NEW YORK -- "At the time, did the people involved in the slave trade see slavery as an evil -- as we do now?"
That question, paraphrased here, was asked last month by Nick Lemann, The New Yorker writer, who moderated a panel discussion at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism after the award of the 2003 Lukas Prizes for nonfiction writing. Robert Harms, winner of one of the prizes for his book "The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade," answered that diaries and journals of the time indicate that of course people knew that, but business was business.
Among the contemporary arguments "to soften what seems inhuman" -- those words were from an early 19th-century essay defending the trade by the mayor of Nantes, France -- were improving a country's balance of trade and giving heathens the chance to become Christians, thus giving them eternity in paradise in exchange for a short lifetime in chains. Anyway, one defender said, if it were immoral, the king would be against it.
Lemann, who will become the dean of the journalism school later this year, then asked other Lukas winners what things we are doing now might be considered evil a century from now. What were the beliefs and actions that would make our ancestors ask, "How could they do that?"
Samantha Power, the author of "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," said the question history would ask 100 years from now was: "How could they let Africa die?" Lemann then said that he had asked the same question about future history in the White House and Congress, and conservatives generally answered that the evil remembered will be abortion.
So much seems so obvious looking back. Looking forward is quite another thing. What will they think of us? Will our great-great-grandchildren agree with Power, that it was evil to stand by while 3 million or 4 million people were killed in one country, the Congo? What will they say about helping along the balance of trade by refusing to give pharmaceuticals to people who are too poor to pay for them? Or will they think it was wrong not to execute or jail for life habitual criminals or potentially dangerous mental patients?
My own guess -- and that's all you can do -- would be that our descendants will see us as stupid, if not evil, to go back into the empire business when we have evidence -- at least as far back as the Roman Empire and at least as recent as Soviet communism -- that the exercise will almost certainly end badly.
It will depend, of course, on who writes the history. If we prevail, we can clean things up as we have in the past. After all, how many American children are taught that our troops killed 250,000 men, women and children in the Philippines from February 1899 to July 1902, all in the name of liberation? I saw that figure in an early copy of a forthcoming book titled "Flyboys," by James Bradley, which includes some extraordinary material on the history that inevitably led to war between the United States and Japan in 1941.
Bradley, who wrote the best seller "Flags of Our Fathers," also collects quotes by Theodore Roosevelt, some of which you don't normally read in textbooks, but which do help illustrate a couple of American attitudes that surface regularly when we set out to save the world, whether it wants to be saved or not. This is what the man on Mount Rushmore had to say about the people we now call Native Americans:
"The conquest and settlement by the whites of the Indian lands was necessary to the greatness of the race and to the well-being of civilized mankind. Such conquests are commonly undertaken by ... a masterful people, still in its raw barbarian prime, which finds itself face-to-face with the weaker and wholly alien race which holds a coveted prize in its feeble grasp."
It is true that history repeats itself. But that repetition can be obscured as long as the history-makers are in their prime. So, it seems, what our ancestors remember and say about us will depend more on what kind of people they are -- what they want rather than what we do. History is fungible; it can be spent as the masterful choose.
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