Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Colonialism in Vogue

Condé Nast has recently announced the shuttering of the print edition of Teen Vogue magazine.

This piece explains why. And why journalism in general is in trouble.

Teen Vogue was supposed to be about fashion. Teenaged girls bought it to learn about the latest in fashion. Instead they often got stuff like this. Stuff they were suppose to pay for and read whether they liked it or not.

Not only is it irrelevant to their known interests. It is also telling them that they, or at least their presumably European ancestors, were bad people.

Worse, it is full of falsehoods. It is misinformation.

Begin with the subhead: “There were two major waves of colonialism in recorded history.”

They mean the colonization of the Americas, and the colonization of Africa.

No, empire and colonialism has been the standard system of government for most of mankind for all of recorded history; since ancient Mesopotamia. The nation-state is the new idea; and it emerged first Europe.

“Colonial logic asserted that a place did not exist unless white people had seen it and testified to its existence.”

An absurdity which, of course, nobody ever believed. And speaking of “white” people here, ith reference to the early exploration of the Americas, is an anachronism. “White” became a meaningful concept only much more recently, and only in some places, most notably the US. “Race” was not an issue before Darwin and modern biology. The issue in the case of America was that the existence of this continent was not in any known written source. It is similar to the situation today when some new plant or animal species is “discovered.” Nobody, then or now, ever thought that the thing did not exist before it was known to science, or that people living locally did not know about it.

“Yet, in many history books, Europe’s expansion is remembered as exploration”

That is exactly what it was, in the first instance—exploration.

“The first indigenous people he [Columbus] came across were the Taíno, who accounted for the majority of people living on the island of Hispaniola (which is now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They had a highly evolved and complex culture.”

That is at best a matter of opinion. Columbus's own first impression on encountering them was “they were a people very poor in everything.”

Speaking of the colonization of Africa, and the borders that resulted, Teen Vogue explains, “These artificial borders split cultural groups.”

True, they did. But left unsaid is that any attempt to draw a political map of Africa on ethnic grounds would have produced no stable borders at all, and no viable national economies. The thing about tribal culture is that ethnic groups are small, not exclusive to any one particular plot of land, and tend to migrate. Any borders, not just these ones, would have mixed and matched cultural groups.

“Indigenous political, economic, and social institutions were decimated, as were traditional ways of life, which were deemed inferior.”

Both British and French policy throughout the continent was actually to leave all existing power structures and leaders in place, and work through them. But, offered a better tool, people will use it. Cars work better for their purpose than donkeys, and TVs work better than jungle drums. The obvious reason for the decline in traditional African cultural practices was that the traditional ways of life actually were inferior. Yet this possibility is not even entertained.

“Among the most brutal of colonial regimes was that of Belgium under King Leopold II, known as 'the Butcher of Congo.' His well-documented acts of violence against the Congolese people resulted in an estimated 10 million deaths.”

This leaves the impression that the conduct of Leopold in the Congo was not too far off the mainstream, and can serve as an example of European colonization more generally. In fact, as the term “Butcher of the Congo” suggests, it was a scandal and considered an atrocity of historic proportions at the time. Belgium was forced, under intense diplomatic pressure from other European nations, to correct the situation. Citing it as an example is like citing the War in Bosnia as an example of modern European politics.

“Belgium, like a lot of the white Western world, can directly attribute much of its wealth and prosperity to the exploitation and deaths of indigenous people of color.”

No. The thing about European colonialism, and largely what led to its downfall, is that it was a money-losing proposition for the Imperial powers. Just as its Communist empire was, a few generations later, to the Soviet Union. Eventually, they, like Britain, France, or Portugal before them, could no longer afford it. Empire instead was considered a burden and a duty, done, if not purely for idealistic reasons, for national prestige.

Speaking of the first settlers in America, Teen Vogue reports:

“The majority did not want peace and harmony between cultures; they wanted the land for themselves. They did not want to share the abundant resources; they wanted to generate wealth to fill their own pockets.”

This might possibly have been true for some individuals outside of Disney cartoons. It was not official policy; both British and French authorities did all they could think of to establish and preserve peace and harmony with the native inhabitants. There was no good reason for conflict over resources. The presence of each group was beneficial to the other. There was plenty of land for everyone. Even aside from the fact that farming was a far more efficient use of the land than the traditional hunting and gathering known to the Indians, the Indian population had already been decimated by disease, and was not even using much of the land for traditional hunting. In any case, trading furs with the Europeans was far more profitable.

And very few of the early settlers were thinking in terms of wealth or of filling their pockets. These were the poorest folk in the Europe of the time, a time of periodic starvation. They were only concerned with surviving the next winter.

“Most had no respect for indigenous cultures or histories; they wanted to enforce their own instead.”

Just the reverse is true, in North America. The literary record shows a consistent idealization of native Indian cultures among European writers, from Montesquieu and Rousseau (the “noble savage” idea) through the Romantics, Washington Irving, Zane Grey, and the Western movie genre to the present day.

“These colonizers did not care that land was considered sacred and communal. Most believed that everything, including the earth, was meant to be bought and sold.”

Indians had little concept of land ownership at any level, and for good reason: they did not much use it. It was of little importance or interest to them, not being farmers. It was just something they passed through. Far from being considered sacred, it was considered only vaguely and provisionally there. The reality was the dream. There was no “communal ownership.” There was no ownership at all, and different communities passed often through the same lands. They no more owned the land than gypsies do. For this reason, they did not think of buying or selling it, just as we do not think of buying or selling air.

The idea of human stewardship over land comes with settled agriculture. The idea of human stewardship over “nature” is from the Old Testament. It is not found in most other cultures.

“The Europeans who first settled along the East Coast of the United States believed it was their Manifest Destiny, or God-granted right, to claim territory for themselves and their posterity.“

Nope. “Manifest Destiny” refers to a later (19th century) idea among Americans that the US was destined to stretch to the Pacific. The phrase does not imply any “God-given right.” Nor did this have to do with taking land from indigenous people. It was a question of acquiring territory from other European powers. In any American or British lands, Indian sovereignty had already been ceded by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764.

“The legacy of colonialism continues to manifest in obvious ways: Many of the world’s poorest countries are former European colonies.”

True, but on the whole, their relative poverty has generally become worse since the Europeans left, this was usually at least four generations ago. In the same four generations, uncounted immigrant families have risen from poverty to wealth in North America. Why the difference? At the same time, some of the poorest countries in the world today are ones that lack this experience of being European colonies: Afghanistan, for example, is the poorest country in Asia. Ethiopia is close to the poorest in Africa. Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, threw off the foreign yoke way back in 1804. Before most European countries did.

Why do magazines like Teen Vogue print such garbage? I expect mostly because it is easy. An article like this takes no reporting or interviewing anyone; and the author has evidently not bothered with much book research. One book is cited, and it is a commonly assigned undergrad read published in 1972. This is the sort of thing that can be written off the top of someone's head, simply from established prejudices. Political motives are probably purely secondary; being “politically correct,” suiting a political agenda, is probably only a useful justification for the laziness. With the right politics, you do not have to actually do the assignment. From the point of view of the assigning editor, similarly, with the right politics, you do not have to come up with any novel article ideas, and assignment is easy.

This is what comes from making journalists “professionals”: it becomes journalism for the convenience of the journalist, not for the wants or needs of the reader.

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