Something I Didn't Know
Covering the Economy: Federal Budget Proposals: February 8, 2006

Stupidest Man Alive: Special "Truthiness" Edition

I confess that I have misjudged Jonah Goldberg. I did not think he had the mojo to make a *serious* play for the Stupidest Man AliveTM crown. But he does.

We all know why Jonah claimed that America's Great Plains used to be a great forest until the American Indians burned it down. At some point, Jonah Goldberg dozed through an American history lecture, part of which was on Changes in the Land--a book about the ecology of New England in the centuries before my Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors arrived. The lecturer said that the Massachusetts tribes set fires to reduce underbrush and to create more meadows where deer could feed. But in poor Jonah Goldberg's brain, Wampanoag = Souix, Massasoit = Sitting Bull, coastal Massachusetts = South Dakota, and so the statement that Massachusetts tribes set fires to create more meadows where deer could live turned inside Jonah's brain into the statement that the Indians burnt the giant forest of the Great Plains to the ground to hunt buffalo--all Injuns looking alike to Jonah.

It's quite funny. It's somewhat sad. But the claim that the Indians turned the Giant Forest into the Great Plains is not something that anyone would dare in the light of day defend, is it?

Surprise, surprise, Jonah Goldberg does, and so digs himself in deeper:

The Corner on National Review Online : As for... "The great plains used to be a giant forest. The Indians burnt it to the ground to hunt buffalo"... it's a basically sound point.... I suggest DeLong pick up a copy of The Ecological Indian, Myth and History by Shepard Krech. He writes, "The evidence that Indians lit fires that then were allowed to burn destructively and without regard to ecological consequences is abundant." He has a whole chapter simply called "Fire." "By the time Europeans arrived, North American was a manipulated continent," Krech continues. "Indians had long since altered the landscape by burning or clearing woodland for farming and fuel. Despite European images of an untouched Eden, this nature was cultural not virgin, anthropogenic not primeval, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Indian use of fire."

Well, I have Shepard Krech III of Brown University right here in email. He writes:

Brad, The best source for me is The Ecological Indian, pp. 101-22 [chapter on fire]. The plains and prairies are discussed in several places, especially pp 115-16. The following are excerpts:

Prior to the suppression of fires in the nineteenth century, many of North America's forest and grassland ecosystems were fire-succession ecosystems; that is, fires produced and maintained them. Forest and fire ecologists appreciate the association between regular fire and ecological types and successions in ponderosa pine, chaparral, longleaf pine, and grassland habitats. Native people, keen observers of the environment, surely understood the associations long before. Not only were these ecosystems pyrogenic (produced by fire) but they were anthropogenic (produced by man) to the degree that the fires which ran through them were also. Through their fires, North American Indians probably played some role in the creation of, and more certainly maintained, a number of fire-succession ecosystems....[113]

Some assert that with their fires, Indians were responsible for the formation of the vast grasslands ecosystem of the Great Plains, others that they did not form it but probably helped maintain it, and still others that they did neither because their technology could not possibly have played such a formative role in an ecosystem so large. Whatever the influence of Indian fires, there are strong climatic and environmental reasons for doubting that fires were the only or even the major formative one. In the central and western Plains, compared to eastern portions, there is less moisture from rain and snow, lower humidity, higher winds, and more periodic drought. Singly or in combination, these conditions prevent forest formation and growth and would lead to extensive grasslands without help from fire. Yet increased precipitation as one moves east makes tree growth far more a reality in the eastern and northern high-grass portions of the Plains, where fire played a greater role maintaining grasslands: for centuries observers remarked on the charred stumps or extensive root systems of mature trees ravaged by regular fires, their remnants enhancing deep grassland soils. In the east and north, fires--some lightning-caused, others anthropogenic--were important in checking natural succession of grassland by forest. When fires were checked, aspens, oaks, and willows proliferated. In the north aspen groves expanded, and in the east oak openings closed as groves of trees broke up the grasslands and in places, forest eventually consumed them.

The effect of grassland fires depends on the same factors as elsewhere: the season of the burn, time of the last burn, heat of the fire, wind, temperature, terrain, soil, moisture, and so on. Grassland fires move with extraordinary speed when grasses are dry and wind is up, but they also move irregularly over uneven terrain, sometimes skip over areas, and rarely consume plants so completely that their roots are burned. After the fires pass, burned areas cool quickly. Productivity often increases following grassland fires because surface litter is removed. Tall-grass prairie needs at least three years to return to its pre-burn state, though grazing animals like buffalo return immediately to tender young plants growing after the burn. But not all grassland fires are benign and restorative. When they are too frequent or hot, when moisture is low, or when heavy rains follow fires and cause erosion, plants may not easily recover....[115-16]

I also discuss the Willamette Valley grasslands. The endnotes are extensive. You can easily arrive at your own conclusions from my text. Needless to say, many whose politics range across the spectrum misread the book.


shep krech

Funny how Shepard Krech's "whatever the influence of Indian fires [on the Great Plains], there are strong climatic and environmental reasons for doubting that fires were the only or even the major formative [cause]" doesn't make it into Goldberg's summary, isn't it? Goldberg claims he wants people to read The Ecological Indian, but I think that's the last thing he really wants anybody to do.

