Sunday, January 29, 2017


[By the way, my book Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case is available at all online vendors.]

Here is the review of Peter Cozzens’s The Earth is Weeping, about the violent taking of the territory in western America from the Indians, which I posted (2 stars) on Amazon in December (same title as title of this post):

There are two main things to say about this book. One is that most of the evidence Cozzens provides contradicts his thesis. The second is a question: How could Cozzens not see what he has done?

When Cozzens says he wants to “bring historical balance” and a “nuanced understanding” to this history, it is clear that he means he wants to exonerate white people of the most terrible accusations about them. For him, the right conclusion is that this is a story of “a displacement of one immigrant people by another …” as if the white invasion were at bottom an innocent affair. He keeps company with all the 19th century writers who described white invasion of the lands of Indigenous peoples as a natural force, a current that could not be stopped and therefore could not be morally judged. Cozzens refers to “the social and economic forces that impelled the whites to take their [Indians’] country.” It is like describing racism as the natural forces of domination by one group over other groups.

Yet everything in Cozzens’s book speaks against his conclusion. Almost every page testifies to injustices, atrocities, massacres, and deceitfulness committed against the Indians. By contrast, there is very little wrongdoing by Indians here. More typical of what he has to say about Indians is that they tried to keep the peace (most of the time). He describes events where “none of the Indians … had caused any trouble,” and “there had been precious few [Indian offenses],” and even “None of the Indians could foresee the horrible consequences their passive resistance would soon engender.” I appreciate his honesty about the details, but his conclusion is dishonest.

So how can Cozzens so badly fail to see what he has presented? I can only guess, and even if I am wrong about the reason, what I am about to describe constitutes a major failure of his approach. There is an issue that haunts this book but is never directly confronted: The question of genocide. The term itself appears only 4 times. But variations of ‘exterminate’ come up 12 times. More significant is that I counted 38 places where genocide is hinted at—I mean the use of such phrases as ‘wriggles against his doom’, ‘adapt … or perish’, ‘the circle of their world grew smaller’, ‘hunger and hopelessness’, ‘choke the life out of’, and more.

Cozzens tries to dismiss the whole issue by stating “… the federal government never contemplated genocide.” That might be technically true but there is so much more to it. RaphaĆ«l Lemkin, who coined the term, insisted that genocide varied in methods and intensity. Outright killing was only one way. You can also harass and demoralize a people to death. You can organize a legal system rigged against the Natives. You can take actions to lower the birth rate. Government bears responsibility for some of these things, even if it never makes genocide official policy. The government let settlers know that they could do what they wanted to Indians and they would never be punished for it.

This was uneven combat. Entire Indian families, women, children, aged, and all, were kept on the run by soldiers who were not dragging their families with them. The government was conducting war against a people, not just enemy warriors—which Cozzens fails to emphasize. Cozzens tries to be even-handed about atrocities, but there is a difference between atrocities committed to survive or out of frustration, and atrocities committed out of greed to obtain complete power and all the land. Occasional Indian atrocities do not demonstrate equal culpability.

One demoralizing activity was the constant removal of Indians. Many Indian tribes were not just removed once to a reservation. They were removed again and again and again. Each time whites coveted Indian land, the government stood behind yet another removal. One tribe was removed 8 times in 16 years. They hardly had time to settle down before they were uprooted again.

Constant stress lowers the birth rate, another genocidal factor. They knew this in the 19th century, though they used other terms. Darwin called stress ‘changed conditions of life.’ He was quite aware that it negatively affected the fertility of Native peoples and expressed no regrets about it. Europeans and Americans understood what they were doing and kept doing it.

Another demoralizing factor was the constant talk of extermination. In 1881, in America, Helen Hunt wrote, “The word ‘extermination’ is as ready on the frontiersman’s tongue to-day as it was a hundred years ago.” She also pointed out, “early in our history was the ingenious plan evolved of first maddening the Indians into war, and then falling upon them with exterminating punishment.” Cozzens actually gives a few examples of this, without using this expression. Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple, an Indian sympathizer, said in 1864, “We have heard a high Indian official [a white official over the Indians] declare, as if he approved of the atrocious sentiment, that ‘there were many wise men who thought the best policy was to exterminate the Indians,’ and we ventured to tell him plainly, that ‘no one but Almighty God could exterminate …’” A British pamphlet published in 1816 stated that it was certain that “American policy is directed towards the total extermination of the Indians.” Washington Irving made more or less the same point in 1813. There was so much more of this.

