Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Limits of Popular History

A couple days ago I watched the documentary "Custer's Last Stand" by American Experience. I was surprised by the failures of the show, though I suppose I shouldn't have been. As a public television program beholden to taxpayers and various foundations, it exists, in some sense, to bolster American nationalism rather than challenge it. (It's not that any given historical project must challenge nationalism, but it ought to be able to stand outside of it and treat it as another historical variable to study. In this, American Experience comes woefully short.)

The documentary has plenty of obligatory discussion about the ways Custer makes modern Americans uncomfortable, about how he has gone from hero to something of a villain, about the difficult questions his life and most notable battle raise for our country's history. But these segments are uneasily welded to a broader documentary that adopts Custer's perspective rather than explaining it. As such, it fails to get past the imperialist and colonialist narratives it purports to critique.

I will just note a couple of examples pertaining to language choices. Historians must write and speak with great precision so that the reader/viewer can readily understand whose voice is coming through -- is this the author's view, or the subject's view? Moreover, historians must be attuned to the ways adopting seemingly banal language puts them squarely on one side or another of a conflict.

In a way, the most egregious problem with the documentary is its description of the broader context of White Americans moving West after the Civil War. The narrator describes Americans "settling" the West. When something is "settled" it strongly implies improvement; something wild, unproductive, and barren is "settled." With this euphemism, a process that was marked by violence, disruption, and invasion is transformed into something quite different. The key point is to realize that "settling," which we think of as a neutral and descriptive term, is truly a euphemism. It was used by 19th century Americans to describe processes that we now refer to with words such as war, invasion, ethnic cleansing, or perhaps, genocide. This is not to say that we need to slap an anachronistic label on 19th century actors. But neither can we excuse an uncritical adoption of their language.

The other example is a symptom of the same larger point. In describing an attack on a Native village by Custer's forces on the plains in the mid 1870s, the narrator describes it, in his own voice, as a battle. Yet we're also told that the 100 or so people Custer's men killed were almost all women, children, and elderly men. Custer lost 5 men, perhaps to friendly fire as much as Native resistance. This is an event for which in any context other than American history we would use a different word, such as massacre, slaughter, or atrocity. On the other side of the coin, when Custer and over 200 U.S. soldiers were killed in his "Last Stand" by Native warriors in a pitched battle between legitimate combatants, the narrator describes it, in his own voice, as a massacre.

As I said at the top, these grievous errors occur amid a documentary that openly discusses the unsavory nature of Custer and the forces he embodied. So it is not as if this is an unaware apologia for American exceptionalism. That makes it all the more remarkable, however, and demonstrates just how thorny and difficult it can be to do popular history that is both historically credible and morally alert.

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