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Monday, January 09, 2012

History And Its Discontents

As y'all probably already know, if you're following this Cat's annual Book List & Review over at the sisterblog, we've been reading a lot of history over the past few years, and it has been extremely — extremely very — educational, indeed. We are shoved into schools, as children, not necessarily so much for the purposes of educating our eager young minds as to function as a sort of childcare-cum-penitentiary in which we are prepared for our future as obedient tools of the state. Learning to function in 50-minute segments, to slice-and-dice our attention into suitable spans, to absorb unquestioningly whatever the school system and our local school board shall deem it fit in their infinite lack of wisdom to shovel down our youthful throats.

No one questions this pablum, this feeding-tube of culture and knowledge that is piped directly into our veritable livers of learning, fattening us like those unfortunate foie-gras geese on things that mold our minds and early impressions, but travel under the radar, placing seeds in that fertile soil that are never questioned again.

Some of us are fortunate enough to be raised in homes that value education and the written word for its own benefits. But what about the hundreds of thousands of us who are lucky to complete twelve years of basic education, if that? Those individuals are wandering around with a worldview that is not even close to what those of us fortunate enough — or determined enough, or lucky enough — to educate ourselves further have developed.

Hell, even those of us who are educated better sometimes slip into the easy language of that early pablum. What have Americans been taught about the foundation of this country?

Tonight, PBS will be screening a documentary on General Custer, the stupid schmuck who has come down to us through the ages as the "hero" of "Custer's Last Stand." It's good to know that there are many white (and Black) Americans who have educated themselves on the true nature of this country's founding, and on the genocide of the Native tribes. But the local fishwrap carried a TV review column today by one Dave Weigand, who we must presume is an educated American. Educated sufficiently to find employ with the local fishwrap, in a time when nearly ten per cent of the nation's employable individuals are struggling to find employment. Here, for your enjoyment, are some gems from his recent review.

"After the war, Custer and his wife, Libbie, moved to Fort Riley, Kan., where Custer would head the 7th Cavalry as part of the government's effort to deal with the growing problem of Indians."

No, seriously. This is what passes for an educated reviewer's comment. What, exactly, does the writer mean by "the growing problem of Indians"? Were Indians suddenly becoming taller? Fatter? Experiencing a population explosion? The writer doesn't bother to explain what the term means. You, the reader, are left to figure it out for yourself, to ask your own questions, find out your own information, come to your own conclusions.

But this is a film/tv review, not a history examination or a job interview. We read movie reviews to be entertained, to be amused, to enjoy ourselves in a moment of leisure, slouched in our favourite chair. We're not going to bother to ask questions about what we're reading. So what do we do with this phrase, "the growing problem of Indians"? We file it away in our mental cabinets and the next time we're talking to someone or writing email or writing in our journals or blogs or FB walls, we might mention that "a growing problem with Indians" caused Custer's last stand. Suddenly, we've gone from being killed for killing other people and trying to steal their land to having "a growing problem with Indians" causing the death of an American hero. And this piece of information continues to colour anything we read or hear or see about Native Americans. We "know" that "the government" had a "growing problem" with "Indians." Even though we really don't know anything at all. No facts have been imparted to us, our store of knowledge about the Native people, or the white Americans of that day, the number of protagonists and antagonists, is richer by not one iota. Instead, what we have is an assumption that masquerades as fact. One of that family of statements that lives in the land of "Everyone knows" and "they say."

"While, in general, politicians in Washington hoped that the Indians could be contained, the sentiment in the West was to eradicate them, especially after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, on the Sioux reservation."

Again, we're not actually being given any information here. "In general" is a nice way of saying "I'm not going to tell you how many." Not that we need to know. And what does it mean, to "be contained"? Is that the same as being "killed"? Eradicated? Rounded up on reservations? Why not just admit that the Americans of the time longed to seize the land of the Native people? Because that IS what we're talking about, you know. It's not as if he doesn't say that exact thing in the very next sentence, either.

"As civilization advanced the frontier towards the Pacific ..."

This one got to me. The assumption that the greedy people who were simply looking for new frontiers to exploit,new forests to cut down, new natives to shoot and steal the land from, that these wretches and scoundrels and flim-flam men had any right to be seen as the forces of civilization, is nothing short of ridiculous, and outright offensive. Mind you, I'm not arguing the concept of the Noble Savage, here. The nobility, or lack thereof, on the part of the savage has no bearing whatsoever on the civilization or lack thereof of those who would exploit, rape, and murder him.

In short, Weigand appears to conclude that Custer was done in by "manifest destiny," without ever bothering to explain that "manifest destiny" is that doctrine that justifies the bloody imperialistic genocide of the Natives, the First Nations of this land, and the theft of their land, as well as the war with Mexico to take by force that land that now constitutes the whole of the present-day United States of America. I guess it sounds a lot less appealing to say that Custer died because he believed that Native Americans should be exterminated and their lands stolen by force. I can't imagine why.

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At 2:08 PM, Blogger Joe Christmas said...

Hey MittBorg, do you read these comments?
I hope so, it's me Radio. I love the post, it reminds me of the Minutemen song, Punchline,
"I believe when they found the body of general george a.
custer quilled like a porcupine with indian arrows, he didn't
die with any honor, any dignity, nor any valor.
I wouldn't doubt when they found george a. custer
an american general patriot and
indian fighter, he died with shit in his pants"

Anyways, I would really like to make contact with you pertaining to our most recent Wonkette crossover..
Maybe we could quickly exchange e-mail addresses or something.


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