Friday, July 07, 2006

Indians and Europeans

There is an interesting book review of Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus in the Claremont Review, now available online. The author of the review, Bruce S. Thornton is a classicist and associate of Victor Davis Hanson. Here's an excerpt:
From the first moment of contact, Europeans viewed the American Indians through various mythic lenses. The most famous of these, applied indiscriminately to the vast variety of peoples inhabiting the Americas, was the Golden Age, which imagined a time before history when humans lived in harmony with a kind nature, without cities, technology, laws, property, and all the misery and strife these create. Indians were viewed not as complex human beings, but as projections of the white man's longings, or noble-savage reproaches to the white man's civilization. In either case, writes Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, they lacked "agency"; they were never "actors in their own right, but passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way."

Five hundred years later, little has changed. Too many interests are served by such myths. Popular culture has found in Indianism a lucrative commodity, as in Walt Disney's Pocahontas or Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. And critics of American society, whether identity-politics tribunes or anti-capitalist leftists, have found in what Mark Twain called an "extinct tribe that never existed" a powerful weapon for attacking the perceived crimes and dysfunctions of modern America—from ravaging the environment to fetishizing private property. What is lost, of course, is the historical truth of the Indian and his conflicted, quirky humanity.
The review discusses Mann's coverage of the issues of the magnitude of the loss of life on the Indian side as a result of disease and the Indian interaction with their environment (which far greater than many had suspected). The review is mostly positive though Thornton concludes by taking Mann to task for improperly comparing European and Indian immoralities:
[Mann] also tries to palliate the savagery of some Indian societies with a tu quoque argument that usually ends up as mere special pleading. To imply that the Mexica's practice of sacrificing tens of thousands of victims by tearing out their hearts and consuming the remains was no different from the brutal methods of publicly executing criminals in Europe ignores the simple fact that no matter how unfair the trials by our standards, in Europe criminals were still executed only after they had been tried according to law. And the bodies weren't eaten.
The review is well worth reading in its entirety.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another great article. Thanks!

I love this line:

"Mann is to be congratulated for giving us a picture of the Indian that respects his complicated humanity, but he still has no answer for the fundamental question raised by the collision of the Old World and the New: why were the Spaniards in Tenochtitlán, and not the Aztecs in Seville?"

Of course, if a modern scholar could answer that - well, then, at root, he wouldn't be a modern.

D. Eastbrook