I value this book for much of the information it contains. But I cannot value it as a whole because of the dishonest conclusion Cozzens is in pursuit of. Rather than face the issue of how much genocide played a role influencing policies, Cozzens pretends that it was just natural forces at work.

That was the end of the review. If I could have added one thing, it would have been this: Avoiding the issue of genocide as Cozzens does in this book (except for a few glancing mentions) would be like writing a history of German-Jewish relations in the first half of the 20th century and never mentioning the Holocaust. It would be unthinkable to write about Jewish history like this. But this is exactly what Cozzens does. And it is not only Cozzens. Many historians write about Native American history as if it were a series of battles between Indians and whites, or a progression of social forces against an inferior culture that could not withstand the innocent pressure of another culture. The larger picture of genocide is simply shoved aside. How is that honest history?

© 2107 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Last month I put up my letter to the NY Times Sunday Book Review on the review of the Peter Cozzens book (see below).  Since then, I put up my own review of the book on Amazon. I gave it 2 stars mainly because Cozzens never directly confronts the issue of genocide and pretends that white invasion of Indian lands was a result of natural forces, not moral choices. I will post my review here next month, but this month, something else caught my eye about Darwin in another Times review.

Here is a good example of how popular writing about Darwin constantly mythologizes him. They give us a fictional Darwin who never existed. In a New York Times review of a book on the causes of World War I (Sunday Book Review, Dec. 11, 2016, p. 16), Margaret MacMillan, a professor at Oxford, writes, “Struggle, so Darwin could be twisted to say, was a natural part of human existence.” I suppose she means to imply that Darwin was more humane than that. She wants to distinguish Darwin from “social Darwinism and the racialist theories it spawned.” But you don’t have to twist Darwin to make him elevate struggle as the primary feature of all life or to make him espouse racist ideas of inferiority and superiority. He says these things himself.

Chapter III of The Origin of Species is entitled “Struggle for Existence”. The last words of Chapter VII are “let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Those words remained in place through all six editions (in the sixth edition, this was at the end of Chapter VIII). For the first ten pages or so of “Struggle for Existence”, Darwin is reminding the reader of the great destruction of life in nature, and using plants as an example, states that “the more vigorous … gradually kill the less vigorous.” No one has to make Darwin say any of this. He is quite clear about it and never tries to pretend that he sees life as anything less than a struggle to the death. “Fatal competition” as he says at the end of Chapter IV on natural selection. Extinction itself, which is the subject of one of the sections of Chapter IV, plays a large role in Darwin’s thinking. And lest we forget (how careless of me to leave this as the last example), the struggle for life was so important to Darwin that he put it in the subtitle of his book: The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

I think the reason writers have felt enabled to so shamefully misrepresent Darwin’s views is that Darwin (the fictional Darwin) has been encapsulated into one sentence. This is the last sentence of Origin, which in truncated form reads as follows: “There is grandeur in this view of life … from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” This is the romantic Darwin and it is the chief source of the idealistic vision of him. But the real Darwin also wrote a sentence immediately before that, in which he explained how this evolution comes about. It results “from the war of nature, from famine and death.” This gives us, says Darwin, “the production of the higher animals.” And in the sentence immediately before that, he references “a Struggle for Life” and “the Extinction of less-improved forms.” These sentences, the second and third from the end of Origin, express and capture what most of The Origin of Species is about. The last sentence is a romantic departure from the main thrust of Origin.

That last sentence, quoted probably more often than any other from Darwin, has been used to create the fictional Darwin. No one ever bothers to tell you how atypical it is for the historical Darwin. The real Darwin can be found in the sentences leading up to the uncharacteristic last one. That Darwin would go on to make clear twelve years later in The Descent of Man that he believed Indigenous peoples all over the world were among the forms of life that would soon be exterminated by Europeans and particularly by Anglo-Saxons. He regarded this extermination of human beings as a natural process of extinction of the less improved forms of life. This historically real Darwin has been erased by the majority of writers and scholars who continue to present to the public their romanticized, dream-like image of him. That image may be attractive to many people, but he never existed.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Since it is highly unlikely that the NY Times will print the email letter I recently sent, concerning their review of Peter Cozzens's book (Nov. 13) , I might as well print it here. I will follow it with a comment about Darwin.

Here is my letter:

Douglas Brinkley’s review of Peter Cozzens’s “The Earth Is Weeping” is as misguided as apparently the book itself is. There is more than one way to commit genocide as Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word, would tell you; it varies in methods and intensity, he said. Military operations are only one way. Genocide was never official US policy, but there are unofficial ways to achieve the same result. You can harass and demoralize a people to death, which fits the American experience.

