John Evans and the Indians

Earlier this year, Northwestern University issued a lengthy report on the life and career of one of its chief founders, John Evans. The report was occasioned by a tide of criticism that the university had, over the years, failed to acknowledge Evans’ alleged complicity in the Sand Creek Massacre of November 1864. A panel of eight senior and distinguished scholars from within and without the university prepared the report.

Given the subject matter -- the mistreatment of Native Americans by white settlers and their government -- there was never any chance that the panel would exonerate Evans. He was there, or somewhere, as territorial governor of Colorado and therefore somehow responsible. The connection to Northwestern is yet more tenuous. Evans, then a resident of Chicago, where he had made a good deal of money in real estate, organized a group of fellow philanthropists to found a university to serve the rapidly developing region. This was in 1850. After the university’s formal founding the next year he continued to contribute to its growth. His role was recognized in the naming of the town that grew up around it, Evanston. Evans was also a pillar of the Methodist Church and a strong supporter of the new Republican Party. In short, he was not a bad guy. In 1862 he was appointed governor of the Territory of Colorado by the president, a Mr. Lincoln of Illinois.

Thus far the report treats Evans evenhandedly. One can only assume that the report continues historically scrupulous as to fact. But once the story moves to Colorado the easy judgments and the tone of moral superiority begin to surface. A random example:

Serious trouble began on April 12, 1864, when the cavalry confronted a group of Dog Soldiers near Fremont Orchard, northeast of Denver on the South Platte. Each side later claimed that the other fired first, but the net results were four troopers dead and several Cheyennes wounded (one so severely he became an invalid)....

The reader is invited to try how many ways that latter sentence might be rewritten. Here’s one way:

...the net results were several Cheyennes wounded, along with a number of troopers (four of whom so severely that for the rest of their lives they were dead)...

No one disputes that the Sand Creek Massacre was a bloody horror, or that the soldiers who committed atrocities that day and the commander who directed the attack and countenanced the soldiers’ behavior deserve the harshest condemnation. Nor is it any mitigation to note that these things happen in war -- one need only mention such places as Dresden, My Lai, or Abu Ghraib -- because war itself is an atrocity.

But the question being examined is specifically what responsibility John Evans bore for what occurred. And despite the best efforts of the panel to sustain an air of suspicion, they find he had none. He did not plan or order the attack; he did not know of it in advance; he was not in the Territory when it took place. The attack was directed by Col. John Chivington, commander of the Military District of Colorado, who, on behalf of the army chain of command, had asserted and maintained full responsibility for the question of war or peace with the Native Americans of the Territory.

The concluding chapter of the report spends pages in considering, not what Evans did, but what he might have done. He had worked hard to pacify the tribes, to resettle them peacefully, to force the agents of the Indian Affairs Commission to deal honestly with them, and to separate the hostile renegades from the great majority of tribespeople. He did not succeed in these aims. Given that neither the federal government nor the army ever managed to develop and apply a consistent policy toward the mainly peaceful Indians in the West, this is hardly surprising.

At times Evans succumbed to anxiety about the possibility of full-scale Indian war, such as had happened in Minnesota in 1862. At times he was angry over depredations committed by Indians and made undiplomatic statements. He was sensitive to his position as an appointed official -- as, given his subsequent treatment by a congressional investigation, he might well have been. In the aftermath of a congressional investigation he was sacrificed to the political necessity that heads be seen to roll.

The panel feel that rather than saying this at some critical moment, he might have said that. And they seem to feel that had he said that, things would have worked out for the better. This is not historical judgment, it is hindsight, and presumptuous hindsight at that. But it is just what was required of this report, so that the critics might be appeased.

(It is interesting to contrast the panel’s attitude toward Evans with this passage:

Honor bound to do so, Lean Bear’s relatives sent out revenge parties in May along the Arkansas near Fort Larned, where they killed two American settlers.