Normally, I would say here that this would be really funny if it weren't so sad, and really sad if it weren't so funny. But this time this is really funny because it is really sad. Here we have an extraordinary example of Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness"--that in Goldberg's world, everybody is not only entitled to their own opinion, but also entitled to make up their own facts. In this case Jonah Goldberg makes up his own facts about what Shep Krech wrote in The Ecological Indian. The idea is not to say anything about pre-1492 America--not to write true sentences--but to write "truthy" sentences that make the readers of National Review feel good.

But Kate G. and Tim Burke say this better than I can. Here's Kate:

Kate G.: I'm not sure what a "neurotic" post looks like. Does it wash its hands a lot? Does it look hunted and scared of things? Does it cry a lot? My keyboard, alas, is dry and my withers are unwrung.

In my opinion great ad hominem invective is, of course, its own raison d'etre--that's a feature, not a bug, so I take the compliment.

But to get back to our case at hand, allow me to wring out my neurotic handkerchief and add this. Any defense of Jonah's remark which does not take into account his specific history, his education, and his employment simply misses the mark. In other words, I'd argue that even taking Jonah seriously enough to rebut his "facts" is a waste of time. If Jonah's point were to explore the historical issues surrounding Native American use of the environment I would definitely urge everyone to read up on this subject. For example, I second everyone else's fact based criticism and urge everyone to read Cronon's two books (because they are both excellent) and also a wonderful book called Reflections on Bullough's Pond (or else its Bullock) which explores the ecological and technological history of New England. It wouldn't be relevant to the specifics of Jonah's so called argument but I'd argue that that hardly matters. Not to me, that is, but to Jonah. As an anthropologist and a social scientist I have a special love of facts and information about societies, and hold no brief for any romanticized notion of "indigenous" societies (Nor do I live in a Jonaesque/RNC world in which determining that one people are "bad" means that some other people somewhere must be "good.") But I do have a lot of respect for subject expertiese. Jonah's own essays and comments don't fall under that heading. They are not really "about" a subject, like Indians or whatever. The proof of that is that he will be on to something else tomorrow, and he'll be pursuing it just as shallowly. Jonah's essays and comments have, instead, an *object*--which is purely political.

Jonah's arguments are simply bought and paid for (gee, I must have been channelling Krugman, or maybe we are both simply right) to advance a particular politico/economic goal. That goal is de-legitimizing, parodying, and truncating other histories and other arguments about society and politics. If you read Jonah, or other fellow travellers like Jeff Jacoby, Mallard Fillmore, or the RNC alerts circulated to the faithful you see the promulgation not only of the same messages (over and over) but the same tenous and tendentious links to "real" science and "real" history and "real" pop culture. Jonah uses words like "history" and "indians" and even "prarie" or "fire" but to paraphrase others in the blogosphere in reference to the Princess Bride [those] words don't mean what you are supposed to think he means by them. You'd actually have to know, or care, about history, indians, praries, fires and use them as true scholars would use them. My god, just look at Juan Cole's magisterial slap down of Jonah last year, and at Jonah's pathetic response, to begin to see how little Jonah cares about the topics on which he bloviates.

How do I know Jonah is a tool and not a true scholar? Because he will write about the next pop cultural or coffee table book image/factoid with the same authority tomorrow even if it outright contradicts his point today. That is because the object of his writing is simply to score points again and again against his enemies.

But you knew that.

Posted by: Kate G. February 07, 2006 at 11:06 AM

And here's Tim:

Tim Burke: Goldberg is making a bad and lazy gloss of an argument that's been made in a number of works published in the last decade, most incisively Shepherd Krech's book The Ecological Indian.

Krech and others have observed that Native Americans as a whole were not more notably inclined towards premodern versions of environmentalism than any other human society in history, and that the tendency to view them as such is something of a fiction created slowly and complicatedly in American culture over the last 150 years, especially in the last 50.

Krech synthesizes work on a variety of pre-Columbian Native American cultures that suggests, among other things, that some Southwest cultures outstripped their available resources, in part through intensive and misguided infrastructure (this is the same research that Diamond cites in his two recent books); that some Native Americans in the Rockies and Sierras used fire fairly extensively to produce the mix fo meadow and old-growth forest that was later regarded as pristine and natural wilderness; and that some Plains Native American societies may have used wasteful hunting methods such as driving large herds of buffalo off cliffs. And so on.

So very distantly, Goldberg is correctly summarizing several important arguments--that Native Americans were not uniformly or automatically deeply committed to spiritual or practical analogues of contemporary environmentalism, and that what some 19th Century Americans moving into the West took to be pristine, untouched wilderness environments were actually environments that were significantly altered by human presence.

That's all. The material on the buffalo and the plains and all that is simply his fantasy: it's not in any of the work that he might plausibly mean to refer to.

This is a basic problem with a lot of public discourse on the right, and sometimes the left: people who spout off to score a quick point who are profoundly careless.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | February 07, 2006 at 11:15 AM