Since the earliest colonial days, there was constant talk of exterminating the Indians. In 1881 in her magnificent “A Century of Dishonor,” Helen Hunt wrote, “The word ‘extermination’ is as ready on the frontiersman’s tongue to-day as it was a hundred years ago.” A British pamphlet published in 1816 stated that it was certain that “American policy is directed towards the total extermination of the Indians.” Though this talk may never have been officially sanctioned, its advocates influenced other policies.

Indian tribes were not just placed on reservations once. They were moved again and again whenever American settlers coveted the new lands placed aside for the Indians. One tribe was moved 8 times in 16 years. They could hardly establish a good life before they were moved again. This kind of harassment does not encourage a long life. The government also controlled the legal system which was rigged against the Indians. It often failed to make payments for land supposedly purchased from Indians, keeping them in dire poverty. And the government frequently failed to punish people who murdered Indians. All this stress on natives can have a negative impact on the birth rate, which is one factor in genocide. You can choke a people to death by such means.

I discuss some of these issues in a chapter on genocide in my book “Darwin’s Racism” (which is a critique of Darwin, not evolution). I am devoting more attention to this in my current project which will be an eclectic history of humanitarianism. If Brinkley’s review is accurate, the Cozzens book is a biased, lopsided view of the evidence. It is my Jewish heritage that pushes me towards historical truth-telling. I am weeping.

That was the end of the letter.  About Darwin, I should say that in the 19th century, they knew all about stress on a tribe or group.  Darwin called it changed conditions of life and he knew it was bringing down the birth rate.  He expressed no regrets about this. Hardly anyone did, except for a few humanitarians.  European countries kept doing it, despite their knowledge that stress was contributing to extermination.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, October 29, 2016


You either have a deep feeling for the past and the importance of telling the truth about it, or you don’t. I can’t prove that telling the truth is a good thing to do. Plenty of people believe it is bad. Upholding tradition, even if it promotes a false picture of the past, is considered by many to be the right thing to do, the thing that society needs more than anything else.

I believe that traditions which falsify the past do more harm than good. Others believe that tradition is always good and exposing the wrong ones does more harm than good. I don’t know that either side can prove their case.

This is not about fighting for historical justice, which is a virtual impossibility. The past that happened cannot be undone (which is one reason why so many believe it should be left alone). There is no way to correct past injustices or punish the perpetrators, if it is something that happened a long time ago. The victims in history cannot be healed or made whole. It’s too late for any of that. The only correction that can be made is to put an end now to the untruthful telling of the past. That won’t change the past itself, but it will change our attitude towards it. If the only thing it accomplishes is to expose the arrogance of those who believe they have a right to tell lies, the truth about history is a good thing to pursue.

I can talk it up until I’m blue in the face, but if you do not already believe the past needs to be told the right way, none of my words will mean a thing. It’s a religious thing. Devotion to historical truth is like a religious belief. It is fundamental. It cannot be proven. You either believe in it or you don’t, but no amount of empirical evidence will convince anyone to change their beliefs about this.

Years ago when Homicide, the police detective series, was on TV, I remember an episode in which a detective who was Catholic explained that he investigates homicides because his religion teaches him to do that. The dead cannot speak for themselves, so he has a sacred duty to seek justice for them. Of course, in this case, concerning the recent dead, there is a good possibility that the culprit can be caught and punished. With long ago history, this isn’t possible. But the sacred feeling this detective had for the dead and the need he felt to find the truth about what happened still hold. You can carry these feelings for what happened long ago and far away just as much as for what happened yesterday or last year.

Take Judas, for example. I wonder what it’s like to be falsely accused of being a traitor for 2,000 years. Do the dead have feelings? No one has produced one piece of unambiguous, relevant evidence (relevant to the charge of being a traitor) to establish even a remote possibility that he was a traitor. All the evidence (except one piece) is ambiguous. What does it feel like to be condemned on practically nothing?

By the way, the Gospel authors knew exactly what they were doing in presenting all this ambiguous evidence. They weren’t trying to tell the story of a traitor. They left a trail of clues to what really happened. In the meantime, tradition changed what they recorded to make it over into a story of betrayal. I wonder not only how Judas feels about this, but how the Gospel authors feel to see their story so misused.

