Michael Medved sticks up for his column on slavery in America

The Seattle-based national radio host has been the talk of the blogosphere this week. And he was flamed as the "Worst Person in the World" by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann for an article about America's culpability in the institution of slavery. He spoke with Crosscut's David Neiwert about why he believes he was right.
Crosscut archive image.

Michael Medved.

The Seattle-based national radio host has been the talk of the blogosphere this week. And he was flamed as the "Worst Person in the World" by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann for an article about America's culpability in the institution of slavery. He spoke with Crosscut's David Neiwert about why he believes he was right.

Like most pundits, Michael Medved loves to be controversial. And this week the Seattle-based, conservative national talk-radio host got a quadruple dose of it for a column defending America's historical record regarding slavery at the online Web site Townhall.com.

The column was widely discussed, especially by liberal bloggers, including Daily Kos, Atrios, Sadly, No!, Crooks and Liars, Mahablog, and Crooked Timber. Even some of his compatriots on the right, such as Ed Morrisey, were dubious about his enterprise.

It even wound up the target of Keith Olbermann's ire on his nightly news commentary on MSNBC, during which he named Medved the recipient of his daily "honor," the "Worst Person in the World."

I called up Medved and asked if he'd care to defend himself, and he was eager to. We talked for about half an hour shortly after his Wednesday radio show, which is broadcast in Seattle on KTTH-AM (770).

Neiwert: So how does it feel to be called the "Worst Person in the World"?

Medved: Wonderful. I'm thrilled to be in the company of my friend Ann Coulter, who was on my show today, and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and Bill Bennett and Barbara Bush and Brit Hume and lots of other conservatives who have been called by sportscaster Keith Olbermann "the worst person in the world."

Neiwert: There has been, of course, a lot of discussion of your Townhall piece in the blogosphere. Some of it, I've seen historians weigh in and say that this isn't accurate. How do you respond generically to the criticism?

Medved: Most of the criticism is based on – I haven't seen any of the so-called historians, I don't know who they are, if they're people with any credibility at all – but the material that I used and cited was unexceptionable, it was not from "right wing" or questionable Web sites, I was quoting mostly from David Brion Davis, who is a professor at Yale and has written the most acclaimed and recognized history of slavery that is out there.

But the main point that I would make about a lot of the discussion that I have seen on the blogosphere is, mostly it is in response to a summary of my piece that is wildly inaccurate. Nowhere in my piece do I defend slavery. What I defend is the history of the United States of America. I make the point at some length that the United States never invented slavery, but it did help to invent abolition. And as a result of that, I think the American obsession of guilt for slavery, the contention that the United States owes reparations for slavery ahead of other nations that are far more culpable in the crime of slavery, all of that is absurd.

Neiwert: I think the line that caught a lot of people's attention was the following: "Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean." It's hard not to read that as saying that this was a horrible thing for the slave owners to go through.

Medved: No, that's not what I meant at all, and obviously I'll want to reword that. What I'm saying is that it is horrifying that they had the level of death that they did in the Middle Passage given the fact that they had every interest in keeping people alive. In other words, when you talk about estimates, and I acknowledge, in my piece, that up to one third of slaves in the Middle Passage perished – when you're dealing with that kind of death when it is clearly not deliberate, then it is even more horrifying than it would have been if it had been deliberate. Because what it suggests is that the conditions were so abysmal and that the risks of oceangoing transport were so huge at that time, that even with every motivation in the world to keep people alive they were unable to do it.

Neiwert: Although, considering what the actual conditions were, you could make the argument that it just showed that in spite of this motivation they were callously careless.

Medved: They were horrendously callous. As I suggest in the piece, the most disgusting aspect of the whole institution of slavery, which I refer to several times, was the attempt to treat slaves like domestic animals. They certainly treated slaves as less than human. And there's nowhere in my piece that I even hint at approval for that treatment, or justification of it.

Neiwert: I saw your previous piece that was along these lines, saying more or less the same about the genocide of Native Americans. Now, I do know something about that history, so that thesis is pretty hard for me to swallow. I don't know as much about the history of slavery, but what I do know about American policy and governmental policy throughout the West was that if it wasn't overtly genocidal – and in some cases it was – it certainly bordered on it.

Medved: Where was it ever genocidal?

Neiwert: Well look, for instance, at the infamous remark from Col. [John] Chivington prior to the Sand Creek Massacre, "Nits make lice." And you look at that event –

Medved: OK, let's break it down. Who was Col. Chivington?

Neiwert: He was the commander of the Colorado Militia at the time.

