When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

June 20, 2005

Into the West


I'm slowly becoming enraged as I watch Stephen Spielberg's latest epic Into the West, which purports to recount the history of a family in Virginia as they migrate westward and merge with the native Americans they encounter. It's hard for me to put my finger on what it is that bothers me about Spielberg's tale, but the essence of the problem is that it's inauthentic. And it's not one single thing that gives me that impression, but more like the fact that I grew up in a family in which the pioneering generation was only once removed from my own. Therefore, the stories really weren't that old when I heard them recounted by people who actually knew the principals. I actually knew my great grandmother, who had become the matriarch of the family by the time I was old enough to toddle around. I actually touched the bridge to that past so inauthentically recounted by Spielberg.

My great great grandfather was born in 1831 in Hemstead County Arkansas, into a family of eleven children. He lived with his parents on the farm until 1854 when he got a job as a "bull-whacker" driving an ox team to California. In the sanitized version of the story he simply returned to Arkansas in 1860, without explanation. According to my grandfather, however, he had fallen in with another Arkansan who was making his living as a "horse thief," and when the predation business got too tough this fellow convinced my ancestor to return to Arkansas with him, on the promise that if he did so he could have his pick of a litter of the fellow's sisters. In reality they weren't his sisters, but wards of his parents. The girls had lost their parents during a migration from Tennessee to Arkansas, and had been informally adopted by this fellow's family. So in his mind they were, sort of, his property and he could dispense them as assets.

At any rate my forbear ultimately made his choice, a stern young woman named Rebecca, whom he married in 1861. Shortly after that he and three brothers were conscripted by force into the Confederate Army: the 35th Arkansas Regiment. They served grudgingly, to say the least, until during the middle of January in 1863 one of the brothers was killed. It's not clear whether he died during a battle, but at any rate the three surviving brothers decided they'd had enough fighting for the Confederacy, and lit out with the army in hot pursuit. And I do mean hot. Apparently one of the three, John, was wounded during the chase and died a short time later at his home, at the age of 18. Two of their sisters, ages 16 and 17, were apparently killed during the same violent encounter with the Confederate establishment, but he and Rebecca escaped and headed to Washington State, where they became homesteaders. My grandfather said that the old fellow was "the most hard working man I have ever known." My guess is that he wasn't exaggerating, and that my great great grandfather was really running from that disaster he had barely escaped, for the rest of his life. No doubt he considered hard work a small price to pay.

There's a lot to this story, and I suspect it's not atypical. It's paralleled by many others of the time, but there really isn't much grist for a "politically correct" yarn. When you look at pictures of Joseph and Rebecca it's clear that they were rather stern folk to say the least. Their religion is listed in a number of documents as "evangelical," so I don't imagine that would pass Hollywood's ancestral heroes standard either. And though "decent," the life they led was hardly idyllic. Homesteaders of that era tended to just work themselves to death... which is what one had to do just to keep from going under. One could lose everything with a single bad crop. There aren't many people around now with much appreciation for what that was like, but I know a few hippies who tried homesteading in the '60s and they starved and froze for over a decade before they achieved any sort of stability in their lives. And homesteading in the 1860s must have been considerably more difficult than homesteading in the 1960s, one would imagine.

Into the West is supposedly about a kind of multigenerational, multi-ethnic family epic that must have been a rare exception, if it ever happened at all. Not that there weren't examples of intermarriage between native Americans and white settlers, but the conditions of such merges must have been incredibly difficult and they hardly coursed through the vital guts of either culture. They were fringe histories, and to learn the lessons that such stories have to tell us it's important to represent them accurately. To look at Spielberg's depiction of the Lakota and Cheyenne one would think that the two cultures would have met on equal footing had it not been for the intervention of a few evil men. But the unfortunate truth is that both cultures were naturally brutal, and of the two the native American culture had no moral advantage. It just wasn't as lethal, in the end. When, for instance, the Lakota managed a victory over Custer they savagely mutilated "survivors" leaving them to die in agony, with their scalps, genitals, arms and legs removed.

This is not the stuff of which great PC myths are made. Nor did my great great grandfather desert the Confederacy out of any sense of affiliation for the noble Union cause, although it was no accident that the South filled its ranks with abductees. That was, after all, the nature of the virus. (It's what the "insurgents" are currently doing in Iraq.) Of late the fashion has been to paint the Confederacy in mellower tones, if only to avoid the implication that there's such a thing as a "just war." How convenient. If we understood the Civil War on this level it would become difficult to avoid comparing the anti-war Democrats of that day, the Copperheads, with our present antiwar movement. And it would be impossible to avoid the insight that both seem to suffer from the same lack of moral clarity about the great evil of their own era. There is simply no way to give this story the PC slant it needs, without perpetrating a deep lie.

(Cross-posted by Demosophist to Demosophia and The Jawa Report)

Launched by Demosophist at June 20, 2005 07:07 AM

Retaliatiory Launches

To nitpick, both sides pressed folks into service. Recall the draft riots in New York at the time...

Posted by: Cybrludite at June 21, 2005 01:14 AM

The issue in the NYC draft riots was a great deal less politically correct that Scorsese made it out to be. The fact of was that newly emigrated Irishmen were in direct competition for jobs and resources with blacks who had come north to escape slavery, and about the last thing they wanted was to be compelled to fight for the freedom of a people who would then become direct competitors. Scorsese simply avoids the whole racist dimension of the Riots of New York because, again, it doesn't mesh with his PC vision.

Why do you suppose that NYC was the only place in the North that had draft riots or draft resistance of any great degree?

And, of course, there's a lot of difference between a draft were people are legally conscripted for a term of service, and the ad hoc sort of abductions that were part of the South's strategy of conscription.

I would love to find out that my great great Grandad, Joseph, deserted because he was a principled abolitionist, but I just don't think it was so. At least, he left no writings to that effect, and there is no family oral history to support it. In fact, I know that my Grandfather was a very conflicted fellow. He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan who refused to expose his children to his own prejudices (clearly because he was ashamed of it). It's hard to imagine that he picked up those prejudices anywhere but from within his family, although he did fight in WWI. He also once told me that the two greatest baseball players of all time were Satchel Paige and Ty Cobb, to neither of whom could Babe Ruth hold a candle. So, he was a very odd sort of racist.

I guess my point is that our real history as a nation was a great deal more messy that Hollywood finds comfortable. My grandfather was totally my hero, and I never heard him utter a single racist word in all the years I knew him. Not once. Yet he was a member of the KKK. I'm not sure he ever attended meetings, though. At least, my mother says that he never did. Apparently he joined and was so appalled when he attended a meeting that he never went back. But for some reason he never repudiated his membership, either. I think he kept giving them contributions every now and then for most of his life. My theory is that he became enamored of the organization while he was in the movie business, as a direct result of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, so if I'm right about that he may very well have picked up that ideology outside his family. Well, I don't really believe that, but it's a nice thought.

Posted by: Demosophist at June 21, 2005 05:51 AM

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