Thursday, May 31

Not the Professor You Want To Be Stranded On a Coconut Island With


Larry Schweikart, in the incipient stage of Strangelove Syndrome

MY favorite antique air conditioner no longer functions, reducing its appraised value at auction to scrap metal, which is, happily, a booming market. However, it means that I will be meeting with three salesmen over the next 36 hours, or two over the toxicity level for a man my weight.

Since I was likely to be stuck at home during business hours, I went out last night to see if someone at Half Price Books would sell me a copy of A Patriot's History of the United States for something around the 25¢ I'm willing to pay, unless there's one with a scrap metal cover. No such luck. There's a couple stores within driving range left to check out, or maybe somebody on Amazon's got one for a nickel and doesn't want $14.00 shipping. My spirits are still high.

A Patriot's History, by the way, is subtitled "From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror", thereby eclipsing the Holy Roman Empire, which had only three erroneous terms in its title.

In skimming the book at B&N I'd noticed right off that Larry and co-author Mike Allen seemed to argue that Native American peoples were neither victims of genocide nor European diseases, but had merely had the wind knocked out of 'em. Once I'd gotten around to googling him I got a fuller sense of how breathtakingly dishonest the whole operation was, not that this came as much of a surprise. Here he is telling K-Lo all about it:
NRO: What's the most interesting fact/story in American history no on knows?

Schweikart: Of course, everyone "knows" any story or we wouldn't know it, but I'd say one of the most impressive untold stories in the American past is that of the buffalo. Everyone "knows" that whites nearly exterminated the herds. That's true. What few people know — although these views are starting to gain a wider circulation — is that the Indians were on a trajectory to wipe out the bison herds had whites never been interfered. Shepard Kretch and Andrew Isenberg, in separate studies, have shown that the Indians were already killing buffalo slightly faster than herds could repopulate. But what is most fascinating is that it was white ranchers and businessmen who recognized that the herds were shrinking, and who acted to save them by breeding them on private ranches. Eventually it was these private herds that made up the stock of the famous Yellowstone herd.

Pile of bison skulls, circa 1870

Yup, the only good Indian is a straw Indian. "Had the whites never [been] interfered"? (Does K-Lo do her own editing?) This is why the sciences--as distinct from armchair "scholarlyness"--proceed from general knowledge to the specific, and from hard, testable evidence to broader deduction, instead of jumping around like a fat guy at a free buffet. I'm gonna take a wild guess here that neither Krech nor Isenberg intended his work as pro-capitalist pamphleteering. Isenberg, for one, is writing about the destruction of the buffalo, which, even if it were entirely the doing of the "Indians" did not occur until long after "the whites had been interfered". The Horse (E. caballus) came from Europe. In this, at least, our school texts and actual knowledgeable scholars are in agreement. It is very difficult for a full-grown adult to ride very far on a dog. At the time of white contact, almost all of the people on the Plains were (semi-nomadic) agriculturalists. Only the Comanche and the Blackfeet, both migrants, were hunter-gatherers. If Plains tribes were exceeding replacement levels on buffalo in the 19th century it's because whites had taken away their agricultural lands in the East.

Elsewhere Schwiekart says that Isenberg "wonders" whether the herd was falling below replacement levels in pre-contact times. This is at some distance from the bald statement of Startling New Discovery! he gave NRO, but then he wasn't talking to K-Lo and he probably adjusted his rhetoric accordingly. It's important to keep in mind that we are dealing with the migratory movements of pre-historic peoples. There's been a lot of exciting work done in the field since the 1960s, and I won't pretend to be up on it. The picture of migratory patterns in historical times is damnably complex. Anything pre-contact is based on archeological evidence, or highly questionably hearsay. I'm not sure what evidence causes Isenberg to wonder; it is, after all, part of his job description. But such hardly "explodes" some dastardly anti-capitalist "myth" about who killed off the buffalo.

Let me add a little personal perspective on this. I took several anthropology and folklore courses in the early 70s. My intellectual mentor was a guy just finishing his doctoral dissertation on the Corn Myth. I took over his apartment when he left town, and out of the six rooms above a couple businesses two of them were occupied by white suburban guys who actually imagined they were Native Americans. One made stone tools; the other had pretty much beaded his entire apartment. Nine-tenths of their conversation was about Native American culture. If you sat down and watched teevee with 'em, passing the pipe of peace, it would never be more than ten minutes before they'd yell at the set, in unison, "What was a Kiowa doing hunting with a Pawnee?" or some other historical illiteracy they'd caught in a flash. And neither of those guys, nor anyone else I met from that tribe, ever imagined that Native American tribes were composed of anything other than human beings, no more and no less maddening or noble than the rest of the race. We all knew about hunting by stampede and by "controlled" burn, we knew that the Iroquois had hunted down and killed every last Erie and Huron. We knew, like most schoolchildren know, that the Mesoamerindians practiced human sacrifice on a scale remarkable even by the standards of their bloodthirsty species, or else were New World-class braggerts.

Still, I'm interested in picking up the book at dumpster prices, because I'm curious about how Schweikart and Allen sustain the Liberal Anti-capitalists Are a Bunch of Poopyheads argument over the course of five hundred years (three hundred of them preceding anything called The United States, but I'm just being snippy). James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America actually bothered to name, and quote, the actual school texts and public monuments, respectively, he refuted; Schweikart and Allen, in the pages I skimmed, informed the reader that they'd been teaching history for many a year and thus "knew" what misconceptions people had. Maybe so. And given the quality of research on display on the web, I'd doubt it would improve things much.

I'm also curious about how one comes to get small-town boosterism in one's very marrow. Larry, what th' fuck's Columbus to you?

(Jeez, I went through the whole thing without mentioning Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Schweikart's BĂȘte Noire. Here he is giving K-Lo his Serious Scholar bona fides:
On the other hand, as conservatives, we nevertheless destroy the myth that FDR "knew" about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance.

(Wow. "As conservatives" they destroyed a myth about FDR that no one actually believed or had the slightest bit of evidence for. And so far as I read, neither do they accuse him personally of killing off the buffalo, although if they could have I'll wager the Indians stock would have risen dramatically.)

2 comments:

Woodrowfan said...

actually, the "FDR knew" conspiracy theory has been a staple of the right wing since the 1940s. A couple years ago another rw historian published a book about it that was, I think, an offering of the "Conservative Book Club." The book was not well-treated by most reviewers since the writer used cables that were not translated until 1942 as part of his evidence. Apparently FDR not only read Japanese but Japanese in code!

The "FDR knew" crap lives still on the fa rleft as well. I've gotten in more than one argument on the DU with a tinfoil-head who insisted that FDR "knew", which somehow would prove that Shrub "knew" about 9-11 beforehand as well.

I'm friends with several FDR biographers. None of them take the "FDR knew" stuff seriously. Funny how most people who actually know the subject don't buy such tinfoil...

Dr. James Stripes said...

Glad to see that someone else didn't want to shell out much money for A Patriot's History, and also has some interest in examining closely the web of distortions. Indeed, the footnote on depopulation was all it took for me to shell out the $11 I spent on the book.

I've started my dissection. Have a look at http://historynotebook.blogspot.com/

Tell me what you think.