The truth-value of an utterance – for example that I’m going to die on such and such a date – is very often at odds with (what J.L. Austin called) its perlocutionary value – what it does for the speaker and/or listener. As it happens my affairs are in order, so if you happen to know the hour of my passing, telling me is just going to bum me out!
In fact I’ve argued elsewhere that the only value of an utterance’s truth-value is its perlocutionary value. Why do we want to believe the truth? Because people who do usually fare better than people who don’t? Yes, but only usually. And when the truth just bums you out? Then, I say, believe the falsehood.
So – and for this I must be a recalcitrant racist! – I’m not at all impressed by these “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” that are springing up all over the post-colonial world, designed to replace dominion with guilt as the white man’s new burden. I’m not impressed, and I’m not on board. I’m not on board because more often than not the very last thing required to reconcile two as-yet-unreconciled peoples is the truth about their past encounters.
Look! Human beings do the best they can given the often dire circumstances under which they find themselves. Most of the Europeans who ‘invaded’ this continent a few centuries ago had no more choice than do those ‘invading’ it from the south today. Put more starkly, we’re animals. To survive animals compete for territory. Sometimes when one people displaces another the latter has no choice but to displace a third. And so on. So yes, human beings are nasty little creatures. But no skin colour, white, black, brown, yellow or red, can claim exemption from this nastiness.
For example, the Creek Nation – they were dumped into eastern Oklahoma at the end of the infamous Trail of Tears – bought black slaves to pick their cotton for them. But what purpose is served by demanding that professors in the Indigenous Studies Department point this out to their students? Reconciliation requires that there be innocent victims. But truth is almost never a friend to innocence.
In fact according to Christianity at least, we’re all sinners. If so, then the most that can be said for some so-called ‘innocent’ victim is that she was innocent of this crime. Well, so what?! It’s not so much that what goes around comes around. It’s that what comes around has probably gone around.
I’m told – though I’ll stand to be corrected – that when the European conquistadores and settlers arrived in the Americas, its indigenous inhabitants were still a stone-age people. In fact they had yet to invent the wheel. For that matter, they’d yet to domesticate the horse. Well, the Europeans had yet to cultivate corn and potatoes. Well duh! For the same reason. But what purpose is served by trying to keep score like this? When civilizations meet, they share both better ways of doing some things and worse ways of doing others. They also share their diseases. It’s all just the cost of doing business.
Was the red man’s culture, and therefore his technology, and therefore his military wherewithal, inferior to the white man? Not when all he was up against was some other red man’s stone arrowheads. But yes when his stone arrowheads came up against the white man’s iron cannonballs. Prior to contact boasts of white superiority would have made as much sense as winning the arms race with the Alpha Centaurians. That‘s because it’s hard to be in competition with people we don’t even know are out there.
As is always the case, to the victor go the spoils. Why else would the Red Coats have bothered crossing those oceans? But as already noted, the vanquished seldom walk off empty-handed. To the vanquished, be they in India or Alberta, have gone flush toilets. And flush toilets – or so I’m told by my ‘indigenous’ friends – are not to be disparaged. So yes, for taking their land I’m sure we’re all terribly sorry. But are we to apologize for the flush toilets too? And if we did give them their land back, will they give us back our flush toilets?
We’re told – and rightly so – that this is an undoable thought-experiment. If Atahualpa had no right to make a decision affecting a now-Mestizo Peruvian today, then neither did Abraham to make a covenant with God affecting me. But that’s not how history works. As a result of some pretty much autonomous decisions – as autonomous as any such decisions can be – there are exactly the same number of pure-blood indigenous Canadians today as there are pure-blood Quechua Peruvians. And there are as many of those as there are pure-blood Celts in Britain. So by whom, and to whom, would any of these reconciliatory apologies be addressed?
Too quick, answers my critic. Recent immigrants aside, notwithstanding there are no truly African Americans, there are nonetheless Americans who are black. What makes them black? That they’re so regarded and so treated. What makes a so-called indigenous Canadian indigenous? That she’s so regarded and so treated. Hence the fallacy of self-identification. Think of yourself however you like. But as for the rest of us, you are what we elect to treat you as. And so if there’s anything that stands in need of redress it’s that treatment.
Does the treatment of so-called indigenous Canadians stand in need of redress? Without question. For their sake and for ours. It’s handy to have a subclass when it can be exploited, be it to pick the cotton or to man the trap lines. But when those industries are no longer viable, the subclass that made them possible morphs into an expense without compensatory payoff. Hence the resentment we call racism.
Yes racism can be ugly. But understanding it isn’t rocket science. Neither is fixing it. It’s just that the fix would be very expensive. Apparently we’d rather spend the money on gated communities.
Is there a polity anywhere on this planet where there’s no subclass? Canada has its so-called ‘First Nations’, America its can’t-use-the-n-word, Israel its Palestinians, Denmark its Skraelings … In almost every case history has had its say in the matter. But if we need a subclass – or for that matter a class of heroes – history can always be retold. The truth is that the Alamo was about defending slavery. The truth is that the Israelite’s return to Zion wasn’t really mandated by God. But what does truth have to do with any of this?
As I’ve argued at the outset, people are very selective in their insistence on the truth. And rightly so. So in blowing the whistle on the myth of 1) the Alamo, or of 2) the Exodus, or of 3) the innocence of America’s so-called indigenous people, what’s my agenda? Whether I know it or not, I must be, respectively, 1) anti-American, 2) anti-Semitic, and 3) an abhor-iginal.
I’ll cop to all of these charges, on condition that my accuser will likewise cop to being, respectively, 1) pro-slavery, 2) Islamophobic, and 3) just a tad uncomfortable about having personally contributed to the sullying of the indigenous race. In fact, isn’t there a proverb that’s meant to capture this kind of myopia? Something about people who live in glass houses?