Judging history

I know that everyone insists that you can’t judge history, but I’d like to do so. I want to name the failures of intelligent thought and planning, of a decision-maker’s integrity compromised by politics or the needs of politics, and of public inattention to problems of the day. I want to say to myself and everyone: we should have been paying closer attention at the time, before the problems became so huge!

I want to do this, not in the current style of using today’s standards to remove an old Christmas song (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) from public and commercial play lists; or to remove statues or plaques which now represent, in all or in part, oppression and discrimination but in their own time more admirable qualities (see Joseph Ellis’ American Dialogue on the very complex history of Thomas Jefferson’s attitude and actions on race for a prime example of the difficulty in this).

I want to judge history for its rights and wrongs in very absolute terms, upon reconsidering.

One sometimes runs into the peculiar and unexpected while examining history. In the podcast West Wing Weekly, twelfth episode in season 5, Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, asserts that President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich almost had a deal on “fixing” social security. But the Monica Lewinsky affair, she says, pushed Gingrich away from cooperation, and thereby put off changes for many more years. Her judgement is that the delay saved social security, whereas others might contend that it postponed solving the problems. Whichever your view, unexpected events can change things, and avoiding those changes may be impossible within an appropriate span of time. Perhaps no real blame applies to such situations.

I take the Altman interpretation and Ellis’ examples as stark warnings of the inherent difficulty in understand history well enough to judge it.

I warned in my seventh post “Nothing gets completed” that complexity both causes problems and inhibits solving them. Add to that Margaret MacMillan’s Uses and Abuses of History (see post “Informed Consent II”) which cautions that how you understand history depends upon the starting point you choose. The matter becomes more complex.

Additionally, we must acknowledge that it is possible to be consistently foolish for long times: people still smoke, people still drink and/or text while driving, and the U.S. has been at war for the past seventeen years, after a short break from Gulf I, after a short break from ….Should such histories be judged for thorough foolishness?

Judging history becomes ever more difficult. But I persevere.

I want to judge those who have gone before for not having done better, for not having settled matters, for leaving so much pain, suffering, and so many intractable problems for us to solve. I want to judge everyone who meddled in the Middle East, right from the Balfour doctrine (ah! but beware MacMillan’s warnings) until now; those who developed nuclear weapons; and those whose work led to the automobile (why couldn’t we have moved directly from travel by horse to travel by Star Trek– style transporters?). Accessory to War: the Unspoken Alliance between Astrophysics and the Military by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang, emphasizes the duality of many scientific enterprises which both enabled and were enabled by, military purposes. So is it fair to judge the providers of the technology because they would have been wary of the good and bad potentials, or only the decisions to use the military aspects?

(Being religious, I am apprehensive that judging history is perhaps also judging God. There are faiths which believe that God intends everything that happens, or that nothing happens without God’s foreknowledge or consent, or that there is a plan of such dimensions as to be ‘way outside our ability to understand. I share some of these beliefs, and have no desire to argue about the others. I am familiar with the Biblical book of Job’s portrayal of God’s appearing in the whirlwind, demanding how Job can possibly feel equipped to judge God. I want to set this matter aside and just judge history for a while, hoping not to contend with God as well.)

And what of the “average person”? A neighbour who is in his fifties, works frequently out of town, and out of country, dedicated family man who puts enormous effort into being with them when home, watches morning news at 5 a.m. while preparing for work; is usually on the road by 5:30, and returns at unpredictable hours. He listens to news while on the road, and likes to think that he is as informed as he can be. When it comes time to be “informed” on the issues during a political campaign, he says he needs some sort of short overview of what candidates think the issues are. He wants to look over the list and then easily, if he has time, follow hyperlinks to deeper information, not from the candidate, but from independent news sources. He is not a fan of news via Facebook, etc. His attitude and intentions are entirely reasonable. But the sources for which he has time, are inadequate. He hasn’t time for “deep reads,” and his sources typically do not go deep, or perhaps he can’t continue listening to the radio once he’s left the car. Yet it is the deeper information which is needed to see far ahead and perceive the problems so that we can render informed consent to whatever solutions may be on offer, if any. These practicalities make it difficult to judge the “average person” who has no professional responsibilities for the issues of the day.

