Fall of the Conquerors

July 24, 2020 at 2:20 pm (By Amba) (, , )

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot had two statues of Christopher Columbus removed from Chicago parks and neighborhoods last night. The immediate rationale was public safety: the statues have become flashpoints for confrontations between police and demonstrators; and, in improvised attempts to pull the heavy statues down, people could get hurt. But, after “an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols,” in the mayor’s words, you can bet those patriarchs will not be back on their pedestals.

I am totally down with seeing these statues disappear from literally lording it over the public square (yes, I’m aware that there have been ignorant excesses of iconoclasm as well as instances of payback targeting monuments to abolitionists). I would be happy to debate anyone who disagrees.

If we are serious about making this the inclusive and equitable country that it potentially is, about fully extending the promises of the Founders to everyone whose ancestors were drawn here by those promises or driven off or dragged here in violation of them, then yes, we DO have to rewrite history from multiple points of view, and we DO have to stop being unquestioningly presided over by the “heroes” of conquest, colonization, and genocide.

We can’t expect historical figures to have had our perspective,* [see UPDATE below], but it’s time to take an unflinching look at their perspective, and to admit that for most of them, racism was an inextricable strand in it that qualified and tainted whatever noble traits they may have had or deeds they did.

Yes, this change is disorienting when you’ve been taught standard American mythology since you were a little kid. The resistance to it is as intense as if we were losing our civic religion and identity. We are! I am all for it. We’re coming into a bigger-hearted one, and the spirit of the old one is being reborn in unexpected ways as a living part of it (see Hamilton, or AOC invoking the dignity of Congress to call out the fellow representative who insulted her).

I hope the statues reappear in dedicated sculpture gardens where their value as artifacts of history, educational aids, and, in some cases, works of art is preserved.

*UPDATE: This made me think again about that statement:

These ‘historical figures’ were significantly outnumbered by their dead. They were a tiny minority of their own population. Yet we treat them as if they are the only people in history.

When people say, “we can’t judge historical figures by the standard of our time’ what they mean is ‘the monsters did not think themselves monstrous”. What they mean is ‘colonized lives don’t matter’. Because these human beings, living at the very same time, certainly knew that these were monsters. I don’t mean in an abstract political-issues-of-the-day sense, I mean in a very real sense of ‘They’re killing me and selling my children’.

It’s as if we write about serial killers, but only from the perspective of serial killers. . . .

A few thousand Europeans colonized millions of people across the world. They laundered this theft by simply rendering the victims subhuman, an injustice we continue to this day.

We talk about historical figures and historical standards as if these millions of people simply did not exist. . . .

These perspectives matter. All of the lives that were silenced by the whip or the noose before, they are silenced by armchair historians today. People talk about a whites only history where only white feelings mattered, and because white people didn’t feel bad, it simply wasn’t bad.

This simply isn’t true. It was bad. The people living it knew.

48 Comments

  1. Polly said,

    I think the underlying assumption is that our society as a whole is getting nicer, less violent. We don’t admire conquest anymore, and we don’t consider some groups superior to others.

    It’s true we are less violent, but I don’t believe we are nicer. Our violence is verbal, but our hatred is just as passionate as ever. (Especially the people who claim to never feel any hatred.)

    And I think the only reason we are less violent is that advanced weapons have us under control.

    Steven Pinker thinks it’s because we are progressing. Like all progressives, he thinks progress is generally towards something better. I think progress is generally towards something more complex and more confusing and dangerous.

    Getting rid of Columbus won’t contribute anything good to our society. Focusing intensely on antiracism and antisexism, and how terrible everyone was in the past, won’t make our society any wiser or kinder.

    Better, more honest, more fun, to accept ourselves as wicked little earth animals, just doing our best. No I don’t want the days of conquest and domination to come back. But they never really left, even though the conquerors aren’t holding rifles now.

  2. Polly said,

    Well yes, a lot of bad things happened, because of the over-crowding. But you think whites didn’t kill and enslave other whites? And blacks didn’t kill and enslave other blacks? And every race didn’t kill and enslave every other race?

    It had nothing to do with racism. Other cultures were always considered non-human, regardless of skin color and appearance. Tribal people usually called themselves “The People.” As if there were no other real people in the world.

    Real racism had a brief history, partly related to Darwinism.

