read my previous thoughts on Columbus Day and Thomas Jefferson, you know where I'm headed. There are two uncontroversially massive crimes in which many, if not most, American leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries are implicated: slavery and the genocide of the Indians. And it's not enough to say "Our Founding Fathers were great, but flawed men." Slavery and murder are so evil that they overshadow every other accomplishment - which is why we recoil when Russian historians discuss Stalin in the spirit of "on the one hand, on the other hand."

No, I'm not saying that Thomas Jefferson was as bad as Josef Stalin. But I am saying that both engaged in actions so heinous that no one should identify with or admire them. While we're urging the Russians to clean up their history books, let's set a good example by reforming our own.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (4 to date)
Kurbla writes:

Major ethical problem of US in recent time was racism. US was institutionally racist country well after WWII. Racism is lesser evil than murder or slavery, but still huge one. Violence against homosexuals is huge, huge evil as well. You said you can't explain it away by "other kids did it."

Soviet early decrees abolished capital punishment and persecution of the homosexuals and gave the nations the right for the self-determination. From the very beginning, the system was developed in opposite direction; but homosexuals had all rights for about decade.

Tracy W writes:

Slavery and murder are so evil that they overshadow every other accomplishment

Do they? Winston Churchill is admired by many Britains despite the bombing of Dresden. Henry II is admired by many historians despite his murders. Oliver Cromwell stands out as another leader who engaged in murder but yet is often admired.

It may be that we shouldn't admire anyone who committed murder or owned slaves. But we do admire them.

On the other hand, what virtues did Stalin have?
He murdered millions. He invaded other countries eg Finland, Poland. He violated every human right going. He supported bad scientific theories. He wasn't loyal to his friends. He was a bad father. He was a military incompetent who caused the loss of a great swathe of Russian land, and millions of people, because of bad, obscure orders from him.

I am not an expert on American history. It may be that Thomas Jefferson, like Stalin, had no virtues (though if Thomas Jefferson had killed millions of Americans I would have thought someone would have mentioned it). But it is also possible that a slave holder could have some redeeming features. While Stalin was a complete disaster as a leader, it is possible that Thomas Jefferson, despite his slaveowning, did some things which are admirable.

Les writes:

Neither slavery nor the genocide of the American Indians are things to be proud of. But it is reasonable to view them with a balanced perspective.

First, both slavery and genocide were common and endemic throughout history and throughout the world. In fact, neither is yet ended.

Second, both slavery and genocide were ended by the reformers among the conquerors, rather than by the victims or third parties.

The slavery and genocide perpetrated by the USSR and the Nazis far exceeded that of America.

Black descendants of slaves in America today are on average far better off than current residents of West Africa, where most American slaves originated.

So, while slavery and genocide are indelible stains on America, they should be viewed in full perspective, and they pale in comparison with the acts of the USSR and the Nazis.

Snark writes:

The degree to which history holds our heroes accountable is sufficient thereof. Rarely do we find in it a preponderance of evidence against Jefferson as we do Stalin (if, as Les points out, we view slavery and genocide with a balanced perspective), which makes Prof. Caplan’s antipathy towards Jefferson all the more curious (perhaps it has something to do with his ancestry).

Historian James Horton does a nice job of summing up Jefferson’s legacy:

Thomas Jefferson, I think, for many Americans is an icon for our country. He is a metaphor for America. As one of his biographers said, "If Thomas Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If Thomas Jefferson is right, America is right." In many ways, Thomas Jefferson represents the fact that we as a society, as with him, don't always live up to our grandest principles. We have wonderful principles and we state them well, but we don't always live by them. Thomas Jefferson had that very human quality. And so Thomas Jefferson represents for Americans a window on ourselves, on our nation, on our personality as a group of people.
James Horton is the Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University and director of the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.
Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top