Forget the dead. What about the living? Does any living person feel a sense of shame that Judas stands convicted on the basis of nothing? I think that Catholic detective would be moved to take up his cause. But that detective is fiction. No one in real life cares a dollop. What happened long ago, how careful the Gospel writers were not to invent false evidence against Judas, but to record it all as ambiguous, how lies came to be told about what is in the Gospels, how scholars still distort what the Gospels say—it’s all a bad dream. We may never wake up—except in fiction.

Consider Charles Darwin. The fictional Darwin created by so many scholars is another bad dream we may never wake up from. In his published work and in letters, the real Darwin had no trouble proclaiming that the Anglo-Saxon race would triumph throughout the world and that all the lower races would be exterminated. In one letter, he added that when the lower races are all gone, humanity as a whole will rise. Yet Darwin is most often remembered as a great humanitarian. Something is wrong with our memory of the past, no?

In another letter, concerned about a friend’s trip to North Africa, he says he has no idea what the natives there are like, but he is sure they must be bloodthirsty. As a friend worried about his friend’s safety in a strange land, that is understandable. But that a scientist should say such a thing makes me shudder.

That’s one good reason to study the past: To shudder over what humanity has done to humanity. Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director, said that he did not want to give audiences merely something to digest, but something to make them shudder. The idea that scholars can put someone in prison for thousands of years, with no unambiguous evidence to justify it, or that they can make a racist seem like a humanitarian—it all makes me tremble. And if I’m alone in feeling that way, then so it goes.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


[My book Darwin’s Racism is now available at Amazon and all online booksellers.]

A few weeks ago, I heard a caller on a radio talk show say that he knew history as well as anyone else and then proceeded to argue for some very conservative solutions to certain current problems. I have no doubt that the caller knew history as well as anyone (he acknowledged that some bad things happened in the past). The question is how well does anyone really know what happened before we got here. I think the answer is not very well at all.

If I tossed out a dozen or so items of some significance, a handful of people would know some of these things and some would know other bits, but nobody would get them all. Everyone would be shocked by at least half the items on the list, though it would be a different half for each person.

How many people know that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States did not quite abolish all slavery as we are usually told? It contained an important exception: “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It was used in the years following the Civil War, in the South, especially in Texas, to re-enslave many black men by arresting and convicting them on some charge and then putting them to work without pay.

Did you know that the Declaration of Independence contains an implied approval of greed for Indian land? One of the complaints made against the King of England in that document is that the King has imposed restrictions on “the conditions of new appropriations of lands.” What Jefferson may have had primarily in mind was the Proclamation of 1763. White settlers were supposed to stay east of a certain line and stop encroaching on Indian land. Americans did not like that. The Declaration of Independence was, in this one small way, also a declaration to steal all the Indian land, if they could not get Indians to legitimately sell it.

How many people know that in the early 19th century, free blacks, with only some occasional exceptions, were not allowed to participate in patriotic observances such as the July 4 celebration? They could observe white people celebrating, but blacks were not allowed to join in. This was primarily in the New England states, which had gradually abolished slavery many decades before the Civil War. Not only did the American Revolution for independence, liberty, and rights pass African-Americans by (even when freed, they were not allowed civil rights), but so did the celebrations of the Revolution and other holidays, as if to reinforce the idea that liberty would not apply to them, not even to free blacks. Blacks of course held their own annual parade to honor the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Segregation, even in holiday observances, goes way back in our history.

Then there’s the history of riots in America. Since the civil rights era in the 1960s, we live with the impression that a riot means blacks rioting against the white establishment. That’s the image we all have. But for the entire history of this country before then, riots were always by whites out to destroy black neighborhoods. Black prosperity could not be tolerated. There were many such riots and they continued well into the 20th century.

That’s just a few examples of what we almost never think about as part of our historical heritage and the same can be done for Charles Darwin. Most people, including scholars, know much less than they pretend to know. Everyone praises Darwin for being opposed to slavery, but hardly anyone tells you how limited his opposition was. He was opposed to legalized slavery, but as far as I know, he expressed no concerns about illegal slavery or forced labor. He never showed any sympathy with the complaint that colonialism was the equivalent of slavery, some even arguing that it was worse.

I recently saw a blog which claimed that Darwin inherited his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood’s sentiment that all men are brothers (as inscribed on the Wedgwood medallion, depicting a slave in chains pleading “Am I Not a Man and a Brother”). That’s not accurate. Darwin actually questioned that view in an early Notebook entry in which he acknowledged that civilized men and Christians may believe all men are brothers, but Darwin had to add his own comment, “yet differences carried a long way.” He definitely did not believe that all men are brothers.

