A Secular Version of Original Sin?

It’s Columbus Day, which led to the following thought.

1) I suppose we can all agree that the European settlers committed immorality on a massive scale–the word ‘genocide,’ which is not used lightly, is often used to sum up the European program with respect to Native Americans.

2) Now if we agree that the European settlers did very, very bad things, then it seems we should also claim that it would have better, morally speaking, had they not done these things.

3) It’s very plausible to think, however, that if the settlers hadn’t done these terrible things we would not have been born–our parents probably wouldn’t have met, or conceived us at the same time, etc.

4) Thus, it’s very plausible to think that we owe our very existence to past atrocities, that we wouldn’t have existed were it not for these past atrocities.

5) Perhaps this is a secular version of “Original Sin.”

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6 Responses to A Secular Version of Original Sin?

  1. juan says:

    i think this is right, if causality works in the way we usually think about it. but a lot of europeans owe their existence to past atrocities as well (roman conquest,barbarian invasions,medieval religious wars etc.)

  2. David says:

    The fact that others have this black mark on their very existence seems like a small consolation!

  3. Josh says:

    I think that’s a very simply but important observation that’s probably at the root of a lot of critical social theory about America (most of those authors, though, would never deign to make such a straightforward assertion of cause and effect of course).

    You could argue that for the most part, the identity of Americans is pervaded with a sort of existential fear (of nuclear attack, terrorist attack, bioweapons attack, food poisoning, violent crime, loss of property value, death by faulty consumer product, etc. etc. etc.). There are times when I wonder what *else* constitutes our national identity other than decontextualized fear of random death.

    I really think that for many Americans, there is an almost total refusal to acknowledge the simple fact that for the most part, their existence is rooted in the perpetration of the *reality* of that existential terror on others – and then I think all those fears have permeated our lives as a result of that denial. Places like Germany, England, France, etc. seem to have come to terms, at some level, with the evil that may lie at the origins of their national identities, but for whatever reason, the average American would rather have an inane argument with you about how “their ancestors didn’t own slaves” or whatever, than just admit that many collective acts of terrorism obviously lie at the root our own national identity.

    Non-falsifiable softy-soft assertions of the most irresponsible sort, I know – but what can I say?

  4. Nates says:

    I’m not about to start defending American notions of self-identity — especially on Canadian Thanksgiving day! — but I will say this. It strikes me as significant, Josh, that you shifted your discussion from the treatment of Native Americans to responsibility for African slavery. The point you’re making no longer works quite as well for the former. Sometime late in the 20th Century (probably around the time “Dancing with Wolves” came out) there was a flip in how Americans understood Indians. Fairly quickly, they went from being the appropriate villains for cowboy heroes to being peaceful victims of European aggression. I doubt you’ll find many Americans who disagree with the new view (which isn’t to say that you won’t find some). Of course, the new conception is equally cartoonish and condescending, but it does at least involve a rejection of the idea of manifest destiny.

    I don’t mean any of this to take away from the larger point about secular original sin, which I agree with–as a general truth about human history.

  5. Robin says:

    First off, it’s great to see your website back up and running, and active. I always enjoy reading it. Unfortunately for me I find there is very little that I can comment on though, but that’s alright. This is an interesting topic, that’s for sure, and one that is pretty easy to understand and comprehend. Just the other day I read a post on another website blaming Haiti’s current situation on Columbus. I understand how this seems to be the case and it seems to represent what you have described here. But from what I understand, please correct me if I’m wrong, the people that we now know to be Haitians would not exist if it weren’t for Columbus. Haiti was originally populated by Taínos indians. But Haitians are of African decent, from the slave trade that Columbus created. If my assumptions are correct if it weren’t for Columbus then we wouldn’t have the only nation to gain their independence through a slave revolt and we wouldn’t have the current Haitian culture at all. And of course, Kari and I wouldn’t have our little girl Betchilove, whom we adopted from Haiti. So it seems to me that only way the current Haitian culture comes into existence is through Columbus, so he deserves both the credit and the blame, which I guess is what you had original commented on in terms of our own existences as well. Not sure if I’ve added anything to this topic, but I find it an interesting sidebar.

  6. Josh says:

    Nates – isn’t this shift in perceptions about Native Americans just a shift from seeing them as in one state of Rousseau’s state of nature (the later, corrupt, dangerous phase) to seeing them as in the earlier, noble-savage state? And aren’t both ultimately the sorts of projections you would expect from people in denial about the violence they’ve perpetrated? It’s even possible that seeing Native Americans as idealized, peaceful victims further separates us from our own collective role in that victimhood.

    It’s also possible that the culture as a whole has gotten *slightly* more willing to come to terms with its violent past, which I think is the point you were trying to make. But then that might just be because of the cultural distance we feel from Native Americans, possibly even because their genocide was so comprehensive and effectively carried out. And then that might just mean that the average European is easier able to come to terms with his/her complicity just because more time has elapsed.

    (Or it might be because they have a better educational, cultural, historical and geographical training than us idiots.)

    Robin – I think you’re right that it makes for a strange moral situation. The Haitian culture (and a lot of other Meso-American cultures) would not even exist in anything like their current form without the legacy of colonialism. The reverse (or converse?) of this is true too – European and other “first world” countries would not have a whole host of things that make their culture theirs – music is the most obvious (jazz, blues, hip-hop, etc.) but then it’s also economically true. Slavery labor and manifest-destiny-driven conquest MADE the United States the world’s largest economy. It just wouldn’t be the U.S. without all that history.

    That said – I think the conquerer and the conquered have different relationships to that history – not to be too doctrinaire, but the conquered peoples are more likely to stand in a more realistic relationship with their understanding of colonial history than are the conquerers, who have a built-in incentive to remain in denial about what happened.

    Again – not sure why I’m channeling my inner Franz Fanon, but such is life.

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