Opening Mouths, Closing Minds

by A. Jay Adler on October 15, 2009
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In response to The Open Mind I: Wrap Up, which was my assessment of the debate with ShrinkWrapped and his commenters regarding Native America, a new commenter wrote, in part

Your last few paragraphs are civil but, unless I’m misreading you, they imply a thorough rejection of your opponents’ positions as being no better than an unexamined Holocaust Revisionism.

I’m also curious to hear your overall reaction to this experiment in dialog and whether you would want to continue this discussion or try others.

I thought my reply to these probing observations and questions should be highlighted in a post rather than offered in comment response, so here it is.

The Acoma Pueblo

The Acoma Pueblo

First, about civility, let’s not forget that it is, in its first instance, a trapping, a politeness, a thin curtain in cultural development between the human, donned cloth, and with an acquired self-interest in productive intercourse with others so attired, and the brute who would as soon conk you over the head. It is dressed in verbal finery that makes a show, and thus a reality, of the civilized nature to which it aspires. It holds the brute at bay and drives him back into a hole. It by no means signals a regard, to any degree, for another’s opinion.

The answer to the Holocaust observation is a qualified “Yes, they do” and “No, it is not.”

The answer is qualified because, of course, I am applying it to a fair number of different people, among whom there were some differences in the presentation of their views. It is qualified again, because there were, at times, perfunctory acknowledgments of historical reality, as in, from one commenter on ShrinkWrapped’s site, in the comments to his reply to my Wrap Up: “The facts are not in dispute.” However, one always quickly sees that the flapping fleshy folds are unrelated to any commitment of mind and being and are truly the disembodied picture of lip service. For quickly upon the pronouncement of undisputed facts will always follow some form of argument regarding the conquest and treatment of Native America to the effect that everybody was killing everybody, it was (is?) the way of the world, not an “historical outlier,” (indeed, comparatively mild!) a form of cultural natural selection inherently demonstrating cultural superiority (they were, after all, a brutal, violent, dishonest people), and whatever happened it’s time to stop crying about it, for God’s sake, and move on, and never, no, no, never – I’m telling you, never –call me responsible for anything.

A Navajo Woman

A Navajo Woman

To the extent that I consider such an answer – which I consider a very fair characterization of the overall substance and tenor of the response to a single clause in a single sentence calling for recognition of a historical fact, that the founding population of the United States, in addition to committing to a world-changing range of political principles also shared a conception of American Indians (and a Constitutionally explicit dehumanization of Africans and African descendents held in slavery) that justified an ongoing policy of supplanting them where they lived through the exercise of superior power – to the extent that I consider such an answer a denial of the overall nature and extensively-document record of colonialism during its near five-hundred year course, and I do so consider it, then, yes, I do think it no better than Holocaust revisionism.

Let’s not forget that Holocaust revisionism, which I think better termed Holocaust denial, does not always show itself in outright denial, in toto, of the Holocaust. Often, it presents itself in mock-reasoned and measured pronouncements that the death total is exaggerated, that there weren’t really gas chambers, that it was really all a part of the general destruction of the  war, that, in effect, it wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust “industry” makes it out to be. And it really is getting old. They hold it over our heads, with their “Never again.” We’re tired of hearing about it. It really is, you know – time to move on.

The overall intent is to rob a world-historical event of its monumental significance, and to deny it the consequence, in recognition, in responsibility, in rectification, of both historical and political acknowledgment.

It has been suggested, not without reason, that the beginning of ShrinkWrapped’s and my experiment in conservative-liberal dialogue got off to a false start. I have stated that I planned a topic other than Native America for my first post. But the emotional outburst that followed from ShrinkWrapped’s commenters to that lone clause in a sentence – which offered no thesis, but only called for historical memory and consciousness concomitant with pride in the nation’s historic underpinnings – was of such a nature that it could not be ignored. One has only to read the sad red earth a little to understand the blog’s character and commitments and know why it could not be ignored.

