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Those Evil European Invaders
(1/3/01)


Continuing the discussion of Those Evil European Invaders, a conversation between Ruben Chavez and me, with Ruben's comments in italics:

>>Some people claim the Europeans who conquered America were operating according to their own standards. That they didn't know any better. That we can't judge them by today's more enlightened standards.<<

Actually there is some truth in the above claim. But I do agree judge isn't the correct word. I would say when reviewing history, we should try to avoid looking it at it with our 21st century eyes, less we get a distorted viewpoint.

For example, there is no way even on a good day, to rationalize or justify the inhumane atrocities inflicted on Native Americans by Europeans, but what we should try to do instead, is find out WHY and HOW that could have happened in the first place, for as we know it wasn't just an isolated event here and there or perpetrated by just one country, Europeans did it as a whole.

By putting things into context, researching the culture and customs of Europe it would explain not justify why Europeans could allow and participate in the genocide and destruction of the Native American and including the African American culture.

Much of Europeans attitudes stemmed from when the first time Europeans discovered and started colonizing America, it was at the twilight of the middle ages in Europe. Human Rights did not exist nor did proper education of people. The people of nobility who ruled Europe really and truly believed that they were not only a superior race but also a different human species than peasants were. (It sounds nuts, but it was true.) Originally peasants were pretty much slaves and were literally considered livestock. When referring to Noblemen's children, they were called his family, when referring to peasant's children they were called his litter. Peasant's families could be separated and sold separately like cattle, and it was considered totally appropriate. That would explain their attitudes with Native Americans and African Americans.

So with coming into the New World they carried those extremely flawed ideas with them. Even thought the caste system amongst Europeans was collapsing, they considered it lucrative in continuing it with other people that they considered inferior to them. All along Christendom or organized religion had their hands soiled in these atrocities, they attempted feeble objections from time to time but were really never enforced. From the atrocities of the Holy wars on Muslims to the despicable treatments of Native Americans and African Americans by the Spanish, English, etc., too much profit and power and gain was at stake, in their minds.

In some ways the brainwashing is similar to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. It all starts off by stripping a race of people their dignity and considering that group as an inferior race.

So I feel judging isn't the correct word. Instead we don't want to justify or rationalize a groups behavior, rather explaining how it could happen in the first place, so hopefully mankind could avoid it from happening again. (I know, I know, it's wishful thinking.)

*****

>> Actually there is some truth in the above claim. <<

Yes, some. I'm sure the European invaders had a variety of mindsets and motivations. But if some of them knew what they were doing, the question is why the rest of the culture didn't share or adopt the same beliefs. The issue becomes what the dominant mindset was.

>> I would say when reviewing history, we should try to avoid looking it at it with our 21st century eyes, less we get a distorted viewpoint. <<

I quoted what the 16th century priests said, didn't I? If they condemned their own people then, we can condemn them now.

>> we should try to do instead, is find out WHY and HOW that could have happened in the first place <<

Sure, and I've written on that myself. For instance, in the Thanksgiving Day essay I just posted, I explain Jared Diamond's theory of why the Old World conquered the New. I think he ignored the cultural factors, but he presented the physical factors well.

>> So I feel judging isn't the correct word. Instead we don't want to justify or rationalize a groups behavior <<

I think it's useful to judge behavior as well as explain it. I'd say we can judge people's behavior if they failed to live up to their own standards (not ours). If we don't judge them, how do we ever learn from history? How can we say "Never again" until we say something is wrong first?

*****

I whole heartily agree with you, that we as a collective group have to acknowledge when something is wrong so as not to repeat it again.

But acknowledging a transgression (the judging part) is just the very first step of recovery, the next step is find out why and how it was allowed to happen in the first place, followed by how are we to prevent it from happening again?

Part of human nature is judging the next person and saying to ourselves, "how foolish they are, I would never had done that". But that could be a pitfall, could we really say that about ourselves?

If we lived in that time period, do we know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt that we would have the moral integrity and stamina to go against neighbors, friends and family just to do what is right? I truly believe you personally could answer yes to that question, but not everyone could. Your convictions and your passion in your work is a living testimony for you.

Unfortunately during the atrocities inflicted upon the American Indians, courageous people like you that stood up for what was right were in the minority, and at that time paid dearly for their convictions. Others on the other hand, knew it was wrong, but were either filled with hatred and prejudice or were too afraid to buck the system.

I'm finding that out first hand with regarding the Sand Creek Massacre. I thought all the U.S. soldiers acted in unison in this tragedy. But I'm finding out likewise, that there were a few shining examples of opposition amongst their ranks. For example, one officer, finding out that they were going after a peaceful group of Native Americans supposedly under the protection of the American flag, became very vocally opposed to it, and refused to participate even withholding his troops under his command from taking part in the massacre. His commanding officer (Chivington) in a fit of rage, threatened to hang him right on the spot, but this officer refused to budge. Later he testified in a congressional hearing about the massacre and was assassinated on the streets of Denver for his convictions. So yes, people knew according to their own standards what they did to the American Indians was wrong, but as a collective group at the time, they justified in their minds why they did this.

We (in the present) could easily look at the early Americans (European descent) and pass judgment for how brutal they were, crude, uncivilized and lacking moral desecration, but the ironic thing is that's exactly the judgment that they passed on the Indians.

