Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Are We Attempting To Prove?

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  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?


Retriever said...

I'm sure you were more diplomatic than I would have been. I would probably have responded to him something along these lines (and royally pissed him off): Oh come off it! We Red Indians were no saints... I am a direct descendant of Pocahantas, and a whole slew of other Red Indian ancestors,(about 1/64? of my ancestry?) all women who had the good sense to marry Englishmen who treated them better than those chauvinist Indian braves....I never call them Native Americans, because that immediately makes me think of some oily operator in a ponytail who is hoping to either open a casino or make a living by making white people feel guilty listening to tales of white oppression.

I admire many things about my Indian ancestors--their handsome appearance, their ability to function despite the vicious New England woodland stinging bugs, their hardiness, their hunting skills, their tracking abilities, but I cherish no illusions about them. They were dirty, ignorant, treated women appallingly, tortured their enemies even worse than medieval Europeans did. They despoiled the environment (their corn fields exhausted the soil and that is why they had to put the fish heads in with the seed), In some places, they so over hunted the game that they wiped some species out. There are more deer now in parts of New England than when the Indians were there.

And I am SICK of whinging about
"we were tricked into giving land to the English/Dutch/name your oppressor" When I was a kid, the worst taunt you could throw at someone was "Indian giver", and we knew what it meant. You can't give someone something then later regret it and say "I changed my mind..."

Okay, I had a bad day, and am crankier than usual. SO I am trashing that side of the family.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Actually, "Indian giver" is one where I give them credit. Their custom was to exchange gifts as a sign of friendship. They gave a gift. If you wanted to be friends you gave one back. If you didn't, they didn't and expected the gift to be returned. If you didn't, it was an insult so they came and took it back, pissed.

That, we could have adjusted to intelligently.

I also am tired of the "harmony with nature" thing. They exploited their environment to survive, just as any intelligent humans would. Sometimes they screwed that up (See girdling maple trees for syrup, for example). But there was no hippie all-life-is-sacred nonsense about it.

Donna B. said...

When my huge extended family gets together, it's a multicultural event and, thus, all the more fun.

Granted, we're lopsided toward Scots-Irish, but Cherokee, Choctaw, Dutch, English, Filipino, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish elements are not ignored.

Those are just the documented lines.

There are all sorts of minor disagreements, petty differences, and all the other stuff that happens when relatively* large groups get together.

But we all agree that the food is awesome and the babies are beautiful.

We are Americans.**

*pun intended

**unlike some genealogists, several in my family were concerned that records were overlooked and searched specifically for evidence that there were slave owners among our predecessors. We found them in the 1600s and early 1700s in VA and SC. It seems that our ancestors were not able to hold onto such assets as plantations and slaves. Religious beliefs were a factor. I suspect contrariness and laziness were also.

Texan99 said...

I wish I could believe that the North American continent was populated by saints before we got here, but my guess is that they did about as much exploiting of land and other people as they had the power to do, which was not much. In other words, they were much like other people, with some different strengths and weaknesses stemming from their culture and their circumstances. A couple of hundred years ago, the dominant narrative was that strong cultures win out over barbarians, and that's a good thing. Now the dominant narrative is that it's pretty sad when materially weak cultures get stomped by strong, ruthless ones. Both points of view have their plusses, but neither is perfect and both are very susceptible to being romanticized in very silly ways.

Re whether Christianity is favored in our culture: the way I see it is that a vague kind of Deism is favored, which looks to atheists like Christianity and to devout Christians like something functionally close to atheism. But the dominant culture is something much closer to Christianity than it is to, say, Buddhism.

karrde said...

I always heard it that the Natives got horses and smallpox, and the Spanish got syphilis and tobacco.

Who got the worse of it?

Don't know...though many more natives died of smallpox than Europeans died from syphilis.

Donna B. said...

karrde - chocolate.

Imagine lunch with only food native to... the British Isles, for example. No wonder they finally decided to leave and conquer other lands.

The had alcohol, but were in dire need of spices and stimulants.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The new book 1493 describes how foods moved to and from the New World upon its discovery and how quickly and widely they spread. Those changes were amazing.

Donna B. said...

So... went to Amazon to read reviews of 1493. I think I would enjoy the parts on China and India, but it sounds the like the rest of it was covered much more succinctly in The Columbian Exchange.

The Columbian Exchange is a book that I need to replace in my library. I immediately regretted it when I sold it on ebay years ago.

While the potato gets lots of press, it's arguable that beans were just as important in improving worldwide nutrition. I have to wonder if they aren't as "popular" because bean whisky or bean wine were never invented (Are they even possible or just too gross to imagine? Or do they exist and I don't know about it?)

karrde said...

I think the general question of why a particular part of the story is mentioned (smallpox, maize, and squash, but not syphilis, horses, tobacco, chocolate, or potatoes) is that a narrative has already been decided.

The facts that fit the narrative are then brought forth. (Hence the mention of disease-ridden blankets, despite the anachronistic placement.)

There's also the question of location. Many contacts between Europeans and natives occurred in both North and South America. Not all of the give-and-take happened in places now contained in the borders of the United States.

If the person seems bent on anger towards the U.S., are they equally angry towards other European-derived nations on the two continents? Is there any attempt to allocate blame between the Spaniards, Portuguese, French, and Dutch, and English? (The English-speakers were the last colonial power to take land in the New World. Odd, most people don't think of things that way. And New Amsterdam was renamed early in its history, so it's easy to forget.)

Dubbahdee said...

What *DO* you back down from well?

Just wonderin'?

Sam L. said...

My sister tells me that some remote ancestor of ours married Pocahontas.

I go all 'big whoop' on that. I'd rather have pirates, horse thieves, and other interesting characters. I always wanted to be an axe murderer when I grew up, but I fell in with good companions...