Daily Archives: September 25, 2012

Updated/ Evil (HUM455)

The reading schedule has been updated. I’ve made a few of the readings “supplemental”– which is to say that they are optional. Of course, I recommend that you read them.

Regarding the “evil” tangent: There is a tendency among some students and scholars to oversimplify history by caricaturing the rise of “the West” as an endless series of acts of racist violence. Certainly there is some truth to this claim as atrocities such as the Mystic River Massacre, Wounded Knee, the slave trade, and recent political theater in Arizona attest. Yet taken to its limits such a view devolves into a theory of history that basically posits “they always fuck us over.” A racial demonology is thereby created, with whites cast in the role of greedy predators and people of color their noble yet doomed victims. This conception of historiography is, at its root, a moral critique– a Manichean, even theological, explanation of change that obliterates the complexities of human history. While moral criticism is necessary, the “they always fuck us over” theory is, in the end, intellectually lax. What is intended as a political corrective to mainstream/dominant versions of history effectively kneecaps itself by locating blame for events in the blind aggression of people of European descent. Crucially, however, it’s not that easy. Motives and the acts they inspire are the product of ideological “common sense” and subject to massive socio-historical forces. In the words of Karl Marx, “[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

One instructive example would be the role of Native Americans in the Seven Years’ War, which could not with any accuracy be flattened out into a simple case of white supremacist violence against local human groups such as the Hurons and Delawares. Both of these latter groups had an active role in the events that transpired, using political calculation and military intervention to gain as much power as possible. The peoples of the North East were, in general, quite adept at playing the European empires against one another. In some cases their motives in doing so were less than unimpeachable. The men and women who fought English and French imperial armies were not simply tragic victims. They made their history, though in a harshly overdetermined situation.