Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: Undaunted Courage and a Timeline of Hypocricy

The United States is by now one of the oldest democracies in the world, and still using its original constitution. Yet it actually hasn't been around very long. This point was impressed upon me recently while reading Stephen Ambrose's last book, the excellent Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. In the tone of a master storyteller, Ambrose relates a story everyone knows something about, and makes of it a page-turner. It's the story of how President Jefferson prepared his aide Meriwether Lewis to go and find out what lay to the west of the Mississippi River, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and to bring back as much diverse knowledge as possible: about geography, botany, zoology, about the Indians, about the English, the French and Spanish presence in the area if there was any, and anything else of interest. Since no white man had ever been in the area and reported back, everything was interesting. So Lewis recruited his friend William Clark, and together they created a unit of soldiers and others, never more than a few dozen in all, and off they went.

They set out in May 1804, and got back in September 1806. Ambrose wrote his book a few years before the bicentennial anniversary, and even today we're only 210 years behind them. And that's the first startling thing about the story. As recently as 200 years ago, if you floated down the Ohio River west towards the Mississippi, you were surrounded by hundreds of miles of pristine forest, with, here and there and at great distance from one another, a rough stockade or a one-street trading station with maybe a few hundred locals, all of whom had arrived there in recent years. Cincinnati was a really big city (but did it have more than a thousand people? The book doesn't tell), and it had been founded 15 years earlier.

And the area east of the Mississippi was mapped, known, and part of the United States. Seen from the perspective of where Lewis and Clark were going, it was civilised and tamed. Pretty soon it would even be boring and unattractive for the pioneering spirits who were escaping the stifling civilization of the Eastern seaboard into the unknown and untamed frontier.

They didn't have Whatsapp in those days, and Facebook was unreliable. As a matter of fact, as Ambrose reminds us early on, the the only type of communication anyone had ever dreamed of which was faster than a man's pace of walking, was if he was on horseback. Which means that from the day in May 1804 when Lewis and Clark started upstream from St. Louis (pop. 1000), they were out of contact. Once or twice in the coming years they sent back a few messengers, whom they never saw again and could only hope would arrive back in civilization; they themselves heard nothing from civilization until they appeared one fine September day back in St. Louis, two and a half years later.

In the interval they lived off the provisions they'd acquired in advance, and mostly, they lived off their wits and off the land, essentially reverting to hunter-gatherers. They were very good at being hunter-gatherers, but they'd also chosen a good place. The descriptions of the bountiful land they were moving through are, simply, astonishing. Much of the area is still bountiful, indeed, it's the breadbasket of the world, but it's tamed and controlled by humans. It was different 200 years ago.

So they made their way all the way to Oregon (which wasn't yet called Oregon), took a selfie on the coast of the Pacific, and walked back, proving that it was all there, that area, that there wasn't a combination of big navigable rivers that crossed it, and discovered a few hundred species of plants and critters previously unknown to the taxonomists.

Not part of mapped civilization, perhaps, but not empty of people. There were various tribes of Indians (that was the word used then, and until recently). Each time Lewis and Clark encountered a new group, they gave them a version of their standard stump speech, which needed to be translated through six or eight people, in the probably vain hope that the original English version would come out at the other end in some vaguely recognizable form. Here's the description of the first time Lewis gave it:
Lewis opened by advising the warriors to be wise and look to the true interests of their people. "Children", he continued, as Clark recorded his speech, "we have been sent by the Great Chief of the Seventeen great nations of America to inform you... that a great council was lately held between the great chief and your old fathers, the French and Spaniards". There it was decided that the Missouri River country now belonged to the United States, so that all those who lived in that country, whether white or red "are bound to obey the commands of their Great Chief the President who is now your only great father". (P. 156).
And from there on the speech got worse.

That passage made me stop and think for a moment. In 1804, more than 90% of recorded Jewish history (so far) had already happened. More than 1,500 years of the interval between the collapse of the (western) Roman Empire and the rise of United Europe (such as it is) had already happened. The French Revolution was already history, and Napoleon was wandering around Europe causing uproar. Shakespeare had been dead almost 200 years. Jerusalem, considerably older than Cincinnati or even Virginia, was at one of its many lowest points, but had only a few decades left before it would begin growing beyond its walls, and with a Jewish majority.

210  years is a long time if you're building a family tree, but in terms of history, it's just yesterday. And just yesterday, the first organized white man ever to reach Iowa was preaching at the locals in terms that no kindergarten teacher would use today without blushing. All he was doing was preaching; the really bad stuff was yet to come. As Ambrose notes later in the book, the entire process of the western-moving pioneers regarding the Indians was simple: move out of our way or be killed. Since being in the way meant being on the continent, that left only the option of being killed - and indeed, they're effectively all gone.

Everything I read, I read with an Israeli perspective. Sorry, that's just who I am. The earliest proto-Zionist settlements were started in 1878, and they picked up speed in 1882. The distance in time between Lewis and Clark, first explorers of the western half of the United States, and the advent of Zionism, was 80 years. The final subduing of the American West (sometimes called the Closing of the Frontier) and early Zionism were, quite literally, simultaneous events. The original population of the United States are gone - gone from Massachusetts these past four centuries, but gone from the western half of the country all of, what, 150 years? Less even than that? Meanwhile, in Israel alone there are more Arabs today than there were in the whole country in the late 19th century.