An evangelcial church on the San Carlos Apache Reservation

An evangelcial church on the San Carlos Apache Reservation

In the announcement of The Open Mind I quoted SW’s apt characterization that we would seek to understand “how two reasonably bright, reasonably decent people can disagree so significantly in their perception of reality.” The goal is not specifically to persuade those firm in their position and unwavering in their point of view. This is not likely to happen. The aim is to clarify the root of difference. As it transpired, no topic could have served more successfully to reveal those roots. As only our nationally bounded part of the story of Western indigenous peoples in general, the issue of Native America joins historic, international issues with domestic concerns. One’s perception of the past five hundred years and the entire European, Church-endorsed colonial enterprise significantly influences perception and position on a vast range of issues. The facts of this enterprise are indisputable: the conquests in pursuit of material wealth and expansion of empire; the dehumanization of other peoples, in brutality and enslavement, combined with a patronizing religious project of salvation; the oft-repeated, thoroughly-documented calls for extermination. What marks the difference is the desire to excuse through rationalization, even to justify through resort to nature (cultural Darwinism), in contrast to an intent to accommodate this historical knowledge in self-conception, in present action, and in a vision of the future.

The commenter asks about my reaction to the dialogue so far and my thoughts about continuing this discussion or moving on to others. We will soon move on to others. This discussion, however, in this form or others, is part of the raison d’etre of the sad red earth, so it will not end. Indeed, my reaction to the dialogue so far is among the reasons it will not end. My reaction is that the quality of argument was disappointingly poor. SW himself, as I’ve said, engaged largely, though not exclusively, on the subject of victimhood. I have also said that I think that a large topic, divorceable from the particular subject of Native America. There might even be some room for agreement on it, as I think, too, that a variety of well-intentioned social programs over the past four decades ended in promoting debilitating cultures of dependency and persistent self-perceptions of irresponsible victimhood. Where we might part – I don’t know yet – is in our notions regarding the lessons of those inadequately conceived policies. It is worth noting that conquered indigenous peoples all over the Western world persist as underclasses in their respective societies. One is free to posit, if one chooses, some form of racially-based deficiency in all these groups. One might also wish to consider the possibility of something structural and psychological in the nature of life as a conquered, racially and culturally differentiated people that leads to these conditions, conditions that current citizens of a nation might feel the duty, as citizens, and in whatever politically determined way, to address.

A Catholic service on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

A Catholic service on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

On other points of dispute, even SW misstates my position when he writes

For the Liberal, our Nation was tainted by an “original sin” while for the Conservative our forefathers fought and struggled to arrive at a moral and ethical balance that has bequeathed us a unique Nation, a “shining city on the hill.”

Nowhere in my writing, ever, do I offer up such an either/or proposition. It is, in fact, fundamental to my political thinking that such propositions simplistically diminish the cogency of our ideas and debate and lead to the kind of repetitive and pointless (because missing the point) back and forth that we saw in this debate. I argue this against the far left when it offers up simplistic, one-sided perceptions; I argue it here against the right. In fact, the sentence that sparked this entire brouhaha (which the commenter later described as “oddly jammed together,” but I shall forgive him his aesthetic divergences) is just such a balanced statement of historical reality as I consistently advocate:

Of course, [the founders] agreed about much more: democracy, the rule of law, the Bill of Rights, the freedom to pursue our individual destinies, and, you know, it is time to remember, and never forget – that all this land should be taken, through innumerable wars and countless deceits and abuses, from the people who first lived on it.

Characteristic of the entire debate (if one cares to generously so call it) is this later comment at SW’s site:

His opening remark about how “It is time to remember and never forget” what happened to the Indians, is to my way of thinking a very peculiar statement in context. The more I thought about it the stranger it appeared. It is if someone said in preamble to a discussion of current events, “It is time to remember and never forget that The Normans invaded England in 1066…

Ah, but I was not discussing “current events,” now was I? That is quite clear from the context. The entire paragraph addressed the differences and agreements among the founders at the time of founding. This sentence offered recognition of some our nation’s proudest political ideals and accomplishments, and then sought to balance them with a contemporaneous and less praiseworthy truth. The commenters could not accommodate this meagerest of expressions of American imperfection and responded with a spray of emotional outburst. And in the comment above, we see the ludicrous distortion and misrepresentation that was offered as “argument” throughout our exchanges. One could not state “A” and say let us see if we can find any agreement on A, and then move on to “B,” or determine if A is the source of our disagreement, because the conservative response persistently ignored the statement of A, insisting that one had stated “Z” because Z is what they wished to argue against. One could not argue in defense of Z, because Z was not one’s position, and so we went round and round and round.

