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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 30-03-2019 11:15

The sins of our forefathers

The notion that people of European origin are uniquely brutal and are therefore responsible for most of the world’s many ills is well entrenched in Western academic circles.

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has greatly annoyed many Spaniards, and may even have set off a big diplomatic row, by demanding that Felipe IV humbly apologise for what his compatriots, led by “stout Cortés,” did back in the early 16th century. The more polite reminded López Obrador, who is of Spanish stock, that the war criminals he thought should be brought to book died some time ago and, in any case, the Aztecs they defeated were even more bloodthirsty than the conquistadors. Others agreed with the writer Arturo Pérez Reverte, who said the Mexican was an imbecile if he took himself seriously or a despicable creep if all he wanted to do was score some brownie points with leftists by denouncing foreign imperialism.

AMLO, as Mexicans call him, must have been a bit surprised by the vehement reaction of most Spaniards apart from leaders of Podemos, a leftist outfit with a soft spot for Venezuela’s regime. In the United States, Canada and much of northern Europe, presidents and prime ministers have made a habit of asking forgiveness for the – by current standards – disgraceful behaviour of their predecessors. Barack Obama even kicked off his spell in the White House by embarking on what his few critics derided as an “apology tour” of Arab lands.

The notion that people of European origin are uniquely brutal and are therefore responsible for most of the world’s many ills is so well entrenched in Western academic circles and the respectable press that questioning it is enough to get you ‘deplatformed’ by social media companies determined to stop “hate speech.” In English-speaking countries, identity politics activists are busily demolishing the statues of miscreants such as Confederate generals in the US and imperialist grandees elsewhere in an effort to bring the past into line with their version of the present. They are also insisting that schools and universities should “decolonise” their syllabi by getting rid of all those “dead white males.”

Christianity may be on the way out, but Christian modes of thinking are so deep-rooted that even pugnacious non-believers such as atheists, Marxists and neo-pagans are unable to leave them behind. Had it not been for the lasting influence of the Christian doctrine of original sin, the idea that guilt is something you inherit, the iconoclasts who are running amok in Western institutions would not have won the backing of people apparently convinced that, as their own good fortune can be attributed to crimes committed long ago by their forefathers, they are dutybound to make amends to the descendants, whether genuine or merely symbolic, of the victims by caving in to all their demands.

Exactly what the guilt-stricken would have to do to repair the damage caused by their ancestors is hard to say. Would reparations help? In the US, black race hustlers who say whitey should hand large sums of money to those whose increasingly remote forebears were slaves, by which they mean all members of the “black community,” have been making headway of late, but why should the grandchild of an Italian or Korean immigrant be forced to pay through the nose for something his own distant relatives had no part in?

Some reactionaries mischievously say that if people now living ought to take responsibility for the wrongs done by their ancestors, the descendants of Arabs and other Islamic peoples who long benefitted from the slave trade should pay huge reparations to Europeans; over the centuries, tens of millions were captured by the Ottoman Turks, the Tartars and the Barbary Pirates based in North Africa, whose raids took them as far as Iceland. Good luck with that: only Westerners of a certain kind assume that, if they take it upon themselves to beg forgiveness for nasty things that happened long ago, their personal virtue will win them redemption and thus distinguish them from the common herd. In other parts of the world, attitudes tend to be more robust; not that many Arabs, Turks or Chinese like to dwell on the crimes perpetrated by their fellow countrymen in less enlightened times – unless they can be pinned on clearly identifiable personal, political or religious enemies.

Of course, AMLO is not the only Latin American who thinks, or says he thinks, that the Spanish conquest of much of the region was a vile criminal enterprise and it would therefore have been far better for everyone if Christopher Columbus had never set sail. For understandable reasons, representatives of indigenous communities try to make the most of the feeling in order to win concessions, but they are vigorously supported by many of European descent, among them our Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who like to pose as honorary victims of imperialistic greed. Such saintly individuals overlook the evident fact that, had it not been for those wicked conquistadors, neither they nor the countries they live in would exist. Self-effacing to a fault, they assume that without their own presence – and that of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay or, for that matter, Mexico – the world would be a far better place.

Had it not been for Columbus and those who came after him, the southern parts of the Western hemisphere would either have remained in the hands of its first inhabitants, who – far from being the eco-friendly peace-loving dreamers sentimentalists like to imagine – were as murderous as Europeans, Africans and Asians, or, as would probably have been the case, they would have fallen into the hands of other outsiders.

It is useless to speculate on what would have happened had the Spaniards and the Portuguese – for ethical reasons of the kind that worried contemporaries like the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas who was appalled by the atrocities he witnessed – decided to be good and stay home. Perhaps the British, Dutch and French would have added what became Latin America to their then embryonic empires or, had the Europeans proved incapable of crossing the Atlantic, the Ottoman Turks, the Chinese or even the Japanese, who at the time were in an expansive mood, would finally have stumbled on the “new world,” with results that would certainly have been very different from those brought about by the Spaniards.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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