Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A Sophomoric Question from a Sophomore!

Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly CBS '60 Minutes' commentator, spoke at Tufts University last week. In the Q&A that followed his speech, Rooney revealed that the forged documents story was pushed on-air because of the political agenda of the CBS News staff. No surprise there.

During his speech Rooney listed the greatest moments in American history, including its discovery by Christopher Columbus. Tufts sophomore, Spencer Hickok, took Rooney to task for this saying that Columbus' discovery resulted in the "genocide of native Americans." Rooney was caught off guard and could only say, "I can't answer your question."

This little exchange immediately got me to thinking. First, I asked myself, is human death the worst thing that can happen? It is apparent -- to Mr. Hickok, anyway -- that the destruction of native American cultures is the absolute nadir in American history. A heck of a first step to take in the New World. To him nothing else makes up for it.

I then wondered about the rest of the American experience. Why does this indictment of genocide seem to cast a pall over the rise of Western civilization? I then came to my senses.

This student's argument is fallacious. He assumes that the only significant result of Columbus' discovery was that American Indians were killed. Since that's a horribly immoral thing, how could Rooney have elevated it to one of the most important events in American history? This is called the fallacy of interrogation; in other words, a leading question, similar to, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" The sophomore used a clever logical fallacy to throw Rooney a curve ball. I then decided to have some fun with it.

There were no college sophomores majoring in anthropology in 1492. There were no campus activists, no Greenpeace; no anti-war protesters, feminists, nor tree-huggers; no PETA, OPEC, MoveOn.org, nor international election monitors. There were none of the terribly self-important and more-compassionate-than-thou groups that modern civilization has blessed us with. Columbus was discovering a new world. He wasn't attempting to circumvent existing land use restrictions.

As Walter E. Williams has graciously granted white folks amnesty for the institution of slavery on his web site, I think that Christopher Columbus (and Andy Rooney) should be granted amnesty for the genocide of American Indians.


Susan said...

Excellent Steve.

You know, it's a trend now to believe that only white europeans extend their territory, which is complete and total nonsense. The NA tribes fought amongst themselves before we ever showed up. The destruction of the NA cultures is a loss, that we see only in hindsight. But it was inevitable, regardless of who did it. The continent was huge and full of resources. Mankind will extend and extend and extend itself -- it is not a european flaw -- it's a human trait. I've got a dear friend that's 3/4 NA. She practices the old ways and is very knowledgeable. She always tells me that North America was prime for conquering -- there was no way to protect it. She insists that since it was inevitable, she's glad it was us -- there were plenty of "civilized" cultures at the time -- and she's just glad it was us and not one of the others.

Steve Erbach said...


There've been a number of historical analyses I've seen over the years that draw a distinction between European cultures in one major way: how they treated their North American colonies. The southwestern Europeans -- Spain and Portugal -- were exploiters. Their colonies, even today after having won independence so long ago, still struggle as a result of that exploitation. The northern Europeans -- England and, yes, France -- went to the New World to establish self-sustaining colonies. The results were the United States and Canada.

Over-simplified? Perhaps. But look at just the treatment of the boundless resources of North and South America. Spain and Portugal plundered Central and South America of every troy ounce of gold they could find. Not that it did them a lot of good when they finally got it home: big-time inflation was the predictable result of dumping tons of gold and silver into the market. But the North American colonies became self-sufficient and, in time, increased wealth through trade.

North Americans had a lot to answer for in terms of human suffering in the slave trade and the domination of the North American Indian tribes. That's a stain that will mark us forever. But the North American countries did not make their mark on the world as vassal states, but as self-determining states from their very early histories.

If you want to ponder the science fiction aspects of this, think about what will happen if Earth finds intelligent life on planets we visit in the future. Will our exploitative natures win out?