hand

The primary example of this is in the matter of responsibility. I clearly defined my intended meaning in the use of the word – which I could have defined however I wished for the purposes of this argument, as long as the definition were coherent, but which definition, instead, is among the officially acknowledged dictionary offerings: as obligation, duty, care – and clearly negated any sense of meaning in “guilt” among present day Americans. I might be challenged on whether the nation ought to assume such responsibility, as I defined it, but mostly I was not. Because such a definition deprived conservatives of what appears a favorite aggravation – their sense of being forever accused – they simply chose to ignore my definitional distinction, offering little or no argument against it, and to persist in attacking the straw man of “guilt”:

guilt-ridden liberals…It’s guilt by proxy…a burden of guilt/responsibility for the past…As with all liberal guilt trips…this issue of collective guilt (white man responsible for all the evil in the world)

In another instance, a supportive commenter observed at SW’s site:

conservatives believe that a dividing line between liberal and conservative is that liberals believe that individuals can be guilty of collective action or actions of ancestors. I don’t believe that myself and I don’t know anybody who does.

To which the reply came

But you do know liberals who believe that. Besides J. Adler, anyone who supports reparations for any minority….

Here, then, in addition to the same reassertion of an argument not made, came the claim, against my specific declaration that I feel no guilt, that I do. The same conservative commenter soon offered, about the same supportive commenter, that his position (sound familiar?) is

One based in racial guilt, by liberals, solely for being white. You’re a kind of racist, self-directed and your unwillingness to acknowledge it, changes that reality, not at all.

The supportive commenter made no reference to race, but the conservative, transparently preempting what conservatives think is the charge too often leveled against them, resorted to the racist charge. And this charge from an individual who presumed in the charge that he is living in an America that no longer exists, in which a collective guilt – that no one but the straw liberal bogeyman was advocating, anyway – would be shared only by whites, rather than the tens of millions of Latinos and African-Americans and Asians, etc. who also make up the country today. But this charge of “racist” also came from the person who wrote, generalizing about the hundreds of different Native cultures

Native Americans had no concept of mercy and compassion. Those concepts were entirely foreign to their culture…. As for ‘stealing the land’ from native americans…stealing was the native American’s standard ‘modus operandi’.

There was no argumentation taking place with me, but with the proxy liberal bogeyman of these conservatives’ minds.

One does not argue in this manner. One only vents.

When the rare effort was made to challenge the definition, it came in such form as this:

What’s more, Jay thinks group responsibility can exist with no defined outcome or the possibility of an outcome. That’s why the word ‘guilt’ is more appropriate than ‘responsibility.’

First, consider that this contradicts the common complaint that I have advocated reparations. That would be an outcome of a kind: it is a position, favored or not, for compensation to be paid with those compensated free to be responsible for its application. Indeed, though, in “Aboriginal Sin,” I did offer as one alternative, on a global scale, and in sympathy with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, inclusion of international policies as part of a Global Marshal Plan. Once again, responses simply did not address my arguments or actual position.

12

On the issue of national-cultural responsibility for past wrongs, my arguments again went completely unaddressed. The concept (which is hardly mine, we shall see) was persistently misstated as “collective” responsibility (then mischaracterized as guilt) distributable to the individual. However, I myself offered how such distribution of the qualities of the whole to its parts – from the nation to individuals, in their identity as individuals – would be a commission of the fallacy of division, and thus I was not making any such attribution. But this precise argument, of course, went unincorporated into the “debate.” It was entirely unacknowledged.

In addition, I gave multiple examples of continuing historical national identity – independent of the generational changes in individual composition. I offered the example of German reparations to Israel for Holocaust crimes, reparations that held the German nation responsible, though individuals may not have been. I offered the example of the U.S. apology and reparations to Japanese-Americans for the World War II internments, which were paid out, indirectly, by Americans who were not alive during World War II and not personally responsible for the offense. I gave the example of continuing national identity over time by which international treaties, agreements, and understandings are expected to be honored  even though governmental leadership and national populations change: America, as a nation, is considered responsible for honoring the Torrijos–Carter Treaties regarding the Panama Canal, even though the governments and populations have altered. Developments in national and international treatment of corporate criminal liability, even in the past, for crimes committed under different corporate leadership and employee constituency, recognize this concept of continuing identity. The very idea of the nation-state itself adheres logically to such a constantly reiterating historical identity, distinct from the individuals who compose the nation. The protections of the constitution are meaningless without such a logical understanding.

None of the offered examples met response. None of these issues were addressed in the constant repetition of original positions.

