Saturday, June 25, 2005

The New York Times and Western History

Since both of the New York Times editorials today concern western history, oddly enough, I figure that as a western historian it would make sense for me to discuss them. Moreover, the two people are talking about western history are quite different. There's Patricia Nelson Limerick, historian at the University of Colorado and author of one of the most influential books in the history of western history, The Legacy of Conquest, a book that everyone out there should read. And then there's John Tierney, simplistic conservative columnist for the New York Times.

First let's deal with Tierney. He finds some scholars of western history, many of whom have questionable credentials (what the heck is the PERC think tank in Montana?), who claim that in fact the West was not a violent place and settlers realized that trading made a lot more sense than fighting. Thus, they followed their economic hearts and traded in order to live. That's fair enough. He uses the strawman of the HBO series "Deadwood" which defines these scholars against. One problem--no one has claimed that "Deadwood" is an accurate portrayal of the actual community. And of course, who really caused the violence between Indians and whites--the federal government naturally. Those damned Feds!!! Oh federal government, is there anything you can do right? If only we had no federal government at all, we would trade with each other to our heart's content and utopia would result.

This is total bunk. The military's role in western violence was significant but a reaction. Most violence was started by white settlers who hated Indians and wanted them dead. They would commit atrocities against any Indian they saw. Indians then retaliated. The army then came in to mediate the situation and try to separate the Indians from the whites in order to prevent further violence. This pattern begins very early in American history. The Proclamation of 1763, one of the early spurs to the American revolutionaries, made it illegal for settlers to cross the Appalachian Mountains for new land. The reason for this was that the British didn't want to have to pay for endless wars out there and posting military brigades in order to keep these Indian-hating settlers and the Indians apart from each other. As soon as the Revolution was over, whites poured over the mountains, leading to numerous wars and horrifying massacres.

Of course, the military did have a racist attitudes toward Indians, but there's was generally more assimilationist. In any case, it was far less violent than the average white settler who Tierney claims was not interested in violence. Tierney may be right that whites wanted to trade with each other, but he's wrong in assuming that the very act of trading with each other on the western frontier automatically meant that violence would result.

If Tierney actually wants credibility when he writes articles like this, he should at least consult the leading experts in the subjects he wants to write about. In this case, he needed to talk to Richard Maxwell Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and my mentor as an undergraduate. Brown, especially in his book No Duty to Retreat shows how violence permeated western history and continues to permeate American society today. Lyndon Johnson also named to to a commission to study violence in America during his administration. It's unlikely Brown would agree with Tierney which is probably why he wasn't talked to. But not at least mentioning Dick Brown completely undermines anything Tierney has to say about western violence.

Now Limerick. Limerick's piece is a little more disturbing because I expect more from her. As I said before, she wrote The Legacy of Conquest, one of western history's most seminal works. This was a founding book of the New Western History which emphasized violence, conquest, and conflict as key measures of understanding white history in the American West. She was widely villified by conservatives for this book. Somehow though over the years she started making friends with these conservatives, including the bete noire of American environmentalism, James Watt. Watt, the former Secretary of Interior for Ronald Reagan, wanted to eviscerate environmental regulations, privatize government services in National Parks, and turn the West into a giant mine. In other words, he is the teacher of Gail Norton, who is in fact Watt's protege. Limerick's friendship with Watt has led to some disturbing statements, including her editorial today where she takes Bill Moyers to task for saying in a speech that Watt claimed there was no reason for environmental regulations because "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."

Limerick claims that Watt never actually said that. And this is of course possible. I have a lot of respect for Moyers and I would hope he would check his sources carefully. But even if he didn't actually say it, he said many things like it that do make him an enemy of the environmental movement. And given today's climate, how valuable is it to attack Moyers in defense of Watt? Limerick makes good points about the need to not demonize evangelical Christians when it comes to the environment and the need for people like Moyers and Watt to talk to each other. But while we shouldn't demonize evangelicals for no good reason, if Watt or if other political or evangelical leaders do make such statements, they should be demonized. We need to watch these kind of statements carefully. We also need to make sure that when we are not demonizing evangelicals and conservatives for being anti-environment, that we also are not coddling them either.