History as Indictment

Many years ago, I was surprised to receive a letter from an old friend, saying that she had been told that I refused to see campus visitors from Africa.

At the time, I was so bogged down with work that I had agreed to see only one visitor to the Stanford campus— and it so happens that he was from Africa. He just happened to come along when I had a little breathing room from the work I was doing in my office.

I pointed out to my friend that whoever said what she heard might just as well have said that I refused to go sky-diving with blacks— which was true, because I refused to go sky-diving with anybody, whether black, white, Asian or whatever.

The kind of thinking that produced a passing misconception about me has, unfortunately, produced much bigger, much longer lasting, much more systematic and more poisonous distortions about the United States of America.

Slavery is a classic example. The history of slavery across the centuries and in many countries around the world is a painful history to read— not only in terms of how slaves have been treated, but because of what that says about the whole human species— because slaves and enslavers alike have been of every race, religion and nationality.

If the history of slavery ought to teach us anything, it is that human beings cannot be trusted with unbridled power over other human beings— no matter what color or creed any of them are. The history of ancient despotism and modern totalitarianism practically shouts that same message from the blood-stained pages of history.

But that is not the message that is being taught in our schools and colleges, or dramatized on television and in the movies. The message that is pounded home again and again is that white people enslaved black people.

It is true, just as it is true that I don’t go sky-diving with blacks. But it is also false in its implications for the same reason. Just as Europeans enslaved Africans, North Africans enslaved Europeans— more Europeans than there were Africans enslaved in the United States and in the 13 colonies from which it was formed.

The treatment of white galley slaves was even worse than the treatment of black slaves picking cotton.

But there are no movies or television dramas about it comparable to “Roots,” and our schools and colleges don’t pound it into the heads of students.

The inhumanity of human beings toward other human beings is not a new story, much less a local story. There is no need to hide it, because there are lessons we can learn from it. But there is also no need to distort it, so that sins of the whole human species around the world are presented as special defects of “our society” or the sins of a particular race.

If American society and Western civilization are different from other societies and civilization, it is that they eventually turned against slavery, and stamped it out, at a time when non-Western societies around the world were still maintaining slavery and resisting Western pressures to end slavery, including in some cases armed resistance.

Only the fact that the West had more firepower than others put an end to slavery in many non-Western societies during the age of Western imperialism. Yet today there are Americans who have gone to Africa to apologize for slavery— on a continent where slavery has still not been completely ended, to this very moment.

It is not just the history of slavery that gets distorted beyond recognition by the selective filtering of facts. Those who go back to mine history, in order to find everything they can to undermine American society or Western civilization, have very little interest in the Bataan death march, the atrocities of the Ottoman Empire or similar atrocities in other times and places.

Those who mine history for sins are not searching for truth but for opportunities to denigrate their own society, or for grievances that can be cashed in today, at the expense of people who were not even born when the sins of the past were committed.

An ancient adage says: “Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” But apparently that is not sufficient for many among our educators, the intelligentsia or the media. They are busy poisoning the present by the way they present the past.

  • therealend

    What a brilliant and open mind you have.

  • Felix

    Another expression of the skewed approach to history is the moral relativism, pretending that all cultures are equally valid and admirable. This leads to the absurdity of the proclaimed "Alliance of Civilizations", when in fact we are experiencing a war between civilization and barbarism.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/SgtMom SgtMom

    As "Celia Hayes", I write historical novels about the American frontier as a way of reclaiming our history from those who have busily been poisoning that well for years. (The Adelsverein Trilogy, To Truckee's Trail, etc.) I began to feel that I had to remind readers that our actual and metaphorical ancestors were honorable and decent people, that they persevered against all odds, and to participate in the experiment that is the United States – all of that was worthwhile. We need our history, we need to be reminded of the good, and to have the bad put into a proper perspective.

  • blotto

    Has there ever been a sub-group who hated their race, ethnicity and culture as much as white progressives hate theirs? And to what end? Do they think that by engendering hatred against white America in black and other minorities in America that they themselves will not be held also in contempt? Do they think they are ingratiating themselves with the people of color? And if America is so distastful, then why do they live here? Why not move to Africa, Cuba, or Venezuela?

  • Robert Marchenoir

    Crystal-clear, impeccable logic. A great mind.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/iyzablue iyzablue

    ahhhh Thomas… one of my favorite men! He just makes too much sense!

  • SFLBIB

    What about the slavery of Leftism?

    • trickyblain

      What about the slavery of ignorance?

  • Irwin8100

    Has anyone else noticed that first casualty in our on going "culture war" was truth? But the act of killing truth is really nothing new. Remember that Pilate when Jesus stood before him asked the question "what is truth". Of course, he submitted to clamor of the crowed and sentenced TRUTH to be crucified but then TRUTH was resurrected a few days later. We have it on the best authority that one of the basic requirements for freedom is "to know the truth". Let's hope for the resurrected of truth in our culture; however we can expect the resurrection agent to be the government crowd.

  • poptoy

    When whites first went to Africa to establish trade they did not go seeking slaves. They were offered slaves by Black Tribes. Read the History books.

  • Steven Laib

    Africal Destiny by Bernard Lugan not only point out how Africans enslaved each other, but that Arabs enslaved more Africans than Americans/Europeans did.

  • 080

    I believe that Sowell was bogged down with work. He writes books faster than I can read them.

  • Kevin

    Poetry, no less…
    "…poisoning the present by the way they present the past." Simply fabulous prose, Dr Sowell.

    I first was introduced to a piece of your work by Dr. Raymond Wolters. It will be pleasure introducing my future high school students to your work.

    Thank you

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/cpmondello cpmondello

    How about those public school books being published in Texas that will fill almost all schools in th nation and how they plan on removing Thomas Jefferson's name and what impact he had on America.

    Now THATS rewritting history at it's best.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/cpmondello cpmondello

    "Only the fact that the West had more firepower than others put an end to slavery in many non-Western societies during the age of Western imperialism. Yet today there are Americans who have gone to Africa to apologize for slavery— on a continent where slavery has still not been completely ended, to this very moment."

    How about all the slave labor the USA outsources? China comes to mind.

  • Linda

    poptoy, you are right, and not only did African tribesmen offer slaves,they kept slaves and black freemen owned slaves in the United States The following is just an example of what can be read in history books regarding black slave masters, This example is a book written by an AFricna American asst. professor.

    Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (University Press of Virginia-1995) was written by Ervin L. Jordan Jr., an African-American and assistant professor and associate curator of the Special Collections Department, University of Virginia library. He wrote: "One of the more curious aspects of the free black existence in Virginia was their ownership of slaves. Black slave masters owned members of their family and freed them in their wills. Free blacks were encouraged to sell themselves into slavery and had the right to choose their owner through a lengthy court procedure."

  • 9-11 Infidel

    Slavery didn't begin in the US. Nor did it end there. It goes on in the Sudan. The Romans, Greeks, Persians, Eqyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Indians, Muslims, all traded in human slavery. To this day slavery goes on in the Sudan. Slaves end up in Saudi, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. There is no race that is guiltless in the slave trade.
    History is taught today, without context, and thus becomes a pretext for slugs like Sharpton, Jackson, and every self-hating progressive weanie in the LameStreamMedia.
    Dr Sowell is on-the-money as usual.