Sunday, June 04, 2017

(Anti-) Pseudohistory Sunday

The continuing move to take down monuments honoring the Confederacy has brought with it an encouraging spate of articles discussing the real history of the Confederacy and of the white supremacist, post-Civil War agenda behind neo-Confederate ideology, including Adam Serwer's The Myth of the Kindly General Lee Atlantic Online 06/04/2017.

One of my Facebook friends posted this piece on Andrew Jackson that is vague enough to be sparse on particular claims but nevertheless has a definite pseudohistory edge to it: Adrienne Keene, How I Feel As a Native Woman When Trump Idolizes Andrew Jackson Teen Vogue 04/19/2017. She happily accepts the idea of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump that Jackson is a fitting image for the current Trump Family Business Administration:

Trump embraced the comparison to Jackson, and once in the Oval Office, he chose a portrait of Jackson to hang in a place of honor. More recently, ... Trump spent the night at Jackson’s Tennessee plantation, the Hermitage, and laid a wreath on his tomb. He gave a speech at the site, stating that America will “build on [his] legacy.” He called Jackson a “military hero and genius and a beloved president,” but noted he was “also a flawed and imperfect man, a product of his time.” He ended his speech, “Andrew Jackson, we thank you for your service. We honor you for your memory. We build on your legacy, and we thank God for the United States of America.”

These statements and comparisons terrify me. Jackson’s legacy is nothing short of Native genocide. History has strangely been kind to him, painting him as a populist president, a “common man,” a political outsider who came to shake up the establishment and break the rules to serve the people. But the reality was far from it.

Jackson came to power campaigning against "the Money Power," concentrated wealth that corrupted democracy. American political leaders used terms like "Wall Street" and "the trusts" and the "malefactors of great wealth" and "economic royalists" to describe later incarnations of the same problem. And DONALD TRUMP wants us to think of him as a present-day Andrew Jackson? Ur-Confederate John C. Calhoun is laughing maniacally in whatever corner of the underworld he currently hangs out. Tom Paine is weeping.

Historians still provide some incredibly nuanced and insightful views of the pre-Civil War US history. But on seemingly the entire left of center, popular accounts reject nearly everything that would have been considered "left" at the time. Republicans and conservatives are much better at evoking historical imagery than the Democrats. But among other things, it leads to sloppy history.

It also leads the Democrats to miss the opportunity to challenge the far right's alt-history of the United States. Like the idea of Donald Trump being a new Andrew Jackson. The Democrats don't even bother to contest that bit of pseudohistory, although Keene doesn't present herself as speaking as a Democrat in that piece.

And even well-informed articles I've seen the last few weeks debunking neo-Confederate pseudohistory haven't yet seem to have focused on the fact that Jackson in the Nullification Controversy came down hard on the side of the Union and against threats of secession on behalf of slavery. Popular left and left-of-center history right now tends to reject Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (the two major founders of the Democratic Party!) out of hand because they were slaveowners. But Lincoln is still allowed to be the Great Emancipator. But how to explain that he saw Jefferson and Jackson as major role models, and understood his own political project as carrying on their work of democratic emancipation?

For that matter, Lincoln took part in state militia action against Indians in his younger years. And Indian tribes were among those Lincoln sent the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. Some groups of Indians supported the Confederacy, including in Oklahoma where the Creeks, Choctaws and Cherokees were relocated under Jackson Indian Removal Act.

I'll say again what I've said various times in other posts. Jackson's Indian policy was bad. The opponents of Jackson's Indian Removal Act did object to it in real time. But their arguments were things like, having Indian slaveowners in the South helped defend the institution of slavery. Keene at least alludes to that. And that it would be easier to Christianize the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees if they stayed in the southeast, i.e., easier to destroy their cultures completely.

Though Jackson rightly gets blamed for the Indian Removal Act, the removal of the Cherokees (what the term Trail of Tears originally referred to) under that law took place under Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, which most popular accounts don't even mention. Keene's article also omits that fact. That's not an excuse for Jackson's Administration. Other relocations took place under Jackson's Presidency, and they also caused a great deal of death and suffering.

Herman Melville was one of the few whites in America at that time who held something like a 21st-century view of equality for Native Americans. Francis Parkman came close, but Melville thought Parkman was a bit backward on the subject. And even the Great Emancipator was a white supremacist in today's sense, along with virtually every other white person in the US, including most of the soldiers of the Union Army that destroyed the Slave Power in the Civil War. The only famous white person prior to the Civil War that comes to mind who held views on racial and gender equality like those of American liberals in 2017 is John Brown. And how many white Americans today are willing to identify with the "terrorist" guerrilla fighter and convicted traitor John Brown?

History is complicated, Especially the part that human being make.

Jackson's Indian policy sucked. So did that of virtually every other white person in the US from before the American Revolution until, well, arguably even now. And while there were undoubtedly many settlers who wanted to just kill every Indian in sight, Jackson was not one of them. If "genocide" means anything like the official UN definition of it today - which involves a deliberate intent as well as concrete action aimed at exterminating an entire group of people - neither Jackson's Indian Removal Act nor the removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma count as genocide. The Cherokee removal on which Keene focused was mainly implemented by Jackson's successor Martin Van Buren. Obviously, "not genocide" does not mean "acceptable."

Republicans are not only better at evoking historical symbolism than the Democrats. And more willing to make up their own pseudohistory, which I guess we call alt-history right now. While Democrats aren't willing to defend the genuine democratic progress made prior to the Civil War even by their own party founders. This is one reason that saying adapted from Robert Frost remains current, "A liberal is someone who is so open-minded he won’t take his own side in a fight."

Adrienne Keene who authored the Teen Vogue article is presumably the same one who is an American Studies Professor at Brown University. She has a blog called Native Appropriations focusing on issues of "cultural appropriation," which seems to be a major focus of her scholarly work, as well.

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