Do You Believe History Must Be Fair?

The Algerian War of Independence began in 1954 and sputtered on until 1962 when the nation gained its independence from France. A noteworthy feature of the conflict was the use of terrorism against civilians. Millions of French citizens lived in Algeria at the time and regarded the country as their rightful home. In fact, many in both Algeria and France itself regarded Algeria as an extension of France proper. This situation led to civil war inside Algeria as pro- and anti-France factions battled one another for dominance.

Collage of Algerian War photos

War in Algeria prompted Camus’ insight that some people believe in history and also want history to be fair, even if settling accounts means tolerating terrorist attacks on the formerly dominant. (Photo: Wikipedia)

French journalist and philosopher Albert Camus was born in Algeria and never lost his love for his place of birth. When the war broke out, he found himself exiled in France and surrounded by intellectual peers who advocated unconditional independence for Algeria regardless of the consequences for the large French population. Camus was outraged and defended the right of the French to be in Algeria. His own family was still there. This agonizing situation prompted the development of one of his most interesting ideas.

Camus realized that the French intellectuals were using history to justify the Algerian terrorists. That is, the intellectuals felt the terrorism against French citizens was fair given French colonial history in the country. The killing and maiming of the French was retribution for past sins or crimes. To Camus this moral position implied two important things: a belief in history as a justification for action and a belief that history should be fair.

Camus did not believe in resigning himself to history nor to historical inevitability, the popular notion that the war was unavoidable under the circumstances. He decided it was his duty not to believe in history. Instead, he wanted to weigh the Algerian situation exclusively within the context of the present time, without consideration for the baggage of the past. The needs of those alive today must carry more weight than past events, however one might interpret the moral aspects of those events. Camus lost his brave struggle, of course, but the ideas in play during the Algerian conflict are still with us.

Today, politically correct types and leftists in general also believe in history. Like their French forbears, their pursuit of moral righteousness is ruthlessly one-sided and incredibly costly to others. To see this, one has only to consider the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) campaign to “right historical wrongs.” Apparently, we must awaken all sleeping dogs.

In Canada, we have apologized to and compensated Chinese immigrant families because the government once levied a head tax on incomers from China. We have apologized to and compensated aboriginal people for once making them attend residential schools where they learned English and other skills necessary for integration (massive child abuse is alleged and integration is a crime anyway). We have apologized to and compensated WW II Japanese internees because in hindsight we see there was no need. We have even apologized to poor British orphans, brought to Canada for a better life, because they had to work – alongside Canadian children – on farms (“slave labour,” you see).

A justification for questionable affirmative action programs in America is always prior discrimination. If you live in the West, you can probably think of many examples in your own country or region. The belief in history is endemic.

Those who instituted the above policies also hold a belief in the fairness of history, or in settling historical scores, even if such squaring up must be done at the expense of those living today who had nothing to do with what happened all those years ago.

I share Camus’ belief that behaviour of this kind is actually reprehensible, but I am a conservative and in the minority in my country. Perhaps you too believe in history and that history should be fair, and find all of these examples exemplary.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

23 thoughts on “Do You Believe History Must Be Fair?”

  1. Red as I am, I’m in full agreement with you, Thomas, and I was horrified to read how some intellectuals at the time thought the rape of women by the rebels justifiable, too…

  2. Interesting piece Thomas, thanks for posting.

    I definitely lean toward your point of view on this matter, but I’m curious what you think of the argument that historical mistreatment of a group of people has left those people at an economic disadvantage and the ‘good’ thing to do is for us to try and repair the damage? For example, this argument is often made for the black population in America (Sorry for any offended by ‘black’, but I think African-American is a totally misused and ridiculous term).

    Admittedly, I haven’t taken the time to research this idea so I definitely won’t defend it’s scientific merit. But it’s one I see brought up often as a rebuttal toward your (and my) viewpoint.

  3. I guess it depends on how you look at it. First of all, history isn’t fair. It just is what it is. We all have a tendency to view it a different way, though.

    Like it or not, we are all products of our history and history has made us what we are, even if we realize it or not. We can’t dismiss it as all happening a long time ago and doesn’t effect us. Like our own personal memories, which shape our characters and personalities, history is our collective memory and has shaped us as a society. Phillip brought up slavery. Its effects can still be felt today (I’m not sure about Canada, but I can tell you that it has in America). The same can be said with how women have been treated over the many, many years. There are still some attitudes that shape us about these subjects and we often have no idea why–the answer is because it lies within our society’s past and the attitudes still linger.

