Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Conclusion of Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Festivities

See this article: Lewis and Clark festivities return for swan song, about the conclusion of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial commemorations.
The three-year bicentennial of the explorers' expedition returns to the region this week for a final round of ceremonies and a symposium; concerts and keelboats. The St. Louis riverfront will host the largest event on Saturday where "Clarkies" - American history's version of "trekkies" - can feast on all things Lewis and Clark: the tools they used, the plants they collected, the land they surveyed.

Other attractions include the arrival of the re-enactors, the Show-Me Missouri Fish Mobile Aquarium, concerts from Indian artists Martha Redbone and Indigenous, fireworks and an array of fair food, including buffalo meat. Sounds like a fun festival, but don't call it that.

"Certainly it's entertainment, but the point to be made is the persistence of Indian culture and an appreciation for how that culture relates to the contemporary world," said Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society and president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, the nonprofit organization that helped stage events along the trail.
This is a surprisingly dismissive article, though. Perhaps this is due to the modern interpretation of this expedition.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is a significant historical event for the United States: the nation had just unexpectedly doubled in size, with President Thomas Jefferson taking up France's surprise offer of the Louisiana territory for a bargain price. This territory was basically defined as the western watersheds of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and was a practically unknown land to most Americans. The Corps of Discovery was to explore this unknown land, and to report back to the President. The Saint Louis area was a major staging ground for this expedition, and was where the expedition leaders recruited French voyageurs for their expert knowledge of the rivers and peoples of the west, and general toughness.

There is a view of American history, which perhaps can be called a kind of "Whig history", that starts with the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and ends with the dominance of the United States following the Second World War, with inevitable progress between the two events. The Lewis and Clark expedition is seen as a neccessary link for the U.S. to reach its manifest destiny of ruling the continent between the oceans. This is also notably a Puritan history, as indeed is the original "Whig history" of the United Kingdom. All events in history are seen as leading up to the Final End of American dominance. Too bad the Indians got in the way; for they were no longer a part of the future of America.

Among leftists, this kind of history was clearly not acceptable. They proposed an alternative "Marxist history" that describes the troubles of oppressed classes, while also encouraging the modern-day oppressed to start revolutions. All history is seen as inevitable progress towards forming a classless, socialistic state. Under Marxist history, the Lewis and Clark expedition is seen as an attack on the peaceful Indians by an oppressive U.S. government, while also encouraging modern-day Indians to overthrow (violently, if needed) the oppression of Christianity and American culture, and to form a classless, atheistic, socialistic state. Isn't that nice?

I recall the change in historiography in my public school: in about 1974, the large hardbound and nicely printed textbooks were replaced by slender, disposable pulp paperbacks, and the tone of the writing went abruptly from "America is the best" to "America is the worst". We changed from Whig to Marxist, and from excessive optimism to blind hatred, over the course of one summer.

Modern-day museum exhibits of Lewis and Clark (and indeed any history) try to balance Whig and Marxist history, often to the point where exhibits within the same museum seem to struggle against each other. Something is missing in these museums however, and the Separation of Church and State prevents a huge part of history from being told.

In reality, most people, no matter what their natural virtue, aren't often very nice, either to themselves, or to their fellow countrymen, or to members of other nations. It's called Original Sin, and all of us here on earth have a varying mixture of both good and bad in us. But since we can't talk about absolute goodness, sin, and evil, history becomes either a boring collection of incomprehensible facts, or becomes a fanciful story of inevitable progress on one point or another. Historical personages, under our current forms of historiograhy, are seen as being cartoon characters of either Good or Bad, depending on the teller of the story. A true history will recognize that we are all members of the same fallen humanity. Thomas Jefferson was highly intelligent and inventive, however, he was not a very good person, and he knew it, and prayed the Nunc dimmitis continuously on his deathbed. Likewise, the Indians weren't very good at living up to their own moral code, were violent, and often betrayed their own friends and countrymen for personal gain. Many readily embraced Christianity as a way out of their self-destructive behavior, while many Christians admired the Indians for their gracious hospitality, courage, and piety. It is too bad that many Americans see the Indians as merely unwanted occupiers of land or as tools of inhuman revolution; likewise the American government is seen as being either perfect or worthy of subversion or destruction. In truth, we are both good and bad together.

Put into perspective, the Lewis and Clark expedition, while famous and significant for the United States, is a minor affair compared to the expeditions and missionary work of the European powers in previous centuries.

The vast Renault expedition into Missouri started the lead mining industry here in 1720, as well as founding several cities. Thanks to this expedition, lead mining remains a major industry in the state, which is the source of most of the world's supply of that metal. This expedition was made up of a thousand or more men, compared with Lewis and Clark's 40 or so. It was financed by the French Compagnie des Indes, which at its peak, had a market capitalization of 7.5 billion livres, with massive multinational investment. This expedition remains forgotten in the histories of both the Whigs and Marxists, but arguably, is of more import than subsequent explorations.

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