Monday, February 26, 2007

The Lives of Others 3

Didn't I tell you it was a great movie? See my two posts of February 10, 2007. Now it's won an Oscar for best foreign film. I don't always agree with the Academy, but it still pleases me when our opinions coincide.

I was also pleased about Forest Whitaker's Oscar. I've been a fan of his for many years, ever since such little masterpieces as 'Smoke' and 'The Crying Game'. It does my heart good to see such consistently good work recognized.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Moral Judgements on History

I've been thinking about this post for some time, and I feel that now is the right time to publish it. I can't avoid it much longer. Within the next few months I shall have to write the last chapter of my biography of Henry Brown Richardson, my great grandfather. For most of the book, I have tried to remain neutral and factual as an historian should. But soon I will have to get personal and make some moral judgements.

My dilemna: shall I judge Henry only in accordance with the moral standards of his time and his community? Or must I go on and try to make judgements acording to our own current appreciation of absolute good and evil?

I have just read a blog in favor of the first alternative at Blog 4 History. Chris Wehner has written a very cogent argument in favor of judging historical actors in relation to the standards of their times. And he is partially right. His conclusion just didn't set well with me, though:
I think any kind of a desire to “judge” certain parts of the past places one on a slippery slope. To me, the fact that Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others owned slaves does not transcend their contribution to our nation. We must understand historical context and not seek moral judgment.
I guess I'm just "contrary" because Chris's well-written essay decided me in the other direction.
Here is the comment I posted:
If you wanted to provoke debate, you certainly picked the right topic. I am about to write a piece for my own new blog, Lessons from History ( This question is one that is constantly on my mind these days. I am writing a biography of my great grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, a Yankee who fought for the South, and I will soon have to write a concluding chapter in which I cannot avoid making moral judgements. This is mainly in connection with his quarter century career as Chief Engineer for the State of Louisiana, during which he held a statewide responsibility for levee construction and maintenance. As you must know, levee work in those days was largely handled by convict labor - mostly black men - and working conditions were such that the average life span of the workers was seven years after they were sentenced to prison. Of course, my ancestor was not directly responsible for working conditions, since the State prison function was sub-contracted to the notorious Major Samuel James, who made a fortune renting out cheap labor. But he could have done something to mitigate this evil. (Government was already screwing its citizens by sub-contracting government functions, but that’s another story.)

Now I know from extensive research that my great grandfather was essentially a good man, but in the absence of proof to the contrary I must assume that he accommodated himself to this evil practice and I must include this negative item in my overall judgement. Nor am I going to say that Thomas Jefferson was an evil man (especially since he was my first cousin umpteen times removed) simply because he held slaves and fathered at least one child with a female slave, but he did do a few evil things.

I think you made the right decision in avoiding the trial format to evaluate the Hiroshima-Nagasaki decisions. I also agree that we must strive to understand historical context. But at the same time we must not avoid the responsibility of making a moral judgement. As an educator, I have thought that striving for such a judgement was particularly important, even if our own social context may render such a judgement imperfect. If we don’t attempt such a moral judgement, we confine ourselves to the REAL SLIPPERY SLOPE of relativism.

(I have corrected the syntax of my last sentence above from that which I posted on Chris's site.) I'd like to know what you readers think. Your comments could be a great help to me. I have not spent much time during my life in studying philosophy, so this question is dizzying my poor old head. Read Chris's blog before commenting, because I have stacked the deck in my favor on this page.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Rebellious Daughter

Unless you're living on another planet, you must have read or heard that a woman has been named president of Harvard University. Unless you read past the headlines in this New York Times article, however, you may not have noticed that Catharine Drew Faust is an historian. I'm sure that when I read Dr. Faust's books, mainly on the Civil War era, I will learn many Lessons from History, but that is not the reason I chose to mention this event.

When I read about Ms. Faust's appointment, I had just finished reading the diary of another remarkable Virginia girl, Lucy Breckinridge of Grove Hill; The Journal of a Virginia Girl, 1862-1864, edited by Mary D. Robertson. It immediately struck me that There were a number of parallels between the lives and characters of these two Virginia girls. You could even say that Lucy's historical specialty was also the Civil War, because she came of age right in the middle of it. Lucy's plantation home at Grove Hill, near Roanoke, lies in an extension of the Shenandoah Valley, where Dr. Faust grew up, and, since her father raised horses, we can suppose that the academician is as much of an expert horsewoman as Lucy was. All this is pure coincidence, of course, which I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't discovered the two at the same time.

