There’s a generation out there — call us “X” — for whom the influence of Schoolhouse Rock simply cannot be understated. It’s more than just being able to sing the preamble to the US Constitution or knowing what goes on at “Conjunction Junction.” Schoolhouse Rock captures an amazing pre-MTV moment when the nascent entertainment-industrial complex was just catching on to how the power of music and amusement could fundamentally shape the way people viewed the world. (I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say that much of the way most people view Sarah Palin has less to do with her actual policies than her portrayel by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live). In this case, though, that power was applied to a more benign purpose — teaching kids the multiplication tables.
Schoolhouse Rock was the brainchild of ad man David McCall and a host of talented musicians who came primarily from the jazz and folk music world (if you listen to Schoolhouse Rock, there’s actually remarkably little “rock” — the outstanding “Sufferin’ until Sufferage” notwithstanding). There’s also an appealing naivete to them, especially the ones collectively referred to as “America Rocks.” These are a series of shorts concerning American history and government that predate the politically-correct educational agenda that casts America as the quintessential villain in its own history. I always wanted to go back and take a look at some of these shorts with the perspective of time and experience and talk about the way I viewed them them, the way I view them now and what they still have to teach us about — well, everything.
With that in mind, why not start with what is easily the most controversial Schoolhouse Rock — “Elbow Room?” There’s a politically incorrect howler in almost every frame of this little classic. “Trample down the wilderness?” A celebration of Manifest Destiny? “Plenty of fights to win land rights?” To hear some people tell it, this three-minute clip should be nothing but tears over the theft of this country from the Native Americans and the atrocities and genocide that accompanied the settlement of the American West.
Now I’m the last person that would ever claim that this country has clean hands when it comes to its treatment of Native Americans or blacks or women or anybody else for that matter. A lot of bad stuff happened in this country’s 200+ year history. What I resist is the idea that this country’s history is uniquely dark or savage or that it’s darkness outweighs the good it has done. Take, for example, describing what happened to the Native Americans as “genocide.” Put simply, there was no genocide. Indeed, as Jared Diamond pointed out in “Guns, Germs and Steel,” What happened in America is an almost stereotypical historical conflict between stationary farmers and classical hunter-gatherers and most of what is referred to as “genocide” was in fact carried out by diseases against which the Native Americans had no defense and the settlers had no idea they were carrying.
This part of history is tragic, no doubt and I do not mean to minimize the suffering of Native Americans or the real injustices that have been perpetrated against them but calling the settling of the American West “genocide” implies a concious choice on the part of the settlers and the United States that simply was never in the minds of most 18th and 19th-century Americans. Considering how many Natives died never having seen a white face, we must perhaps consider the possibility that the sterotypical vision of the American West seemed true for many of the settlers — that it was a vast and empty land waiting to be peopled. Yes, it was empty because many of the people had died of disease, but the fact remains — for people coming from a farm culture used to a much higher population density than that of Native American hunter-gatherers and nomads, the land was empty and waiting for use. The plagues were tragic, but hardly the fault of the settlers (and please don’t throw up the “smallpox-infected blankets” at me. If that happened, the historical evidence for it is pretty limited and it was certainly never a widespread practice.)
I’m reminded of the classic historical “rip-off,” the sale of Manhattan Island for $24 worth of beads and trinkets. It seems to me like both sides might have thought they were ripping off the other in that transaction. A group of people from a farm culture was purchasing land from a hunter-gatherer culture that simply had no concept of land ownership. For nomads, “treasure” consists of useful items that can be carried and moved. If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Gods must be Crazy,” it quickly becomes apparent that the African natives in that movie would sell you the whole Kalahari Desert for a case of empty Coke bottles and consider themselves getting the better part of that deal. This is neither “simple” nor “primitive.” It’s merely a statement of different cultural values shaped by different lifestyles.
If you truly believe in appreciating unique cultural perspectives, one cannot judge the actions of one culture through the values of another. This, by the way, is not something that I believe, but it seems to be an article of faith amongst those who perpetuate the fiction of an American genocide in the West. Despite this, they seem to have no trouble judging the motives and actions of 19th-century Americans by the values of 21st-century Americans and infantilizing and romanticizing Native Americans with the silliest of “Noble Savage” stereotypes.