“Honor bound.” That is, they could do no other. They did what they had to do. They were scarcely moral agents at all. No need to look back and judge them by some other standard.)

But, of course, the critics are not appeased. In any tragedy, as anyone innocent of the wisdom of the Greeks knows perfectly well, there must be a villain. A recent letter to the alumni magazine proposes a list of things the university ought to do to atone. Number 2 on the list reads as follows:

Northwestern should issue a formal written and verbal apology to the three Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes for any pain and suffering the University may have caused, directly or indirectly, from its association with Gov. Evans.

What is not explained is what any of this had to do with Northwestern University, sitting quietly in Evanston and educating its students. What is charged by the critics is, on the face of it, guilt by prior association.

“Who killed the Kennedys?” asked Mick Jagger, and he answered his own question, “Well, after all, it was you and me.” This is paradoxically comforting, for if we are all guilty, then no one is particularly guilty.

It follows in this philosophy that you and I are responsible for all the other awful things that have been done by man on Earth. A cloud of guilt hangs over us all and cannot be expiated. It can only be accepted and confessed, over and over, in cathartic orgasms of self-shaming. In these rites we are led by those who, thanks to their greater sensitivity to such things, feel just a little tiny bit less guilty than the rest of us and are eager to proclaim it.

It wasn’t me who killed the Kennedys, and I very much doubt it was you. But once the notion of guilt is permitted to escape from the constraints of specific actions by particular persons, it quickly becomes in some minds a very useful sort of weapon against just about anything and anyone they don’t much like. The idea of collective guilt has produced some pretty nasty business over the ages, as in answering the question “Who killed Jesus?”

UPDATE: A friend was moved to create this work of art, which he calls "THE GOOD REVEREND CHIVINGTON BRINGS CHRISTIANITY TO SAND CREEK"



On Ferguson

Five years ago, before Henry Louis Gates was showing celebrities their family trees, he had a bit of a run-in with a policeman. I wrote a little essay on the incident, part of which I duplicate here:


[T]here’s a strain of civic cliché that requires us from time to time to pay lip service to the mythos of the “thin blue line” and the “serve and protect” motto on the door of the police car. This is all well and good when a policeman is killed in the line of duty, and the funeral procession marches down Main Street led by a pipe band, and all the surviving officers are Irish for a day. But….

Policemen are absolutely necessary. A dense and complex society would be impossible without them. But the police force is not a sign of our strength or virtue but of our weakness and viciousness, as individuals and as a collective. We have police because, in the end, in extremis, we cannot fully trust our neighbor to do right and not to do wrong.

In some societies there are classes of people who perform, or whose ancestors performed, necessary functions that were, nevertheless, considered unclean and shameful. The burakumin of Japan and the dalits of India are prime examples. If there were justification for such social stigmatization, policemen might well be so stigmatized. That they are not may be in large part a reflection of a deep sense of humiliation that we require their service to protect us from our own flawed nature.

That may also explain why we do not pay them enough to attract the sort of person we would actually prefer to have in a position of authority over us. For let us confess that the local police department does not, on the whole, attract the people we would like it to. If you live in a big city, the department doubtless has entrance exams and background checks and a training academy and continuing education and whatnot. If you live in a small city or a town, probably not; there, a stint in the military police or maybe just the infantry may be recommendation enough. And all this ignores the usual nepotism and cronyism that can guide the hiring for any public job.

So who becomes a policeman? Yes, some citizens who actually wish to serve and protect. The Officer Friendlies who come to school to put our fears to rest. But as often it is those who are attracted to positions of power; those who relish the thought of authority, especially armed authority – in other words, precisely those whom, if we knew their heart of hearts, we would never entrust with our safety. We all know this, and we all pretend not to most of the time. The notorious cases of abuse of authority we put down to a rotten few, the “rogue cops” as they used to be called. But it is the job itself, the terms of service, that makes abuses inevitable....

