European ignorance?

boddhisatva kbevans at
Tue Oct 27 15:26:49 PST 1998

C. Proyect,

I realize that you value your position as the Sally Struthers of the indios above Marxism and even common sense, but the statement that what I wrote "apologizes for genocide" is hysterical even by your standards. The question is what likely killed some millions of people between the end of the 15th century and the turn of the 19th. Your posting itself suggests that even the biologically unsophisticated people of 18th century saw that disease would kill more people than they could ever hope to by force of arms.

Your posting does not, by any means, undermine the idea that the populations that the 18th century settlers were trying to wipe out had not already been terribly reduced by diseases other than smallpox. Smallpox is actually less communicable than the diseases that probably hit first, and that is even demonstrated by the fact that people had to contrive a way to spread it among people who had no resistance to it. Practically, I'm not at all sure that smallpox blankets are as effective a vector as even one person who actually has the disease. After all, viri do relatively poorly outside the body.

Obviously it's monstrous for people to even conceive of giving others smallpox, not only because of the mass death but because of the particular horror of death by smallpox and the huge numbers of disfigured and crippled survivors smallpox creates. Clearly there was genocidal intent among the European settlers. However, as a practical matter, given the numbers of colonists and the numbers of deaths we suppose had to happen, disease seems the far more likely explanation than outright murder. No, every case of smallpox cannot be chalked up to genocide, nor can the other European diseases.

The point is not to minimize the colonial crime but to put it into correct perspective. Another point of perspective those searching for a more perfect victim should consider is that this genocide is at least a hundred years old. There may not be a statute of limitations on murder, but as a practical, political matter it seems unlikely that modern Americans are going to cede much more than their sympathy because crimes were committed by people they no longer identify with and whose attitudes they have repudiated in the main. Your stridency seems particularly out of place given the fact that even the most bourgeois among us are embracing Native American culture with New Age fervor. Of course your enthusiasm for indigenism is not entirely unconnected with that trend.


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