[Marxism] Re: Help on Hitchens (or Ignatieff) on railroad and indian geno...
gdunkel at mindspring.com
gdunkel at mindspring.com
Sun Apr 11 19:25:21 MDT 2004
Here is the text of the Hitchens piece; The Nation is available form many
public library websites.
Title: MINORITY REPORT , By: Hitchens, Christopher, Nation,
00278378, 10/19/92, Vol. 255, Issue 12
My old comrade David Dellinger, hero of the anti-imperialist movement,
telephoned the other day to tell me of the fast he was undertaking to
protest the celebration of racism, conquest and plunder that impended on
Columbus Day. I am as respectful of my elders as any ancestor-
worshiping Iroquois, and David has been to prison for his beliefs more
times than I have had hot dinners, but a hot dinner--with steak frites,
cheese and salad and a decent half bot. of something, all complete--was
what I urged him to go and have. Break your fast, old thing, I beseeched;
1492 was a very good year.
I can never quite decide whether the anti-Columbus movement is merely
risible or faintly sinister. It is risible in the same way that all movements
of conservative anachronism are risible, and reminds me of Evelyn
Waugh's complaint that he could never find a politician who would
promise to put the clock back. It is sinister, though, because it is an
ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness, with an unpleasant
tinge of self-hatred.
Not long ago, another good man, Ted Solotaroff, sent me a book he had
helped edit called Black Hills/White Justice, by Edward Lazarus. This
details the long courtroom battle fought by various factions of the Sioux
to reclaim their rights in the mountains of South Dakota. You can guess
the story: treaties broken, lands filched, settlements put to the torch,
women and children vilely abused. And all of it done by the Sioux to the
Kiowa Indians, who had controlled the Black Hills before the Sioux got
there in 1814. Actually, the book deals mainly with the greed and
depredation of the palefaces, which is no doubt as it should be. But it is
honest enough to say that the Sioux did drive off the Kiowa, and it quotes
Chief Black Hawk saying candidly, "These lands once belonged to the
Kiowas and the Crows, but we whipped these nations out of them, and in
this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the
This is only a micro-illustration of the absurdity of founding a claim of
right or justice on the idea of the indigenous. The Arawaks who were
done in by Columbus's sailors, the Inca, the Comanche and the rest
were not the original but only the most recent inhabitants. (Arizona
Indians refer cryptically to the Hohokam--"the people before"--who
populated that valley in advance of them.) Some advocates now take
nonsense and place it on stilts, referring to "Native Americans" and thus
employing (a) the most condescending colonial adjective for indigenes,
namely "native"; and (b) the one term the description is expressly
designed to repudiate, namely "American."
Even if the matter of who came "first" could be decided, it would be
pointless except as a means to devalue the claims of those--some
millions of Irish, English, German, Italian, Jewish and other refugee
workers--who migrated across the Atlantic many years after at least
some of the "natives" migrated across the Aleutian Island chain. How
can a sensibility that represents mass emigration and immigration as
mere conquest and settler colonialism dare to call itself "progressive"?
But those who view the history of North America as a narrative of
genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this
reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the
United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead
buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway.
One need not be an automatic positivist about this. But it does happen to
be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as
complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift. Not all changes
and victories are "progress." The Roman conquest and subjugation of
Britain was, I think, a huge advance because it brought the savage
English tribes within reach of Mediterranean (including Ptolemaic and
Phoenician as well as Greek and Latin) civilization, whereas the Norman
Conquest looks like just another random triumph of might.
The very dynasty that funded Columbus put an end to Andalusia in the
same year, and thus blew up the cultural bridge between the high
attainments of Islamic North Africa and Mesopotamia and the relative
backwardness of Castilian Christendom. Still, for that synthesis to have
occurred in the first place, creating the marvels of Cordoba and Granada,
wars of expansion and conversion and displacement had to be won and
lost. Reapportioning Andalusia according to "precedent" would be as
futile an idea as restoring Sioux rights that are only "ancestral" as far
back as 1814. The Sioux should be able to claim the same rights and
titles as any other citizen, and should be compensated for past injury.
That goes without saying. But the anti-Columbus movement is bored by
concepts of this kind, preferring to flagellate about original sin and
therefore, inevitably, to brood about the illusory counterpart to that
exploded concept--the Garden of Eden.
Forget it. As Marx wrote about India, the impact of a more developed
society upon a culture (or a series of warring cultures, since there was
no such nation as India before the British Empire) can spread aspects of
modernity and enlightenment that outlive and transcend the conqueror.
This isn't always true; the British probably left Africa worse off than they
found it, and they certainly retarded the whole life of Ireland. But it is
sometimes unambiguously the case that a certain coincidence of ideas,
technologies, population movements and politico-military victories leaves
humanity on a slightly higher plane than it knew before. The
transformation of part of the northern part of this continent into "America"
inaugurated a nearly boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation, and
thus deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto, with or without
the participation of those who wish they had never been born.
By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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