Monday, October 09, 2017

In defense of Columbus

So apparently today is either Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day, depending on whether you’re a dastardly white supremacist or a woke, morally superior progressive.

It’s trendy these days to vilify Christopher Columbus, and by extension, all European-descended people in the Americas, for the genocide inflicted upon the Native Americans. It’s especially popular among people whose entire knowledge of history comes from bumper stickers and kiddie lit. We are expected (nay, commanded) to believe that Columbus was a cruel, racist slave-trading monster who befouled America with his presence for the sole purpose of eradicating the innocent, peace-loving natives.

I usually try to avoid profanity, but sometimes bullshit has to be called bullshit, and this is one of those times. Here’s the deal:

1. Columbus was no saint, but he was no monster either. He was fairly typical for a man of his time and place, and maybe a little more courageous and devout than most. Europe’s trade routes overland to Asia had been choked off and its economy was suffering badly. At the time, there was no way at all to gauge longitude and even latitude was iffy, and the 3,000 miles that he thought it was to the Indies was longer than it was possible to provision ships for. But Columbus had faith, a desire not to be poor and an enormous set of cojones, and those things paid off.

Sooner or later, contact was going to occur. If it hadn't been an Italian representing Spain, it would have been the Portuguese or the English. Or, equally likely, the Ottoman Turks, who were expanding prodigiously. And who traded slaves and forced religious conversions with even more gusto than Christians did.

Yes, Columbus took slaves, and yes, he treated them abominably. Yes, we enlightened 21st-century people recognize this as a horrible thing. But in his day, it was normal. Christian Europeans were prohibited from taking Christians as slaves, but Muslims had been trading in European slaves for centuries, and Europeans owned Muslims and pagans from the Middle East and Africa already. Slavery was a fact of life and had been for millennia. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that any nation abolished it. It strikes me as unjust to hold a man accountable to a moral standard that wouldn’t exist until hundreds of years after he was dead.

2. It wasn’t a genocide. Really, there’s no reasonable way it could be considered one. Webster defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” The misfortune brought upon the Natives by the white population was great but it was not deliberate, it was not systematic and the group in question wasn’t destroyed.

For the rest of this screed, I’m going to stick with the English colonies in North America, just because (a) those are the only ones I have any stake in and (b) as far as I know those are the only hotbeds of Columbus-hate. I’m not downplaying or justifying the atrocities committed against Natives by white settlers. The only reason I’m not enumerating them is simply that we all know about them. They were horrifying and worthy of condemnation. They also aren’t the entire story.

What usually gets called a genocide was in fact a mass migration accompanied by wars of conquest, such as have happened frequently over human history. Post-medieval England was poor, disease-ridden, crowded and politically volatile. The rest of Europe was no better off. Meanwhile, over the ocean there was a huge mass of land – nobody knew how huge – that wasn’t being used for anything.

“But it already belonged to the Natives!” Yes, it did, insofar as they had any concept of land ownership. But very few of them were farmers, and to European eyes untilled land is wasted. Hunting-gathering is a nomadic lifestyle that requires a large area to support a small population.

So, Mr./Ms./Xs. Progressive-American, if you were in their shoes, would you have stayed in a country where you had no prospect of ever bettering your condition and where the government might at any time turn on you, or would you try to stake out some off that wide-open land for yourself, by force if necessary? Of course you would, and trample anyone who slowed you down. Hunger and hopelessness will outweigh moral smuggery every time.

As for wars, those happen any time you have two groups of people who desperately need the same resources.  Do you seriously doubt, that if the positions had been reversed, Native Americans would not have attempted to conquer Europe? They weren’t intrinsically more virtuous than whites, merely outnumbered and outgunned.

And, crucially, less immune to disease. Europeans had been in contact with Asia and Africa, albeit on a limited basis, for centuries and had built up some immunity in the process. They also kept domesticated animals on a much larger scale. Native Americans had never been beyond their continent, obviously, but because they had no wheeled vehicles or horses, most of them never interacted with anyone but a few neighboring tribes. The overwhelming majority of Native deaths came from germs over which the Europeans had no control whatsoever.

