History Is Not a Cartoon

Blinded by a cartoonish understanding of history

Dick Dastardly and Snidely Whiplash were the ever-present evil villains of popular cartoons in the 1960's and 70's. They were the constant presence that provided the contrast between unalloyed evil on the one hand, and defenseless and innocent misfortune on the other. As a general matter, I like moral clarity in entertainment. Whiplash and Dastardly serve a practical use in helping to sharpen the contrast between evil and good.

But somehow, what used to be a cartoonish character has been elevated into an entire worldview which is now being taught as a mainstay of American culture and history. Old world Europeans and their present-day descendants are now constantly propagandized as the Snidely Whiplashes of our time.

I was talking to a 20-something evangelical Christian some months ago. He is employed as an educator.  He is a graduate of a large, evangelical university and teaches in the public schools. He was surprised by our discussion because it ran so counter to the narrative he had running around inside his head regarding events from America's past. The narrative in his head ran something along the following lines:

Unpleasant (and pale) Europeans migrated to the Americas and through their greedy, rapacious and insensitive ways, they displaced, mistreated and committed genocide against the innocent, happily agrarian and brownish indigenous people who were living in the Americas at that time. When Snidely the Europeans showed up, all was innocence, peace and light. But the vicious melanin-deprived Europeans went rampaging across the continent, spreading misery, pestilence and war. They went out of their way to victimize the indigenous people whenever they possibly could, sometimes for no other reason than that the sweet and innocent indigenous people possessed more melanin than the pasty-skinned Europeans. Modern day descendants of those Europeans may not have literally done those things themselves, but they are complicit in every bad thing ever done in history by the mere fact of their continued existence in a world that is no longer dominated by old world indigenous culture and values. Oh, and by the way, those residual values inherited from mean Europeans are also responsible for the on-going apocalyptic destruction of the planet, because private property and economic freedom cause variations in the weather. Or something.

You may think that my description is an exaggeration but let me assure you, it is not.  Some things are in there for comic effect, but the overarching set of presuppositions is entirely consistent with that young man's indoctrination.  Along similar lines, here is what sociology students at Berkeley are apparently learning from their professors about the way of the world:

And yet, right now, the U.S. doesn’t have a just—or even functional—policy for immigrants and refugees. It’s still struggling to support Indigenous communities facing displacement from environmental calamities caused by colonial settlers.

Did you get that? Our indigenous communities are being displaced by environmental calamities caused by "colonial settlers". Those 17th century colonial settlers must have had one big honking carbon footprint to have initiated "environmental calamities" that were capable of narrowly targeting specific races for hundreds of years.

Kidding aside, I hope you get my point - the melodrama I described that was running around in my young friend's head wasn't made up out of thin air.

Somewhere along the way, in my conversation with my young teacher friend, I commented on how S.C. Gwynne, in his history of the Comanche nation, shares a brief story in which some soldiers on the Texas frontier come across a group of Tonkawa Indians, sitting by a campfire over which they were roasting the leg of a dead Comanche warrior. The Tonkawas were having roast Comanche for dinner. I made the observation to my friend that these soldiers would have been understandably shocked and appalled by this discovery since cannibalism was something that people coming out of a culture influenced by Judeo-Christian thinking would have abhorred. My young friend is a grown adult, in possession of a teaching credential, who has strong opinions about American history, but had never been told in 16 years of education that some of the indigenous people in the Americas were cannibals.

By the time I told him that the Incas drugged children with psychedelics before murdering them in sacrifice to their gods, he was speechless.  And when I pointed out that the Aztecs would cut the beating heart out of their living human sacrifices and consume bits of the hearts in ceremonial cannibalism, he was reeling. Then I suggested that the Hurons would have born witness to the genocidal pursuits of the Iroquois, except for the fact that there are no Hurons in the world anymore, since every man, woman, and child was wiped out by the Iroquois.  At this point I thought I was going to have to get him some smelling salts.

When I asked my young friend if he thought the world we inherited would have been better if the depraved, cannibalistic, rapacious and genocidal cultures that preceded colonization had been perpetuated and expanded, he was...confused.

The point of my comments up to this point is certainly not that Europeans were an unalloyed good or that indigenous people were an unalloyed bad.  My point is that thinking in these cartoonish categories concerning history, categories that are more suitable for Dudley Do-Right than for actual grown adults, is an unlikely pathway to either wisdom or to human flourishing.

The European colonizers were wicked and flawed.  Make no mistake. Some of them committed atrocities against their indigenous neighbors. But their indigenous neighbors also committed atrocities against the European settlers. Kidnapping, rape, torture, and mutilation were a common occurrence on the frontier.

Side note: How many of these "indigenous" people were truly indigenous, or were rather descendants of earlier non-European migrations, is a question that is still very much open for debate among historians and archeologists.  I use the term "indigenous" primarily to refer to anyone who was here before the Europeans arrived.  Ancestors of allegedly indigenous people may themselves have pushed out people groups that were here before them.  Actually, all of human history is characterized by the rise and fall of people groups. Everywhere and always.

The European settlers emerged from a culture that had been strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian thought and yet some of them, even many of them, did not live up to their Judeo-Christian cultural values.  They sometimes responded in-kind or even initiated hostilities.

I don't want any reader who was trained by our contemporary educational system to be too traumatized by what I'm about to write, but there are wicked people everywhere and in every color.  Sorry to have to break it to you.

The lessons of history bear witness to the truth of the biblical understanding of the complete fallenness and depravity of humanity. All cultures exist along a continuum between better and worse, but they are never cartoonishly good or bad in the way our contemporary educational system would have us believe:  moral virtue is simply not a straightforward artifact of ancestry or of pigmentation.

What makes one society better than another is the extent to which the values and principles a society promotes are in keeping with human flourishing.  What makes a society worse is when God's design for human flourishing is rejected or ignored, and the culture instead celebrates and promotes pursuits that are not worthy or good.

No society is perfect, but some societies and cultures are, in fact, better than others, and it is possible to make morally discerning distinctions.

My teacher friend had apparently never before considered the possibility that, when every single participant in history is already flawed by definition, perhaps we should reconsider the calculus for whom to revere and celebrate. Perhaps those of our forbears who, notwithstanding their inborn weakness still advocated for, and pursued, however inadequately, the true and the good - perhaps they should be honored instead of disparaged.  Considering our own cultural and moral midgetry, perhaps the modern conceit of virtue signaling against the past isn't such a bright idea.  It is inevitably going to come out that we aren't as virtuous as we tell ourselves while standing in front of the mirror basking in a glow of moral superiority.  Nemesis ever followed Hubris. Future generations are going to laugh, looking back, at what undeserving self-righteous prigs we were.

This very same kind of cartoonish understanding of history also animates the entire "reparations" discussion that seems to be gathering momentum in our time.  The Babylon Bee, on this question as on so many others, humorously identifies the fly in the reparations ointment.

In many ways, we have become the kind of culture that our ancestors would have deplored.  The mask has come off and a culture of death is openly celebrated in the public square.  The impression we would make on our own ancestors would likely be similar to the one made by those cannibalistic Tonkawas so long ago. Alas, we have slid very far toward the loser end of the cultural moral continuum.

We will continue to misidentify the heroes and villains in every age as long as we promote a cartoonish understanding of people and events. We are all Snidely Whiplash to one extent or another.  We will only ever understand our world by looking, unabashed, through the explanatory lens provided by our creator.

Light is better than darkness.  But there are still people who prefer cartoonish darkness to any smidgen of light. In a healthier culture, they would not be persons of influence.

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