Friendly Fire

I followed a Twitter thread and kept following, trying to understand the criticism.  It led down a rabbit-hole, but it was an interesting one. Then I read this, so I wrote this:

Sam Shelley asks: “Would it not be slightly improved by asking why Europeans believed it was their right to steal a country from its people? Interrogate the cultural assumptions of the colonisers, rather than “both sides” a hostile invasion?”

That seems to be exactly what Newmark does in his lesson, which draws on the work of environmental history to examine different assumptions about land use. The Europeans didn’t view Native American land use as “valid” because it did not conform to their expectations about individually-held private property. Newmark’s lesson helps you understand that. This is not “both sides”-ism, it’s an explanation of an important causal aspect of settler colonialism –“terra nullis”– the assumption that land that is in use by indigenous peoples is “empty” because it is not divided into parcels of private property.

Doxtdator says: “Because of the received myths of settler colonialism, scholars have an obligation to vigorously contest the settler view of the continent as uncultivated and the Indigenous people as uncivilized.” But that is exactly what Newmark does in presenting Dakota society as complex and sophisticated in ways that differed significantly from the structures of European society. You have to understand the settler view in order to condemn it, and what Newmark’s critics seem to be doing is equating explanation with agreement and then attacking the explainer.

Katherine Crocker says that “it’s also actively racist to recast ~intentional genocide~ as “misunderstanding and resentment” that results automatically from differing cultural norms” and Doxtdator also accuses him of condoning genocide.

Newmark is not recasting the history of the West, he is discussing one aspect of a vast series of larger events. You can’t fairly criticize him for failing at a task that was not his task.

And by the way, there are significant issues with using the term “genocide” as a blanket description of settler policy toward Native Americans. There was in fact no consistent eliminationist policy on the part of the US government and there was a great deal of variation in intentionality. There were wars, massacres, campaigns of elimination in some states but not others, national policies of removal, and state and individual leaders pursuing elimination. And all of it founded on and woven through with profound racism toward Native Americans.  I wonder if the impulse to generalize and oversimplify comes from a fear that delving into the messy, inconsistent, violent complexity implies some sort of sympathy for the settler’s point of view. If so, that is an unsophisticated approach to history that impedes understanding.

Doxtdator says:  “Rather than reflect and learn, Newmark followed up with another response where he centers his feelings and the feelings of other teachers who might create other harmful content … How about the feelings and lives of Indigenous people?”

 That is a false dichotomy unworthy of honest consideration.  Being personally stung by an academic argument that often involved personal attacks does not exclude sympathy for the victims of a violent conquest. That is weak logic and a baseless criticism.

In fact, Newmark twice asked Doxtdator, politely and constructively, for feedback and was ignored  Instead of answering his questions Doxtdator called him a racist. Newmark stayed engaged in an argument that he could have ignored and seemed to earnestly want to understand the criticism that was coming at him fast and hard. He was trying to explicate a particular aspect of indigenous-settler conflict and critics were screaming at him for not expressing moral condemnation often and loudly enough.

Doxtdator  concludes with this cheap shot: “He writes about the Dakota as if they exist only in the past and have been “obliterated”, which perpetuates the form of racism that Native people face according to Rebecca Nagle.”

Newmark was producing a SEVEN MINUTE mini-lesson on a historical subject.  Doxtdator is attacking him here for something that is well outside the scope of his task.  And he doesn’t say the Dakota were obliterated, he says that their way of life was obliterated.

I’m sure the righteous indignation feels good, but what I witnessed seemed like an awful lot of friendly-fire lobbed on a guy who seems to be a thoughtful teacher who is largely on his critics’ side. Or would be on their side if they could engage in a tiny bit of empathetic understanding of where he’s coming from and how best to help him understand their concerns before calling him a racist.


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