Captives of Their Time

with John McWhorter

In this excerpt from the latest TGS, John and I take on a notoriously difficult subject: The relationship between the advances made by the rise of the West and the brutality that often attended those advances. The arrival of Europeans in North America produced both American democracy and genocidal violence against native populations. The flourishing of the Enlightenment occurred amidst the rise of the slave trade. Many more examples could be given.

It seems clear that the tremendous social, intellectual, and technological progress we’ve witnessed over the last 250 or so years is intimately entangled with acts that most of us now find morally repugnant. But does that mean we should view the progress of the West as irredeemably spoiled by those acts? Can we disentangle the good from the bad, or are they so deeply entwined as to be unthinkable without each other?

These are not easy questions, nor are they as abstract as they sound. Many of the excesses of woke campus protests demand that present-day institutions pay for the crimes of the distant past. They see total continuity between what universities did 150 years ago and how they go about their business today.

This is a profound mistake, and John and I discuss why below. Let us know what you think in the comments!

This video and transcript are taken from a longer conversation currently available only to newsletter subscribers. It will be made publicly available later this week. For early access to videos and podcasts, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below to subscribe.


JOHN MCWHORTER: For one thing, I want to say that I get the Confederate statue thing. You have to go case by case, but I completely understand why somebody would not want to have, for example, General Lee in the middle of a public plaza. You're going to see that ...

GLENN LOURY: Excuse me for interrupting, but I just want to go back to something you said earlier. They're injured when they have to walk by and look at it. Is it real? Is that injury real? Or are they faking? Are they performing being hurt? Are they overly fragile? Or is it really injurious to have to look at Robert E. Lee every day if you're a black person in 2021?

In this case, injurious? No. But it's kind of lousy to have somebody there whose most significant achievement was to battle for your own enslavement. I can see a conversation where that statute gets put in a museum or something like that. So I don't want people to think that I don't understand this kind of demand. I think the business with that particular rock was absurd and ought to have been called so.

But on Native Americans, I honestly have always thought about that sort of thing a lot, whenever I'm just in a parking lot. You're in a shopping center, and I think there's this concrete on the ground. There were people here living their lives and hundreds of tribes were basically decimated by the coming of the white man, so to speak. The decimation was so thorough that I think we all know that there's nothing that really can be done. It happened, it was a tragedy. It's centuries later. We're here, and we just have to deal. We can't give the land back. There are very few people even remaining to give the land back to. It's impossible. But with Columbus, you know, honestly, I get that. This gets into Rousseau.

The Noble Savage?

Suppose neither Columbus nor anybody had come and “discovered” North America. Suppose that people had not come together in that way, that there wasn't this flowering of Westernism all over the world. Some people might say that it would be better that peoples had not come together, that white men didn't come and decimate those Native Americans, first with germs and then also with outright abuse and what today can be called genocide. Suppose the white people had just stayed in Europe, and today the Taino Indians were still doing what they do and living the lives that they wanted to lead. Would that really be so bad? Now, I don't know. That's a tough one. That's for a philosophy class. That's for a class in political science.

Again, excuse me injecting, but the blacks would have stayed in Africa. Would that really be so bad?

Would it have?

I'm not saying yes, I'm not saying no. I got better sense than to answer that question.

Imperfect societies, but some people would say it would be better if no Africans have been taken as slaves, in which case there would be these not literate but thriving civilizations in Africa, untouched by the evil of the white man. You can talk about it.

But as far as Columbus, Glenn, to tell you the truth, I'm not an expert, but I've never heard much good about him. He came, he was not just racist but even a little more racist than many people of his time. He had no pity for the Native Americans there. He did not come with a good heart. I'm not aware that he was an extraordinary person. He was first. He got here first. But if he hadn't done it, somebody else would have. I don't think he was a very good man. He just happened to be first.

I can sympathize with how Italian Americans might feel, but I can see a conversation where you say that Christopher Columbus is not celebrated as an individual because he was really mean. Woodrow Wilson was mean, too, but Christopher Columbus was the same thing. His whole life, what else was there? What was good about him? I'm not sure there was much of anything. He was just this proto-capitalist who wanted to make his fortune and was a little more persistent about getting across the ocean than some other people had been. And also lucky. Was he a hero? Maybe he wasn't.

I don't know anything about him, to be honest with you.

Thomas Jefferson was a hero, despite his views. I think Christopher Columbus was just kind of a shithead.

“The discovery of the New World” is a historic event in the evolution of human history over the last 500, 550 years, because it's the cutting edge of a historical dynamic where Europe undertakes, basically, its conquest and its domination of the rest of the planet. That actually happened. We could go into all the reasons why. I'm not going to claim this kind of expertise, but it's a way of acknowledging the massive consequence of the expansion of European influence out of Europe itself into the Western hemisphere and into Asia and Africa. But it's especially the opening up of the Western hemisphere. No, it wasn't pretty. It was ugly. Columbus was not alone in being mean. “Mean” is putting it mildly. I mean, murderous and greedy and acquisitive and racist, and they were what they were.