Next time you hear an American enemy of Israel speechifying about the evils of invading someones land and then stealing it, too, ask them what their opinion is of Missouri. Or Oregon. Because it's the same time frame.

Or, if you'd prefer to simply read a book with a great yarn about a world that's gone, read this book.


Aaron Gross said...

If a politically organized Indian nation had been declaring ever since the conquest that the US is an illegitimate entity and demanding that it be replaced by a sovereign Indian state, then there'd be a real problem. But there isn't, so the situations in Israel and the US today aren't remotely comparable, beyond the fact that both are settler states.

As far as rhetoric goes, it's a really bad idea to try to defend Zionism by comparing Israelis/Palestinians to Europeans/Indians in America. I've noticed that Israelis naively do this, saying something like "we settled Israel just like you settled America; our halutzim were like your cowboys." They don't understand how much American culture has changed over the last 50 years, and how much those who tend to be anti-Israel also tend to be anti-European and pro-Indian. They'll typically say that the European settlement of Missouri and Oregon was evil, too, but there's no Indian nation that demands them back now. They might also point out that the US constitution makes no distinction between whites, Indians, or other groups, unlike the Israeli (lower-case "c") constitution.

Rhetorically, a defense of Zionism is usually best off not mentioning the Indians at all.

Barbara Mazor said...

Very good piece, Yaacov. You have a typo re: Shakespeare's death 1616, should say nearly 200 years.

Aaron Gross: I don't think Yaacov's point is to defend Zionism through comparison to the American Conquest - rather to point out the attitudes expressed towards both.

As for pre-state settlement of Israel, unlike the case of the Native Americans or First Nations, where land acquisition was by war or expulsion, land acquired by Jews under the Ottomans and the British was through negotiated purchases with the owners, which included payments to the tenants, even where none was required by law.

Furthermore, the Native American tribes did protest and fight back. With the exception of the British during the War of 1812, the tribes did not have the support of outside powerful nations.

Many Native Americans today, as an indigenous people, actually identify with the Jews as an indegenous people who have been successful in restoring their rights in their historic homeland, and revitalizing their national culture.

Ryan Bellerose said...

If anything, what the "conquest" of north america shows is that the retaking of the jews ancestral lands from the arabs who conquered it in the seventh century has been relatively benign and any honest historian who examines it can only conclude that if the jews had been anywhere near as harsh as its claimed, there would be no arabs in the state of Israel and no arabs in judeah and samaria, and damn sure not a population explosion resulting in almost 6 million more of them than there were in 1945.

words such as genocide should never be used when discussing this conflict unless its by a pro israeli discussing what the arab muslims wanted to achieve.

Ryan Bellerose said...

as for indian nations, our tribes are all distinct nations with their own culture, religions and traditions, we simply arent as similiar as middle eastern tribes, this doesnt mean we do not exist or that we havent been fighting for our lands, we simply have been doing it through legal means

Yaacov said...


I actually wasn't defending Zionism by comparing it to manifest destiny or anything. I was poking sardonic fun at the sanctimonious enemies of Israel who demand "justice for the Palestinians" from their cafees in San Francisco.

The fact there are (effectively) no Indian nations to demand justice from the white man isn't a point in favor of the US (or Canada, or Australia or NZ, for that matter). It's a damning indictment. Unless your position is might makes right. But if that's your position, than Israeli might ought to make right, too.

David said...


The Indian nations were not totally eliminated by any means. Some were wiped out (particularly in California, as it turns out) but many were not and their numbers have very substantially recovered. I think that most scholars believe that there are now more Indians in North America than there were when Jamestown was founded.

It is certainly the case that most Indian nations are relatively poor and many have terrible problems with alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, unemployment, and other social ills. But the situation of many tribes has been improved enormously with the spread of "Indian gaming", to the point that there are cases of people and sometimes whole groups trying to be classified as Indians who are probably just in it for the money (if you can believe that).

And many of the tribes still have their language and much of the core of their original culture and even the core of their original lands. I live in the heart of Indian Country, a fifteen-minute walk from the lands of a 900 year old village. My Indian neighbors are still here, speaking their language, holding their ceremonies, passing their culture on to their children, all while navigating the modern world with some considerable skill. News of the death of pre-Columbian America is, as in other cases, greatly exaggerated.

David E. Sigeti

David said...


I just thought that I should tell you that the example of cultural survival set by my Indian neighbors played something of a role in my own decision to get closer to Jewish culture and language over the last twenty years. I figure that if a village of a few hundred people can survive and preserve its unique culture over four hundred years of domination by others, then I can certainly do my part to preserve and extend the culture in which I was born and raised and which, despite its own unique disadvantages, has never been reduced to such small numbers. So, the admiration and inspiration go both ways.

David E. Sigeti

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. Segati for setting Yaacov straight on this matter. While I enjoy Mr. Lozowick's blog immensely, in that I learn many things with which to counter the inanely stupid arguments of anti-Zionist/Israeli leftists, he tends to distort U.S. history too much for my taste.