Friday, October 05, 2007

My interview with Medved

-- by Dave

I did a phone interview with Michael Medved earlier this week about his column on slavery in America, and you can read the transcript today at Crosscut. There's a full set of links there to some of the other reaction in the blogosphere.

Some thoughts on the interview:

I'd researched the background on this and noticed that the slavery piece was the second part of a series beginning with an earlier piece about the "myth" of Native American genocide. (I've written recently on this topic myself,.) So I approached the matter curious to see what Medved's argument was based on, since I've heard similar arguments emanating from the neo-Confederate/home-schooling set based on purely spurious work.

Medved, at least, builds his case on facts taken from some serious historians, including David Brion Davis and Guenter Lewy. Mind you, his approach is highly selective, and his opening, and central, argument is dubious at best. But as he points out, he's not being just wacky.

And just for the record: Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" response left me scratching my head: "Ah, hey Mike -- you hear about Appomatox Courthouse? Jefferson Davis getting arrested? Michael, good God, go back to reviewing movies!" Well, I get it: He's suggesting Medved is a Confederate sympathizer unaware that his side lost. Still, Davis was never arrested that I'm aware of, and the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomatox doesn't have anything to do with Medved's argument, which is about America's relative virtue when it comes to slavery. I'm not taking Medved's side, but we do need to argue honestly.

On that score, however, I think it's important to take stock of Medved's approach, which isn't quite Malkinesque but still something of an abuse of the historical record. Simultaneously, his argument is morally muddled at best.

See, for instance, this exchange:
Neiwert: I think the line that caught a lot of people’s attention was the following: “Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean.” It’s hard not to read that as saying that this was a horrible thing for the slave owners to go through.

Medved: No, that’s not what I meant at all, and obviously I’ll want to reword that. What I’m saying is that it is horrifying that they had the level of death that they did in the Middle Passage given the fact that they had every interest in keeping people alive. In other words, when you talk about estimates, and I acknowledge, in my piece, that up to one third of slaves in the Middle Passage perished – when you’re dealing with that kind of death when it is clearly not deliberate, then it is even more horrifying than it would have been if it had been deliberate. Because what it suggests is that the conditions were so abysmal and that the risks of oceangoing transport were so huge at that time, that even with every motivation in the world to keep people alive they were unable to do it.

I'm sorry, but I'd frankly have found it more horrifying if it had been intentional, but the callousness that wrought these inhumane conditions is indeed quite horrific as well. Moreover, these slave traders knew full well before embarking that many aboard were going to die and calculated the costs accordingly -- which is to say, there was a full measure of intention in these deaths regardless of the magic of the marketplace and profit motives. Medved's distinction is so fine and so dubious that you have to wonder why he bothers drawing it.

Then check the point in the interview where we start discussing Col. John Chivington (of "Nits make lice" infamy) and the Sand Creek Massacre, and he says:
OK, let’s break it down. Who was Col. Chivington?

DN: He was the commander of the Colorado Militia at the time.

MM: So then he was not a government – in other words, this is like, if you will, the 19th-century equivalent of the Minutemen. This is not official government policy. The Army had a very different attitude. And again, in that case, no one would ever claim that there weren’t cruelties and that there wasn’t mistreatment, but to suggest that there was a genocidal policy going all the way back to the early days of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior -- Carl Schurz was the Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes Administration and he was actually criticized because they said that he was too compassionate.

This description of the role of the Colorado Militia at Sand Creek borders on the nonsensical. In point of fact, militias were the main form of organized military force in America at the time and had been for most of its history up until (the United States did not create a standing army until after the turn of the 20th century). Suggesting that Chivington's fully armed and drilled militia unit was somehow comparable to the band of xenophobic vigilantes who call themselves the Minutemen is ludicrous to the point of dishonesty.

In point of fact, Chivington's militia was not only the representative of the local government -- and certainly the popular will in Colorado, avidly cheered on by the local press -- the Army officers involved played a dubious role in setting up the Sand Creek Massacre as well. I give a reasonably full description of the sequence of events here. As I note there:
Whatever sympathy some humanitarian whites may have had for the natives, they were utterly ineffectual in stopping the wave of murderous bigotry that swept away all their good intentions along with the Indians themselves, fueled by the prevailing view of Indians that equated them with the beasts they encountered in this wilderness.

These encounters increased, of course, because the "permanent Indian frontier" turned out to be a very flexible concept indeed. As the Americans' thirst for land and for gold grew, so did the borders of the frontier shift ever westward, consumed by treaties that often were mere ruses for outright land theft. A promise made to an Indian was innately nonbinding. The murder of an Indian was considered, if not a non-event, cause for celebration; but any retaliatory murder of whites provoked indiscriminate slaughter and justified the genocide of entire peoples.