    Racism and slavery became connected in the US. There is no necessary connection between them. Blacks weren’t enslaved because they were black. It was because they were for sale in Africa.

  3. wj said,

    Polly, are we less violent because advanced weapons have us under control? Or are we less violent because advanced weapons mean that violence, at least on a large scale, can get out of hand so easily? It’s one thing to invade another country if the worst that happens is you end up with lots of people dying in trench warfare ala World War I. It’s quite another if you can end up nuking each others cities.

  4. Polly said,

    Yes, that’s what I meant by “under control.” We are afraid to get into a big war because it could destroy the whole world (MAD).

    Also, war became more horrific because of advanced weapons in the two world wars, which may have inspired the anti-war movements. (Although, on the other hand, drones make killing easier and less personal.)

  5. Polly said,

    “People talk about a whites only history where only white feelings mattered, and because white people didn’t feel bad, it simply wasn’t bad.”

    I think this kind of statement misses the point that all races have killed and enslaved each other. Recently, Europeans were the most successful culture because their technology was better than everyone else’s. So, as a result of historical chance, most recent colonialism involved whites conquering non-whites.

    If the non-whites had the better technology, and weapons, they would have conquered the Europeans, without feeling guilty about it.

    (This is very different from serial killers, who have some kind of disease.)

    Framing the European conquerors as evil results from what I call the “star wars syndrome.” It is the very popular good vs. evil idea, which I think resulted from a misunderstanding of Western religion.

    Satan is the bad guy who likes to be bad just because. But the original Satan in the Old Testament was a servant of God. His name means “the adversary.” We NEED Satan.

    I think maybe the confusion started with the Christian philosophers debating about the “problem of evil.” I don’t think this ever happened with Eastern religions like Taoism, where everything contains the seed of its opposite.

    And of course progressives always use Hitler as the example that proves some people really are evil. But that can be debated because all dictators kill millions. And even the US presidents we think of as nice guys have killed many innocent civilians.

  6. wj said,

    Recently, Europeans were the most successful culture because their technology was better than everyone else’s.

    I don’t think it’s quite that simple. After all, for most of history the Chinese had better (often far better) technology than anybody else. Their sailors even got as far as East Africa. Yet they didn’t come close to conquering and colonizing the world. Or even a significant fraction of it. Their culture overwhelmed Korea and Japan, for example, but they didn’t take over either. (Except briefly, circa 100 BCE, in northern Korea.)

    So there were apparently non-technological cultural factors at play as well. It’s an interesting question how those factors interact with the factors that, eventually, led us to conclude that us governing everybody else was not right. (Those of us who did reach that conclusion. Even today it is far from universal in the West.)

  7. wj said,

    Apologies for misreading your “under control.” I was taking it to mean our governments had technology to control us. They have a lot of technology that can be used to aid that, as Russia and China demonstrate. But mostly it doesn’t get used to force nonviolence.

  8. Polly said,

    There have been advanced civilizations in Asia, India, Africa, and America, long before Europe became advanced. But as far as I know, only Europe invented guns. The Chinese had gunpowder but never thought of using it to make guns or cannons.

    In my opinion, European colonialism resulted entirely from technological and economic factors. Not cultural.

    But I would be glad to hear about other theories, and other evidence. As everything I have said so far shows, I do NOT believe the Europeans were, or are, more evil than other cultures. I do NOT believe the explorers and conquerors were monsters or sociopaths. They were male animals. Any other culture would have done the same, if it had the required wealth and technology.

    And yes, as you said, it was European culture that eventually developed the philosophy that says conquering and enslaving is wrong. I don’t think any other culture came up with that. They were all just fine with slavery and oppression of minorities and women.

  9. amba12 said,

    Not at all sure that any other culture would have done the same. As wj points out, the Chinese DID have advanced technologies, They did not think in terms of using them aggressively. Genghis Khan, on the other hand, conquered (and spread his genes far and wide) with simpler technology.

    Not all male animals have a drive to be at the top of a hierarchy either. A hierarchy wouldn’t be a hierarchy if everyone was trying to be on top, and everyone below the top was merely a defeated contender.

