Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A New Thanksgiving Tradition

"Conservatives" (if by which you mean, apologizers for genocide) have taken up a new Thanksgiving tradition; defending their white ancestors from slanderous claims that they were somehow responsible for what was presumably the entirely unintentional killing of millions of Native Americans (via Sadly, No!):

Columbus Day? The start of a vicious subjugation. A Denver Columbus Day parade was marred last year by protesters who threw fake blood and dismembered dolls along the parade route.

Plymouth Rock? Weren’t the Native Americans here first after all? The 400th anniversary of the landing at Jamestown was renamed from celebration to “commemoration” in 2007 because “so many facets of Jamestown’s history are not cause for celebration.”

Medved, a passionate but not blind patriot, argues that our kids and the rest of us are being fed a tendentious history that wildly exaggerates the offenses of European settlers. The notion that “America Was Founded on Genocide Against Native Americans” cannot withstand scrutiny.

Like racism, genocide is a word that has lost its meaning through promiscuous overuse. Medved reminds us that the international “Genocide Convention” defines genocide as an act or acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such.” In the clash of civilizations between European settlers and Native Americans, millions died. But the overwhelming majority of those deaths were attributable to diseases carried involuntarily by Europeans and spread to natives who had no natural immunities to these pathogens. That is a tragedy, but not a crime.

What of those smallpox-infested blankets that have received so much press? Medved examines the evidence and concludes “The endlessly recycled charges of biological warfare rest solely on controversial interpretations of two unconnected and inconclusive incidents 74 years apart.”

There were terrible injustices and massacres committed by Europeans against Native Americans and some running the other way as well. The more technologically advanced civilization prevailed — which is the usual course in human affairs. But the current fashion to distort that history into something like a war crime is, to say the least, overstated.

So essentially, if it can be proven that some white settlers somewhere didn't actually pass diseased blankets onto Natives, then clearly, they have no complicity in the fact that millions of Natives died in the process of having their land taken away from them.

This is beyond ridiculous. No one with half a brain who's ever read even one high school history textbook thinks that European colonists and their American (north and south) descendants didn't deliberately and purposefully take the land away from the people already living here, enslaving and killing them in the process. That's because that's obviously what happened, and only a fool can possibly argue otherwise. Only a tiny minority think that these settlers have any complicity for what were unintentional (though certainly not unwelcome) deaths of millions by virulent diseases like smallpox, and so arguing against such beliefs and proving that they didn't happen doesn't somehow also undermine the proposition that what took place is what we now would certainly refer to as genocide and ethnic cleansing. There are simply no other words appropriate to describe the brutal enslavement, mass murder, relocation and constant warfare that followed for hundreds of years after the settling of the New World.

Also, to describe this process as the "usual course of human affairs" is to demean the scale of what happened. Nowhere in the course of human history were two entire continents subjugated in the matter of a few centuries, with tens of millions killed in the process and hundreds of separate and entire cultures destroyed forever. There is nothing that has ocurred or could occur today that can possibly compare, short of the invasion of our planet by a "technologically advanced civilization" that results in the conquest of the world and the deaths of millions or billions of people. 

Now, one can argue that our ancestors were not particularly enlightened by our standards and so were only doing what they believed to be right or permissable. But this isn't the argument that Mona Charen is making. Instead she is playing a more traditional game, of downplaying the significance of what happened and deriding those who whine about the injustice of entire peoples being obliterated from the Earth. 

But why? Why take this holiday to write a column to say that essentially the destruction of the Native peoples of the New World wasn't really so bad? White conservatives like Charen feel the need to defend the traditional narrative that has supported the myth of American exceptionalism, as well as the pre-eminence of whites in that myth. To acknowledge the incredible injustice that was done to native inhabitants might cause someone to think about the deplorable conditions some Natives live in today, which might then imply that something must be done about that condition, which might then also imply that white privilege has not served to benefit all members of society, which might further imply that someone other than descendents of the people who destroyed Native societies should be running the show. I over-simplify to make my point, but no one more jealously defends power than those who fear they might be losing it and someone who feels the need to write a column explaining why the conquest of the New World wasn't so bad is insecure indeed. 

Here's the deal: neither myself nor nobody I know wants to make anybody who happens to be descended of European conquerers (as I am in part) feel guilty while they're hefting that turkey leg to their face. We just want everyone, conservatives included, to acknowledge that what happened to the Native Americans, who died horrible deaths in the millions, whose civilizations and cultures were brutalized and destroyed, and whose land was taken from them as they were driven to near extinction, was really, really horrible. Why? Yes, so you'll pay attention to the conditions that many Natives find themselves in today. But also because a nation that acknowledges its mistakes and flaws is a humble nation, a nation that is more likely to act with restraint and consideration and less likely to act out of arrogance, hubris, or a desire for power. Why I would think that those traits are ones we would like to avoid these days is something you can probably figure out on your own.

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