December 20, 2013

White democracy depends on exterminating Indians

Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence

By Bill MoyersAhead of the one year anniversary of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 school children and six educators, Bill speaks with cultural historian and scholar Richard Slotkin about the role of guns in America’s national psyche.

Slotkin has spent his life studying and writing about the violence that has swirled through American history and taken root deep in our culture. In his works of history and fiction, Slotkin tracks how everything from literature, movies and television to society and politics has been influenced by this violent past including the gun culture that continues to dominate, wound and kill.

Slotkin talks about Lanza’s apparent obsession with violent video games and mass killings—as outlined in a November report issued by Connecticut’s Division of Criminal Justice—and examines the roots of violence in America. “The lone killer is trying to validate himself or herself in terms of … what I would call the historical mythology of our society. He wants to place himself in relation to meaningful events in the past that lead up to the present.”
The heart of Slotkin's argument:BILL MOYERS: You write in one of your books, "In American mythogenesis," the origin of our national mythology, "the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather they were those who … tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness." Talk about that.

RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, first of all I have to say that every nation, every nation state requires a historical mythology, because a nation state is a kind of political artifice. It pulls diverse peoples together. And so you need an account of history that explains that you're actually all the same kind of person or that your different natures have been blended through experience. So what--

BILL MOYERS: We the people?

RICHARD SLOTKIN: We the people. And the United States is a settler state. And this begins with colonial outposts in the wilderness. And our origin has a story then, has to be how did we go from being these small outposts to being the mightiest nation on planet earth? Well, we did it by pushing the boundaries of the settlement out into Indian country. We did it by ultimately fighting wars against Native Americans, driving them out, displacing them, exterminating them in some cases.

And in the process of pushing our boundaries out, we acquired certain heroic virtues--an ability to fight cleverly both as individuals and cooperatively, and a connection with nature which is particularly critical. As a country really develops you get a kind of American exceptionalist notion of progress which is that American progress is achieved not by man exploiting man, but it's achieved by conquering nature, by taking resources from nature, farmland originally, timber resources, ultimately gold, minerals, oil and so on. In the American model, in order for it to work, you have to say that Native Americans, Indians, are not quite human. And therefore they, like trees in the forest, are legitimate objects of creative destruction. And similarly blacks, African Americans, are legitimate objects of exploitation because they are considered to be not fully human.

So what you get in this, the evolution of the American national myth, really up through the Civil War is the creation of America as a white man's republic in which, different from Europe, if you're white, you're all right. You don't have to be an aristocrat born to have a place in the society. You don't absolutely even have to be Anglo-Saxon, although it helps.

But so among whites you can have democracy. But the white democracy depends on the murder, the extermination, the driving out of Native Americans and the enslavement of blacks. Both of those boundaries, the western frontier, the Indian frontier, and the slave frontier, are boundaries created and enforced by violence, either literal or latent, potential violence.

BILL MOYERS: So that's why you wrote something came from this mythology, something about "the land and its people, its dark people especially, economically exploited and wasted, the warfare between man and nature, between race and race, exalted as a kind of heroic ideal."

RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes. That is the frontier story. That's the western movie in a way. That's “The Searchers.”

BILL MOYERS: The movie, “The Searchers,” yeah.

RICHARD SLOTKIN: The movie, “The Searchers.” Yeah. That's James Fenimore Cooper. That's Buffalo Bill. In a curious way you can even take it to outer space, but--


RICHARD SLOTKIN: Well, space, the final frontier. "Star Trek" was originally going to be called “Wagon Train to the Stars.”

BILL MOYERS: You mentioned Buffalo Bill. Didn't Buffalo Bill say "the rifle as an aid to civilization?"

RICHARD SLOTKIN: Yes, but that's exactly the American myth. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett's rifle, killing the bears, killing the game, killing the Indians is what makes the wilderness safe for democracy, if I can paraphrase Woodrow Wilson.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Indians Don't Fit American Myth and Indians Are Inconvenient to Americans.

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