This paragraph in the NY Times, however, suggested deeper resemblances:
Dr. Faust has written frankly of the “community of rigid racial segregation” that she and her three brothers grew up in and how it formed her as “a rebellious daughter” who would go on to march in the civil rights protests in the 1960s and to become a historian of the region. “She was raised to be a rich man’s wife,” said a friend, Elizabeth Warren, a law professor at Harvard. “Instead she becomes the president of the most powerful university in the world."
A century later, Lucy, too, certainly would have been active in the civil rights movement. She confided in her diary -
Slavery is a troublesome institution and I wish for the sake of the masters that it could be abolished in Virginia.
If that seems rather hard-hearted, she also appreciated the other side of the story -
I find I am a true abolitionist in heart—Here I have been crying like a foolish child for the last half hour because I saw Jimmy chasing poor, little Preston all over the yard beating him with a great stick, and Sister not making him stop but actually encouraging him. I never shall forget Viola's expression of suppressed rage—how I felt for her! My blood boiled with indignation.... I guess my sons had better not beat a little servant where I am.
I have no doubt that Lucy would also have been active in women's movements -
I wish the women could fight, and I do think they might be allowed to do so in the mountains and in the fortified cities. Their lives are not more precious than the men's, and they were made to suffer—so a leg shot off or a head either wouldn't hurt them much. I would gladly shoulder my pistol and shoot some Yankees if it were allowable.
According to one of her suitors, she was a pretty good shot.

Lucy, too was raised to be a rich man's wife, and she usually seemed resigned to her fate. Her basic attitude, however, was that the rigid role definition then reserved for women was terribly unfair -
A woman's life after she is married, unless there is an immense amount of love, is nothing but suffering and hard work I never saw a wife and mother who could spend a day of unalloyed happiness and ease.... I wish I was a man! I would make my wife so happy. She should never repent having married me.
Society being what it was, she probably never really imagined herself as as anything other than a wife and mother or an old maid. When she finally chose Thomas Jefferson Bassett from among her several suitors, she seemed genuinely in love with him and happy at the prospect of her marriage, which took place in January 1865.

Thankfully, 100 years later an intelligent and determined Virginia girl like Lucy could follow practically any career she might fancy, and even wind up as President of Harvard. Nevertheless, it grieves me to think of the many lights hidden under bushels during that century, and of others still not permitted to bring their light to other dark corners of the world.

You might be forgiven for wondering if, in spite of her misgivings, Lucy found happiness as Mrs. Bassett. I guess we'll never know, because she wrote the last entry in her journal on Christmas Day 1864, and because Lucy died of typhoid fever less than six months after her marriage.
I am extremely grateful to Lucy for having kept this journal, and to Mary Robertson for editing it and getting it published. In the autumn of 1862, Lucy met my great grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, and made some extremely insightful comments on his character and personality. In a few paragraphs, she told me as much about what kind of a man he was as I have learned from any single source! She has brightened up my forthcoming biography of Henry as she must have brightened up the lives of all who knew her well.

This entry is getting very long, and it's almost time to stop for dinner, so I will write more about Lucy's journal and her meeting with Henry on another day.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Lives of Others - 2

Further thoughts on my earlier post dated today. This is one of those films that you'll think about for a long time afterward. That's what is happening to me, at least.

If you've seen the film (or even if you've just read the review), you noticed that the two heroes are Communists. They're not just Communists in name only, they are true believers. They really believe that they are moving toward a true Communist society which will be some kind of a utopia. Perhaps life was hard for them, but they had hope.

Before the end of the film, both heroes were disillusioned, and I suppose that's what happened to the rest of the Communist bloc.

Since the wall came down there's been a new kind of hope in Eastern Europe, and nearly everyone still seems happy about it.

Sometimes, however, I wonder about the old USSR and especially Russia. From the reports we receive in the West, the country has been handed over the the robber barons. Even as we have rejected Communism as unworkable and eventually corrupting (absolute power corrupts absolutely), we cannot help but recognize that there was a certain morality specific to Communism, which was inspirational to many. Now, all that seems left to inspire the Russians is the get-rich-quick ethos. This reminds me of my great grandfather's impressions of the new city of Milwaukee, where he spent a year in 1857-1858. On May 2, 1857, Henry Brown Richardson, then 19 years old wrote to his parents:
This is a great country, this ‘out west’ but I would not advise you to come here. Most of the people around these parts live by plunder. They make it a point to let no strangers escape with more than the skin of their teeth. It is on good authority that a man who has lived here long enough to be called a Western man (I did not learn his name) has been heard to say in good earnest that ‘if an Eastern man comes here with money or any other property, we are bound – by hook or crook to have it – or a part of it’ and that is the ‘sense’ of the community at large so far as I can learn. They get bitten and bite. It is believed by competent judges that there is not an honest man in this State or even a man that pretends to any sort of honesty, not even thieves’ honesty.
Maybe that's one reason why Henry eventually preferred the South. I'll explore that question further in my book, expected at the end of the year.

Getting back to Russia, perhaps our western observers are unduly pessimistic. If so, and if you are a Russian or a frequent visitor, please post a comment and set me straight.

The Lives of Others

This is my first real post and I'm not yet up to speed. Therefore, I'm posting something that carries little risk of provoking controversy, at least in the Western world. Don't miss the film, "The Lives of Others"! The message was extremely hopeful and inspiring to me.

Even in the most repressive society, one person's actions can make a difference.

If you don't live in a town that gets foreign films, you may have to wait a while and buy the disk, but please don't forget it.

A.O. Scott in The New York Times says -
“The Lives of Others” is a supremely intelligent, unfailingly honest look at a shadowy period in recent German history.
Movie Review | 'The Lives of Others':
A Fugue for Good German Men

Tell me how you like the film!