Settler-colonial blues


Last updated 12/5/2023 at 9:36am

The weather in Sisters is doing what it always does to me at this time of year. My soul hears the ancient horn call of the mythic North.

A couple of nights ago, I fired up the electronic campfire (YouTube) for a tale of “Beowulf.”

And because my mind works the way it does, it led me to thinking about “settler colonialism,” a term we hear a lot these days. The working definition of settler colonialism is:

“…a type of colonialism in which the indigenous peoples of a colonized region are displaced by settlers who permanently form a society there.”

This is a useful term of analysis that distinguishes between types of colonialism. Britain’s rule over India was not the same thing as the settling of North America.

This useful tool for analysis has inevitably been weaponized in the culture war — and in a real-deal shooting war.

The Israel-Hamas War has foregrounded the term, in reference to Zionism and the creation of the modern state of Israel from the 1880s through 1948 to today. Settler colonialism is condemned; in history-reduced-to-morality-play, the settler-colonialists are the “bad guys” and indigenous peoples are victims and thus, in the moral calculus of the current zeitgeist, ipso facto the “good guys.”

Condemnation of settler colonialism is a “luxury opinion” indulged in largely by people who have benefitted from it. Moralizing backwards into history from the materially wealthy, medically advanced, and physically secure vantage point of the 21st century invites distortions that render the endeavor absurd.

This is not to say that we should not reckon with dark deeds done, and the price paid by previous generations in creating the West’s relative well-being and security.

Several years ago, Craig Rullman and I mused over this question: How far back into history does one go before settler colonialism is a phenomenon that we observe, rather than a “problematic” moral stain on a particular civilization?

I thought of that conversation as I took in some of the commentary on “Beowulf.” The Saxons from among whom the poem emerged colonized the island that would become England in the 5th century. The Saxon colonization created the theater in which the mythic tales of King Arthur played out. If he was historical, Arthur is believed to have been a Romano-Celt warlord who managed to stem the tide of Saxon expansion.

The Saxons, in turn, faced invasion from the Viking Danes, who came first as raiders, and then settled the eastern kingdoms of the island in what was known as the Danelaw. King Alfred and his Saxon heirs successfully held off the Danes and avoided complete displacement — but it was a near-run thing. Then the Normans came.

Today it is all just song and story; someone is undoubtedly still angry about the Norman Conquest of 1066 — but they’d be hard-pressed to rally up a demonstration. 

The same can’t be said about more modern settler-colonial endeavors, especially the one that so profoundly roils what is called the Holy Land. The conflict in Israel and Gaza has triggered intense and highly personal reactions across the globe. The past is acutely present, and emotional responses are driven by whose trauma one identifies with.

The irony is that you could make a case that of all settler-colonial states in history, Israel has the greatest legitimacy, having been given the imprimatur of the United Nations in 1947-48 — although they went on to win the land the old fashioned way, by fighting for it.

Railing against settler colonialism is a shaming exercise, and shaming exercises are always politically loaded and poisonous. There is a difference between rejecting the triumphalism of Manifest Destiny history, and portraying the entire civilizational edifice as fundamentally rotten. I am glad to contribute to an honest reckoning with history, but I refuse to pander to demands for civilizational self-loathing.

My people, in various times and places, have been both hammer and nail — and were most times just very small bits of wood swept along in a tide. I cannot condemn my Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic ancestors for migrating to these shores — and thence across the continent — nor will I apologize for being a product of the world they helped create.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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