Darwin utilized the theory of evolution to emphasize what he believed were the widening gaps between the races of men. The differences loomed large for him. He believed evolution produced drastic, hierarchical differentiation. People forget too the historical context. In the 19th century, it was entirely possible to be an abolitionist and at the same time an extreme racist. Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, and Anthony Trollope are just three examples, in addition to Darwin. Hundreds more could be listed.

With history, we are better at forgetting and erasing than we are at remembering. It never seems to change. The study of history should be a continual searching for the things we have missed. But most scholars have stopped doing that. We are not even curious anymore. We would rather just keep repeating what we think we know. Our presumed knowledge gets in the way of seeing. Ideology wins over the facts and we don’t see the great danger in that.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, August 29, 2016


We all know that memory is selective. That is not news for most of us. But it is shocking to realize just how selective it can be. Some of the things we (as a culture and as individuals) suppress are so big, it is amazing that we let ourselves get away with it.

In New England, they have long had a proud tradition of remembering that they were the first in the nation to abolish slavery. Over a century before the Civil War ended slavery in the South, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation plans. In Massachusetts, it is more of a mystery as to how dismantling slavery came about—most likely it was a combination of public opinion, legal cases, and a clause in the Massachusetts constitution guaranteeing freedom and equality for all—but here too slavery was considered banned.

So strong was the impression of New England’s noble attitude that, for a long time, many New Englanders believed either that slavery had never existed there or that it was very mild. What they had a harder time remembering was that freed slaves were not treated as equal citizens. But that’s not the part that shocks me. (Though it should. One contemporary in 1796 acknowledged at one and the same time that denying civil rights was such a bad thing to do that it could be called civil slavery and then insisted they had a right to do it because every society can decide who gets to participate in civil rights and who doesn’t.)

New England remembered itself as the birthplace of American patriotism and freedom. They celebrated the heroes of the Revolution. But they chose not to remember that some of these heroes were black men who served in the Revolutionary army. They erased black soldiers from history. In one case I read about long ago, they literally erased one such man. If I recall, there was a famous painting made in the 1790s which depicted American patriots in battle. One of them was black. When the painting was reproduced in textbooks for children, the black soldier was removed.

Why do that? Why not remember that black and white soldiers fought alongside each other? And how could they champion emancipation of slaves and then deliberately fail to remember the many black men fighting in the same cause they all participated in? One answer is that emancipation served more to promote the self-image of white people as true believers in freedom than to help the freed slaves who would never be granted full civil rights. And the removal of black people from the history of the Revolution had something to do with the same racism that denied civil rights.

Whatever your answer is, this stands as a grand example of the selectivity of historical memory.

Everywhere you look, you can find more examples of incredibly shocking deletions. In The Descent of Man, Darwin expressed his firm belief in the moral and intellectual inferiority of savages. He was convinced that savages would never help a stranger, whereas Europeans would, (“humanity is an unknown virtue” in savages, he would write) and gave his full assent to a Spanish maxim “Never, never trust an Indian.”

Darwin had completely forgotten that, in his younger days, in the Diary he kept while on board the Beagle, he had given examples of South American Indians helping strangers, often shipwrecked European sailors. Of the Patagonian Indians, he noted “their usual disinterested noble hospitality.” (In later published editions of his journal, the word ‘noble’ was dropped.) None of this made it into Descent. It is one good sign of how hardened Darwin’s racism became in his later years. He chose not to remember some of the good qualities in native peoples that he himself had some acquaintance with.

Darwin erased hospitable savages from the world just as surely as those textbooks erased a black man from a painting, and for the same reason: So he could create his own painting which bore no resemblance to the real world. This was selective memory in the service of bad anthropology.

I could go on and on with other examples, like the failure of scientists today to remember that, fifteen years before The Origin of Species, Robert Chambers assembled much of the same evidence for evolution (the common descent of species) that Darwin would. He was in fact the first to prove that evolution was a more probable theory than special creation. But scientists and scholars have chosen to erase this from historical memory. It is that kind of selectivity that takes my breath away. These are the kinds of cases that make one think deep unconscious forces are at work.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Friday, July 29, 2016


Finally it is here and available at all online book vendors. The title is: Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case, Along with a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time. It is easy enough to find. Just search for the words, Darwin racism, and my book is the first or one of the first books that comes up.

I don’t think I need to say anything else for the moment. At sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you can read a description of the book or see the Table of Contents. I have also repeated these things in some of the recent posts below. Just scroll down a bit to May for the Contents.

And when I say the definitive case in the subtitle, it really is.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer