Friday, March 25, 2022

Expansionist, Genocide

 Glenn Loury had a guest, a liberal academic that he treated as a fair opponent of good will based on previous disputes, to discuss American involvement in Ukraine. He thought it was a good time to re-evaluate America as the superpower, enforcing its will on the world. That sounded worth listening to, if perhaps a little overused. After all, if you keep bringing something up but it doesn't happen, you have some justification bringing it up again.* So I was willing to go a long way, I thought, partly on the basis of Loury's vote of confidence and partly because I have some agreement with the premise - though I doubted it was going to be entire.

In his opening statement he claimed that America has always been expansionist, and my mind immediately contradicted him.  I have heard this before. Do you remember how Lexington, KY got its name?  Yes, it was in honor of the battle of Lexington, MA. The few guys in what later became Kentucky had just gotten there.  You couldn't call it settled. So that is 400 miles inland in 160 years, still wilderness. It took a long time for the original colonies to expand even naturally and organically that much. And no one, absolutely no one, was saying "Let's see how much of this land we can conquer and make everyone in it obey us." If an algae covers a lake we don't say that it is expansionist in that sense, even though it has expanded. We just call it successful in its environment. Words have actual meanings, not just things you can try to slip by the unwary. Europeans did take land. In our current framing we think of it as taking it "from" natives who were generally in the area. Some of the European actions were very much "taking it from" in that way. A lot of it wasn't. A lot of it was unused, or ceded cooperatively, or purchased. I mention that only to defend against the expected false dichotomy of "Oh, so you approve of stealing all that land?" I shouldn't have to, but it's going to be out there. There wan't much thought about expansion per se. As population grew, people went out to the edges looking for where they might settle.  That is expanding, yes. Like an algae patch. More in a moment.

The speaker just two sentences later used the phrase genocide of native people, which is even a worse abuse of language. Genocide has an actual meaning. In all of American history you won't find people advocating that we simply kill all the natives. At worst, you hear a few think it might be a good idea if it happened, and that only much later. Contempt, oppression, advantage-taking - all those are up for discussion, and the Europeans will have much they can be blamed for. But genocide is simply a deeply inaccurate term. 90% of the New World population that died did so from the European diseases. Many of the next cut were killed by other natives, sometimes because they had harnessed new introductions from Europe (the horse likely more important than the gun), sometimes because they perceived a neighboring tribe as weak or weakened, sometimes to punish fellow tribesmen or neighbors for adopting European ways. That's horrible, tragic, and would not have happened without the arrival of Europeans.  But it's not genocide. 

Some things down the road do turn expansionist. But Manifest Destiny was what, 250 years after settlement, and not even universally supported? America wanted control of trade, especially in our own hemisphere, but was still isolationist up until late in WWI and immediately reverted to that after. We pushed people around in order to get good trading deals.  You can hate that, but it's not really expansionist. So too with the deaths of natives. It is only late in the day that you start hearing "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." (That phrase does not mean quite what it sounds like, but it's close enough, and that's a story for another day.) Even then, aggression against natives is piecemeal, related to local advantages. It's not genocide, even at its worst.

This misuse of terms right out of the gate is important because it is a tactic, and an intellectually unfair one.  the speaker is attempting to set the opponent in a defensive position by bringing in false dichotomies to make him respond to, or have to pass over and tacitly accept. It's dishonest. It means that right off the bat you are dealing with a dishonest opponent.

And you turn off the podcast there, less than two minutes in, even though you know he likely has some valuable things to say.  Because you know you can't trust him.

*You also have some obligation to look and see if you have missed something important, either in your analysis or your persuasion. Yet that is separate.


Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: Genocide has an actual meaning.

Ethnic cleansing is probably closer to the mark.

Grim said...

I'm more sympathetic to both usages. The Mexican War was clearly expansionistic, and it predates the civil war by approximately two decades. As for genocide, the histories rarely talk as much about William T. Sherman's stated intentions as he did in his own writings. You have to go to alternative sources to find them quoted. I am linking to Lew Rockwell in this case, not for their add-on analysis (which you can ignore) but for the quotations.

In his own words, Sherman at least sounds like he was clearly intending to eliminate and replace whole populations.

Anonymous said...

"Sherman at least sounds like he was clearly intending to eliminate and replace whole populations"

This is the reason the Donbass had to fight the Nazis that attacked them. They are, what was the communist east of Ukraine, and the Nazis that conducted that attack, under CIA tutelage, were out to replace them. That they control the heavy industrial part of Ukraine, is why they needed to be eliminated.

JMSmith said...

It is very hard to talk with people who have internalized this narrative of American imperialism on the North American continent, and the narrative unfortunately grows stronger with every passing year. There were, as you say, many people who opposed expansion of the federal system because they realized that spatial enlargement would necessarily cause a centralization of power. I think their fears have been justified by events, but I also see a kind of tragic necessity to Manifest Destiny. Mexico controlled its northern frontier territory only on paper, and United States had very good reasons to make the length of its border with that chaotic country as short as possible. If there was going to be law and order in that land would come from the US or one of the European empires. It wasn't until the twentieth century that the U.S. government began telling foreigners how to run their own affairs.