Medved: So then he was not a government – in other words, this is like, if you will, the 19th century equivalent of the Minutemen. This is not official government policy. The Army had a very different attitude. And again, in that case, no one would ever claim that there weren't cruelties and that there wasn't mistreatment, but to suggest that there was a genocidal policy going all the way back to the early days of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior – Carl Schurz was the secretary of the Interior in the Hayes administration, and he was actually criticized because they said that he was too compassionate.

Professor Guenter Lewy, a distinguished academic with impeccable credentials, an emeritus professor of history at Masschusetts, has basically combed all state papers and records and there isn't a hint anywhere in policy pronouncements [of genocidal intent]. This not to say the United States was committed to a compassionate and respectful policy toward Native Americans, far from it.

Neiwert: Well, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was officially to expel Indians from what was then the United States. Even though it may not have been to kill them – and it did have that effect on them – its intent was to eliminate them from our lands.

Medved: Absolutely. Ethnic cleansing? That's certainly a claim that could be made. But genocide is not a claim that could be made. And by the way, there's a huge difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide. I can assure you that my relatives, who were liquidated by Hitler, would have greatly preferred a policy of ethnic cleansing.

Both of these things – this is the whole reason I'm doing this book, including the chapter that was published today – these Townhall pieces are outline drafts of chapters for a book that will appear next spring. It's called The Ten Big Lies About America. And part of the reason I'm undertaking the project is that it's so easy and facile to conflate things like ethnic cleansing, of which the United States government was certainly guilty in dealing with Native Americans, and genocide, of which the government was never guilty.

Again, when you talk about Indian removal and Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, you are talking about ethnic cleansing. The point about all this is that the way this is taught to most children is wrong. The way that most Americans think about our record in dealing with Native Americans is wrong. And the key point that Lewy makes – and by the way, this is also reported by Jared Diamond, who I cite in the column – is that virtually all of the deaths and population reduction of Native Americans was the result of disease.

Neiwert: Well, considering what the original populations were, that's true. But if you look at the history of the 19th century – by which time, something like two-thirds of the native population had already died from disease, if you look at the policy from then forward, what I think you would find – and I think this is the historians' argument – is that there were many people in the United States who fully intended genocide against the American Indians, and while the government policy may not have officially ever been to effect this genocide, what they did was permit this genocide to take place. And if you look at the actual numbers between 1800 and 1900 and the dramatic decline in Indian population in that period, it's really quite stark. And what death came from disease and malnutrition in that period was often the direct result of whites waging war on them.

Medved: I don't believe that that's accurate. In fact, a large part of the population decline was assimilation through intermarriage. For instance, as you probably know, the most famous Native American of all, Pocahantas, ended up with a grandson who was a governor of Virginia. And one of the things I do in my book itself is, Andrew Jackson adopted an Indian boy after massacring 113 of his Creek foes.

Neiwert: I guess the question I'd ask is, in addition to Lewy, are you also examining the other side of this? Have you read David Stannard's book American Holocaust, or Alvin Josephy, or anything by Richard Slotkin?

Medved: I don't know who Richard Slotkin is. Alvin Josephy I know. But the point about this is we're trying to – the piece I did for Townhall on this was obviously relatively brief, tracing the arguments. In terms of acknowledging the other side, I haven't read Stannard's book, and I should. It's something I want to be able to take into account. But the point is I've interviewed Elizabeth Anne Fenn, who wrote Pox Americana [a history of smallpox in the Americas] – you know, there's so much garbage out there, like the claim we indulged in biological warfare.

Neiwert: Which all comes from the smallpox-blanket story, which as you correctly note was limited to a single and relatively uncertain case.

Medved: No, it's one reference in Pontiac's Rebellion. Again, none of this is to suggest blamelessness either in terms of slavery or in terms of the treatment of Native Americans. It's just to suggest that the idea that there is innate American guilt – because these are alleged to be the two founding crimes of this country, if you believe what columnists in The New York Times describe as the tainted legacy of the United States – and Mark Twain once said that no people on earth has ever established a nation without stealing the land of someone else.

Neiwert: A lot of people are wondering where this is coming from. Why are you writing about this? And I gather that it's part of a larger project.

Medved: The only way that I'm going to get this book done that I contracted to do some time ago is to actually force myself to write on it. The third installment of this series, which I posted today, is about the lie that says that our founders planned America as a secular society. These all have to do with sort of consistent lies about U.S. history. It's sort of an advanced outline.

And one of the things, by the way, that of course is great about this format, is getting responses. And I know we are using some of the responses to the Native American piece to reshape it.


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