Michael Medved on the “Lie” of American Genocide

(Hat tip Daily Goose). Article here.

Medved is arguing against what he calls the PC narrative of European/white American genocide against Native American peoples.

Medved points to the brilliant work (imo) of Jared Diamond—Guns, Germs, and Steel. The second of those items, the Germs are a key element here. The largest number of indigenous peoples died from infectious diseases (e.g. smallpox, typhoid) which can not be blamed on the Europeans. And I here agree with Medved, the stories of “smallpox blankets”–i.e. a sort of historical biological warfare–are fraudulent accounts. I’ll get back to the Guns and the Steel part in a second.

The PC account derives from the Romantic tradition. Namely that the Americas, prior to contact with whites, was an Edenic paradise of bliss and peace, the natives living in perfect harmony with Mother Earth and one another. This myth is actually subtly (or not so subtly) quite racist in its conception, positing indigenous peoples as “noble savages”–to counter the equally immoral line then common of indigenous as just plain old savages. Either way savages and not humans.

The romantic myth is a religious belief and as such is quite mythic and difficult, sometimes impossible, to shake a person out of. The “noble savages” exist as the salvation of the now guilt ridden modern white (trust me, they are white). So heaven help any aboriginal person who does not fit the profile of the “noble savage” because they exist in the Romantic view only to save white people from their own inherited guilt. They don’t exist as beings with their own dignity, autonomy, and point of view.

It also is mythic because it doesn’t stand up to historical facts. Pre-Columban Americas were rife with tribal warfare (which was endemic in all tribal societies, not just on this continent), human sacrifice (Aztecs, Maya, Inca all practiced), high infant mortality rates, and all the rest. There was great honor and civilization in these peoples, but not without its own dark sides.

Atrocities were committed by both Europeans and native peoples. Both sides also have their heroes who stepped out beyond the bounds of this fight and protected, befriended, loved the “Other.” When Medved sticks with this side of the argument I agree with him.

But here is where I think he begins to slip. Medved writes:

Colonial and, later, the American government, never endorsed or practiced a policy of Indian extermination; rather, the official leaders of white society tried to restrain some of their settlers and militias and paramilitary groups from unnecessary conflict and brutality.

Now most technically I suppose he is right. There was never an official policy of extermination. Though certainly, as Medved admits, a blind eye was often turned to paramilitary organizations that sought practically such a policy. Not to mention the US Army massacre of civilian indigenous peoples at Wounded Knee.

But this argument about genocide really I think misses the point. I’m not saying Medved has made a straw man in the European genocidal argument. Such views exist and in certain sectors carry weight.

What Medved does not face is the actual history (neither official extermination nor accidental only displacement).

The official policy of colonial and later US governments was control and submission of these peoples to white rule. Not extermination but not good either.

Recall that the European mindset saw land as an extension of the sovereign’s body; it was the sovereigns to bequeath and the rights that were attendant thereon, to the people. Hence all the stories of the Europeans telling the indigenous peoples how the Queen/King was so happy to love her/his subjects (the “Indians”).

The Native traditions (to the degree these many varied traditions can be generalized under one category) saw themselves more as “under” the land, as it were. A gift given by the Divine/ancestor. As a more fluid, less easily demarcated (into say plots) and often more discontinuous (rivers, trees, wind patterns, animal migrations) set of conditions.

These two colliding was no doubt bound to lead to an all out fight for political control. Even though it is true to say that the Europeans by and large were not “tricking” Native peoples into signing away their land. They simply lived in a world of land leases and the natives did not. We can know that now, but they simply would not have been able mentally to see it differently.

Even from within frame, with that proviso, the land given, the deals, and all the rest, was about the expansion of white interests. The Natives were seen by and large as either to be used or threats to be forced out or in the worst case, eliminated. Not that the native populations often saw it much differently, exceptions on all sides. Just they did not have the weaponry (guns/steel) or the immunity (germs) for the battle.

I ask this question about how it is taught bc Medved’s real concern is not this history or its current effects, but critiquing the PC narrative of genocide which in his mind:

only serves the purposes of those who want to foster inappropriate guilt, uncertainty and shame in young Americans. A nation ashamed of its past will fear its future.

I don’t know that it only serves that function, but serve an indoctrination of guilt it certainly does. Purposefully (if unconsciously).

But should we teach our children that the colonials up through the late 1800s saw themselves as the New Jews given this new land of Israel and like the Hebrews in the book of Joshua, believed they were divinely commanded to slay their own present day Jebusites, Canaanites, and Amalkites?

And while there were certainly accidents (germs), mistakes, evil actors, well intentioned plans gone awry, mis-communications and all the rest, this was a stated policy and societal meme. The Manifest Destiny one I mean.

Which leads to the second major criticism I have of Medved’s article. Namely that if you didn’t know any better, for Medved, Native Americans only exist in museums and history books. The argument is solely about how we interpret and teach today what happened a few hundred years ago. And it’s either genocide or the following:

As Jared Diamond’s book (and countless others) makes clear, the mass migration of Europeans to the New World and the rapid displacement and replacement of Native populations is hardly a unique interchange in human history. On six continents, such shifting populations – with countless cruel invasions and occupations and social destructions and replacements – have been the rule rather than the exception.

Which again is not untrue. Or true so far as it goes. But we are not talking here about the Gothic hordes sacking ancient Rome or the Viking invasions of the British Isles for Christ’s sake. There are actual Native Americans living on reservations in the United States (itself a European construct/order) today. No mention from Medved of the alcoholism, despair, suicide and obesity rates that characterize band life. Whose lives are directly and mostly negatively affected by these sets of historical circumstances. The accidental and the intentional ones.

Medved isn’t interested in reconciliation, justice work, overcoming the dislocation and disconnectedness of reservation from mainstream white life. At least not in this article. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think his agenda is an immoral one. I just think compared to one of reconciliation, it is not as deep. And I’ll go further to say that I think his agenda directly shapes what he deals with and how he sees it. Namely this creeping fear that those who today benefit and are raised in/aligned with the US constitutional system are in some manner guilty. The Romantic myth absolves this guilt by self-hatred and romanticization of the “other”, the “primitive”. I think Medved is absolving the guilt by historical and biological accident + the universality of human violence and acting as if the story is one that was completed generations ago.

In other words, I think he has correctly critiqued one false view (PC) only to create another one.

Published in: on September 30, 2007 at 3:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] my base (On medved part ii) Posted by cjsmith under Integral , Politics   The last post, here, got mad hits, so another […]

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