Friday, July 12, 2024

White Superiority? Not.

I recently posted an essay (July 4), just below about how the Founding Fathers thought they had found a natural basis for government: natural selection leads to democracy. This was a flawed idea, but an advance over all previous European thought about government.

Americans often  make the erroneous, and dangerous, assumption that America became strong because of the cultural, maybe even biological, superiority of immigrant white Europeans over Native Americans. The Europeans beat the Natives, and that is why America is mostly white, or the descendants of slaves or later immigrants, rather than mostly Native Americans.

But it is clear that there is no inherent cultural or biological superiority of Europeans. The reason that European immigrants (mostly from England, France, and Spain) beat the Natives was because the Europeans had guns, and used them to slaughter literally countless Natives. The Europeans also brought diseases.

The evidence for this is, in part, that an earlier European invasion of North America failed as miserably as the 1492 invasion succeeded. I refer to the Viking invasion.

Vikings invaded many places in Europe, and conquered those places, before eventually blending in. In stark contrast, the Vikings who invaded North America had only a foothold (Vinland, in what is now Newfoundland) and soon departed without leaving any descendants. Unlike later invaders, the Vikings had only spears, swords, and other weapons that were not too different from those that the Natives possessed. That is, they were more equally matched with their intended victims. Under these conditions, the Natives easily expelled the Vikings. Why did this happen?

It happened because the Vikings were small and sick. Against the strong, healthy Natives, they didn’t stand a chance.

As I was writing chapter 1 of my forthcoming Forgotten Landscapes (due out in 2025 from Rowman and Littlefield), I found that the evidence of Viking weakness and Native strength was mostly indirect. Direct evidence is hard to come by. I thought it would be easy to prove, from skeletal remains, that Natives were taller than Vikings. Frequently, a less well-nourished population has shorter people. But there is little skeletal evidence for this. It is undeniably true that some Native tribes, with an average height of five feet eight inches, had the tallest people in the world before European contact, based on skeletal remains. But the Vikings were almost as tall. Late medieval Europeans averaged five feet five inches tall. The difference is due mostly to nutrition and disease.

But, to me, the indirect evidence is convincing. Native American tribes had less poverty, therefore better nutrition. They also had better health. They had almost no plagues of disease. For example, they did not have the low-level ergotism, which created constant sickness among poor Europeans, resulting from a fungal toxin in rye bread

There is also the anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal it may be, but it is still a valid test of the hypothesis that Vikings were small and weak. When Richard Fleischer directed the 1958 movie The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, he wanted to model the Viking ship after an actual archaeological specimen. The actors who played the warrior roles, however, could not fit into the ship. The set designers had to rebuild the ship, leaving more leg room for the actors. The actors were men of ordinary modern build, resulting from ordinary modern nutrition and exercise.

The Viking invasion, without guns and plagues, failed. The later European invasion, with guns and germs, succeeded. Clearly the Europeans were not superior to Native Americans, except for the guns and germs.

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Thursday, July 4, 2024

Some Thoughts on July 4

July 4 is when Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence, even though they know very little about it.

In the weeks leading up to July 4, 1776, white European or European-derived men met together in Philadelphia to figure out a system of government that, it must be admitted even by its critics, had not been seen before in Europe, Asia, or Africa.

One characteristic of this system of government is that, the Founding Fathers claimed, it was based on the laws of nature. Thomas Jefferson was particularly clear on this point. Democracy is essential for a healthy nation. Jefferson pointed out that, in Europe, many centuries of inbreeding (though he did not use this term) had produced a nobility and royalty that consisted of defective people. In other words, we would say today, the scum rises to the top. Jefferson was personally acquainted with at least a dozen European rulers who were mentally and physically defective. The fresh water of democracy must be allowed in to flush out defective rulers. Not necessarily all of them, but most of them, by putting them in competition with the superior men (they still ignored women) who worked their way up from the middle and perhaps even lower class. This was almost a century before Darwin and natural selection, but the rudimentary idea of natural selection was well understood by almost everyone: rulership by the superior white men who had proved their superiority, not just inherited it.

But in other fundamental ways the Declaration was profoundly flawed. One of these ways was that the Founding Fathers pretended that they got their ideas from European philosophers. To them, the Native Americans were just savages who had essentially no organized government. However, it was clear to them, though they rarely admitted it, that the kind of government they wanted to create was already in existence among Native American tribes, who made their decisions based on (as close as they could get to) consensus among the villages that made up the tribes or even entire coalitions like the Iroquois Confederacy. Jefferson and Franklin admitted it in writing.

The Founding Fathers created a form of government that was new to whites, but already existed among Natives. But it started with a strong momentum of violent racism which we are, even today, trying to eliminate.

Another major flaw is that the system is more fragile than we normally admit. When someone asked Franklin whether America would have a democracy or a kingdom, Franklin answered, “a democracy, if you can keep it.” Today, about half of Americans are worried that the other half will support a presidential candidate who is poised to destroy constitutional democracy. Trump will not recognize the legitimacy of any election—even before it has occurred—that does not choose him as its winner.