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. Raphaël 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

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