My concern are the people who are complacent in pointing the fingers at our [ancestors] as if we are so advanced. That's when we need to worry that we don't become like the white settlers looking down at Native Americans.

It will certainly be interesting to see how well our 20th century will hold up to under a magnifying lens when 22nd century historians review it. The new more ingeniously efficient ways mankind have devised in annihilating our neigbors (Including many, many innocent civilians) and the death tolls (from the World Wars and continuing wars)proves we really haven't progressed as much as we like to think.

Here are some guidelines from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for teaching, that I find could be most helpful in reviewing the holocaust on our own soil of our American Indians.

They include:

* Avoid simple answers to complex history

* Just because it happened, doesn't mean it was inevitable. Focusing on the decisions that people and nations made to act or not act gives insight into history and human nature.

* Strive for precise language, underscoring differences between collaborators and bystanders, for example.

* Try to avoid stereotypical descriptions. i.e. all Germans were not Nazis.

(Or in our case, not all early Americans [European descent] were Indian killers.)

Well I said a mouthful. Thank you for the engaging conversations and food for thought.

*****

>> But acknowledging a transgression (the judging part) is just the very first step of recovery, the next step is find out why and how it was allowed to happen in the first place, followed by how are we to prevent it from happening again? <<

Yes, that's generally true.

>> Part of human nature is judging the next person and saying to ourselves, "how foolish they are, I would never had done that". <<

Sounds about right to me. <g>

>> If we lived in that time period, do we know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt that we would have the moral integrity and stamina to go against neighbors, friends and family just to do what is right? <<

We know some Spaniards preached moderation. I noted that in my Cortés posting. Apparently Cortés was akin to a wanted man when he set out to conquer Mexico. The Spanish tried to stop him, not spur him on.

>> His commanding officer (Chivington) in a fit of rage, threatened to hang him right on the spot, but this officer refused to budge. Later he testified in a congressional hearing about the massacre and was assassinated on the streets of Denver for his convictions. <<

Right. I was just reading about the Washita massacre Custer led soon after Sand Creek. A US government agent resigned in protest over the events. After Washita the newspapers carried conflicting reports, officials investigated the conflict, and so forth. Many people (the bleeding-heart liberals of the day) were outraged by the US's treatment of the Indians.

These things only show that morality hasn't changed much over the years. People doing wrong should have known better. Jesus said 2,000 years ago to love thy enemies, and his lessons have remained constant ever since. You can bet Jesus wouldn't have marched with conquerors against indigenous people.

>> We (in the present) could easily look at the early Americans (European descent) and pass judgment for how brutal they were, crude, uncivilized and lacking moral desecration, but the ironic thing is that's exactly the judgment that they passed on the Indians. <<

You could say the same about the practice of bloodletting to cure disease or drowning people to prove they were innocent. Is it impossible to judge the past by our standards? Are all peoples, practices, and philosophies equally "right"?

I don't think so. In the case of colonizing the Americas, I say we're right and the invading Europeans were wrong. Their choices led to death and destruction that was unnecessary and avoidable.

In other cases they may have been more right than we are. Respecting one's environment or one's elders, for instance. So this isn't about proving how much better we are. It's about identifying the best behavioral patterns wherever they may be.

How can I make these judgments with confidence? Because I'm not applying "my" morality so much as the universal standard of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I wouldn't want people coming into my home and killing or enslaving me, so it's easy for me to say we shouldn't have done that to others.

>> My concern are the people who are complacent in pointing the fingers at our [ancestors] as if we are so advanced. <<

As I'm sure you know, I've criticized today's society as much as earlier Euro-American societies. In fact, I think I've made a case that our values haven't changed much in hundreds of years. Sure, we don't kill people outright nowadaysóbut then, most Americans never killed people outright. We still stand by as the world's masses die of hunger, disease, or war, and isn't that what most "civilized" people have done throughout history?

>> Just because it happened, doesn't mean it was inevitable. Focusing on the decisions that people and nations made to act or not act gives insight into history and human nature. <<

I've posted a whole series of arguments on Was Native Defeat Inevitable? My basic answer is no, it wasn't inevitable.

>> * Strive for precise language, underscoring differences between collaborators and bystanders, for example. <<

Europeans were big meanies!

>> * Try to avoid stereotypical descriptions. i.e. all Germans were not Nazis. <<

Right...but, as I believe several books have argued, many Germans had to be in cahoots with the Nazi regime or its reign of terror couldn't have succeeded. Yes, not all Germans were Nazis...but not all morally compromised Germans were Nazis, either.

*****

>>We know some Spaniards preached moderation. I noted that in my Cortés posting.<<

Wow, I read your editorial. It's right on the money and your info on Cortez's expedition is all there. Very impressive. Thanks.

>>Right...but, as I believe several books have argued, many Germans had to be in cahoots with the Nazi regime or its reign of terror couldn't have succeeded.<<

I agree with you. A huge percentage of the German population were part of the Nazi Party at that time, due to their aggressive and hostile recruiting. Even if they were not part of the Party it would be virtually impossible not to know what was going on at that time, including the mass exterminations, but they turned a blind eye.

Ruben


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