Saturday, January 25, 2014

What happens when an uninformed bigot reviews a book that has nothing to do with his pet grievances? He talks about them anyway.

I guess the regular editors of the Literary Review, despite there normal standards, were too busy with holiday celebrations to catch all the lazy blunders of some of their reviewers. In There is no ignorance so blind as academic ignorance, I highlighted one exceptionally stupid reviewer comment straight out of the delusional cupboards of academia. Further on in the issue there is another. Jay Parini is giving a glowing review of Simon Winchester's The Men Who United the States (which, by the way, looks pretty good).

Parini apparently can't help himself though, he has to wedge in some academic nonsense. He goes out of his way to nod towards gender ("Women, as ever, remain somewhat invisible here) and he is about to get his teeth into some good old genocide accusations. Curiously, he betrays his own biases and blinkers a little earlier on when he mentions that "I myself feel extremely uncomfortable whenever I leave Vermont; I regard Texas, in particular, as a place so foreign that it hardly seems to belong to the United States. But that's me." A comment which might be only mean spirited if one did not understand the context. Vermont is one of the whitest states in the Union (96%) and Texas is one of the handful of minority majority states (56% minority). So, yes, Parini, it appears that that is you in all your prejudiced glory.

But what is actually sticking in my craw is this passage.
Winchester cannot avoid the confrontation with Native Americans that so dominated American history in the 19th century; he offers a few distilled pages about the Lewis and Clark expedition and how its 'occasionally high-handed behavior toward those who had inhabited the lands over which they ventured must have played some part in sowing the seeds of ill will', culminating 'in so much eventual misery'. That's putting it mildly.

America is a nation founded on blood. In American Holocaust, David E. Stannard writes vividly about the 'genocide and racist horrors against the indigenous peoples' that lie at the black heart of American history.
After this little detour of ideological cant, he then acknowledges that his abstract and ignorant pet peeves actually have nothing to do with Winchester's book.
Then again, Winchester has chosen to write another story, the quite remarkable one of countless men who dug canals, hammered rail spikes into place, erected telephone poles or strung wire and created systems of mass communication that would establish at least the illusion of unity in the United States.
Such laziness, anemic snideness, rank prejudice and preening ignorance shouldn't be in a quality magazine like the Literary Review.

What to make of this? American Holocaust by David E. Stannard is an interesting book but is notoriously slipshod in its argument and numbers and you would hope that Parini has read something more mainstream than that to support his argument that "America is a nation founded in blood." He would be more correct to describe the US (and any other country) as founded in tragedy. Depending on the estimates, including those in Stannard's book, somewhere between 95-99.9% of all Native American deaths were unavoidably the consequence of disease exposure. There were obviously deaths from aggression and massacres and enslavement (principally in Latin America) but those numbers are minor to the consequence of the encounter between two populations with distinct disease histories.

And what is this "confrontation with Native Americans that so dominated American history in the 19th century?" Yes, it was an important issue but "so dominated"? I would say that European immigration was a dominant issue, or the industrial revolution, or the consequences of the Civil War (650,000 American dead). Even the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) might be squeezed in where civilian casualties and atrocities (estimated 150,000 - 1,000,000 dead) exceeded all those among Native Americans in all the 19th century.

And why the focus of criticism on the 19th century? By far the greatest tragedy occurred in the first couple of centuries after contact, 1550-1750.

So you have an ideological reviewer afraid to leave his white state, introducing topics into a review that have nothing to do with the book being reviewed, with the criticisms being advanced being both wrong and ignorant. We can do better than that. This is the kind of cognitive pollution that is so insidious: introduced in the most completely irrelevant contexts and never called out.

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