    A number of of factors must be at play in the European dominance phenomenon. One of them is Christianity, a proselytizing, monotheistic, “This is the only truth” religion (like Islam, but not like Judaism except during its earliest days recorded in Genesis) that became intertwined in a toxic way with both material covetousness and the sense of superiority.

    Yes, the sense of tribal superiority (“We are the human beings, the rest of you are dogs”) is pretty universal. And it is often justified by the backing of a superior god or spirit. But European Christians took that to unprecedented heights of justification for plunder.

    I’ve always thought that the development of technology must first have had something to do with the spur of a cold climate. Then later on, with the intersection of invention and capital.

    I’m depressed and expressing myself more disjointedly than usual.

  10. amba12 said,

    When I was in Mexico (was that in early 2019? seems like a decade ago) I learned that Moctezuma was like a mini-Cortés: he conquered and enslaved the more peaceable peoples all around him (an example of the “Parable of the Tribes” theory?) and extracted tribute and wealth from them.

    Boy, was he in for a surprise: a bigger badder version of himself. His worst nightmare.

  11. wj said,

    In my opinion, European colonialism resulted entirely from technological and economic factors. Not cultural.

    Just for one cultural example, the Europeans had a religion which encouraged taking the good word to unbelievers everywhere. (A similar religious encouragement spread Islam, including bits of Arab culture unrelated to its actual theology, for the Atlantic to the South China Sea.) Even people who aren’t motivated by religious proselytization still have their cultures mandate to spread far and wide.

  12. wj said,

    I’ve always thought that the development of technology must first have had something to do with the spur of a cold climate.

    Not so much the Little Ice Age as a series of plagues which left labor in short supply. Nothing motivates adopting new technologies like the desire to deal with rising labor costs.

  13. Polly said,

    “Moctezuma was like a mini-Cortés: he conquered and enslaved the more peaceable peoples all around him”

    Which suggests that conquest was pretty universal, and had nothing to do with racial differences. The same kind of thing happened in the Middle East, ancient Greece, all over. And, as I said, it seems to have been motivated by ever increasing needs for agricultural land.

  14. Polly said,

    “Europeans had a religion which encouraged taking the good word to unbelievers everywhere.”

    I suspect religion was mostly just an excuse for expansion. The real underlying reasons are usually economic.

  15. Polly said,

    “Moctezuma was like a mini-Cortés: he conquered and enslaved the more peaceable peoples all around him”

    Oh — who says they were more peaceable? Probably just had inferior weapons.

  16. amba12 said,

    “Which suggests that conquest was pretty universal, and had nothing to do with racial differences.”

    Not racial differences! Cultural differences. If you ever read any anthropology you know that not all cultures (on any continent, in any region) are warlike. And it isn’t just a matter of technology, like, anyone who had superior weapons would use them. More like, those so motivated invent superior weapons.

  17. Polly said,

    I read A LOT of anthropology (which I think I have mentioned). Some tribes have been studied that were isolated, with very little competition for resources. They seldom had a reason to fight. So of course they were peaceful.

    I am not saying there is only one thing that causes all war. But I think competition for land is a very major factor. And, as I said, I learned about it from some well known historians and anthropologists.

    I don’t buy the bad guy theory at all. I don’t think science or history supports it.

    The bad guy theory also happens to be very adversarial and alienating, and may account for some of the current divisiveness.

    But that’s not why I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I think it’s wrong.

  18. amba12 said,

    There are people who are addicted to pursuing ever more power, money, fame, and the perks, etc. They have no sense of “enough.” It’s the acquiring that gives them pleasure. I wouldn’t call them evil, I’d call them a kind of addicts. They have a disproportionate influence on everyone. They create structures of wealth and hierarchy, certainly employ other people, make large and (as you’ve pointed out) often unwise changes in the way we live, with a lot of unexpected consequences.

  19. Polly said,

    It’s a matter of degree, and people will go to extremes in anything. But structures of wealth and hierarchy are NOT created by certain addicted individuals.

    Every complex system is organized in hierarchies, and they are found throughout nature. Simple tribal societies are less stratified and less specialized, but every complex human society has hierarchies. It’s the Marxist utopian dream to get rid of them.

    Our society has become very sick because government and Fed interventions have allowed the hierarchy to become extreme.

    But if you look at the people who have become extremely wealthy and powerful, most of the time you won’t see any personality disorders. They were lucky, talented, in the right place at the right time, etc. I could give many examples.