...Professor Gates forgot for a moment the lesson that we all learn early – don’t mouth off to a cop. He has a uniform and a badge and a gun. He may be right, in which case you are wrong; or he may be wrong, in which case he still has a uniform and a badge and a gun.


I'll Just Have the Pie, Thanks

A week or so ago the local newspaper ran a story about a nearby school district that was struggling somewhat with the idea of Thanksgiving. I write “the idea” in order to make the point that they hadn’t one. At least, they hadn’t one they could agree on and at the same time hope to avoid controversy over.

In their deliberations it was taken as given that the old story of Pilgrims inviting Indians to a friendly lunch was just so much Whiggish history, intended to underscore triumphalist white European male hegemony, etc. The problem was, once that story had been dismantled, what was left to celebrate?

Making Indian headdresses out of construction paper, with or without real feathers, is, of course, absolutely a non-starter: too much latitude for giving or -- much more likely -- taking offense. And don’t mention the food; who provided what to whom is too hot a topic to mess with. Under the scrutiny of unsentimental historians the great occasion has been whittled down to just another Thursday (if it was a Thursday). Of all those tales that once were taught to children -- Pocahontas, Squanto, the first Thanksgiving -- about all that is left is succotash and smallpox.

Human nature, taking its cue from its greater namesake, also abhors a vacuum, and for some there is no profounder vacuum than a day without shopping. And so it is that our great merchants, including Messrs. Target, Wal-Mart, and я Us, have moved swiftly to provide a reason to wake up on Thanksgiving:  The Pre-Black Friday Sale!

I can’t recall the last time I opened the front door on Hallowe’en to a small person in a homemade costume threatening some unspecified “trick” unless I came across with the goods. I miss the little bastards, and I miss imagining the Pilgrims and Indians starting in on their little nutcups while awaiting the great stuffed bird.

We as a nation probably owe a great deal to the social critics and, ah, educators who have over the last half-century so patiently dissolved the tissue of gentle lies that used to help children into their roles as citizens and parents, and I for one would be happy to see them get what they have coming. Perhaps some of them, at least, will be among those early birds who get trampled to death next Thursday morning.


Ten Years Later

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first venture into the public print -- or the public pixel. Or something. The piece I published then, in the now-defunct site TCS, was also my first attempt to explain what was wrong with the principle underlying the Wikipedia. I've long since lost that argument, not because I was wrong but because too few people cared whether the answers they got from a convenient and widely hyped source were, in fact, correct. Critical thinking is much honored in the abstract while often deplored in specific cases.

Well, I obscenity in the milk of their protestations, as Hemingway never wrote. If you care, you can read it here. Even if not, I offer here the infamous final paragraph, which was misread by so many zealous persons who just knew that I didn't get it. 

The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

What I said.


Calling Captain Renault! Calling Captain Renault!

Peter Suderman, at, explains why the recent comment by one of the architects of Obamacare -- you know, the one about stupid American voters -- is so offensive. And it’s not just the voters! Even the Congressional Budget Office is stupid, stupid enough to have been taken in by an entirely unique, unprecedented, unforeseen trick by the wily Democrats:

For one thing, it is an explicit admission that the law was designed in such a way to avoid a CBO score that would have tanked the bill.

Oh, perfidy!

But the really dastardly trick was to hide the deepest and wickedest truth about the bill:

It's also an admission that the law's authors understood that one of the effects of the bill would be to make healthy people pay for the sick, but declined to say this for fear that it would kill the bill's chances. In other words, the law's supporters believed the public would not like some of the bill's consequences, and knowingly attempted to hide those consequences from the public.

Or, put another way, they declined to explain to the public how ordinary insurance works: Take money from those who, as it turns out, didn’t need protection and give it to the few who did. Can you imagine the uproar -- barely audible over the crash of such edifices as Prudential and Aetna and The Hartford -- if word of this gets out?

Boy! Just wait ‘til the Republicans take over, what with their high-mindedness and all. I just know they have a plan that will solve all our health-care insurance problems, and stop global warming at the same time.