06 December 2007

Practicing Objectivity

The Truth in History

"Objectivity" and "subjectivity" animate tensions in the dialogue of memory and imagination: they are not poles on a linear spectrum so much as two postures, or masks, in the drama of history.
James Stripes, "Spring Wind Rising" (1994), 210.

Neither Howard Zinn, on the one hand, nor Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, on the other, offer their texts as objective histories. A People's History of the United States has a clear and explicit liberal agenda; A Patriot's History of the United States has a clear and specific conservative agenda. I do not take issue with this aspect of either text because I favor honesty and balance, not objectivity. Neither text intends to offer balance aside from challenging what each of the authors views as the status quo. That is, Zinn sees the writing, teaching, and collective memory of the history of the United States as inherently conservative, and he challenges these standard stories. For their part, Schweikart and Allen believe that liberals have taken over America's schools, colleges, and universities; they intend to rectify that bias.

Most students learn their history from textbooks and lectures (both of which are often horribly dull). Neither A Patriot's History nor A People's History are textbooks in the usual sense of the term, but both are employed as such by students and teachers looking for a general introduction beyond the standard textbooks marketed only for schools and their captive audiences. Both texts are readily available at big box book distributors and independent bookstores all over America. The publishers mean to sell these books.

Depopulation Synthesis

The long sidebar and footnote on depopulation in A Patriot's History merits detailed examination on several counts. First, it calls attention to itself because there are relatively few such asides through this long text. A quick glance through the text turned up another: "Did Roosevelt Have Advance Knowledge About the Pearl Harbor Attack?" It has a much shorter sources list. Second, the question heading the depopulation sidebar is a red herring. Not even Ward Churchill suggests that Columbus killed most of the Indians, and little that Churchill says is taken any more seriously by liberals than are the rantings of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter by conservatives. These polemicists have value when they are on our side, or when we gain points attacking their dispatches from the other side, but believing that their statements represent serious analysis is a mark of ignorance. Third, as noted already in this blog, Schweikart and Allen offer a synthesis significantly at odds with other scholars that have examined the literature.

Schweikart and Allen cite Alfred W. Crosby "[a]mong those who cite higher numbers" (9). They reference his Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986). This book is an important contribution to a broader field of inquiry of which pre-Columbian demography is a part, but it offers little more than one dozen pages concerned with disease in North America. Crosby's earlier The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972) contains far more detailed discussion of the effects of European introduced diseases upon aboriginal depopulation of the Americas. Ecological Imperialism is global rather than hemispheric in focus, and emphasizes animals and plants more than pathogens. Citing The Columbian Exchange would send diligent readers toward a better representation of Crosby's point of view on the matter before us. Moreover, the indispensable citation in any depopulation bibliography is Crosby's "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America," William and Mary Quarterly (April 1976). This article is mentioned in many of the texts they cite, but not in their own footnote. In contrast, even William Bennett offers an oblique reference to the thesis of Crosby's seminal article:
The Indians ... contracted smallpox and measles from the Spaniards; these diseases devastated populations with no previous exposure and built-up immunity.
William Bennett, America: The Last Best Hope, vol I (2006), 6.

Virgin soil epidemics are those in which the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically almost defenseless. The importance of virgin soil epidemics in American history is strongly indicated by evidence that a number of dangerous maladies-smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, and undoubtedly several more-were unknown in the pre-Columbian New World. In theory, the initial appearance of these diseases is as certain to have set off deadly epidemics as dropping lighted matches into tinder is certain to cause fires.
Alfred W. Crosby, "Virgin Soil Epidemics" (1976), 289.
Crosby explains the importance of epidemics in The Columbian Exchange: not only did many succumb to disease, "but it also affected their power structures, striking down the leaders and disrupting the processes by which they were normally replaced" (54). My effort to synthesize scholarship on this topic was published in an Encyclopedia a few years ago:
Epidemic disease was the decisive factor in the European conquest. Epidemics not only eliminated entire communities, but the resulting sociocultural disruption created conditions that made Native peoples more receptive to European trade items and religious ideas.
James Stripes, "Native Americans: An Overview," Encyclopedia of American Studies, vol. 3 (2001), 198.
Crosby offers his assessment of the significance of disease against the leading prior explanations for the success of Europeans in the New World: 1) technology, 2) mobility and psychological advantages of mounted soldiers, 3) lack of Indian unity, and 4) Indian prophesies concerning white gods. Schweikart and Allen offer an explanation of the success of Cort├ęs, and by extension all Europeans, that emphasizes mobility (horses and ships), the economic power of Europe ("wealth made possible the shipping and equipping of large, trained, well-armed forces" [7]), and social organization. This third factor, "the glue that held it all together" (7), they argue is novel and interesting, and of central importance to their conservative ideology. It merits a separate post.


Kevin said...

James-- Not to be a self-promoter, but you might really be interested in a paper that I published with my mentor Jon Erlandson over a decade ago. The article was published in 1995 in the Journal of California and Great Basin Antropology. It is entitled, "Cabrillo, the Chumash, and Old World Diseases." Here is the full citation:

Erlandson, J., and K. Bartoy (1995) Cabrillo, the Chumash, and Old World Diseases. The Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 17(2):153-173.

Jon has gone on to publish other works on the topic. Here is one available online.

James Stripes said...

Thanks. I'll look up the articles.

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