I had a brief mildly contentious conversation with the medical director yesterday. He is some small fraction Native American – much of his education including medical school was paid for on this basis – and commented that the Native Americans had given the Europeans maize and squash and had received blankets with smallpox in return. I objected that this was not fully accurate, noting that the new narrative of Europeans as unrelenting oppressors was as inaccurate as the previous no-real-fault narrative. He rather looked down his nose and informed me with some irritation that he is on the Dartmouth faculty in the Native Studies department, the thought being how absurd it was for me to challenge him. I replied that I did know the history.
He relented after about 60 seconds more of conversation that perhaps I did know something.
It bothers me when voices of authority make inaccurate declarations that fit a narrative rather than data. I don’t back down from that well. People are frequently influenced by what they believe to be the socially acceptable attitude to take, and that has political and social consequences.
First, the parts I got wrong: When I said that the new narrative is as inaccurate as the old one, that does not have much meaning. There is no way to measure that. Also, I should not have given the ground that the old narrative held the Europeans blameless. I don’t think that was ever taught by anyone – threadbare excuses have been common, shrugging unconcern has been common, but not denial. Inasmuch as we can compare the different interpretations at all, the current politically correct one is likely healthier for us to have. But there is an added consideration in such matters: the popular ideas of the day may require more opposition, even at the risk of imbalance. That is a worrisome approach, I admit, for people may disagree about what is the popular, conventional wisdom in any given time and place. Atheists believe that Christianity is favored in this society, Christians would find that ridiculous. There is evidence for both propositions.
What are we attempting to prove? If we wish to demonstrate that Europeans were essentially oppressing thieves, we can summon piles of evidence – enough to convince the unwary – but it just isn’t true. If we wish to demonstrate that Native Americans were essentially innocent victims, we can find some evidence for that as well, but that is even less true. Turn those around. If we wished to maintain that Europeans were innocent traders and settlers seeking only to carve out a shared space, we could assemble a great deal of evidence for that. But again, it just isn’t true. None of these one-idea formulations (however many sentences we use to elaborate on the single idea) is true. The key is in the question. We shouldn’t be attempting to prove anything, we should be seeking to understand.
Of the simple narratives of European exploration, very few are going to hold consistently. The natives died in horrifying numbers from contact with our diseases, most of them before they had met or even heard of white people. As much as 90% of the population, wiped out by disease, unintentionally. (The vicious Lord Amherst http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Amherst incident was 150 years in, and directed as a punishment for Indians siding with the French) What do we conclude about that? What else is there that holds so consistently that we can state it as a reliable guide to understanding the times? Whatever the direct participation in injustice, there was little white opposition to it – I suppose we could say that was true enough, though even that has enormous exceptions. But who would we be comparing that to? Injustices of Europeans to each other or Natives to each other, of Arabs to Africans at the same time, of Chinese to Koreans, of anyone to anyone? If it’s evil, does it matter if it’s just normal evil or not? Life ranges from difficult to horrifying most times and places we read about. Is that any justification or not?