THE BLOG

Can the Past Be More Progressive Than the Present?

05/26/2010 12:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In my work I am often criticized for my reliance on an older value system and my disdain for the morality of the present moment. This point was reinforced to me while watching a now-obscure silent movie from 1925 called The Vanishing American.

Thanks to the brilliant work being done by Turner Classic Movies, this forgotten movie was shown as part of this month's series, Native American Images in Film.

The Vanishing American comes with a fairly mainstream pedigree: The movie was based on a novel by the iconic writer Zane Grey, was released by Paramount Studios, and starred Richard Dix -- at one time a luminary of the silver screen.

What is so shocking about The Vanishing American is the way in which it speaks about American history and the Native Americans who were so brutally persecuted by the White settlers.

The story of The Vanishing American is pretty simple: After a lengthy historical prologue that reviews the European conquest of America, we see a sad Native American population at the dawn of the 20th century that is struggling to survive in the midst of the lies and violence of the White man.

Led by their tribal chieftain (played by Dix), the Native Americans do their best to follow the shifting rules laid out by the Whites. They have their land and property stolen by the functionaries of the Indian Bureau and are treated like dirt by the townspeople. An exception to this oppressiveness is the young female schoolteacher who is charged with educating the Native American children and develops a fondness for them -- and for Dix.

But in the main, the Native Americans are shown in the way that actual history has taught us: brutalized, demonized, marginalized, and oppressed. The Whites used every opportunity to exploit those who lived in this land before them.

In order to show that they truly wish to become loyal Americans, in spite of all the abuse thrown their way, the Native Americans provide the U.S. Army with their horses in order to help with the War effort, that War being the First World War, which America had just entered. In addition, the Native Americans request to enlist as soldiers.

Going over to Europe to fight alongside their White countrymen, the Native Americans behave with honor and valor on behalf of the American cause. But while the men of the tribe are off fighting the War, their lands are being confiscated and their women are being violated by the settlers and government officials. Particularly galling is an official in the Indian Bureau named Booker who mercilessly persecutes the Native Americans and takes great joy in his actions.

Upon their triumphant return home, with battle scars and injuries that can be seen by the naked eye, the Native Americans learn that their reservation has been confiscated by Booker and that their families have been forced to move to what they call the "Darklands."

What is truly amazing is that in the years that followed the release of The Vanishing American, the Hollywood system would spit out hundreds of Westerns that stereotyped the Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages -- the very thing that The Vanishing American so resolutely rejects.

For The Vanishing American it is the White settlers who were the bloodthirsty savages, using every opportunity possible to cheat and victimize the natives. According to the story as we see it unfold in the movie, the Native Americans did everything possible to live peaceably with the Whites, even as the Whites abused them.

How can it be that our rational view of history has become warped as we move forward in time?

In order to consolidate a particular worldview and political stance, history often becomes a means to achieve an end. The endless blather about American exceptionalism and nativist chauvinism is something that we hear constantly in the purported culture wars promoted by reactionaries. Conservatives whine on about how things were better in the past and how the present has corrupted what was once a great nation. Liberals demand that we continue to advance and extol the virtues of the "modern."

And yet the truths of American history were more properly laid out in a movie from 1925 than they were in the 1940s and 50s and in the paranoid visions of the current Tea Party movement that wants us to unthinkingly return to an earlier time when things were thought to be better. Given all this, we are reminded when watching The Vanishing American -- as we are whenever we see old movies -- that the Pledge of Allegiance did not originally contain the phrase "Under God." The past is not always what we think it is.

The myth of a pure and innocent America is one that was effectively demolished by none other than Zane Grey and affirmed by Paramount Studios many years before the Counterculture of the 1960s!

We should be alert to the ways in which history is so often manipulated for political purposes and how older readings of history in our culture can sometimes be more accurate and more reliable than modern readings. This is a point that was brought home to me some years ago when I was discussing an issue regarding the Hebrew Bible with a friend of mine who often saw my views as radical.

In our discussion this person told me that my argument reminded him of things that his father told him. This may seem strange, but in many Jewish circles there was a more liberal and tolerant perspective than the one that currently permeates many Jewish groups and individuals. With the consolidation of Jewish Orthodoxy in some religious circles, the past is often blocked off and new ideas instituted.

In contrast to much current Judaic scholarship, I find myself returning to classic books by older scholars such as George Foot Moore, Abraham Joshua Heschel, S.D. Goitein, and Max Kadushin, whose work has been thought to be superseded by that of the contemporary academics. But it is frequently the case that with the new agendas and ideologies that permeate our world, the older views are sometimes more accurate and reflective of a historical truth that has been transformed amid the partisan battles of the present.

It is something to keep in mind.