Thursday, June 11, 2009

The White Man's Last Stand

Frederic Remington, Defending the Waterhole, 1903

Charles Schreyvogel, Defending the Stockade, 1905

There is a surge in Right Wing violence. We saw it yesterday in the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and last week in the murder of Dr. Tillman, and in other recent incidents.  Indeed, we were warned that such a surge in right wing extremist violence would happen by no less than the Department of Homeland Security in a recent report which Republican Congressmen forced the department to withdraw and publicly apologize for (which the Obama Administration did, adding to my fears that they are just more spineless Democrats, quavering in the face of corporate power and right wing intimidation, and  capitulating at every challenge).
There certainly is a long history of left wing violence in this country, but it pales in comparison to the frequency and death toll from right wing violence.  The largest and deadliest single act of domestic terrorism, the Oklahoma City bombing, was a right wing attack.

As we saw in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, conservative and right wing people are not necessarily violent, nor do they in any way endorse such violence.  Timothy McVeigh died convinced (wrongly it turns out) that white right America was secretly with him, and that his death would spark the Blanco Reconquista.   On the contrary, those same white right folk drank toasts to his execution.  Most of the violence is the creation of paranoid obsessives who would stand out in any ideological camp.

And yet, that violence does not spring from the earth sui generis.  It comes out of a set of very deeply rooted myths that go way back in American history, and still have a powerful hold on a lot of people (including members of my family).   There is a whole series of myths around the idea of embattled white people with their backs against the wall, facing inundation by the swarthy hordes.  It is that old story of the conqueror identifying with the conquered.  It is the powerful nightmare of the conqueror; all that they did to others will be done to them.  Almost all of those myths revolve around the conquest of the West; or more accurately, around the memory of that conquest long after it was over. 

The Western artists at the beginning of the 20th century did much to shape that memory.  I illustrate 2 of the best known above.  They both show a story line that abounds in this type of art, the cowboy or the frontier soldier making their brave last stand against Indians, bandits, or the elements.  All of these compositions are variations in one form or another of Custer's Last Stand.  We are always there with Our Heroes in the menaced and shrinking bunker.  The Indians are always in the distance shooting at us, or coming over the stockade to kill us.  Victory is uncertain.  In fact, a sense of doom pervades these pictures. 

These paintings were made when the conquest of the West was long over, and significantly, at the height of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The real history of the conquest and settlement of the West is very complex and full of crime and cruelty as are all episodes of conquest.  Artists and writers reshaped that complicated and problematic history into a kind of heroic Arcadia of manly virtue.  The myth of Manifest Destiny worked more powerfully in memory than it did during the actual westward expansion.  It absolved the conqueror of guilt.  In a parody of Calvinist Predestination, it was believed that the western wilderness was pre-ordained by God as the home for His true Chosen People, Caucasian Protestants.  The people who actually lived there for millennia, the Indian nations, were simply considered part of the wilderness that had to be cleared.  Every ordeal and hardship of western settlement became in memory the Lord's refining fire.  Those who survived and prospered were the refined gold, they had endured and prevailed in the harsh tests from the Lord.  The cowboy, who in reality was a badly paid, despised, and exploited drudge (and almost half of that workforce was Black), became in memory the paragon of Caucasian manliness, braving the wilderness to claim what God had given him.  That so many early cowboys were Southern whites who lost everything in the Civil War fed the idea of Western conquest as the redemption of defeated Southern manhood.

Remington and Schreyvogel painted these pictures with passionate conviction.  They intended their audience to project their own anxieties over extending the franchise to labor and immigrants onto these paintings.  Remington was a true believing racist and xenophobe.  He wrote, "Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns!  rubbish of the earth...  I've got some Winchesters, and when the massacring begins I can get my share of them, and what's more I will!"

The Western myth is at the heart of so much American identity politics, and still has a very powerful hold on the imaginations of many.  The reason why there has never been an effective Left in this country is for one reason, race.  No one has played identity politics more successfully over the decades than the American plutocracy.  The easiest way to break a strike and destroy a union for decades was to bring in a busload of desperate Black scab workers.  After the race riot was over, the owner could be assured of a docile workforce.   Organized labor did not begin to have much success or influence in the USA until it self-segregated.  Birmingham, Alabama, a city notorious for its violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement, was a heavily unionized city. 

In my experience, those myths that fail all tests of evidence, reason, and virtue are the ones that people cling to most tenaciously.  The Western Conquest myth does not stand up to evidence, is implausible, and is arguably very harmful to others and to those who believe in it.  It is at the heart of so much racist thinking.  Commonplace bigotry, aided an abetted by some very wrong headed religious fanaticism, gets magnified into apocalyptic visions of divinely ordained supremacy.  Those notions are exacerbated by economic hardship and downward mobility. 


Rick+ said...

I just finished reading My Life Among the Piutes by Sarah Winnemucca (available without cost online at ( )- an unvarnished and unpolished first-person account of Sarah's life. I was horrified at some of the bloody and faithless acts on the part of settlers and the government that took place in the very mountains and deserts I call home.

When are people going to learn that words become bullets? This is historically true whether these words are in the form of hate speech against Native Americans, Jews, Blacks, Gays, women, etc.

Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said...

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire." - Matthew 5:21, 22

June Butler said...

This waterhole is mine, mine, mine!

And there's Charles M. Russell.

Some years ago, I remember visiting the Denver Museum of Art with its large collection of the paintings of the West.

The Western Conquest myth does not stand up to evidence, is implausible, and is arguably very harmful to others and to those who believe in it.


Counterlight said...

I know Charles Russell, my mother's favorite. We had a reproduction of one of his works in our house when I was growing up.
In my boyhood, cowboy art was wildly popular in Texas. The Amon-Carter Museum in Fort Worth was originally built to showcase the big cowboy classics; Remington, Russell, and Schreyvogel. Until it turned into a broader collection of American art, all that cowboy stuff would bore me. I'd ditch the parents and head for the Kimbell or the modern art museum.

IT said...

As a westerner, I am familiar with so much of this as a cultural iconography.

The more modern equilvalent I recall is the uncomfortable conversation with my parents (b. '27) about the Japanese internements, when I learned of them in HS in the '70s. Parents agreed NOW they were wrong, but tried to convey the panic of the time.

Oh, how too familiar in the easy panic of the '00s.

I visited Manzanar for the first time this summer. It's a FABULOUS historic site and anyone who goes there and is not move by the contemplation of injustice, is no American.