January 7, 2016 32 Comments
All nations have narratives about themselves, it is America’s unique position to have done this in filmic form. The films my father watched – John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart films, often dealt with the theme of ‘the way the West was won’. It is sometimes said by those who haven’t watched enough films, that the narrative around this theme is simplistic and triumphalist – which is code for ‘the white guys won and are celebrating that’. Let’s hold back for a moment the question of why that might be a bad thing, and say that you couldn’t watch a movie like ‘the Searchers’ and come away with something that crude. Ethan Edwards, the character played by John Wayne, is prepared to scalp the Indian he kills, and even to kill his niece Debbie because ‘living with Comanches isn’t living’. There are times he’s as brutal as those he is fighting. The whole film is far from presenting a black and white image of the ‘old West’.
Such films now fall under the general suspicion to which it seems to me many of the achievements of Western Civilization have succumbed; it is as though we no longer have the confidence to face our own past squarely, but must, instead, offer mumbled apologies for it. It isn’t hard to see why. The legacies of the history of the USA are bad as well as good. The great civilization which was built up and which created the greatest Power in the world, was not without its casualties. As the Native Americans had no ‘green card’ system or immigration rules, no one thought to ask the Pilgrim Fathers for their work-permits. The great cities and the railroads which linked them, and the great population expansion all took place in a manner where there were losers as well as winners. The Native Americans were displaced and largely destroyed as a people, their customs and history derided, and their lands taken; they became a remnant in a continent they had once roamed freely. They were the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’ in those old Western, because they were to the European settlers; there was violence on both sides, but they lost, as they were bound to given the disparity in weaponry and resources. That’s a kind of original sin about which it is not surprising there are bad feelings. My own Briton ancestors were largely exterminated or pushed to the margins of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, but that was 1500 years ago, and I’ve probably got as much Anglo-Saxon in me as I do Welsh. History has, if not healed that hurt, made it irrelevant. But in the USA the history is too recent for either of those things, although it will have to deal with it – what’s the alternative – everyone of European ancestry goes away and leave the place as their ancestors found it? Hardly!
The other great casualty of the making of America was, of course, the huge number of African slaves brought over to work the plantations of the South. Here, too, the history is too recent and too sore for the hurts to have healed, and how this will work its way through only time can tell. The arguments for slavery bore a remarkable similarity to those for abortion now – the ‘negro’ was dehumanized, which allowed those who supported the evil to justify it on the ground that those being dehumanized were not humans. We can only hope that the evil of abortion will, one day, be looked upon as we look at the evil of slavery. What comfort there is comes from the fact that in the end, the majority descended from white European immigrants ended both slavery and then the ‘Jim Crow’ system. It does not mean that either their traces or their consequences have gone away, only time and political effort and vision can accomplish that. The things about Dr Martin Luther King which strikes me most is Christianity, and his vision for the future was that of a Christian prophet.
For our true Original Sin there is only one cure – Jesus – and it is in him, if anywhere, that the cure for the other ‘original sins’ discussed here will lie.