The defense was consistently offered of cultural Darwinism, in which the very fact of one culture competitively prevailing over another was evidence, at least in part, of superiority, serving, then as a kind of natural defense against moral culpability leading to later responsibility. The argument was that this was the past, and we are different now. I specifically posed the question of when in time the period of national moral responsibility for acts begins in history. If Nazi Germany had prevailed, would it have been proof, in part, by that fact, of superiority through natural selection? It was not the Jewish culture that defeated Nazism, which considered the Jewish culture to be debased, as many commenters have so diminished Native cultures. If the argument is that Jewish culture is demonstrably – not, clearly, prior to the creation of Israel, by any military standard – a superior culture, is the entailment then that when there is sufficient conviction (which the Nazis had) that a culture is inferior, its destruction is dismissible as a hard amoral truth of nature and history? When, I asked, is the cutoff point in civilized history between the amoral Darwinian then and nationally morally responsible now? What are the criteria for determining it?

I received not a single reply.

It was posed to me, where do we draw the line as to which historical wrongs against which peoples we attempt to address? My response was that we draw the line with those for whom there are continuing living consequences of the wrong. Perhaps that is not an adequate response or criteria, but there was never any opportunity to explore it, for no one addressed this argument.

And so it went, over and over again.

Specifically about Native America, one commenter stated in multiple ways

I don’t mean to make light of Indian affairs issues but it seems to me we have much more pressing matters in our national dialogue to deal with at the present time.

In my opinion the issue of the American Indian pretty much in the past

[A sense of responsibility for the Native situation is] a metaphysical attitude that has nothing to do with contemporary problems.

I would not like to see, for example, the thorny issue of inner city violence being proposed for discussion and finding my face being rubbed in the America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination.

It is precisely to counter this indifference, this belittlement of the lives and problems of 2-4 million Americans that the sad red earth exists. There is the problem.

Bloodz

In this first exchange, I encountered, mostly, not argument, not debate, but repeated positioning, distortion, and outrage. What constitutes true argument is engagement with ideas, not showy display, not emotional presentation, but the consideration and reconsideration and rebuttal of ideas. As it stands, I have found the conservative position to consist of lifelong accumulations of displeasure and resentment toward multiple forces and developments in the world that conservative are unhappy to accommodate. The term postmodern has been frequently bandied about as expressive of a supposed liberal moral relativism. However, it is not the postmodern that these voices reject, but modernity itself, in almost every manifestation.

Though commenters arrogantly proposed their superior commitment to logic and accurate empirical observation over the faculties of liberals, I found conservative argumentation overall to be ill founded in reason and well established in rage. In the absence of genuine debate, and with no expectation of changing fixed minds, I’m content to have readers make their own comparisons of the quality of the argumentation and the visions of humanity being offered.

AJA

Photography by Julia Dean


9 comments

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Nightelf October 18, 2009 at 8:14 am

I suppose we’ve about exhausted the topic of ‘collective responsibility.’ Perhaps it’s unfortunate we started on a theme that was particularly abstract and theological in nature with little practical application to current events.

I do, however, wish to correct copithorne’s dishonest and malicious characterization of our comments as, “… they defend, justify and rationalize the behavior of prior generations,” This is a lie. We do not justify and defend criminal acts of past generations. On the contrary we (I take the liberty to speak for commenters I have carefully read from our side of the debate) freely acknowledge the record of history and have no need to obscure it. History is as it is. The moving finger writes. We merely dispute the rather arcane notion of a sort of a numinous ‘responsibility’ for those acts which clings to ill-defined groups, not individuals, like St. Elmo’s fire clings to the yards.

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copithorne October 16, 2009 at 7:52 pm

There is one line of inquiry that we didn’t take up and remains a question for me.

So, our conservative interlocutors are quick to reject that they are responsible for the behavior of prior generations or that they are identified with the activity of prior generations.

And I have said, we have said, that we are not in disagreement with that point of view.

And yet conservatives are also quick to come to the defense of prior generations, and they come across as feeling insulted and judged when the behavior of prior generations is criticized. When they defend, justify and rationalize the behavior of prior generations, the legitimacy of current cultural arrangments are clearly at stake.

So there is a way in which they reject identification with prior generations and at the same time they presume identification with prior generations.

Now it is too subtle for me to piece together an explanation for this apparent split. And yet I do think that contemporary critical concepts of “white priviledge” would be useful in understanding this split.