Perhaps this narrows the field of people whom we can judge, making it easier. Professionals       (e.g., physicians, academics, clergy, economists, intelligence analysts, military people, police, judges, lawyers, engineers, etc.) as well as politicians, are responsible to look ahead, identify the intended and unintended consequences of possible decisions, interpret them to the decision-makers, and plot the appropriate courses. I know that different life philosophies (e.g., most benefit for the greater population vs. paying careful attention to the upsides and downsides for small numbers of people), conflicting interests, cultural and religious differences (e.g., the extent to which life should be preserved) are the stuff which makes politics complicated, aside from greed and desire for power. Nonetheless, professionals, politicians and corporate decision-makers should be judged for how their decisions affect people and things (environment). Judged not in the sense of saying “You completely screwed up and should have done better,” but judged in the sense of “these are the beneficial consequences and the deleterious consequences of your decisions, acts, and actions. You had the information and wherewithal to do better.” If lessons are learned and perhaps better decisions for all those affected arise in the future, well and good. But if the quality of decisions do not improve, then the judgement is “you should not be among the decision makers, you should not be in this profession.” (But see below regarding urgent decisions.)

There is a persistent metaphor in our culture, scales, representing balance. Justice is imaged as holding balanced scales. This unfortunately becomes a shortcut around more nuanced consideration of values and choices. “If we did well for the largest number, then we did well.” But that’s not good enough. The criterion should be, “If we did well for the largest number, but also watched carefully over the others with a view toward minimizing the disadvantages for them in the present and looking to benefit them also in the near future, and never forgetting those affected, we did well indeed.”  (See below “Equal before the Law,` by Eldon Grant, in the McMurtry Gardens of Justice, Toronto http://www.mcmurtrygardensofjustice.com/content/equal-law-eldon-garnet).


The scales/balance metaphor protects some efforts from being judged to be a failure or wrong. Instead, they are thought to have benefitted enough people sufficiently. It leaves politicians free to claim that they were boxed in by political and cultural walls. True of course, but there is no information about what, if any attempts, were made to get past those walls and do something good. That’s how segregated, inadequate schools were preserved. Horrible wrongs, such as Canada’s schools for aboriginals, not only caused suffering in their own times, but guaranteed further suffering even unto today. That deserves judgement across several categories: professional standards (education, law and jurisprudence, law enforcement), decision-making, and the inattention of the general public.

Here’s where informed consent becomes so important. Sometimes professionals and decision-makers must make recommendations and decisions in the moment, without sufficient information; to work by their gut; to decide on a course in heavy fog. They may not have time for informed consent. Even so, to not decide is to decide because there will be consequences due to events even without deliberate decisions. People in this situation cannot be judged by the standards appropriate when there is time for deep thinking. But my own study of the ethical decision process shows that whenever matters come down to only two alternatives, there was an earlier stage in which there were at least three possibilities. There may be fair judgement of how those other possibilities were eliminated, whether because of ideology, bias, simple stupidity, or an arbitrary vote which disregarded better evidence for some than for others. That is to say, perhaps judgement can be made about the earlier choices, where there was the possibility of informed consent, rather than the final two-possibility choice.

Why do I want to judge history, to insist on being informed about history before I consent to it? Because otherwise, I will be deceived by the trope that what’s done is done*. That lets too much slide by, while only those who suffer from the consequences feel the pain. We must not consent to wrong-doing of the past; we must not simply let it pass and say, “We’ll do better next time.” Our current problems in race relations show that this didn’t work; our continued warfare show that this didn’t work; our current problems with climate change show that letting pass the oil companies’ decisions in the 70s (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/), didn’t work. Sorrow and regret, it seems, are necessary for us to do better the next time. There must be judgement of history in order to bring informed consent to it.

*This requires an answer to the question, what of forgiveness?   We forgive because, for the religious among us it is a requirement for spiritual health and a right relationship with others and with the divine, and for everyone else, because to not forgive cripples you emotionally, psychologically, and perhaps physically. In my religious tradition, God judges before forgiving. Forgiveness is not something done before or instead of judgement. Perhaps it should be so among us.

Also, if forgiveness removes on-going awareness of what has been done wrongly, then we have no way to protect ourselves in the future, and no motive to do better other than respect and love for others, or to make life better for our progeny. These latter may be sufficient motives, but I don’t see how we can “improve” without understanding the inadequacy of the past. So, forgiveness, yes, but also judgement.



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