1. The Standard Model
Modern history begins in 1492. That part of history which Europeans like to emphasize has been told and retold for more than 500 years. It has formed the core of our school curricula. It has become folklore. It has become Hollywood product. Disney has a version. Three hundred Spartans fought to protect it.
In the course of the last 500 years, the history of the rise of Europe has become the Standard Model of human history. This, despite the fact that it leaves practically everybody out, unless you are European–and leaves most Europeans out, too, especially if you are poor, or rural, or working class, or female, or Eastern European, or inconvenient.
My project, of which this is the first instalment, is an attempt to open a discussion of history as seen from the point of view of the Indigenous people of Canada. It is not intended to present a new Standard Model of history, but it is definitely intended to question the existing Standard Model, which has been more or less forced upon all of us. Gypsies. Presbyterians. Telephone repair personnel. All of us. Maybe even you.
So you’ll have to excuse me if I say something here or there which challenges your point of view. I just think that once in a while the Standard Model has to be questioned, and today I will take my turn.
Please don’t send your 300 Spartans after me.
2. Some Cats Got It
One of the things that has plagued European historians is the question of what it is that makes Europeans so darn superior to everybody else. Is it their inventiveness? Their natural love of freedom? Their climate? The peculiar shape and geography of the European continent which defies stultifying empire building? Was it the influence of the Hebrews, the Romans and the Greeks? Was it the work of Irish monks? Or maybe those clever Scots? Or was it merely the good old Protestant work ethic? Or, as everyone once solemnly believed, are Europeans simply just superior?
“Some cats got it,” as Leiber and Stoller said, “and some cats ain’t.”
Everything on the above list has been seriously asserted by historians to explain the rise of Europe after 1492, (except Leiber and Stoller whose none-too-serious assertion is meant to explain why some cool cats are cooler than others.) Most of the listed ideas still hold some currency in some quarters, not least the notion of inherent European superiority, that is, racism. The idea that Europeans are somehow more inventive, more rational, have and had more rational family structures, are more freedom loving, are more venturesome, are less violent than other people—all of these are merely racism as well, no matter how people try to pretend that they aren’t.
But before we go forward, I should clarify something. I am talking about after 1492 here. The inhabitants of what is now thought of as Europe, (the concept of a place called Europe, of a civilization distinctly European, did not exist in the 15th century) were no more advanced socially, economically, or technologically than other Old World civilizations prior to 1492.
Says JM Blaut in The Colonizer’s Model of the World:
When we travel, mentally, back to medieval Europe, we pass backward through the eras in which Europeans clearly were technologically superior to everyone else, and so we tend to expect that superiority to have been the state of things at all prior times. But Europe advanced technologically beyond Asia and Africa mainly after the beginning of the industrial revolution. Europe did not even begin to forge ahead of other civilizations in technology and science until the seventeenth century or even later. (109.)
Blaut calls the tendency to read in the past what you have experienced in the present as “telescoping history.” Thus the American founding fathers, who were mostly just making a power play in 1776, are today portrayed as freedom-loving because the country they created became freedom-loving. Even the Spartans, from a militaristic slave state obsessed with racial purity (yes, the original fascist society, beloved of Hitler) are today mythologized as noble and rational defenders of Western values—at least in the Hollywood version, which, a lot of the time, is the only version we get.
So, to make my point, whatever those cats in Europe got, technologically speaking, they got it after 1492 and not before.
The next instalment discusses why 1492 was so important (even if Columbus wasn’t, except in a lot of nasty ways.)
J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer`s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, 1993, Guildford Press, NY, presents extended versions of the arguments made here, as well as arguments not touched on, and represents an excellent inoculation against the Standard Model.
The Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller quote is taken from the song “What Is the Secret of Your Success?” recorded by the Coasters in 1957.
Standard Model – used here to characterize a type of history telling which substitutes a heavily white-washed story of the rise of Europe for the story of civilization itself.
Telescoping history – the tendency to imagine in the past what exists in the present, and to presume that what is true now has always been true.