Twilight of the Idols
By Bryan Caplan
Putin defends Russia’s new history textbook with the classic excuse of “The other kids are doing it too”:
Mr Putin …described Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, in which 1.5 million people were imprisoned and 700,000 killed, as terrible “but in other countries even worse things happened”. Discounting the Soviet Union’s long history of oppression, he said: “We had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance.”
Nevertheless, we can learn something from Putin’s remarks. If it’s wrong for the Russians to apologize for their most heinous crimes to bolster their national pride – and it is – then it’s wrong for any country to do it. If we want to avoid Putin’s moral blindness, we need to seriously ponder whether we’ve allowed some true villains into our hall of national heroes. And if it turns out that villains predominate, we’ve got to clean house, not make Putin-esque excuses.
Now if you’ve read my previous thoughts on Columbus Day and Thomas Jefferson, you know where I’m headed. There are two uncontroversially massive crimes in which many, if not most, American leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries are implicated: slavery and the genocide of the Indians. And it’s not enough to say “Our Founding Fathers were great, but flawed men.” Slavery and murder are so evil that they overshadow every other accomplishment – which is why we recoil when Russian historians discuss Stalin in the spirit of “on the one hand, on the other hand.”
No, I’m not saying that Thomas Jefferson was as bad as Josef Stalin. But I am saying that both engaged in actions so heinous that no one should identify with or admire them. While we’re urging the Russians to clean up their history books, let’s set a good example by reforming our own.