“What You Mean ‘We,’ Paleface?”

or: A Klug Zu Columbus


            Five hundred years ago, Columbus landed somewhere in the Western Hemisphere and began the first documented continuous settlement of Europeans on this side of the Atlantic.  As has been repeatedly pointed out this year, that was in many ways a Dubious Achievement, bringing Christianity, smallpox, measles, and genocide to the New World;  potatoes, tomatoes, maize, turkeys, chocolate, syphilis, tobacco, and inflation to Europe; and the transatlantic slave trade to Africa.


            Revisionists seem to vacillate between seeing Columbus merely as a harbinger and a symbol of the more generalized disasters brought to indigenous peoples by European settlement, and as a personally active agent of its worst aspects, including murder, rape, enslavement, and environmental devastation.  They also have trouble deciding whom they personally can identify with. It may be legitimate to identify Columbus with the Bad Guys and the Taino Indians who first greeted him as the Good Guys, but if I remember correctly, neither Columbus nor the Tainos have any identifiable direct descendants left today.  And they have an even harder time–as do we all–recommending an appropriate atonement for the sins of Columbus, or appropriate parties to perform it.  Should all European-Americans go back to Europe?  Should the cultural institutions of the western hemisphere be remade in the image of the indigenous cultures?  Who is to make these choices, and more important still, who gets to carry them out? Is it possible to unscramble the ethno-geographico-cultural egg?


            The problem, in part, is that–especially in a nation of immigrants like our own–very few people have ethnically–or morally–homogeneous ancestry.  We are all mixed-breeds of one sort or another, and most of us number among our ancestors both victor and victim, occupier and native, oppressors and indentured servants or slaves. The language we speak–even to denounce the Europeans who settled this hemisphere–is a European language, whether English or Spanish. Most of us–even the most anti-imperialist–practice religions brought to this continent from Europe (or, in rarer cases, from Asia, Africa, and Arabia) often by missionaries dedicated to wiping out indigenous religion and culture.   


            My own ancestry includes Sephardic Jews, Jacobite Scots, Russians, Sicilians, and Brits; I have cousins who are Christian Scientist, Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist, cousins who speak only English and cousins who speak only Spanish, cousins blonder than I am (which is quite blonde) and West Indian cousins several shades darker than Thurgood Marshall.  I have chosen, for reasons of religious commitment, to identify mainly with the Jewish component of my ancestry–but not to the point of totally ignoring the rest.


            Nor, even if I did so, could I identify completely with the innocent victims of history.  The past of every people that has ever populated this planet is littered with both the horrors they have suffered and the horrors they have perpetrated.  It is the task of our several histories to help us mourn the one and atone for the other.  For instance, my Jacobite Scots ancestors were almost certainly exiled to the Carolinas by the English after an unsuccessful rebellion in 1745–but less than a hundred years later, they were probably instrumental in evicting the Cherokees from those states onto the Trail of Tears where nearly half the tribe died en route to Oklahoma.


            The revisionists speak scornfully of “settler states”, usually meaning Israel and South Africa.  Even by exceedingly narrow revisionist standards, all the North and South American countries, Australia, and New Zealand have to be included on the list. 


            And in the longer context of world history, practically every state is a settler state.  Almost every “indigenous people,” everywhere on the globe, got to be indigenous by displacing some previous occupant.  In most cases we know nothing about the circumstances of the displacement.  We do not know how the Cro-Magnon replaced Neanderthal, or how, as the biblical prophet Amos says, the Philistines were brought out of Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir.  We do have a pretty good idea how the Mongols and the Huns displaced the various “indigenous” peoples in their path.  It involved massacre, pillage, and deforestation on a large scale. The same goes for the Germanic tribes who displaced the Celts and Lapps in northern Europe (which was not all that different from what the Celts did to the Pictish peoples who preceded them.)  Similar patterns of migration, invasion, and displacement also occurred in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus was ever born.  The main difference between the “settler states” colonized within the last 400 years and their more respectable predecessors is that the more recent settler states are still in a position to repair at least some of the damage they have done.


            We can respond to this dilemma by trying to wipe out our own origins, and the people who share them–which is pretty much what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, and arguably what the Nihilists tried to do in Russia, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Europe, Sendero Luminoso in Peru, and the Weather Underground in this country.  We can ignore the reality of our shared past, and base our politics on dishonest history and anthropology.  Or we can accept the fact that each of us individually, and each people and nation that now exists, has a cultural  and a genetic debt to victim and victor, slavemaster and slave.  We can accept the limits imposed on our best visions by our most subtle blindnesses.  (This may be the real symbolism of the crack in the Liberty Bell.)  We may commit ourselves–personally and collectively–to repairing the damage done by conquest, or at least, where it is too late for that, properly memorializing its victims. 


            But most important of all, we must begin to explore what it would really mean to say, with all our heart and mind and strength “Never again.”  Because there will always be new worlds to conquer and new peoples to displace, whether on the grand scale of international exploration and exploitation, or nearer home, in the gentrifying of shabbier neighbhorhoods.  And if we are not prepared to recognize and resist the temptation when it presents itself, we will only be scrambling more eggs and passing on the same cruel dilemma to our children.   


Red Emma

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