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Heroes of history

Posted on 20 December 2014

I am reading a series of back-and-forths between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait on the subject of race relations in the United States, as well as this accompanying thread over on the Dish.

Within that thread, I took note of a reader comment:

“Coates actually says this: ‘I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge.’

“The difference between the two seems pretty obvious to me. Coates isn’t saying that Washington was nothing more than a slaveholder. He’s saying that being a slaveholder isn’t cancelled out by his role as president. He’s saying the two things are inseparable, in the face of lots of people who try to separate the historical greatness of the Founding Fathers from their faults.”

That is the point I was trying to make in this post, and something I don’t think we talk about enough. The heroes of history had their strengths, but they had their share of weaknesses, with differing degrees of terrible actions to go alongside them. That’s true in Canada, as it is elsewhere.

People pine for the days when John A. Macdonald could build a national railway, conveniently ignoring the head tax and dangerous conditions forced upon Chinese workers to get it done and policy of starving Aboriginal people who might get in the way.

Does all this negate the fact he founded the country and built the railway? No. Nor does the fact that he founded the country and built the railway negate the fact that he did some pretty awful things. It’s all connected.

People will sometimes dismiss these criticisms by saying it’s easy to judge the the past with perfect hindsight. And that’s true. But if we’re going to invoke the past as justification for our present actions, I’d rather we do it with 20-20 vision rather than through rose-coloured glasses.

Filed under: Aboriginal, Canada

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