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Reckon with This

We cannot rethink history to console those it embarrasses.

· 8 min read
Reckon with This
Emanuel Leutze Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops (1848) Wikimedia Commons

There are many designations lately applied to social justice movements on behalf of women, non-white people, the LGBTQ community, and other groups: #MeToo. Black Lives Matter. Gay Pride. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Some have tagged these campaigns with the dismissive labels of “Identity Politics” or the “Woke Left,” while more analytical observers have used the umbrella description of “the Successor Ideology,” to characterize a new set of progressive values espoused by younger generations of activists. But one term may sum up the entire range of modern advocacy around anti-racism, feminism, and gender more broadly than any other, and that term is the Reckoning.

The Reckoning is not an organization, a motto, or even a defined objective; dictionaries tell us that the word itself only means “the settlement of an account” or, more ominously, that a “day of reckoning” is “a time when something must be atoned for or avenged.” Today’s Reckoning is a multifaceted effort by educators, journalists, and political figures to re-evaluate the entire sweep of the Western narrative according to novel considerations of how deeply the story has been tainted by hitherto overlooked forms of discrimination and oppression. Where conventional accounts have duly acknowledged (say) the existence of slavery or the suffragettes, the Reckoning holds that white supremacy and the patriarchy were—and still are—essential to our social systems; that our notions of public and private life, from governments and laws all the way down to our art and entertainment, have been but convenient myths obscuring fundamental cruelties and inequalities that have gone unrecognized until now.

A sampling of recent book titles alone might demonstrate the Reckoning’s topicality: Beverly Lowry’s Deer Creek Drive: A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta (2022), Philip Dray’s A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age (2022), Emily Bingham’s My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song (2022), Tsquelmucwilc: The Kamloops Indian Residential School—Resistance and a Reckoning, by Celia Haig-Brown (2022), Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America (2021), Connor Towne O’Neill’s Down Along With That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning With Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy (2021), Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong (2020), and Linda R. Hirshman’s Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment (2019).

Perhaps the best-known expression of the Reckoning is the 1619 Project, a reinterpretation of US history published under the auspices of the New York Times in 2019, which asserts that it is not the year 1776 (when the Declaration of Independence was signed) that marks the real beginning of the American nation, but 1619 (when captive Africans were first brought to the American colonies). A linked series of essays, photos, and other explorations of the black experience in the US, the 1619 Project has been made available as a magazine, a book, and online, and has reached millions of teachers, students, and ordinary readers.

Other planks of the Reckoning focus on millennia of sexual violence and harassment committed by males against females, which took on fresh relevance in the wake of revelations of rape or abuse committed by wealthy and powerful men; or on the legacy of colonialism in the US and Canada; or on the record of homophobia directed at LGBTQ persons in many eras. A 2021 collection issued by the University of California Press, A Field Guide to White Supremacy, gives a sense of the Reckoning’s breadth, containing essays titled, “The Longest War: Rape Culture and Domestic Violence,” “Homophobia and American Nationalism,” and “Policing the Boundaries of the White Republic: From Slave Codes to Mass Deportation.”

In all of these illustrations, the repeated message is that intolerance and injustice are not merely unflattering details about the past which previous retrospectives have skimmed over—isolated episodes from long ago we can be glad to have moved beyond—but that they explain ongoing problems in the present. The Reckoning, whenever it’s invoked, aims to remind everyone of what perpetrators (and their descendants) have chosen not to remember and what victims (and their survivors) can’t forget.

But what if anti-racist, anti-sexist, or anti-homophobic judgments are themselves interrogated and rejected? Might historic beliefs and policies now held to be indefensible ever be, in any way, defended? Was there—or is there—a moral logic to inequality and exclusion? Or rather, does today’s widespread Reckoning against whiteness, masculinity, and heterosexuality contain a moral illogic that has gone unnoticed and unchallenged?

Consider colonialism. The conquest of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and swaths of Asia and Oceania by Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English powers between 1500 and 1900 certainly decimated indigenous populations and promoted a cross-continental slave trade; millions of human beings perished under subjugation by European empires. Yet what is routinely denounced as genocide now was, at the time, only a global expansion of something all cultures had always practiced regionally. It was Europeans’ unique opportunity to explore and exploit distant lands whose native inhabitants were in no position to reverse the process—their seafaring and other practices were just not sophisticated enough. To colonizing nations, the “inferiority” of local peoples was self-evident, since they succumbed so readily to European technology, social organization, and disease. If the Incas had landed in Spain, or if the Bantus had swept through Belgium, the world would be very different, of course. But that isn’t what happened, and that reality must also be reckoned with, along with the devastations wrought by Cortés and the ivory trade. As much as the heirs of the colonizers may be shamed for the often brutal domination they exerted over four centuries, the heirs of the suppressed, the enslaved, and the colonized must equally bear the humiliation of their failure to counter it.

White supremacy is likewise held as an obvious, irredeemable bias that has permanently handicapped black, aboriginal, and Asian people in the US and Canada, from the 1600s to the present. But the waves of emigration from the Old World to the New, and the newcomers’ eventual westward settlement of the continent, suggest less unfair advantage than demographic default. By the time of the US Civil War, the non-white population of the northern land mass (including free and enslaved African Americans, Native persons, and handfuls of Chinese and Japanese) was no higher than 20 percent of the total, gradually shrinking as yet more arrivals came from Ireland, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere in subsequent decades. Whatever’s happened in Canada and the United States since then, good or bad, most of it has happened to white people. That’s not supremacy, that’s proportionality. To assert that the entire North American success story—the railways and the Wright brothers, the breadbasket and the Baby Boom, Hollywood and Henry Ford, the Constitution and Confederation—was no more than a grand scheme to lord it over the BIPOC cohort, is to hugely overstate the relative significance of the cohort itself.

