[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. 




More information about the Marxism mailing list