  20. Polly said,

    There are cruel bullies everywhere. But the rich and powerful are not all bullies, and bullies are not all rich and powerful.

  21. Polly said,

    And by the way, I’ve had plenty of experience with bullies, and none of them were sociopaths. They weren’t even bad people. Bullying is mostly created by the social context.

  22. wj said,

    I suspect religion was mostly just an excuse for expansion. The real underlying reasons are usually economic.

    I’m curious why you think so.

    My experience (certainly not backed up be any research on my part) is that those who take this view are projecting. They wouldn’t act like this based on religion — even those who have deep religious beliefs. So they can’t quite see others doing so. On the other hand, they can see themselves acting like this for economic reasons — if only on the basic “I’ll do whatever it takes to feed my kids” level.

    Do you know of research to back up the “economics is the real driver” thesis?

  23. Polly said,

    I posted a link to one of the history books I read on the subject. There is also evidence from anthropology. War has very often been about competition for resources. It definitely evolved out of the territorial instinct which is common to most animals.

    Blaming religion for war isn’t new — Karl Marx, for example, hated religion at least partly for that reason.

    There is some evidence for religion, or ideology, based warfare. The expansion of the Soviet Union, for example, could not have been for land and resources, since they had plenty. It was to spread communist ideology.

    Arab hatred of Jews in the Middle East goes back centuries. I don’t know how much of that is related to land and how much to religious differences.

    Was European colonialism at all related to wanting to spread Christianity? I don’t know, maybe. But it was probably mostly a quest for wealth. We never heard about Columbus and other explorers wanting to spread Christianity. They were looking for spices, gold, etc.

    In looking for motives, I would say you should always consider basic survival first. Why do Americans vote for one party or the other? Most often, it comes down to economic concerns.

    I don’t completely disagree with you. But your opinion doesn’t seem to be based on historical facts; at least you didn’t mention any.

    I always try to base my opinions of human nature on history, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc.

  24. wj said,

    I’m not arguing that war isn’t often about economics. I just think that religion (for example) is the motivator often enough that we can’t just assume (which it sounded like you were; apologies if I misread your earlier post) that it’s all about economics and not religion.

    The example I gave was Islam. There was no significant economic benefit to spreading the faith to places like Pakistan or Afghanistan or Morocco. But it happened anyway.

    Similarly, as you note, the expansion of communism — which for these purposes resembled, in the Soviet Union, a religion far more than an economic movement.

  25. Polly said,

    I had said before that there isn’t just one cause of war. However I really think that economics underlies most things.

    Marxists and atheists like to demonize religion, and select the examples where it caused violence and oppression. (Then, very ironically, Marxism caused as much or more violence than any religion.)

    And Islam has always tended to be violent. But it’s hard to separate the quest for wealth and power from wanting to spread a religion or ideology.

    Religion used to be intertwined with all aspects of every society. Legal codes were specified in religious texts — leading to the current misconception that religion and morality are necessarily connected.

    And when people went off to conquer, they brought their religion. That doesn’t mean they weren’t primarily trying to acquire land and/or wealth.

    The story of Moses in the Old Testament (whether accurate or not, it does tell us about the culture) is a story of going off to conquer the “promised land.” The Hebrews needed a place to live and grow their food, and could not live forever in a desert.

    The Hebrews led by Moses were a culture. But every culture had its god or gods, so they had theirs.

    Now, because of separation of church and state, we don’t think that way anymore. But religion never used to be separate from the legal and economic aspects of societies.

    So I hope that confuses things. I mean, clarifies things.

  26. amba12 said,

    “In looking for motives, I would say you should always consider basic survival first. Why do Americans vote for one party or the other? Most often, it comes down to economic concerns.”

    There you agree with Karl Marx.

  27. amba12 said,

    I wonder if established religions have a tendency to become corrupt and intertwined with pushes for domination and enrichment. I suppose it’s just that religion gives its priesthood power over people’s minds and so develops a symbiotic relationship with conquest and politics.

  28. Polly said,

    “There you agree with Karl Marx.”

    I probably agree with Hitler on some things. Does that mean I’m a Nazi?

  29. Polly said,

    “I wonder if established religions have a tendency to become corrupt and intertwined with pushes for domination and enrichment. I suppose it’s just that religion gives its priesthood power over people’s minds and so develops a symbiotic relationship with conquest and politics.”

