There is no moral difference between trying to do bad things to people and failing at it versus trying and succeeding. There is enormous practical difference – society devotes more energy to punishing successful crimes for good reason. There is also a difference in the likelihood of forgiveness. If Jack tries to harm me but fails, I may hate him for the rest of my life, but my children and certainly my grandchildren are not likely to hold a grudge or even remember. But if Jack succeeds, so that my children lose a father, or an inheritance, they will remember longer.
One stream of my ancestors were New England Puritans. The way the story is told in retrospect emphasises the conflict and rancor, but the first fifty years were comparatively peaceful. There were brutal Indian wars just prior to the European arrival, and just west of Puritan settlement, those continued. The Mohicans were especially nototious for their aggression. Back in England, the cousins of the New Englanders were in a bloody war with the cousins of the Virginians, and much of Europe was engaged in religious persecution up until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, or even Utrecht in 1713. So relations in New England were goo, by international standards. There was a lot of trade and goodwill.
There were also many just plain horrible things done. The old conventional wisdom was that the Europeans had brought civilisation, technological advancement, and individual rights to the Indians, who were after all just benighted savages, so the bad things they did should be water under the bridge. The victors write the history books, as they say. The new conventional wisdom is that the Europeans ended up with all the spaceships by stealing and killing, so all the good things they did should be ignored. But in the 17th C, it wasn’t clear who was going to win, nor was it entirely clear who was doing the most stealing or killing. There were settlements/tribes/groups of both Europeans and Natives that did nothing wrong and won extermination for their troubles.
I focus on New England because it is the history I know best. It may not be representative of European-Native relations as a whole. That is my suspcion, based on my more limited knowledge of other events. But my limited knowledge is largely drawn from the new conventional wisdom, which may not be that accurate either.
In discussions of race one often encounters accusations such as “took the Native Americans from their cultures and put them in schools where they were forced to learn white culture.” Hmm. When the balance of power was more even, Indians captured Europeans, including children. I don’t recall that they set up special colonialist schools in their villages so that the Europeans could preserve their culture, nor that they made accommodation for religon or language. That’s not what anyone did, anywhere, until very recently. Forced assimilation of language, custom, and religion is just what human beings always do to each other when they win. Even now, the number of countries which voluntarily grant cultural space to helpless minorities is small*. Tolerance usually only happens when the minority is sizable enough or has cousins just over the border.
So too with accusations like genocide. Indian tribes certainly tried to wipe out each other at times, and when the opportunity presented itself, some tried to wipe out all the colonists within easy reach as well. Were those genocide? We are back to the who succeeded argument. One can attribute the European success to superior technology, Native American disease resistance, lack of Indian unity, or your theory-of-the-month. But the evidence for greater meanness and evil is largely an impression. It feels that way because they ended up with all the spaceships. I will note also that at least in New England, not many colonists ran away to join the Indians and go to their schools and adopt their culture, but the reverse was common, especially among women, who noticed the higher regard that the newcomers had for their wives and daughters. Further, I don’t know of incidents of Plymouth County invading Barnstable County to exterminate them for trading with Indians and adopting Indian ways.
The European settlers did many evil things. They did, and there’s no getting around that. It’s just not the whole story. The old CW and the new CW are both founded too fully on who won. The moral questions may be clearer if we look at the actions of the players who were on the scene at the time, when the outcome was unknown.
*And what countries would those be?
We come up against similar poorly-thought-out arguments about nationalism. There is this surprise that nationalism was not forever discredited by the existence of the Nazis. It’s got national socialism right in the title and everything. How do you fools not see that it’s obviously evil?
Well for openers, the Germans weren’t nationalists, they were tribalists, or racialists in the older sense of the word. Secondly, they were defeated by countries that actually were nationalist, including, when the push came, the Russians in the Soviet Union. That last is a bit of overstatement, but is more than half-true. The defense of Stalingrad was about Mother Russia, not the New Soviet Man. (If someone wants to argue that defense of territory does not rise to the level of nationalism I will not object. That circle of us-ness may have been even more tribal, not including Novosibirsk or Magadan. I simply note that it isn’t UN-style internationalism they were fighting for.)
Fascist comes from a word for sticks, and the story of how each stick can be broken if it stands alone but a bunch of them together are unbreakable. It’s the whole if-we-stand-together ethos, that can be very inpiring (coaches use it at halftime a lot), but can also lead to a lot of anger at people who aren’t getting with the program. With the Italians and the Japanese, the nation was all pretty much one tribe, so the distinction did not come up. Also, what lack of unity they did experience was along tribal lines: Sicily, Hokkaido. You can see that as nationalism, but even with those countries, tribalism is a better descriptor.
With Germany it’s not even close. They called it nationalism, but there were plenty of people in the nation who were suspect and eventually rejected: Jews, Slavs, Gypsies. There were also people in other nations who were ethnic Germans who were counted as part of this whole supposedly nationalist fervor. It wasn’t nationalism. Nationalism applied more to Great Britain, whose tribes buried their differences for the sake of the nation; or to the French and Walloons in Belgium or the Frisians and Dutch in Holland or the everyones and everyones in Canada, Australia, and the US. That’s nationalism. What the Germans had was a racialism that did not rise to the level of nationalism, that they tried to dress up in the language of the day to look more elevated than it was.
You can still make other arguments against nationalism, of course. As tribes cohere and each want their own nation, as in the Balkans, it does seem to lead to a fair bit of violence, animosity, and even warfare. Lots of folks think transnationalism or internationalism would be better (I use the terms in popular, not precise senses here). They see nationalism as a halfway point at best and an obstacle at worst on the way to those goals. I think the spectacular failure of the Soviet Union would suggest we be cautious at a minimum about such arrangements, but I see the attraction. People believe that the UN has done good in reducing warfare, and we should all move in that direction. I think global markets have done far more, and the uselessness of the UN has reinforced the power of dictators and oppressive regimes. Separate discussion. I am simply noting there is no obvious and automatic discrediting of nationalism because some evil groups have called themselves nationalist.
The theory is that the “we’re all brothers under the skin” method of achieving comity is the only one that has any chance of working, so all else must be suppressed as actively dangerous. It is true that some evil people were very conscious of race or nation in their hatred and violence. But so were those who defeated them. Some who proclaim the brotherhood of man have guillotined, assassinated, or liquidated those who were inadequately brotherly. Others have been simple decent folk trying to give everyone a fair shake. I suspect those who teach otherwise of partisan spirit for some second cause.
It comes up often in the “race is only a social construction” claim in the social sciences. Because people had bad definitions of race based largely on color in the past, and did evil things on that basis, we should never use the term with regard to humans again. I don’t think we apply that reasoning in many other places, but when we do, the intent is usually to define a word more precisely, like culture, or marriage, or depression, or progressive. We don’t usually abandon the word altogether.