Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ethical qualms, moral dilemmas, counterfactuals

In the long tale of the world most of us are the recipients of stolen goods and the fruits of murder, just by happening to be alive after they happened, and atrocities cannot be undone later.  – John Barnes
I did a blog post the other day on one of the things we denizens of the United States seem to have gotten right: as a general rule, we don't go around trying to figure out ways to kill each based on where someone's great grandmother was born or what language some distant ancestors spoke. We've got various alliances, networks, cliques, and cults that might despise each other, but if we accuse each other of not being true Americans it's not going to be because someone's great grandparents spoke Hungarian or Tagalog when they got off the boat 100 years ago. There's a reason for this: assimilation. Some of it was voluntary, but quite a bit was forced. 

Which brings up the issue of ethical qualms and moral dilemmas. I once read a statement attributed to Lenin in which he said that in order for the end to justify the means, you have to have an end you can justify. Which strikes me as being a tad tautological, but it does make sense. If you're going to break eggs, you better be planning on ending up with an edible omelet. So today we Americans are the fortunate beneficiaries of a policies instituted decades or centuries ago that in retrospect do not seem to pass the smell test. Taking Native American kids away from their parents and shipping them off to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language was barbaric. Punishing the children of immigrants for speaking Italian or German or Slovenian in an American public school was almost as cruel. People were stigmatized, treated horribly, for displaying any signs of foreignness. The end result was a populace unified by a language and common culture, but obtained at the cost of losing their past. Was this a good thing or a bad thing?  And was it necessary to use force? Would assimilation and adoption of a common language have occurred as rapidly if official policies hadn't pushed for both? Is there even a way to decide questions like that decades later?

As for counterfactuals, there is the intriguing question of whether or not assimilation, forced or otherwise, would have occurred among the non-Native groups if they had all felt like they had someplace to go back to, i.e., that there was a motherland just waiting to be reclaimed. Although some immigrants came with the intention of just working for a few years, making a fortune, and going back to the old country to buy a farm or start a business, the majority recognized this was it. There was no going back. Once they got off the boat from Europe, Africa, or Asia, most were here to stay. 

In contrast, in the Soviet Union, Stalin tried shuffling various population groups around in an attempt to Russianize everyone (which was, come to think of it, pretty bizarre, given that he wasn't Russian himself) and eliminate non-Russian languages within the borders of the Soviet Union. It didn't work. Once the Soviet Union fell, the former Soviet republics discarded using Russian as a language pretty rapidly and different ethnic groups that had been sent off to colonize in eastern Siberia started moving back to where their grandparents had lived. It's a lot easier to keep the idea of repatriation alive when you know you can walk there if you're determined enough. 

Would the Russianization have worked given a few more generations to oppress and coerce people? Again, an unanswerable question. Borders have shifted numerous times, nation-states have risen and fallen, and populations have shifted in response to wars, famines, and plagues. Some cultures and people vanish as though they had never existed; others endure. 


  1. Some of them moved even farther than where their grandparents lived. Over 1 million Germans whose ancestors had lived in southern Ukraine and along the Volga prior to being deported to Kazakhstan moved back to Germany.
    Where people were deported as an entire ethnic group by Stalin, they tended to keep their culture and language even if serreptitiously and would move back if they could.
    Other places where people tended to arrive in small groups assimilated better. Abakan, where my wife is from, has people of many nationalities or ethnic groups. Lots of family names I am familiar with from Canada, in fact. They are all "Siberians"


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