There’s a German film called Run Lola Run, which explores the radically different ways things would have gone if some seemingly inconsequential happenstance had been nigh-indiscernibly different. And there’s an American Christmas classic called It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a guardian angel is sent to disabuse a would-be suicide that the world would be better off if he’d never been born. 

But surely the world would be better off if some people – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot – had never been born. Well… maybe not if Run Lola Run is to be taken seriously. Maybe but for these tyrants something unimaginably worse would have befallen the world. That’s just the thing about counterfactuals, isn’t it? They can’t be tested, because we don’t know the ripple effects of a stone dropped into a pond with irregular sides and an uneven bottom. 

Of course more often than not we have no choice. If he hadn’t run that red light there’d have been no collision. But sometimes it’s hubris to presume we can know. How would history have unfolded if a Mi’kmaq canoe had made landfall in Cornwall a decade before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola?

One way to try to navigate these alternative histories is to look not at what might have been – mights being too uncountable for any purpose we might conscionably entertain – but rather to what in fact did. What did happen is those who were sold into slavery in the New World suffered immeasurably. But very few of their descendants would trade places with the descendants of those who remained free men and women in Africa. 

What does this tell us about the moral defensibility of slavery? Not a damn thing if you’re a Kantian. A great deal if you’re a Utilitarian. That black lives don’t matter as much as white lives in America doesn’t change the fact that they matter a helluva more than they do in Africa. Does that justify racism in America in 2021? No. Does it justify the slave trade in 1619? No. But it might ground a begrudging nod of relief that there had been the slave trade in 1619. 

Granted, not as relieved as we’d be if these people came to America as immigrants rather than as chattel. But what would have had to have been different to make this thought-experiment at all doable? We’d probably have to rewind to before the pre-Socratics. 

Well, what of it? Some people think that what’s wrong now was always wrong even if no one thought so at the time. So the occupation of England after the Norman victory at Hastings in 1066 was just as wrong as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank after the Six Day War of 1967. For the descendants of the Saxons the Battle of Hastings proved something of a godsend. Much less of a godsend was the Naqba for the Palestinians. Funny thing is, though, we never hear of the Norman conquest – the brutality of which perdured for centuries – spoken of with the moral outrage we pretend over, for example, the residential schools here in Canada. Is this because the property of wrongness has evolved? Or is it because wrongness is subject to a graduated statute of limitation?

The problem is that if pretty much everything we do or have ever done is wrong, wrongness starts to lose its meaning. And indeed, Antartica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t seen one people brutally colonised by another, and at that several times over. Every one of our ancestors has been colonised, and every one of our ancestors has been a coloniser. Human beings couldn’t have stayed where they were, because if they had they’d have rendered themselves extinct, just as they’d have been rendered extinct if they were never colonised. 

If this be doubted – if, as some claim, the Blackfoot had always lived where we found them – we’re left to wonder in what sense they were ever warriors. Against whom, if not other human predators or prey, did they go to war?! 

Here’s how it happens. We go over the hill to follow our prey and discover we are not alone. If there’s only limited scarcity of this, that, or the other thing, we might trade, including things one knows but the other doesn’t. We might cooperate in some joint enterprise, especially if we find their young women fetching, and they ours. But if there’s more than moderate scarcity, including, by the way, of fetching young women, we’ll likely fight. If they defeat us in battle, we’ll have learned from them how to fight better the next time. We can’t beat our swords into plowshares until we’ve beat our plowshares into swords, and we can’t do that until someone has shown us how to replace chipping at stone with metallurgy. 

Colonialism just is cultural genocide. For which, we thank God! Without those others coming over the hill, we’d still be living in caves. It’s true that we wouldn’t know any better. But that’s small consolation when our dying could have been readily avoided if only we’d been colonised.

People who bleat about colonialism like to talk about the ‘dominant’ culture. But they decline to provide us their measure of dominance. By dominant they can’t mean preferred, because then they wouldn’t be bleating. Nor can they just mean coercive, since most of us would be dead were it not that we were coercively immunised as children. So it must mean that in being colonised the colonised suffer a setback of interests. 

