Last week TruTV launched a six-part animated series from the team behind the debunking series Adam Ruins Everything called Reanimated History in which self-described “ruiner” Adam Conover takes a whirlwind tour through historical myths in order to expose the false facts that pass for history. The first episode focused on the American Revolution, and this week’s second episode was devoted to the history of Native Americans before Columbus and during the early colonial era. Overall, the series is cute, and generally a good rejoinder to the rosy stories we tell ourselves about the past, but it’s equally clear that the people behind the series are much less comfortable with history than they are with their regular beat of debunking bad science and pop culture.
Here is a sample of the current episode, focusing on Native American populations before Columbus:
This week’s episode did a thoughtful job of explaining the diversity and complexity of Native American societies before Columbus, and it was especially heartening to see a rare mention of the Mississippian city of Cahokia on national television, especially on a channel better known for bad comedy and reality prank shows. While the animation is inexpensive and minimalist, it serves its purpose in depicting the vibrancy of life before European contact, as well as the devastation caused by the diseases Europeans brought with them.
When we review the sources Conover’s team used to tell their alternative story of early America, however, we find a little less than we might expect. I was disappointed to see that many of the references were to James W. Loewen’s unreliable 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which itself relied on a variety of Afrocentrist and Native American activist texts for claims that are, at best, questionable. Loewen, for example, asserted that Native Americans arrived in Roman Europe by ship around 60 BCE, a story I proved false.
It’s clear, though, that Conover’s writers recognize some of the inadequacies in their source material. They cite the New York Times’s 1987 coverage of the U.S. Congress’s recognition of the Iroquois Confederacy as the inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, but they pull their punches and summarize it with this rather anodyne statement: “And some tribes like the Iroquois even had complex political organizations.” Well, actually, almost all of them had some kind of complex politics, but the source material shows that the awkward line was softened from the original claim into meaninglessness, likely because the Iroquois Confederacy’s influence on the Constitution is not as clear-cut as Congress suggested.
But the bigger problem comes in the show’s effort to be diverse and to celebrate non-Western cultures. A segment at the end of each episode is called “Same Time, Different Place,” highlighting a non-Western culture’s triumphs. In this case, the show asked us to contrast Christopher Columbus with Chinese admiral Zheng He, who made seven voyages around southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, as far as the east coast of Africa. The show paints Zheng’s voyages as peaceful journeys of discovery and trade. In one scene the animated Zheng shuts down a sailor’s efforts to turn the trip into one of conquest, and in another the narrator praises Zheng’s humanity, stating that he never resorted to genocide, as Columbus did.
To that end, Reanimated History whitewashed Zheng quite a bit. There is some evidence that his first voyage was actually a manhunt to track down and capture the emperor he had helped to overthrow. The seven voyages also had the purpose of extending the tribute system across the Indian Ocean, and thereby demanding the acknowledgement from foreign peoples of the supremacy of the Chinese emperor. He also engaged in acts of violence against those peoples who did not submit to China’s supremacy. He waged a bloody war against Sri Lanka in 1411, conquering the capital, defeating local armies, taking the royal family captive, and imposing regime change when the Kingdom of Kotte refused Zheng’s demands for submission. The result of the war was the complete subjugation of Sri Lanka to China when a new king came to power.
The point isn’t that Zheng’s war on Sri Lanka is the same as Columbus’s genocide in the Caribbean (it was smaller in scale, for one thing), but that Zheng wasn’t quite the peaceful patron of scientific exploration that Reanimated History paints him as. Nobody gets served well by mythmaking in place of history.
Finally, I would like to call your attention to a request from John J. McKay, who has run into some financial difficulties and needs help to save his possessions from being auctioned off. McKay wrote Discovering the Mammoth, which I reviewed positively on this blog recently, and I was distressed to hear of his situation. Please read his blog post, and if you are so moved, please consider helping him to raise the money to save his possessions.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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