    If we go with the history being akin to personal memory analogy, let’s say that I seriously hurt you fifteen years ago. Some people are able to let by gones be by gones, others however will carry animosity or resentment about that incident for the rest of their lives. For some, some type of retribution must be made for the wrong. Who can blame them for wanting it?

  4. The fact that the views of France’s pro-independence intellectuals were so extreme is what shocked Camus the most. He was a man of careful moral consideration and measured response. I think he expected much more than he got from people who, in his mind, should have known better. For him, the idea of casually throwing people to the dogs, regardless of their alleged injustices, was appalling.

  5. Phillip, The trouble with those economic arguments lies with time; that is, with what makes something historical rather than current. In the case of American slavery, no one alive today was ever a slave, although many living black Americans certainly have been the victims of blatant racism.

    Where slavery is concerned, you have to realize that the ancestors of most Americans were not even in America during the slavery era. If you compensate the descendants of slaves, the people paying (and it would be a huge bill) would be mostly those with no connection to the injustice. The primary beneficiaries of slavery were the southern plantation owners rather than America as a whole, in any case. The best we can do for a past injustice such as slavery is to make sure it cannot happen again. When we venture beyond that, we inevitably drag in innocent bystanders.

    In the more recent black American context, the economic disadvantage argument ignores the fact that not all Americans are racists, and of those that are, not all have actually acted out the prejudice. Once again, apologies and compensation drags in people who have done nothing. The best we can do here is ensuring a level playing field while working to alter people’s attitudes.

  6. You raise some great points, Dan. I agree that history has made us what we are. To deny this is to cut yourself off from your own roots in a way that is extremely self-defeating. However, we must distinguish between the effect of history upon us and two other separate issues: our obligations towards it and our response to it. Those hurt by historical events or situations are not entitled to compensation from others. Individuals or governments have to decide if they will voluntarily offer recompense. The desire for retribution on the part of historically injured parties is understandable, but again, they are not automatically entitled. Considerations of cost, assignment of blame or responsibility, and the proper course of justice must all be taken into account.

    Camus’ position, which I share, is that consideration of historical factors quickly obscures the interests of those in the here and now. American blacks may want compensation, or even retribution, for past slavery, but as I pointed out in my reply to Phillip, most Americans alive today have no connection with slavery other than the mere fact of being Americans.

    This brings me to the heart of the “righting historical wrongs” point of view. Proponents of apologies and compensation usually argue that nations or societies as a whole must be held accountable for their histories. Thus, Germany must forever feel guilty about the Holocaust, even though a particular government and a particular number of Germans (now mostly dead) perpetrated that ghastly atrocity. America must always be ashamed that it once allowed slavery, even though the overwhelming majority of Americans owned no slaves in the slavery era.

    (Canada once allowed slavery as well, by the way. It was banned here in 1833 when Britain abolished the practice throughout the Empire.)

    The key to dealing with this is to understand that we cannot always hold the individual accountable for what the government or other individuals do. To hold a nation (Germany, America) or a society (the French in Algeria) responsible as a whole, perpetrates an injustice against most of the people within it.

  7. Drat. I knew I used the wrong word. “Restitution” not “retribution.”

    I don’t think its cut and dry. Those who are the descendants of slaves, Indians, as well as most women still feel the negative effects of our history. As a Southener and student of the American Civil War, I can tell you that even though the majority did not own slaves, the majority did rely on the slave economy including many Yankees. And this doesn’t even touch the prevalent attitude that blacks were inferior to whites. Both of these issues still effect our country and it happened 150 year ago.

    Those of us who still have the lion’s share of power, resources, and opportunities have a tendency to say these types of things need to belong in the past. If the shoe was on the other foot, and it was our ancestors who were on the bad end of the deal, I’m certain we would be suffering the effects (for instance, the effects of southern defeat of the Civil War still runs through southern society).

    I’m not suggesting handing over $$ is the answer. It reminds me of the proverb, give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him how to fish and he eats for life. People need to take responsibility for themselves, but negative events in our history still effects our society today (the fact we are even debating it tells you that its an issue) and its not something we can just sweep under the rug because we weren’t there.

  8. Hey, Thomas. Just saw this reply to Phillip. I’m pretty sure that there are some inaccuracies with your historical facts.

    1. The ancestors of most Americans were not even in America during the slavery era.

    I’m not sure where you got this stat. This may be true if we consider Asian Americans and many Italian Americans (the majority immigrated after the Civil War), but most Americans can trace at least one ancestor to the Civil War. Most can trace several or many.