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A. Jay Adler October 16, 2009 at 9:02 pm

A very astute observation. There is a sense of identification, that has various sources. I was getting at the same idea in “Aboriginal Sin” when I argued that identification with the historical achievements of a national culture (pride, for instance, in what you did not yourself do) calls for an assumption of responsibility for the culture’s wrongs, not personally, but as a constituent of the body politic. Our friends want to recognize one part of the identification and fiercely reject the other precisely because they sense the unavoidable connection. I see you’ve already made the same point over at SW, along with a splendid line about the boardroom.

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huxley October 16, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Jay: Thanks for the clarifying response. As I see these online exchanges, no one owes me anything, so I’m grateful to hear back. That was helpful.

My stake here is that I am very interested in the possibility of discussion between the current red and blue sides in America. Things have broken down about as badly as the late sixties/early seventies and that was pretty bad.

I’d like to think we can do better, though in my experience mostly people have stopped talking to those with whom they disagree.

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Nightelf October 16, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Ah, but I was not discussing “current events,” now was I?

That’s right! You appear to be raking over the past and, godlike, calling angry judgements down from heaven. Perhaps you can take up the Roman Empire next, or the Greeks, and judge from on high the moral failings of the people involved. We are certainly heirs to their culture. But to what end? What is your point? That people in the past did bad things? That they behaved, dare I say it, like human beings? Where are you going with this? Is it that you think we should all do more for people of American Indian descent? That might be your personal crusade, but don’t expect us to feel the way you do. I have no objection to you trying to organize help for Indians if you so choose. It’s a free country, it might be a good thing. But that’s a lot of verbiage just to make a very tiny point: that you think we should do more for Indians.

I have no problem with the U.S. government continuing to honor treaties and legal obligations to Indians. I would object to expanding Indian rights at the expense of the rest of us. As I said, I think the best thing we could do for Indians, and everybody else, is to see to it that the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are extended to all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity or religion and that the laws are enforced equally and fairly. We can also help people who need help. But I would definitely object to giving help based on race or ethnicity instead of need.

Could, perhaps, we get along to another topic?

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huxley October 16, 2009 at 11:54 am

Jay: Thanks for the piece.

However, I must say that I find your writing not very clear. I can certainly tell how you feel about your subjects and your opponents, but what you are saying is often lost in asides, vague antecedents, emotional appeals, and scattershot responses to multiple commenters at once.

If you were to sum up your main point in a paragraph, or better yet, a sentence, what would that be?

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A. Jay Adler October 16, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Huxley, “emotional appeals,” I think, slights a good deal of reasoned presentation. (And “vague antecedents” really hurts.) But that said, a fair criticism. You’re a fierce editor.

A single sentence, I fear, would open me to the same criticism, so I’ll go just a little longer. Here is the essence, simply and directly stated, with all sorts of policy addenda omitted.

Native American cultures suffered an awful and unfortunate fate because of the European arrival and the founding of the United States. That fate was not merely an accident of cultures colliding, though it was that too. It was intentional, with malice, dishonor, and greed. Regardless, the current descendants of that fate suffer greatly because of it – they are still treated dishonestly. The nation today, if it desires to be a just one, has an obligation finally to devise policies intended to alleviate this suffering, and recreate prospects, on a scale and with a commitment commensurate with the acts and policies that caused the suffering. An apology wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

All of the rest we heard from the other side – the guilt, United States evil, Indians ideal innocents, nostalgia for Injuns on the plains chasin’ buffalo, racism against poor beleaguered white people – that’s their shit.

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copithorne October 15, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Thanks so much for writing with this clarity. I hear you and see things similarly.

I’ve continued the conversation a little bit at Shrinkwrapped’s latest post on this dialogue and to my mind, what I wrote is aligned with and complementary to your post here.

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A. Jay Adler October 16, 2009 at 8:29 am

Well said. You’ve had a couple of responses, but that will never end. The usual points were missed and others misrepresented in the replies, such as the nature, even legal definition of, genocide, while attempting without any historical foundation to limit the understanding of genocide to the characteristics of what was perpetrated by the Nazis. There is also the more recent concept of democide. Interestingly, a profound point was made by the first commenter that I would have acceded to early on, and that I make myself in teaching this subject, about the individual experience of contact in contrast to its national-cultural character – if we could ever have gotten beyond the initial outraged resistance to the present implications.

The second commenter continues the denseness I addressed at the end of this post, but the first one, attempting, I think, genuinely to reason about the subject, essentially accepts our real, not misrepresented, argument.

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