3. The Natives were not pacifistic victims.  As Jim Goad wrote a few Thanksgivings ago (go ahead, read the whole thing):
We fought them from 1540 to 1890. That’s 350 years! They eventually lost, but nobody has proved to be as worthy an adversary as the Indians. We fought them a hundred times longer than we fought the Nazis. When we portray the Indians as an innocent tribe of peaceful hippies who were duped with “guns, germs, and steel,” as Jared Diamond would say, we make them look bad. They were warriors.
If I were a Native, I’d curse Columbus and spit at the mention of his name. I grew up next to a reservation in the ‘70s and I can tell you no ethnic group in America has gotten a dirtier end of the stick. I don’t blame them in the least for resenting whites and the man who started them coming here. Fair is fair.

But I’m not. I’m the descendant of generation after generation of Europeans, mostly English, who seized the chance to get out of the hellhole that was 16th- and 17th-century Britain. My people have flourished in the New World, and I’ll be durned if I’ll lament that fact. I celebrate Columbus, not because he was a swell guy, but because I benefitted from him. Others may do as they think best.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Could Jackson have trumped the War Between the States?

Okay, first off, from what Trump said it’s obvious that he was aware that Andrew Jackson was dead before the Civil War. (Which really wasn’t a civil war, but that’s a whole nother discussion.)  And while I don’t know that Trump was talking specifically about the nullification crisis, state-federal issues were very much a problem during Jackson’s tenure.

Second, slavery was the issue that pushed the states into war, but it was simply the most volatile aspect of a widening rift between north and south over diverging economies and cultures. The two were going to continue butting heads and it’s possible they might have split anyway, but absent slavery it probably wouldn’t have turned into a bloodbath.

Third, he’s dead wrong that a strong leader could have prevented the war. In fact, it was the election of a strong leader that touched off the war. Previous presidents had been compromising nebbishes and that was why the uneasy peace continued. Maybe if they’d managed to keep dithering until industrialization made slavery unprofitable, it could have died a peaceful death. Maybe. But no, Jackson neither could nor would have prevented war.

Trump’s right about the way Jackson’s wife was treated in the press, though. They literally hounded her to her grave. I notice that part of the interview hasn’t been reported much in the press, probably because they’re so gleeful about savaging Melania. Hard to blame Trump for identifying with that one.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

For your St. Patrick’s Day viewing pleasure

There are certain movies that I just have to dig out in March when my non-existent Irish heritage needs a little boost. There’s “The Quiet Man,” of course. That’s a perennial. There’s “The Secret of Roan Inish,” which is mostly for children but I still find it charming. (And for the life of me I can’t seem to find out what became of Jeni Courtney after she grew up. Jeni, if you ever google yourself and see this, please leave a comment.) I tried to like “The Luck of the Irish,” I truly did, but the acting was so wooden not even the irrepressible Cecil Kellaway could save it. There’s the Neil Jordan/Liam Neeson biopic “Michael Collins.” And then there’s “I See a Dark Stranger,” far and away my favorite.

The clip I uploaded so many years ago here is gone, but sure, isn’t the whole darn film on YouTube now, and therefore also at On The Other Foot?

“I See a Dark Stranger” (inexplicably released in the U.S. as "The Adventuress") would be just another British post-war relic were it not for Deborah Kerr as Bridie Quilty. If all you remember her from is “The King and I” or “An Affair to Remember,” hold on to your hat. As I blogged when she died almost ten years ago,

Deborah played a "little slip of a girleen" from the west of Ireland who tries to join the IRA, finds she's about twenty years out of date, and instead winds up spying for the Germans. The film was okay in and of itself, but it would have been just another late-night British relic except for her. She took a rather generic role and made the young lady into the sort of beautiful, innocently sexy, and self-contradictory creature that so many girls that age really are. When she turned up her nose at Trevor Howard, you could see her looking at him out the corner of her eye. When she declaimed her principles (mostly an inchoate hatred of Cromwell), she sounded just like a thousand other young women who throw themselves so passionately into their causes, never dreaming that they're not alone in them. She wasn't a part in a script, she was a real girl, and the kind that makes you tear your hair out and champ at the bit by turns. She might as well have been sitting next to me, rather than on screen, she was so thoroughly real. I was smitten with her by the third scene.

Speaking of Trevor Howard, he's excellent here too, at his understated best. William O’Gorman is fun as Bridie’s inebriated little father with tall tales of heroism. I do have to close my ears when a crowd of British extras shows up pretending to be American, but that’s a picky. And the dialogue has some lovely dry wit:

Bridie : I'm 21; I'm me own mistress.
Old woman (under her breath): That's an occupation that could change hands overnight.

Watch now and fall in love with Deborah Kerr all over again.