    2. The primary beneficiaries of slavery were the southern plantation owners rather than America as a whole.

    This simply isn’t true. Slavery was deeply rooted in the American economic system at the time. Though it was a minority that actually owned the large southern plantations, these people commanded an enormous amount of wealth (these guys were the Bill Gates and Donald Trumps of their time) that effected everyone around them down to the merchants that depended on the wealthy plantations to buy their goods to the northerners who processed the cotton and shipped it over seas. Most everyone who had an ancestor during the days of the Civil War is tainted with the evil of slavery. And as stated above, this is most Americans.

  9. I had a feeling you meant “restitution,” Dan, but my policy is to go with what I see rather than second guess someone and offend them by getting it wrong.

    I openly admit that I would like to see today’s endless disputes over “historical wrongs” put in the past. This is not to say I want to sweep them under the rug; that would be dishonest and insulting. I am a big believer in “Lest we forget.” However, I believe that everyone would be better off if we could move on, the offended parties included. Much of the damage that you mention to blacks, aboriginals, and women is caused, not by past events or attitudes, but by the negative emotional impact of festering resentments that some people simply refuse to abandon. Moreover, the wrongs of the past can make a handy excuse for one’s personal shortcomings and failures in life and thus stand in the way of genuinely coming to grips with them.

  10. It doesn’t help to correct inaccuracies with additonal inaccuracies. You seem to have forgotten (or are unaware of) the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from countries like Ireland, Poland, Russia, and other countries. I don’t know the statistics, but I think it’s quite possible that the number of Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the period of slavery is pretty small compared to those who are here as a result of later immigrations.

  11. There’s a concept called “restorative justice” that’s relevant here. It applies to the face-to-face meetings of victim and victimizer with the purpose of making the victimizer responsible for what they’ve done, and healing the wounds of the victim. The victim can be the actual person harmed, or the survivors. But the point of it is that reparation or restitution must be made in real time. Unfortunately, given humans as they are, if we go to the past for justification, revenge will always be part of the motivation, as in Algeria. And dragging the past into the present in order to right wrongs will always create new injustices. If, for instance, Native Americans weren’t still suffering from what was done in the past, the calls for apologies and compensation wouldn’t have so much importance. But apologies and financial compensation are easier than working to eliminate the conditions that so many Native Americans live under.

  12. Dan, I stand by what I have said in the reply to Phillip. Two-thirds is the number bandied about the web for how many Americans can claim ancestors in the Civil War era. However, this is only an estimate. The US Bureau of Statistics says only 17 million Americans have an ancestor who actually fought in the Civil War.

    This is a fact based on census data and not an estimate. Since the Civil War came at the end of the slavery era, going back a decade or two for a general ancestry number is reasonable, and doing that drops the estimate quite a bit. The US population grew by over 35% between 1850 and 1860, and by more than 80% between 1840 and 1860. I think I am justified in saying the ancestors of most Americans were not in the US during the slavery era.

    The economic effect of slavery on the US economy is a subject prone to massive political maneuvering. Leftists like to exaggerate the benefits; conservatives tend to minimize them.

    The evidence is good that slavery impaired the South’s overall economy by reducing investment in other sectors, a situation economists refer to as “concentration.” This is partly why the South lagged far behind the north in manufacturing. Plantation owners benefitted from a huge wealth inequality, but would invest their money only in more slave-based operations. “Although the South’s growth rate compared favorably with that of the North in the antebellum period, a considerable portion of wealth was held in the hands of planters. Consequently, commercial and service industries lagged in the South. The region also had far less rail transportation than the North.” ( “Slavery in the United States”)

    Assessing the situation in the north depends heavily on how you see the cotton industry. In the antebellum period, the South exported much of its cotton to Britain and France, with only a lesser amount going north. When the Civil War broke out, cotton comprised 60% of all US exports. The South was responsible for 70% of total US exports. Cotton went directly from the South to European mills. (This is why the North blockaded Southern ports.) America imported cotton fabric and clothing from Britain. The government imposed tariffs in 1816 in an effort to help the fledgling US industry. These were increased in 1824 and 1828 because people had shown themselves willing to pay for the better quality imports.

    Cotton processing in the north did not get rolling until 1810, was of poor quality, and largely for domestic consumption in poor rural regions. The textile industry was an important money-spinner, it is true, but America was not getting rich selling cloth and clothing around the world the way the British were. Southern plantation owners were getting rich selling baled cotton. Moreover, cheap slave-grown food from the South meant Northern farms were limited in what they could produce. Naturally, all of this changed after the war.

    Dan, you trouble me when you say, “Most everyone who had an ancestor during the days of the Civil War is tainted with the evil of slavery.” I do not believe in this kind of taint. A child starts fresh in this world.