Women have another argument. For most of recorded history, half the members of the species have been relegated to secondary status: without legal or economic rights, objectified and targeted by male appetites, burned as witches, abused as wives, and disenfranchised as citizens. Not until very recently, we’re told, have we begun to acknowledge the long conspiracy to exclude, degrade, and dismiss women in every sphere of human activity. Still, the blunt rejoinder to such grievances generally boils down to biology. Women’s smaller average size next to men, their shorter terms of fertility, and particularly their vulnerability in childbirth led to a segregation of the sexes that prized women’s reproductive function and controlled it. Humans deduced early that, propagation-wise, males were expendable in warfare and other dangerous pursuits, while women were critical to the preservation of the line, the tribe, or the nation. Females of childbearing age were the special focus of males’ genetic drive. Treating them differently was a matter of collective survival. As long as civilizations were built on physical strength, and as long as laws were enforced by it, few women were allowed to have authority they could seldom exercise effectively. Men denied women many things, not least of all the freedom to participate in social exchanges they were always likely to lose.

LGBTQ communities, too, complain that they have been marginalized, that an orthodoxy of straightness has long been forced on a rainbow of inclinations at last being revealed in all its diversity. Here again, though, experience would have taught our ancestors something else: among the countless impulses of human desire felt and expressed over the ages, the vast majority have been between adult men and adult women. Sexual taboos have varied across societies (against incest and adultery more consistently than homosexuality, perhaps), but same-sex eroticism, transgenderism, and other variants would have always been negligible fringes of the far more common procreative instinct. Some individuals may have had to behave, marry, or dress contrary to their innermost wants, yet for the greater number of people who have ever lived, the familiar rites of courtship and domesticity easily aligned with their physiological reflexes. In statistical terms, any tendency besides heterosexuality was, literally, deviance. Enshrining and accommodating such tendencies, rare as they apparently were, was both impractical and unnecessary.

Isn’t all this just another way of saying “Might is Right”? That some gotta win, some gotta lose, and those who end up in the second category are just collateral damage along the forward march of civilization? No. Conquest and dominance are not their own justifications. But we have to allow that the conquest and dominance actually occurred. The Reckoning suggests that they didn’t; the Reckoning says that current inequalities are the products of ideology and indoctrination alone, and that without them, today’s disadvantaged or marginalized cultures would be as proud and as prosperous as any other. The Reckoning wants us to believe that a completely arbitrary hierarchy of social classes was invented and sold to us, in an historic swindle we can finally discredit. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s 2021 book Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion implies a typical play on this theme, along with titles like The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, or White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us, not to mention meme-friendly slogans such as “You Live On Stolen Land,” and “Believe Women.” The Reckoning claims to reveal the devastating truth that Might is not Right, it is Rigged.

There’s a quip sometimes attributed to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who, when asked in 1919 how historians would view the origins of the just-ended First World War, replied something like, “I cannot say for certain, but I am sure they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.” His meaning seemed to be that, while there were a wide variety of interpretations which might be made, there was a limited set of confirmed data to back them up. A similar restriction could be imposed on the Reckoning: yes, there are legitimate ways to rethink how our modern social order came to be, and some of them challenge easy assurances about democracy and enlightenment. But we cannot rethink history to console the people it embarrasses. We know about the damage wrought by colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy; we seldom linger on why the colonialists, patriarchs, and supremacists got away with it. Yet surely the conditions that led to such imbalances—not the mechanics of oppression, but its prerequisites—need to be considered if we are to have a clear understanding of contemporary divides. Highlighting or sentimentalizing the effects on the victims is not enough. As objectively as we can, we should also try to grasp the assumptions of the victors.

That isn’t the same as endorsing them. These traditions were greatly entrenched by the circular reasoning of religion (“It’s in the Bible, so it must be true”) and the last word of legal codes (“Sorry, but those are the rules”), and what might once have seemed like common sense became more convoluted and self-serving over many generations. It took epic campaigns of social and political philosophizing—basically the entire complex of Western liberalism—to convince us that all people had the same worth, no matter their heritage, identities, or innate attributes. Colonialism, white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia, we’ve realized, impede progress by artificially limiting the pool of ability available for the attainment of any human objective, to say nothing of the human miseries inflicted in their service.

Nevertheless, the point remains that these were not empty excuses made up on a whim by otherwise peripheral classes in order to gain from what they privately knew to be sheer fiction. They were not a pretext, a plot, false consciousness, or a fraud, nor were they conceptual constructs conjured out of thin air. They were reasonable responses to the facts at hand. To expose the deepest roots of injustice may be to discomfort its self-defined casualties no less than its disgraced perpetrators: there’s more than one Lost Cause mythologized by more than one losing side. Navigation, numbers, and nature—the evidence informing the outlooks whose inheritance is now in such dispute—were real. Notwithstanding the purported revelations of our contemporary Reckoning, it turns out that the Eurocentric, patriarchal, heteronormative versions of history are also the most accurate.

George Case

George Case is a Canadian author of numerous books on social history and pop culture, including ‘Takin' Care of Business: A History of Working People's Rock 'n' Roll’ (Oxford University Press, 2021)

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