Monday, January 31, 2011

Adventures are to the adventurous.


A bacon and egg roll and we’ll just wait and see what happens. Campbell Street, Hobart. January 2011.

History – and historical memory – can be an odd business. It is hard to get a sense when you are in the present of the true historical magnitude of the events taking place around you. Conversely, it’s nigh on impossible to comprehend truly the importance of events that happened with the distance of time between you and it/them, removed as you are from the proper context.

That does not stop us from trying of course. You may have seen the (most recent) attempt to tally up the views (and scores) of British historians along a set of criteria and deduce the “best” President of the United States. It is an interesting exercise, and makes for some great arguments (you can read all about it here), but ultimately it strikes me as being a bit of a futile exercise.

While I will confess to be an FDR fan, I really couldn’t tell you if he was really X percent superior to (say) Grover Cleveland; or the extent to which James Polk’s moral authority compares with Bill Clinton.

To illustrate, consider the following exert from a speech by a significant American historical figure:
I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
Who do you think would say this? What historical period do you think it would an acceptable for such sentiments to be publically uttered? What sort of person would say (and think) this? What does it say about them? What does it say about the context of their time? How might one rank the ‘moral authority’ of a figure that thinks this way?

Click the links if you would like to know who said this, and the full speech. For some context, you might consider this background information.

7 comments:

Roddy said...

Do you think Abe would have agreed to a Black President? I know emancipation gave them the right to. However?!

Kris said...

Based on this, no he wouldn’t. That said, the point is not whether or not Lincoln was a racist or that black people are not capable; it is that the past is indeed a ‘foreign country, they do things differently there’.

Roddy said...

We do things differently today. Where would we be without the Geneva Convention. The conscience of the world bodes ill for the transgressors.

Kris said...

International Law? A lot notches in its belt…

Nathalie said...

that photo and its caption -
PRICELESS !

Nathalie said...

I only just read Abe's brilliant quote. Ahem. I can only second your comment that the past is a ‘foreign country, they do things differently there’.

Kris said...

It’s one of the really interesting things about history, the depth and breadth of differences that can keep you pondering for as long as you like!