But I don't know. There's something too easy to me about this cherry-picking, ex post facto historical moralizing. I say cherry-picking because is there any period in human history where there hasn't been conquest, occupation, domination, extermination? Anywhere on the planet? What did the Mongol hordes do coming out of out of East Asia? What were the native populations of various stripes doing amongst one another? What were the African populations of various stripes doing amongst one another? The millions of Africans who were sold into bondage were sold by other Africans, having had their freedom extirpated in combat and in conquest.

So that's the way of the world. The modern world was made by processes that left a lot of skulls and shriveled bodies and starvation and butchery and whatnot. I don't know. It's just too easy. And I find this question of the counterfactual—“Suppose they hadn't done it, then what?”—to be fascinating. What would the average life expectancy of the people descended from these dominated populations be but for the encounter with the modern world? I don't know. I hesitate here because my knowledge base is not rich enough to support any confident kind of claims. But I just find this kind of picking and choosing out of history, the good guys and the bad guys, and labeling people on the basis of that as just way too easy, way too simplistic.


There's a factoid that I think got out there, and I think Roots had a lot to do with it. And that is a very dated reference now. I've noticed that you can't talk about Roots with students today, because it was too long ago. But it wasn't that long ago. And I remember watching it on TV when I was 10, and my mother made me read the book. It was very much a meme for about 15 or 20 years after 1976.

And when I think about the nature of people, and the idea that white people are devils, that there is something uniquely rapacious about white people, the meme that I always think of is that in Roots, Kunta Kinte is depicted as going out for a walk, and he gets caught by slavers. So the idea is that white people are walking around with nooses and lassos and catching black people. And even at the time, I remember thinking how many people could they have caught like that? I remember thinking, if you need to have these hundreds of people on some plantations, depending on where you're going, wouldn't Africans near the coast have just stopped going for walks or moved further inland? How many people are you going to catch that way?

And so it made for good drama, but I think it's now pretty generally accepted that Alex Haley made most of that stuff up. It was a grand tale, but he wasn't even related to Kunta Kinte. It's a whole story. He made that stuff up. As you just said, slaves were sold into slavery by other Africans. They didn't think of themselves as all Africans in contrast to white people. They thought of themselves as themselves and the other people as no good. That is, unfortunately, human nature, and it doesn't change just because everybody's brown. What it means is that slaves were sold because Africans were fighting among one another, and what you did with the people you captured was you sold them to the whites in order to get some gold or whatever they were giving back. That was the way it was. And so evil is pretty widely spread.

I used to sometimes share that with black students. This was mostly when I was at Berkeley and I was doing more teaching of pidgin and creole languages. I would tell them that the context. These languages that formed amid slavery, the slaves were sold by other Africans. And I remember a lot of the students really couldn't believe that. They couldn't imagine that that's how it happened. There was nothing ugly going on. I remember with one of them, I actually gave her some sources and tried to make it clear that this is actually the way it went, but they just couldn't believe it. Their idea was that white people are evil and Africans lived in this kind of harmony, et cetera. No, not really. You're right.

And so I think that it has to be a case-by-case basis. These things have to be carefully decided, because humanity has been evil always. You can't knock down every single statue. You can't give America back to the Native Americans. But there are some cases.

Let me try this and see how you react. The history was bloody, brutal, racist. It involved domination, it involved genocidal dynamics in many instances. The West came to dominate the world for a period of time. And we can sort out how we think that was good, bad, or indifferent.

But the West was not just militaristic and exploitative domination. It was and is also the evolution of a set of ideas. Ideas about liberty, about the dignity of the person, about representative government, et cetera. It leads to movements like emancipation, which flourished in Britain as well as here in the United States and ultimately extirpated slavery. It leads to universal declarations of human rights. It leads to a situation where we're appalled at the treatment of women in certain societies as being barbaric. Those ideas come substantially—not entirely, not exclusively, but substantially—out of the same cultural matrix that we decry as a white supremacist and genocidal.

If you look around the world today, there is still slavery in many places. Not any place in the West, not any place where the West has a significant influence. The liberation of people of sexual orientation and so forth, again, is something that's largely celebrated in Western societies. So a supple and complex moral sensibility would take these things onboard and would not have our students in the twenty-first century walking around looking at the color of their skin and deciding on the basis of that who were intrinsically victims and who were intrinsically oppressors.

In fact, the very language that we have for indicting history, the language of freedom, of equality, of human dignity, and of liberty, antiracism, the very language is itself a product of the Western political, economic, and social evolution that people are so quick to decry. There's something so anachronistic about using our present day sensibilities, which have come about because of the historical processes that we're indicting, like the civil rights movement and all of that—the foundation on which we now stand—as we make our moral assessments, and projecting it backwards to people who did not have the benefit of our hindsight and who were captives of the time in which they lived.