Yes, goes the complaint, the white man brought life-saving medicine, but at the cost of wiping out the buffalo. Yes, given a choice between the medicine and the buffalo the Blackfoot would have chosen the medicine. But that’s like saying that given a choice between being raped and having her throat slit, the rape victim chose the rape. The anti-colonialist argument, then, is that the settler could have offered the medicine without wiping out the buffalo. 

I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s suppose it is. I can see what’s in it for the colonised to be offered the coloniser’s technology without being asked for anything in return. But what’s in it for the coloniser? Unless he’s going to improve his own condition, why wouldn’t he have just stayed home? 

I suppose there could be such a thing as Pareto colonialism, i.e. where one party, perhaps both parties, are better off in some respect and no party is worse off in any respect. But this is almost never the case. It’s almost always the case that colonisation renders several people worse off in several respects. But then the complaint is against this being rendered worse off, not against colonialism per se. That is, the Blackfoot do have a legitimate complaint against rapes that took place at the residential school, but that can’t be different than the complaint against those rapes that took place back in the community. That is, that students sometimes get raped at university may be a reason to forego higher education, though I doubt it. But it’s not an argument against higher education.

So what am I saying? That some men – not many, but some – join the priesthood precisely so they can bugger little boys, and so the occasional buggering of little boys is just the price Catholics pay for having a priesthood? Well yes, apparently that’s precisely what I’m saying. They could, I suppose, forego having priests, just as we could forego having male professors, some of whom – not many, but some – are incentivised getting a doctorate so they can have sexual access to their female students. So I suppose nothing in this world is free. And that includes the dividends of colonialism, for colonised and coloniser alike. But picking only the bad cherries is still cherrypicking. And it’s both dishonest and churlish.

If you’re going to whinge about having been colonized, identify the wrong precisely, and then ask yourself whether your own people haven’t done precisely that wrong to others. Could you be who you are without having done that wrong? For that matter, could you be without having done that wrong? No? Then drop your feckless anti-colonialist rhetoric. It only works on those too stupid to call you out on it.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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1 reply

  1. I don’t think colonialism (as it unfolded in Canada when we were a colony of France then Britain) needs your spirited and well-argued defence. The hard fact is that it has worked out splendidly for the 95% of the current population of Canada who are not indigenous, including many who immigrated here only recently, and did so *because* (not in spite of) the culture that exists in Canada as a result of settlement by outsiders. I strongly doubt that any of that 95% would want the country they call home to undergo a process of decolonization where a racially defined oligarchy of the 5% would hold dominion over everyone else. Where does decolonization in a majority-rule society lead to if not there?

    I could argue, as you do, that colonization eventually improved the lot of indigenous peoples beyond what they had in 1867, especially since today we are so wealthy that we can allow them to enjoy the fruits of technologic society without their having to generate wealth themselves to pay for them. But I don’t need to. There is nothing to be gained from defending what happened in the past or debating what ought to have instead. The fact is that colonization made North America rich and no amount of healthy examination of our past is going to make anyone in Canada and the U.S. (or Europe, who benefited also mightily from colonialism, first as colonizers and then as traders with rich post-colonial western economies) choose to become poor….or not exist at all, our ancestors and their descendants who stayed behind in the Old Country having been wiped out.

    That’s why I find so weird the piece of news making its way east that some people want to change the name of British Columbia because it recalls (albeit indirectly) Christopher Columbus, who set the ball rolling for “colonialism!” .Even if colonialism was in fact a “disaster” for indigenous peoples of North America, most people in British Columbia are not indigenous…and the current population of B.C. undoubtedly outnumbers even the indigenous people who were living inside the current borders before Contact. So why should indigenous opinion about the name of a province carry weight beyond their numbers? My response to people who want to erase Henry Dundas’s name in Southern Ontario because he wasn’t sufficiently aggressive in abolishing slavery in the Empire is not to defend his record but rather to say, “So…? Your point?” Residents of B.C. should say the same. There is nothing wrong with commemorating Columbus.


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