Jan 282010
How to torture an American:  force them to conceive of a history of the United States wherein we are not the greatest military force on earth, we are aggressive bullies and thieves, and others are more wily and sophisticated than we are.  Now, make them tell that story.  Actually, I don’t think it can be done.  Even the most leftist American historian I’ve ever read is a patriotic apologist.  C’est le nationalisme.  Le nationalisme est un bourbier.
This is a natural habit well cultivated by a tendency never to ask others for their opinion.  My professional training reinforced the inclination.  None of my masters ever asked me to read any American history written by a non-American.  What’s more, none of them even asked me to read histories of other North Americans.  It is in this way that I was trained to keep my thinking parochial and my attitude dismissive.  Now, I struggle to teach myself the history of Nueva España and Nouvelle-France in order to broaden my take on American history.  It’s damn hard to do so, by the way.  It’s pretty much the ignorant leading the stupid.
Happily, I stumbled onto a history of the French in North America (subtly entitled The French in North America), which is largely a history of Canada.  What a difference your perspective makes!  The author is English but he was trained in Canada and France.  Free from many of our prejudices and assumptions, he makes daring statements.  The most surprisingly nuanced is that the greatest military force in North America in the seventeenth century was the Iroquois Confederacy.  Upon reflection, I think it’s largely true.  The group dominated the northeastern part of the U.S. at that time and being a combination of six nations, it was significant in numbers — giving it a numerical advantage over its foes.  It certainly outnumbered the European settlers in the colonies.  I have yet to discover an American textbook that in anyway acknowledges the superiority of any Indian nation or body.  I guess the Canadians and French don’t feel threatened by acknowledging this truth.
Also, during the course of his story, the author — W. J. Eccles — recounts a number of incidents of aggression on the part of English colonists against the Canadians.  I was completely unfamiliar with these.  No one had ever instructed me before that New Englanders raided Acadia and Newfoundland for spoils.  These were apparently unprovoked and the sole purpose was to steal from the French.  So noble.  Did I mention that these New Englanders settled the territory before the Puritans?  I guess that’s how Squanto knew already knew English and could teach them how to plant corn so they wouldn’t starve to death.  Anyway, so much for our founders coming to our shores in search of religious liberty.  Damn the inconvenience of truth.  Pillaging pirates, not prayerful Puritans — these were our English forefathers in the northeast.
Well, we can always console ourselves with the myth of social Darwinism:  Anglos conquered the continent — driving out the French, Spanish, and Native Americans — because it was their manifest destiny as the greater culture/force (chosen by God).  Through various military endeavors, we eventually bested the Indians and took their land.  Those pathetic Frenchies weren’t up to the task.  But, wait!  Eccles says:  early on, the French realized that they were grossly outnumbered and militarily inferior to the Indians in North America.  The French government determined that it did not wish to commit the necessary money and troops to fully develop Canada.  The returns would not be that great, and it was more interested in besting the English in Europe.  As such, they came up with an Indian policy that was essentially to trade with the Indians and depend on them for protection and assistance.  In short, they opted to be the subservient in order to make money off of the fur trade.  They decided that was all they really wanted with North America anyway.  Genius.  Then, they figured out that they could use their settlements in America as a thorn in the flesh of the English.  They — along with their Indian allies, to whom they gave guns in return for valued furs — could mount enough of a military threat to force the English to commit troops to protect their colonies.  This would siphon off soldiers from the battlefields of Europe, giving the French the advantage they preferred there.  Further, the French realized that with proper encouragement, they could sit back and let the rebel colonies do the dirty work for them.  If the English were busy fighting their colonists, the French would again have the advantage in Europe, as the English would be fighting two fronts.  (Unfortunately, in the end, they did have to send in the navy to save us because alone the American military was not up to the task and colonists were too cheap to pay for the necessities of war.)  Shortly thereafter, Napoleon would prove the wisdom of this policy and lead the French empire to dominance.  As painful as it is to accept, to the French, the Americas were but a pawn.  We may have been undertaking a noble experiment, but they were playing at a larger game.
So, here is a bit of American history from a completely different perspective — one in which we are not the grand heroes and enlightened victors.  In this history, we are cheap, greedy, aggressive, and militarily inferior to both the French and <gasp> the Indians.  I dare you to tell that story to your children.  Oh, the horror!  Don’t worry.  It would never make it past the Texas School Board.
