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How Will History Judge Us?

12/28/2007

That’s what’s asked by the people behind the Save Darfur campaign ads. Clearly, the implication is that failing to stop the genocide in Darfur, Sudan would have history judge us badly. But how true is that assertion?
Morally, allowing avoidable human suffering is considered by most people to be evil, or something an amoral person or someone primarily concerned with his self interest would allow when favorable to him, though his motives might not be malevolent. But history judges on a broader set of issues, yet we see through an often narrowed and simplified perspective. What we think of historical characters and events is more often than not influenced by the popular descriptions given to them. The effects of which tend to superceed any contrary data, both to our complete understanding and our conclusions.

Sometimes, despite evidence strong enough to constitute proof, we’ll ignore aspects of history for our favored views, or minimize their importance and disrespect sensitivities toward them. Hitler, for example, has become for some people either a laudable figure, or still evil yet now acceptable to be used as an analogous comparison to those with which they disagree or hate. Such comparisons usually appear more interested in correlations and the similarity of effects the correlating policy could have or has than in proving motive beyond a reasonable doubt.
Perhaps ironically, history’s titles, which are actually our titles, can give us a misleading perception of who people were. In fact, the moniker of “Great” doesn’t have a solely positive connotation, but how many such persons to whom that title was given would we find it comfortable to label as such today? I would assume few. But the objective truth is that several historical figures, from Caesar to Hitler, may, by definition, be called “Great.”

That title is a powerful descriptor, not intending, but still having, an effect of taking away historical complexity.
History influences the future, but its significance is infleunced by cultures. The help history provides is limited by a culture’s efforts to understand it.

It’s too early to know how history will judge us if we don’t save the people of Darfur, but it’s not too early for us to ask ourselves how much we’ll care what history says, and how much we’ll change its message to suit our world views.

Cynically, I would contend that history would judge a failure in Sudan as a sad and regrettable historical footnote because few of us could handle it as being anything more, as anything we must stop now. The truth is, guilt and culpability aren’t always successful instruments for change and action.

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