  13. I’m quite aware of the folks who immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War. Those folks, or their descendants, would have eventually married those who were here during the time of the Civil War. If you have any facts, shoot them out. Thomas is claiming that 2/3 of Americans have an ancestor who lived during the Civil War. That is a majority.

  14. @I don’t have numbers because it isn’t a subject I’ve ever been interested in, but I do know that many immigrants married within their own groups. In fact, as in New York, where Eastern European immigrants virtually formed ghettoes, there was strong pressure to marry among your own people. And a good deal of that carried over into the 20th century.

  15. You are right. These immigrants did initially marry into their own groups. This typically lasted a couple of generations before their descendants became acclimated to their new country and began intermarrying with the “natives.” Let me give you an example–I have some friends whose great grand parents immigrated from Japan. Their grand parents and their parents all married other Japanese. The children, however, married “mutt” Americans. My friend’s children now have ancestors from both bloodlines (which probably includes Civil War ancestors 😉 ).

  16. Hey, Thomas.

    I’m comfortable with the 2/3 estimate. I am including those who were not only soldiers, but also civilians and slaves. We seem to be in disagreement of what “most” means. Would you be comfortable in calling 2/3 a majority?

    I can’t find any stats, but it appears that the consensus is that the vast majority of American blacks are descended from slaves. We’ve been debating white ancestors, perhaps that’s not the real issue.

    Even if we take the stance that whites do not have an ancestor from the time period, what do we do with the group that overwhelmingly does and was on the bad side of the deal and is still suffering from the effects of the event?

    Whatever the answer is, these things can’t be ignored or the ill feelings will fester. These people can get very angry when “white people” ignore or try to forget what has happened to their people. When we say, “well, it wasn’t my ancestors,” or “I wasn’t there, so had nothing to do with it” we are exacerbating the problem. To them, this sounds like a cop out and makes them angry and maybe even militant. I strongly believe, for the sake of our respective societies, we need to make some type of amends. Again, I’m not suggesting $$ is the answer.

  17. I would call 2/3 a majority, Dan, I just do not think the figure reflects the reality of the situation given that the Civil War came at the very end of the slavery era and the number is a rough estimate even for that late date. We could argue this until the cows come home. I think we must each decide what we believe the truth to be about this and let it go at that.

    I will remind you that I said I did not want to sweep the issue under the rug, and I will further remind you that there are emotional advantages to moving on for everyone.

    As for the cop out: I believe that people who were not involved have every right to say so. What you want to see happen means those who feel they have done nothing will have to make amends anyway. This may please you, but many others will get very angry about sharing the guilt and / or the cost (not necessarily in dollars) when they are convinced of their innocence. I suppose you could argue this is a lesser insult and they will get over it and put it behind them.

    I should mention that here in Canada, after the apology has been accepted, the demands for financial compensation begin. So far, the government has stuck to its original position on whether or not compensation will be offered, but I am wondering, given the depth of feeling surrounding slavery, if your government could do the same. What happens if making amends leads to costly demands that have to be refused? Or have to be paid out to keep the peace even though that means financial ruin?

  18. I agree that monetary restitution may not be the best answer. Like you said, it would cause animosity from those whose pocket it is taken and I’m not convinced that money would necessarily help those it is given to (the whole give a fish/teach to fish concept). There just needs to be some type of responsibility taken somewhere, somehow.

    Good post, Thomas. It’s got me thinking.

  19. Catana, your comment opened my eyes to something of which I was completely unaware. Nova Scotia has the most visible restorative justice program in Canada, and stories from there make the national news from time to time, mostly when they involve aboriginal people. I assumed the practice was strictly regional. However, I am astonished to find we have such a program right here in Chilliwack! Equally surprising was the discovery that my old home town of Kitchener, Ontario pioneered restorative justice in Canada way back in the 1970s. There are now restorative justice programs in place all across the country. Their low profile is a bit puzzling, but they are voluntary, which probably keeps the number of instances down, and I suppose the intensely personal nature of the victim / perpetrator meeting means the media are usually excluded. My research suggests these programs do work.

  20. Wow, I love the discussion and hard thinking this piece has generated. It’s been very informative and highlights one of the things I enjoy about this WordPress community. It goes to show just how precarious a topic like this can be and the opportunity to see it from so many angles increases our collective knowledge.

    In short, I just wanted to say thanks!

  21. I am glad you enjoyed the exchanges, Phillip. I think everybody added something worthwhile to the debate. What I repeatedly see when people comment is that none of us has all the answers. As you point out, we all increase our knowledge by being part of the blogging community.

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