Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A thought for Thanksgiving

According to Mona Charen, our families aren't the only source of guilt on Thanksgiving:
"Thanksgiving is coming — a time to participate in the great American tradition of maligning and abusing our ancestors...

In his new book, 'The 10 Big Lies About America' film critic and radio talk show host Michael Medved recalls the Seattle episode, as well as many other examples of self-flagellation that now characterize many of our national observances. Columbus Day? The start of a vicious subjugation. A Denver Columbus Day parade was marred last year by protesters who threw fake blood and dismembered dolls along the parade route...

Medved, a passionate but not blind patriot, argues that our kids and the rest of us are being fed a tendentious history that wildly exaggerates the offenses of European settlers. The notion that 'America Was Founded on Genocide Against Native Americans' cannot withstand scrutiny.

Like racism, genocide is a word that has lost its meaning through promiscuous overuse. Medved reminds us that the international 'Genocide Convention' defines genocide as an act or acts 'committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such.' In the clash of civilizations between European settlers and Native Americans, millions died. But the overwhelming majority of those deaths were attributable to diseases carried involuntarily by Europeans and spread to natives who had no natural immunities to these pathogens. That is a tragedy, but not a crime.

There were terrible injustices and massacres committed by Europeans against Native Americans and some running the other way as well. The more technologically advanced civilization prevailed — which is the usual course in human affairs. But the current fashion to distort that history into something like a war crime is, to say the least, overstated."

I don't know if genocide has "lost its meaning through promiscuous overuse", but it is certainly misunderstood by the public at large. The legal definition (as defined by the UN Genocide Convention) focuses on the intent of the perpetrators. Intent, of course is hard to prove.

Using the term "genocide" to describe the destruction of Native Americans is complicated by two main factors. First, as Charen says, most Native Americans were killed by European diseases--Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" details the history and biology behind this phenomenon--like small pox and influenza. Since Europe first came to the New World 400 years before the "germ theory of disease" it's hard to call that intentional.

The second complication is the fact that we tend to lump "European settlers" and "Native Peoples" into monolithic groups, which make it easier to infer the intent of the former. However, many European groups colonized the Americas, encoutering many different indigenous groups. The Aztecs and Maya were destroyed by Europeans, but you can't blame that on our US forefathers.

That being said, I think Charen is remarkably flippant about Native American suffering at the hands of European settlers. According to David Stannard, author of "American Holocaust" (an academic who does use the word "genocide" in this context), 95% of the Native American population disappeared between 1400 and 1900. Whether or not this was a "genocide", many "acts of genocide" were commited, including forced deportations ("Trail of Tears") and massacres ("Wounded Knee"). These are not events you gloss over.

In the 1800s, specialized bording schools were established for Native Peoples with the explicit goal of Americanizing and Christianizing native children--to, "kill the Indian, save the man". Children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to schools to learn English and be purged of their culture. I would refer Mona Charen to Article 2(e) of the Genocide Convention, which clearly defines, "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" as an act of genocide.

And it's not as if this is ancient history. These schools persisted in their mission to assimilate native children up to the early 1970s. As a recent NPR report shows, there are many native people still grappling with their childhood experience of forced assimilation.

None of this means that we should spend Thanksgiving day practicing self-flagellation. But civilized societies should accept and display even the worst parts of their history. So here's an idea from Judaism: on Passover Seders we spill 10 drops of wine from our glass, one for each plague. We do this to remind ourselves that even during a time of celebration, we need to remember the suffering of others.

This Thanksgiving, I'm going to take a moment to remember the destruction of the Native Peoples of America.

1 comment:

Mike LP said...

Though it is hard to know how true anything that you learned in school actually is, I distinctly, remember being taught that, though the initial spread of disease was completely unitentional, once European settlers (and sorry for using a "monolithic group", but I do not remember who specifically this refers to) realized that lack of immunity to the foreign disease they would purposely try to infect certain pockets of the native population by throwing the used blankets of sick settlers into native american camps. If this is true, the case for genocide is certainly a much stronger one.

The treatment of our native population is one of the saddest and most embarrassing parts of our history. The fact that we still euphamise and often flat out lie in what we teach about this portion of our history is nothing short of outrageous. I will celebrate Thanksgiving like I do every year . . . it is by far my favorite holiday. But it is my favorite holiday for the feast, the football, the friends and family and, most importantly, for the reminder to be grateful for everything that is good in my life. I will not, however, be teaching any of my Korean students about the happy interactions between pilgrims and "indians."