... This pattern repeated itself almost endlessly. Rather than even endure contact with "savages" they fully expected to turn against them and murder them, the settlers moving westward in the end always chose to act preemptively and slaughter Indians as they found them. This was particularly the case wherever gold entered into the picture.

And always, this spasm of eliminationist violence was preceded by eliminationist rhetoric. Before there was action, there was talk. And the talk not only rationalized the violence that proceeded, but actually had the function of creating permission for it.

The Chivington case was particularly illustrative, because fueling the whole tragedy was the bloodlust for wiping out the Indians on the part of the large majority of settlers -- that is, they fully intended to commit genocide and had no compunction whatsoever about it:
Chivington and his men returned to Denver in triumph, claiming to have killed five hundred warriors -- instead of ninety-eight women and children and a handful of mostly old men. The Rocky Mountain News pronounced it a "brilliant feat of arms." "All did nobly," Chivington said, and one evening during intermission at the Denver opera house, one hundred Cheyenne scalps were put on display while the orchestra played patriotic airs and the audience stood to applaud the men who had taken them.

As word of these atrocities got out, there was a perhaps predictable outcry from white Americans with some vestige of human decency; but their outrage, as always, had no effect. The killers were downright gleeful about their "victory." David E. Stannard, in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, notes that the Rocky Mountain News declared that "Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send east."

Still, there was an outcry in Congress, and a Senate report eventually declared Chivington's "battle" what it really was: "a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty." As Stannard notes [p. 134]:

One of them, a senator who visited the site of the massacre and "picked up the skulls of infants whose milk-teeth had not yet been shed," later reported that the concerned men of Congress had decided to confront Colorado's governor and Colonel Chivington openly on the matter, and so assembled their committee and the invited general public in the Denver Opera House. During the course of discussion and debate, someone raised a question: Would it be best, henceforward, to try to "civilize" the Indians or simply to exterminate them? Whereupon, the senator wrote in a letter to a friend, "there suddenly arose such a shout as is never heard unless upon some battlefield -- a shout almost loud enough to raise the roof of the opera house -- 'EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!' "

The committee, apparently, was impressed. Nothing was ever done to Chivington, who took his fame and exploits on the road as an after-dinner speaker. After all, as President Theodore Roosevelt said later, the Sand Creek massacre was "as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier."

It's important to understand that this was hardly isolated to Colorado -- in fact, these attitudes were extremely common among whites throughout the West, and they informed the government's actions nearly every step of the way. (Thus Teddy's avid approval.)

And where those steps took the United States was in fact the near-complete extermination of American Indians. The federal government's stated policy may never have been so bald as to outright advocate murder (this was not the case with local government officials, who often were quite upfront about it), but "plausible deniability" existed long before the term came along to describe it. What a detailed look at the record consistently reveals is that government officials, both federal and local, endorsed and undertook policies that directly, and often deliberately, led to armed confrontations with American Indians the latter could not win and which guaranteed their murder under the aegis of "war."

In other words, all the moral relativism innate in the notion that the lack of official evil intent and the presence of liberal good intentions (yes, Michael, the opponents of slavery and mistreatment of the Indians were all liberals in their time) somehow excused the actual outcome is washed away in the stark realities that slavery, with all its attendant inhumanity and death, was a significant founding institution of America, and that the conquest of American lands against its native inhabitants was infected throughout with a popular impulse to exterminate them with extreme prejudice -- an impulse that in fact won out.

And this is what's wrong with Medved's overarching argument: He wants to "normalize" these travesties so that those who want to tout the greatness of the American can do so unfettered. To wit:
Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation. Along with the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of literally millions of Africans counts as one of our two founding crimes—and an obvious rebuttal to any claims that this Republic truly represents “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Medved's argument seems clearly to be a defense of American exceptionalism, and his defense falls woefully short. Medved openly admits that slavery was a misbegotten institution, and that Native Americans were inhumanely mistreated, yet his argument basically is that it wasn't as bad as some critics would make it out to be. Perhaps not, but it's nonetheless quite bad; ethnic cleansing may not be as egregious a sin as genocide, yet if its outcome is the same, what exactly is the moral difference anyway? Good intentions that bring about mass death are a travesty regardless.

What most of the critics of this exceptionalism actually like to point out is not so much that we are hopelessly corrupt, but that we really aren't all that exceptional. Yes, we have great things to be proud of, but we also have ugly mistakes to be ashamed of. That makes us a lot more like everyone else.

The historical record -- the full record, and not just snippets -- simply demonstrates that the America's claims to moral greatness are more tenuous than we pretend. The notion that we are "history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity" is complicated by the reality that at times we Americans have represented the opposites of freedom, goodness, and dignity.

Just ask the people of Iraq.

No comments: