History’s Blame Game

January 13, 2012 § 4 Comments

Anyone who lives in a blue state can tell you: white people feel guilty. The feeling doesn’t come from nowhere. We’re the descendents of slaveholders and confederates, of imperialists and warmongers, of speculators and strike-breakers, of settlers and disease-spreaders, of loggers and poachers. Indeed, our pasty-skinned ancestors committed sins of biblical proportions- sins that we- their grandchildren- are still repenting.

The good news is: it’s not just us. It seems that we did so much harm simply because we had so much power. In other words, any other race would have probably acted similarly in similar circumstances. The blood that runs beneath our light, thin skin isn’t fundamentally polluted. And our culture- for all its destructive, resource-crazy heedlessness- isn’t any more rapacious than lots of others. White people don’t suck; people suck.

Take environmental destruction in North America, for example. Guilt-ridden liberals have long believed that aggressive white settlers coursed through the continent burning, chopping and killing, defiling a virgin wilderness that was once cared for so gently by the Native Americans. We think of the Noble Savage shedding a single tear. He’s crying for a Paradise Lost.

Of course, Grandma and Grandpa did devastate the land. Before settlers arrived in the New World, for instance, trees covered North America from sea to sea, with the exception of the Great Plains and parts of the Southwest. Only 10% of old growth forests remain in the United States. Who cut them down? White people. But what were Native Americans doing to protect Mother Earth? Not much, in fact.

As John Vaillant details in The Golden Spruce, Pacific Northwest Indians drove the otter to extinction as they hunted for skins to sell to European traders. H.W. Brands, in American Colossus discusses how Plains Indians slaughtered the once abundant buffalo. White people killed some, but “the principal suppliers were the Plains tribes,” Brands writes. White people wanted buffalo skins, and Native Americans wanted the guns, ammunition, blankets, and bottles of whiskey they could get in return. They continued to hunt the animal aggressively even as buffalo populations thinned to nothing.

It’s not an encouraging truth, but both Native Americans and European Americans have consistently valued economic gain over the well-being of other plant and animal species. If we’re playing the blame game, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

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