We the Victors
October 14, 1999
Progressive views of history
usually assume that the present is somehow the culmination and even the
perfection of the past; this is what the historian Sir Herbert Butterfield
called the whig interpretation of history. Such views are
apt to be unconsciously and optimistically provincial.
The current uproar about Pat
Buchanans views on World War II is due to Buchanans
rejection of victors history. He doesnt share
the general opinion of the literati that the Allied victory over the Axis
was a blessing for everyone. On this subject, multiple perspectives
arent allowed. The progressives assume that their
perspective is the only valid one; others are taboo.
Yet every historical event can be seen
from many angles. If you ask a Catholic whether World War II ended as it
should have, he may reply: No. Stalin wound up in control of several
Catholic countries. Is that wrong? From his point of view,
its the obvious truth. A Hindu might answer: The war ended
well. It hastened the end of the British Empire and the independence of
India. A diehard British imperialist might lament the war for the
same reason. The optimistic view of the war simply omits these
perspectives. They dont count.
Because the progressive
liberal, moderate, or
conservative can hardly imagine other perspectives,
he assumes that his own angle is the judgment of history.
In his new book, A Necessary Evil, Garry Wills assumes that the
a centralized federal government is a wholly desirable thing, partly
because it has given us legal abortion (which he says has made
women the arbiters of their own pregnancies). He also assumes
that the reader will agree. So American history becomes a long but
ultimately triumphant march toward todays status quo, and the
abortion clinic becomes a monument of freedom.
But reverse that postulate, and it all
looks different. If you regard abortion as a barbarity, you not only see no
happy ending in a million abortions per year, you see tragedy. And you may
look back at American history with the question, Where did we go
wrong? American history is full of people, many of them profound
thinkers, who rejected the prescribed official optimism.
Tens of millions of people died in World
War II, and their survivors were entitled to feel that the whole thing was
a terrible waste. Yet the official optimism, reflecting the perspective of
the rulers, doesnt even take this natural human feeling into
account. And of course the dead dont write letters to the editor
offering their own point of view. They dont count.
But from the point of view of Franklin
Roosevelt and Uncle Joe Stalin, the war ended very happily.
As Stalin said: One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a
statistic. There is the official view in a nutshell. In a world of
superstates, private feelings dont count.
The trouble with the optimistic mind is
its adaptability. It cheerfully accepts the replacement of traditional
morality by a new state-imposed morality. It believes in
evolution, even when this means that the very standards by
which it judges keep evolving. People who used to think abortion was (of
course) evil now point to it as a proof of progress. Before World War II, all
civilized men would have condemned the aerial bombing of cities. But
since the victors annihilated cities with bombs, the practice is no longer
regarded as quite so horrifying. Its still as evil as ever, but we
have set a precedent we dont dare renounce.
When we violate our standards, the
danger is that we may wind up changing our standards. Optimism requires
self-exculpation; we cant bear to face the possibility that we have
become evildoers, so we redefine good and evil to suit our practices.
Instead of judging history by fixed standards, we allow history to dictate
more convenient new standards. And we call the result the
judgment of history.
A soul that adapts to its time is a soul in
decay. It judges not by morality but by utility, usually the utility of the
state. And a lot of us have adapted very well.
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