The scariness of moral history

Tacitus saw history as fundamentally moral: the goal was to record the actions of good and evil men so that neither would be forgotten. This moral stance is basically unavoidable – it’s not as if any textbook presentation of the civil rights movement or WWII will give a sympathetic presentation of Germans or Southerners, even in straining to simply lay out the facts of the conflict.

That said, the blind spot in our moral presentation is usually that we can only identify with the bad guy though guilt or condescension. If the bad guy is us, we’re supposed to feel guilt; if he’s the other guy we congratulate ourselves on an unearned moral superiority. I’m an American, and we beat the Nazis! I’m a German, forgive me my crimes!

But neither cheap grace nor kowtowing is morally useful and both injure self-understanding. Given that mass movements, by definition, are things adopted by most of those who were close to it, we can’t understand mass movements until we understand them as something we would have believed in or at least sympathized with. This does not mean that we have to stop seeing it as evil – in fact this is exactly what it takes to understand good and evil. One of our deepest moral mistakes is to think that to understand evil is the same as forgiving it and/ or to think that understanding goodness is the same as having the moral strength to do it.

The goal of education is to see two sides of an argument without collapsing into relativism or skepticism but rather maintaining a clear sense of the right and good. History plays an important role in this sort of education, but only after we drop the moral obtuseness of thinking that evil is either easy to see or easy to avoid. Doing this requires a scary degree of sympathy with the bad guys, and the danger that, though our presentation,  we might even convince the uninitiated and those with less moral development to sympathize with the devil.

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