 Posted by at 5:49 pm
Jan 102010
Historians are judges — of what is good or evil, of what is noble or undesirable, of what is human nature or aberrant.  In trying to make sense of past events, we judge them — and the people involved in them — in order to understand them.  Thus, we ask questions like:  were slave owners in the American colonies cruel sadists or did they know not what they were truly doing?  Did they unconsciously build a system that robbed others of their very selves by enslaving them or did they set out to intentionally establish a culture of cruelty towards blacks?  These are moral questions as much as they are intellectual ones.  When we ask them, we are trying to understand the thinking of our ancestors, but we are also making value judgments about their behaviors.  We cannot escape doing so.  It is part of being human.  Social scientist might find this duty objectionable and pretend they can remove it from our practice, but that is foolish nonsense.  We are not history automatons and the value of history is tied to its role in creating and supporting our ethical beliefs.  We are moral beings studying other moral beings;  it would be the height of ridiculousness to pretend to remove morality from that study.
When we write about noble characters who commit great deeds we tend not to struggle with the morality of our judgments as much.  We generally accept that people do good and desirable things, so when we write about this, we tend not to question from where this goodness originates.  It may be uncommon to be a great patriot, but it isn’t a psychological aberration.  When we write about perpetrators of great evils, however, we confront just such qualities.  What kind of a man was Adolf Hitler that he could do the things he did?  Underlying that question is moral repulsion at his behavior.  Thus, in writing about him and the other Nazis, historians struggle with how best to judge these men.  Some attack them as evil, psychologically disturbed persons.  Others, try to come up with a rationalization that makes their motives seem reasonable and, therefore, comprehensible.  In her analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, Hannah Arendt proposed that his case illustrated the “banality of evil.”  Eichmann’s actions were not the result of a great prejudice or psychosis.  Eichmann was just a regular guy who went along with the herd.  The great evil of the Holocaust here was its inanity or lack of conscious maliciousness.  In other words, it’s not personal, it’s just business.  The ideological extension of that contention is that there is nothing special about evilness and you should not engrandize evil historical figures by characterizing them as exceptional (even in a negative way).  Thus, you rob them of their infamy by treating them as regular human beings rather than powerful individuals.  Perhaps this is our revenge on them.
Last summer, an old man consumed with disease and hatred endeavored to commit a mass murder at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.  A white supremacist with a violent animosity toward Jews, he plotted to kill visitors at the museum — a futile act of rage against the society from which he had become marginalized.  He was thwarted in his aim by a guard who wounded him when returning gunfire.  Our hero, Stephen Johns, died in the line of duty, preventing a potentially great slaughter.  Our villain, James von Brunn, has been declining in jail since that time, dying of his diseases while awaiting trial.  Clearly, von Brunn was no Eichmann (or at least Arendt’s Eichmann).  His action was intentional and vile.  It was abnormal, and it seems impossible to dismiss it as banal.  What to do then with this character?  How do we judge him?  And, if we do so, do we reward him for his evil act by giving him an acknowledged place in history?  On the day that he died, the museum put out a statement remembering Johns instead and pointing to the continued need for efforts to eradicate prejudice and hatred in human society.  It was a rather ahistorical tack for a place of remembering.  It was, undoubtedly, an intentional refusal to acknowledge von Brunn and his significance or connection to the museum.   For a place dedicated to keeping the memory of the Shoah alive, as to prevent its reoccurrence, it was an antithetical act, and perhaps not even a proper one.  To reject the historical perspective in order to punish one man seems a high price to pay.
In the end, von Brunn’s passing held little significance anyway.  The story didn’t even make the front page of the papers.  It was a small item on even a slow news day.  Perhaps the real justice in this story is the banality of von Brunn’s death.  He was not a victim of the death penalty — earning the martyr’s status that would give him longevity among certain circles.  It wasn’t a gruesome death etched in the memory of a watching public that would give it notoriety either.  No, he died of ill health unrelated to his actions at the museum;  it was the way he would have died if he had never plotted murder or raised his gun.  Thousands annually die the same way.  It was unremarkable, and that is the way history will record it.
 Posted by at 12:46 am