Facing National Wrongs

by A. Jay Adler on October 8, 2010
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Over the past several days Jeffrey Goldberg has been blogging about what I like to refer to as recalcitrant Southern boobs – the kind of people who display the Confederate Stars and Bars, who advocate and maintain that flag as any part of a state symbol, or who argue that there was anything honorable in the Confederacy. The kind of people who promote state programs honoring the veterans of the Confederacy, and who do not include any mention of slavery. You know – outright racists, ignorant fools, or, maybe worst of all, cynical political retrogrades.

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Goldberg reported on his failed attempts, at the Washington Ideas Forum, to get Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to acknowledge the problematic nature of the Southern GOP’s continued veneration of the Confederacy. In a later post, Goldberg wrote about “Slavery Nostalgia” among some Southerners. He acknowledged along the way that fellow Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has long been commenting on this fantastical phenomenon.

Most recently, Goldberg’s post on “historical memory” referred us to Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, in conversation with Goldberg on the topic. Goldberg had wondered,

Just imagine if this discussion was about the Holocaust. Do we really think the world would allow Germany to venerate the Nazis? Well, slavery was the Holocaust of the African-American experience, and yet, here we are, listening to respectable governors of large southern states rationalize the celebration of evil.

Drum replied,

For what it’s worth, I’d say Germany is the exception, not the rule, here. Most countries with sins in their past have mixed feelings about it, from French veneration of Napoleon to the longstanding Turkish insistence that no genocide of Armenians ever took place to the Japanese supernationalists who have long baited their politicians to visit Yasukuni Shrine every year. I suspect the almost unanimous German condemnation of the Hitler era is fairly unique in history, partly due to the sheer intensity of its evil and partly due to the fact that it was so short-lived. Unlike the other examples, it was never around long enough to become associated with an enduring cultural or nationalist tradition.

I have been writing on this subject from time to time to time myself. For what it’s worth, I’d say Drum is right. Germany is the exception. For all the, shall we say, more than appropriate historical excoriation Germany has suffered for its Nazi history, the country has also faced up to that history, condemned it, and attempted to atone for it beyond what has been done by any other nation. To draw the obvious parallel, Japan has not remotely offered similar acknowledgments, regrets, or reparations for its Second World War crimes. There is absolutely nothing to be said, obviously, about Turkey, for the Armenian Genocide, or Russia or China for the tens of millions of victims of their worst, horrific totalitarian eras. The Western World – indeed, the Catholic Church – only grudgingly concedes to some level of wrong in the colonial conquest of the Western Hemisphere and multiple indigenous genocides, and this brings me to my further point.

Every time someone, like Goldberg, now, addresses the issue of the still incomplete acknowledgement of the American wrong in slavery, and its discriminatory aftermath, I cannot help but marvel at the still more incomplete acknowledgment of the conquest and genocide of American Indians, highlighted by the very failure, always, even to mention it. That contempt and disregard are more original still, and continue unabated. If you have a similar supply of Alka Seltzer handy as that for which I felt need, you might find instructive this instance of my attempts to discuss any responsibility toward Native America with an assortment of sneering conservative voices. Americans will not infrequently saddle up a high horse about the foreign failures of historical reckoning mentioned above, but their own record is quite a sorry one.

One doesn’t even have to go back so far – no distant nineteenth century – to confront the terrible and disregarded American abuse of an indigenous people. Read Tony de Brum’s account of the U.S.’s treatment of the Marshall Islanders in its conduct of post World War II nuclear testing. That story is reprinted in the same volume with my Tikkun article on the more general U.S. situation and, more specifically, the fourteen-year Individual Indian Money Trust Fund litigation (Cobell v. Salazar) that was an early subject of this blog. Just last week, my students, unfamiliar with the Marshal Islanders and the woeful tale of their expropriated islands, and the destruction and contamination of their land, were full of the kind of outrage their greater society appears unable to feel or act on.

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 17: Elouise Cobell (R) w...
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Of Cobell, as a reminder, there was, last December, a settlement at last negotiated with the Obama administration, for just a fraction – $3.2 billion – of the tens of billions of dollars owed to and misappropriated from hundreds of thousands of American Indians, going back to 1887. The settlement had a six week deadline for congressional approval, a deadline that has now been extended six times. Congressional Republicans, led by Wyoming Senator Barasso – latest in a historic line of patronizing government figures to want only the best for Native America while delivering to it the worst – have thrown up roadblock after roadblock to any ratification of the settlement agreement. The latest roadblock is a truly perverse act of disadvantageously yoking together, at the last minute, and to no one’s liking, the disparate claims of these two victimized peoples, American Indians and African-Americans. But I’ll let lead plaintiff, Blackfoot Indian and MacArthur award winner Elouise Cobell describe the current situation in her letter from last week.

Since my last Ask Elouise letter (August 10, 2010), I have been monitoring the Senate and our representatives have been meeting frequently with Members of Congress and their staffs, both Republican and Democratic, to assess our chances of passage and address concerns raised by some Members. An important part of our efforts included a series of discussions with Senate Indian Affairs Committee staff about concerns raised by Senator Barrasso….

With these modifications, I don’t know of any Member who opposes our settlement. It was my belief that such widespread acceptance would lead to passage of legislation authorizing our settlement to go forward. Unfortunately, this was not the case and, once again, we were unsuccessful in getting legislation passed before the Congressional session ended.

The reason our settlement was not passed is singular: The Government has decided that Cobell must be linked to a political settlement between black farmers and the U.S. Government, known as the Pigford II settlement. Pigford I was filed in 1997 as a racial discrimination case against the Department of Agriculture. Pigford II is intended to make up for notice and distribution mistakes in Pigford I and to provide funds for new payouts.

Members of Congress have expressed concern about the Pigford settlement, with some alleging “massive and widespread fraud.” Some Republicans charge that upwards of 75% of all claims are infected.

Since our case has been linked to Pigford by the administration, we have struggled mightily to get through Congress, but the Pigford problem appears insurmountable after over seven months of effort and dedication from all involved. At this late date, with mid-term elections looming, it is unclear whether Pigford’s representatives will be able to convince members of Congress of the fairness of their cause. It is clear that the opposition to Pigford was again sufficient to torpedo our chances of passage this session.

Unfortunately, we are caught in the middle. We have more than broad support in Congress on the merits, but the administration and the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, have refused, to date, to separate our settlement from the newest Pigford settlement. Under these circumstances, passage appears to be impossible. After all these months, it is clear that we can’t carry Pigford, too. As I mentioned in my last open letter, the settlement agreement had been extended through October 15, at which time a status conference will be held by the district court. Congress returns for a lame duck session (following mid-term elections) in mid November. Between now and October 15, I will consult with our attorneys and our champions in Congress to determine if (and how) our settlement legislation can be passed, as well as our options if we determine that there is no reasonable chance of passage. [Emphasis added]

Goldberg titled one of his posts “Slavery Nostalgia.” We might call the above Indian Abuse Nostalgia. Why go too far into the twenty-first century without another good screwing of the Indian?

AJA

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