    In the past religion and politics were not separate. Even now, they sometimes merge together. And it all depends on how you define “religion” anyway.

  30. amba12 said,

    We have lots of contemporary examples of politics becoming religion (communism, Trumpism) and religion becoming politics (Islam, evangelical Christianity).

  31. Polly said,

    Yes they were always together and it’s hard to keep them separate.

  32. wj said,

    Just brainstorming here.

    I wonder if the religious connection might not actually be a plus. After all, religions spawn heresies as a regular thing. The alternative appears (just looking at today) to be the sports team fan model. And team fan bases very, very rarely fission. So far less room to change and grow.

  33. amba12 said,

    Interesting!!

  34. wj said,

    Somewhere, I’m sure someone is working on a PhD thesis about the evolution of political party support into athletic team-type fandom. Both how it happened and what it portends.

  35. amba12 said,

    It IS like sports fandom, just as virulent, except the stakes are deadly real.

  36. amba12 said,

    Which makes you think sports were just a consolation prize for peacetime, after all.

  37. wj said,

    The thing is, sports fandom is mindless. Precisely because the stakes are low. But, as you say, the stakes in politics are huge . . . and yet the mindlessness seems to have been brought along.

  38. Polly said,

    Because politics is now a team sport, we can see the power of framing. Why can the same events, the same people, be seen in almost opposite ways? They are seen through two different political frames.

    Language doesn’t work the way most people think it works — every statement depends on a frame, a cultural context, for its meaning.

    George Lakoff, a linguist, wrote about this. It’s also what my research was about.

  39. amba12 said,

    wj Just so.

    Polly, I had an exchange on FB that was frustrating because someone was taking a statement at face value (in their own frame) and I was trying to make the point that it meant something completely opposite to “the other side,” I needed the concept of framing (which I knew, but didn’t think to apply). That will be helpful.

  40. Polly said,

    When people are using different frames, it’s like they are speaking different languages. They are “talking past each other.” We see that all the time these days (and probably always).

    For example, words like “socialism,” “nationalism,” “racism,” etc., are used as if they had obvious intrinsic meanings. No they don’t! We would have to know the speaker’s cultural background knowledge, what they know about history, etc. In other words, “where they are coming from.”

    Lakoff wrote a book specifically relating framing to politics. I didn’t read it, since he seems very biased. But I read his other books long before that, when I was studying linguistics. And it wasn’t just his idea, framing (also called by various other names) has a long history in linguistics theory.

  41. amba12 said,

    Denotation and connotation.

  42. Polly said,

    No. There is no denotation. That’s what people think, but it does not exist.

  43. amba12 said,

    If you say that, you join the postmodernists and total relativists. You really want to do that?

    “Denotation” is the dictionary definition of a word. That of course is culturally formed and changes over time, but not nearly as fast and subjectively as connotation.

  44. Polly said,

    No. If I agree with the postmodernists on something that does NOT mean I join them. Same as what I said before — if I agree with Hitler on something, that does not mean I joined the Nazis.

    That is very important. That is part of tribalism — thinking that agreeing about one thing means joining the tribe, and agreeing with everything else no matter how crazy.

    I most definitely agree with the postmodernists on that. And there is no danger I will acquire any of their crazy beliefs.

    Language is totally relative. It is an information system, and every information system is totally relative.

    This is one of the things that I absolutely know and can provide endless evidence and examples.

  45. Polly said,

    And this is very hard to explain to people, because language is to us like water to a fish. Very hard to become aware of how it works.

  46. Polly said,

    Also — not all linguists see it this way. Chomsky doesn’t, and he had the most influence in the US. The systemic approach to language was more common in Europe.

  47. wj said,

    That is very important. That is part of tribalism — thinking that agreeing about one thing means joining the tribe, and agreeing with everything else no matter how crazy.

    I find this a very useful way to explain how it is that someone who is mostly wrong agrees with me on something. (And I carefully formulate it that way, rather than as me agreeing with him.)
    “Even a blind pig gets an acorn now and then.”

    No offense intended to the blind, nor to pigs.

  48. Polly said,

    We have to separate ideas from personalities. Think about the value of the idea, not about who said it.

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