Speaking Ill of the Dead

Photograph Source: Library of Congress Life – CC0

Author’s note: Even for a positive thinker like myself, discouraging things come along.  Stuff that suggests well, gosh darn, maybe the forces arrayed against the other-world-that-is-possible are stronger than I prefer to think they are.  Case in point: the disgusting orgy of accolades for the recently deceased white historian of white history David McCullough. 

It just so happens I have a little something I wrote a while ago about Mr. McCullough.  It’s from the book about unlearning white supremacy that I am finally close to finishing.  It’s part of a section on the transmission of white values. 

Here it is in a lightly edited form:

Case Study 3— The Pioneers

Hindsight is not 20/20.  Certainly not when it come to the practice of history.  U.S. Americans are profoundly ignorant about the past, especially when it comes to the history of U.S. itself.  Why?

It’s because they are required to learn a lot of history.  History that has been very carefully filtered through the white way of thinking processing system.

Which brings us to a 2019 New York Times #1 best-selling book called The Pioneers by David McCullough.  Most of the white history is originally created in academia.  An elaborate system of prizes, promotions, academic tenure, university press publishing, academic journals and other stuff make up its infrastructure.

Some of these “scholars,” however make their way into the popular media.  They appear on TV, write articles for mass circulation magazines and best selling books.  [Don’t get me started on Michael Beschloss and Jon Meacham.]

A small group are elevated to the status of national treasures.  David McCullough fits this job description to a T.  The job, just to be clear, is to tell the stories that keep white people secure not just about the prevailing economic and political hierarchy but in its moral superiority as well.

The book jacket blurb describing the book tells us a lot.  

So, you may be thinking, this is great.   Finally, one of our most prestigious historians will tell us the truth about how stealing land from Native people as one of the “ideals that would come to define our country.”  It’s about time.

Wrong.  That’s not what the book is about at all.  Surprisingly, it’s not even about how the Native people were among the “incredible hardships” that the “dauntless pioneers” had to overcome.  Not very much anyway.

McCullough starts off by telling us how enlightened was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Most U.S. Americans haven’t the slightest idea of how the country grew from the original 13 colonies all the way to California and beyond.  My goal isn’t to give that history lesson here.  For that we have Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.

As she thoroughly explains, control over territorial expansion was baked into the beef the founding white, property owning men had with the British from the beginning.  That’s why the Northwest Ordinance was the first law they passed once the Constitution was in place.

McCullough describes two aspects of the 1787 law as “enlightened,”  On paper anyway.  It pledged respect for Native people and their land.  And it prohibited slavery.  Insofar as neither of these things were adhered to, the Northwest Ordinance followed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself in its fealty to hypocrisy as the ultimate core value of the nation.

McCullough does not acknowledge or deal with any of that.  Rather he focuses on his romantic tale of adventure and pioneering spirit.

Here’s more from the promo copy for the book:

“They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.” (emphasis added)

Throughout the book, McCullough toggles between the two standard issue poles of thought about Indigenous people.  Sometimes he offers downplayed, sideways stories about how the pioneers had to deal with the “savages.”  To be fair, he occasionally evinces some sympathy for the plight of the Native people in dealing with the settlers and especially the policies of the U.S. Government.

Mostly though he puts a lot of emphasis on the noble ideals of the settlers and the hostility of the wilderness terrain they faced.  Thus, he mostly ignores Indians (the term he uses).  Instead, he adheres to his life-long mission to refresh the classic myths and memes for a new era of history learners:  rugged individualism, man’s separation from and triumph over “nature,” manifest destiny.  THE PIONEERS wallows in the whole dang package.

As for ignoring Indians—that isn’t quite right.    It’s worse than that.  It’s more a kind of active disappearing.

Detroiters can relate to this mindset.  We have unfortunately become accustomed to being seen as a “blank slate.”  Many do-gooders in the foundation and business world have a similar attitude and approach toward the city’s population.

Posing as saviors, futurists, or disrupters, they propose schemes that essentially disappear the 600,000 or so people who have lived there through thick and thin.  The residents are seen as and also portrayed as somewhere between irrelevant to their plans, trickle-down beneficiaries or ignorant impediments to DETROIT’S BIG COMEBACK.  The comeback, of course, reproduces many previous plans to protect downtown office buildings and cultural institutions such as sports stadiums, selected parks and Detroit’s world class art museum.

The same dynamic can be found all over the place.  As Naomi Klein has pointed out, disaster is fertile territory for capitalist opportunism.  Post Katrina New Orleans comes immediately to mind.  But a so-called natural disaster is not required.  What is called the Chicago School of Economics, led by “conservative” icon Milton Freidman, made much of its reputation by treating Chile and other nations in Latin America as laboratories for their hyper-capitalist experiments.

The historic precedent for that perspective, is artfully presented by McCullough.  He quotes approvingly in his account of how settler colonialism conquered Ohio from his hero of the story, Rev. Manasseh Cutler.  In a pamphlet Cutler produced in 1787 as a tool for recruiting volunteers to join the expeditionary party to the Ohio territory, he expressed his vision for a system of schools and universities as intended in the Northwest Ordinance enacted by Congress in that same year.

“Besides the opportunity of opening a new and unexplored region for the range of natural history, botany and medical science there will be one advantage which no other part of the world can boast, and which will probably never again occur:  that, in order to begin right, there will be no inveterate system to overturn.”

No inveterate system to overturn, eh? You do say.  Well, there sure as hell is one to replace now.

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement.