Several weeks ago, a piece appeared in the Opinion Pages – The Stone (a blog about philosophy) in the New York Times by Peter Atterton entitled provocatively enough “Do I Have the Right to Be?” It begins with Atterton saying: “It’s a disturbing thought: All of us are alive today thanks at least partly to some mass atrocity that was committed in the past. This is because war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing invariably affect who is born after them.”
It is a disturbing thought, and an intriguing one.
Atterton goes on to say, “I think we fail to appreciate how radically contingent our lives really are.” It took me several readings of this article to wrap my head around this concept, I confess. But I’ll use my own existence as an example. It’s not just that my parents chose to make love on some random (probably cold) March evening when they could have chosen some other night, or day, or month and that consequently a different person would have emerged nine months later. It starts even before that – long before that. But I’ll only go back as far as my great-grandparents – one side who fled tough times and a too large family in Norway, and one side who fled tough times and a too large family in Ireland.
If there hadn’t been a mass genocide of Native Americans in this country, the U.S. wouldn’t exist, and therefore wouldn’t have been populated with immigrants like my great-grandparents. My grandparents would not have met, my parents would not have met, and naturally, I would not be me.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but in my youth I used to think (proudly) that my family didn’t have anything to do with slavery. This is ridiculous. Surely my ancestors in Ireland and Norway got cheap cotton from the U.S. in the 19th century. Surely my ancestors got sugar from the West Indies or other equally slave-dependent sugar manufacturers.
It’s very hard to divest yourself of responsibility for past or current atrocities. We are all connected, for better or for worse.
Atterton talks about Nietzsche, who believed that all things are intertwined, and that, for example, if you have a moment of joy, it’s only because of your entire previous history. That moment of joy is only possible because of everything that happened before. Atterton writes:
For Nietzsche this is a splendid thing, for it gives us the power to redeem the past. It ultimately enables us to justify those moments of pain and suffering in our past that are now seen as necessary links in the chain of cause and effect leading to the present affirmation of joy – a case of ‘I didn’t like it at the time, but it all turned out for the best and I wouldn’t change it for the world.’
Atterton rightly points out that if we say it was all for the best, we are also saying the suffering of other people, people we may have hurt, was worth it. And that’s cold. He goes on to say, “Who can maintain in good conscience that the Holocaust or slavery was justified because otherwise he or she, or anyone else currently living for that matter, wouldn’t have been born.”
I’m glad he said this. I have long had a problem with the all-to-common saying “I have no regrets.” I do have regrets. There are decisions I made, people I’ve hurt, things I’ve done that I SHOULD regret. It wasn’t my right. And regret, I think, keeps us humane. Makes us remember, and hopefully, not repeat past mistakes.
I have also often thought that what we have in our life is from the backs of others (the food we eat, the cars and houses we own – all from the hard work of others). But truthfully, before this article, I hadn’t thought my very existence was on the backs of others, or because many people died before me. It is a humbling thought.
We are all connected. If we keep this in mind, it would be hard to be superior for too long. And because we’re all connected, we have a shared responsibility to each other. To live a good life. To do no harm. Easy to say, of course. Happily I think Americans in general (and I realize, not all) do take responsibility for their actions. More so than people in other places I have lived, at any rate. We can do good. I want to believe it.