One of the more striking evolutions of recent decades has been the stealth revival of the ancient concept of hereditary guilt. It’s seldom called that”terms such as “white privilege” and “structural racism” are more popular”but if you’ve been paying attention you’ll note an increasing reversion to this old assumption that the sins of the fathers demand that punishment be visited upon their distant descendants.
For example, former New Republic staffer Jonathan Chait recently authored a column in New York magazine voicing his outrage that an Alabama white man named Quinn Hillyer could be so uppity as to refer to Barack Obama as “haughty,” even though Chait had just been emotionally overwhelmed by viewing 12 Years a Slave. You see, in that junior-varsity Passion of the Christ there’s an evil sniveling character played by Paul Dano. And Chait can just tell that Hillyer must be like Dano’s bad guy. After all, they’re both white Southerners.
And you know how they are.
But not all the past, of course. The last 45 or so years, in which liberals have thoroughly dominated policy and public thinking about race, are of negligible interest. And what about the millennia before 1619 in which Africans developed many of the traits African Americans now display? Nope. Just the politically useful past fascinates.
The causal mechanisms by which ever more distant history imposes its will upon the present might be vague (”stereotype threat?” “invisible knapsacks?”), but the delineation of Good Guys from Bad Guys becomes only more black and white. The intellectual maturity of journalistic discourse is increasingly reminiscent of Cartoon Network’s Axe Cop, a show created by a 29-year-old writer based on his five-year-old brother’s Manichaean worldview. (Axe Cop is about a Good Guy who chops off Bad Guys’ heads with an axe.)
For instance, English common law long featured “corruption of blood,” which justified depriving malefactors’ descendants of their civil rights. A bill of attainder would “attaint” the bloodline, preventing transmission of land to heirs.
Yet the English tradition was characteristically individualist. When Parliament passed a bill of attainder against a rebel or an out-of-favor queen, it named an individual rather than a lineage. The children of the attainted one couldn’t inherit his property but could still pass on their own.
Bills of attainder were bad enough that they were specifically outlawed in the original US Constitution even before the Bill of Rights. The English eventually gave them up, too, with the romantic Irish rebel Lord Edward FitzGerald being the last object of a bill of attainder in 1798.
An example of broader, more long-lasting ethnic animus is the fascinating story of “Amalek: The Perpetual Enemy of the Jewish People” (to quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson).
The Amalekites were dwellers in the Sinai who attacked the vulnerable Hebrews during the Exodus. This earned them undying enmity, with later leaders such as Samuel, Saul, and David waging wars of extermination upon these unfortunates. In all, the Amalekites are mentioned in nine separate books of the Old Testament.
Yet the Amalekites were so hard to kill off completely that one survivor pops up centuries later in the Book of Esther as the bad guy Haman, the prime minister of Persia. (Some things never change.) Fortunately, Haman, his ten sons, and 75,000 followers were slaughtered in the counter-pogrom celebrated annually at Purim.
But all that smiting of the Amalekites wasn’t enough. To this day, three of the 613 commandments attested to by Orthodox Jews are:
“¢ To remember the treacheries of the Amalekites.
“¢ To never forget the perfidies of the Amalekites.
“¢ To wipe out the descendants of the Amalekites.
Granted, the Amalekites may have had a very different point of view on these events. But their history hasn’t come down to us. Therefore, nobody cares.
If you want your version of history to be remembered better than that of the Amalekites, you have to recount it over and over again. And it sure doesn’t hurt to suppress dissident accounts.
Rich white Southerners used to know this. Back before they decided to spend seemingly all their spare change on bailing out college football stars charged with rape, they had paid for most of the historiography about the 1860s. Thus their perspective on the Civil War era dominated the telling of the tale.