Saturday, January 16, 2010

Crime and Civilization

A few quotations having been haunting my thoughts—

“Is his prayer his promise—a trust of the wind?” (Charlot 385)

“There has been all the time, in the white American soul, a dual feeling about the Indian […] The desire to extirpate [him]. And the contradictory desire to glorify him” (D.H. Lawrence qtd. in Deloria 4)

“The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are” (Baum).

“Yet, they [white settlers] say we are not good. Will he tell his own crimes?” (Charlot 387).

“Savage Indians served Americans as oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized National self” (Deloria 3).

“Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth” (Baum).

“Disguise readily calls the notion of a fixed national identity into question. At the same time, however, wearing a mask also makes one conscious of the real “me” underneath” (Deloria 7).

If we define civilization in opposition to savagery as something that values law and life, as a moral force that overcomes violence in favor of reason, then what must we make of the policy of genocide so readily embraced by our government? And yet, if accounts are true of slain settlers, can we not also understand the fear that prompted these abhorrent policies? Haven’t we seen a return to such modes of thinking as recently as 9-11? Are we civilized even yet? Or is civilization—and, on a more personal scale, civility, a constant struggle against the savage instincts we continue to feel in the face of threat? As much as I’m sickened by calls for genocide, I also understand how fear prompts that thinking. I’ve always thought civilization was instituted to help us contain our own savagery, but when civilizations clash, it seems they can also cause savagery.

In my post on Dickens I argued that Sioux writer Zitkala Sa’s memoirs of her girlhood show ample evidence that Native American tribes in the 1800s were civilized and mannerly. She gives us pleasant domestic scenes from her childhood. Yet the Sioux were regarded as a fierce tribe. The tranquility of her domestic scenes has everything to do with feeling safe. In the absence of threat, people are peaceful. White writings from the same period offer portraits of similarly peaceful domesticity, yet Frank L. Baum’s editorials, like Dickens essay “The Noble Savage,” display how savage Europeans became when trying to protect their “civilization.” It seems each person holds within him/herself measure of savagery and civility that wax and wane in response to perceptions of outside threat.

And still, I’ve oversimplified. There are always individuals in are cultural who are more prone to violence and those prone to less. What then?

Charlot puts the question better than I: “Is his prayer his promise—a trust of the wind?”

No comments:

Post a Comment