The Open Mind I: Call Me Irresponsible.

by A. Jay Adler on October 6, 2009
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Dear Shrink,

By this point I’ve enjoyed my long draft of Alka Seltzer (extra strength – and lemon-lime, to obscure that particular bitter taste), and brought up the deep grepts that expells the heavy load of indigestion.

I confess, I had hoped for a different beginning. But then I, according to some, am a liberal who, by definition, lives in a world of foolish hopefulness (and that is putting the best face on it). You, it appears, have some similar, non-defining impulse, too. You should check that in yourself.

The response of your commenters has changed the game.

I arrived home from an evening out and sat before the eerie glow of my laptop screen, my face bathed in a growing, fearful speechlessness. Not that Julia wished to talk about any of it.

When I wrote my introduction to our Open Mind experiment, I closed with a reference to Native America. It was, I thought, an obligatory – which is not to say unheartfelt – observation. To offer brief, equally heartfelt encomium, as I had just done, to our shared, founding ideals and not recall another, less flattering shared conception seemed impossible. After all, our blog claims in its subhead to report, above all, on our travels in Indian Country, before other terrains. Many take our blog title to be a reference to such reportage, though the About page tells a different story. This story, this Native story, is the guiding light of our travel. How could I, if only in passing, not?

Never anticipating.

Earlier in that day, I had conducted a long interview with Carrie Billy, a Big Water Clan Navajo and president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which advocates for the nation’s Tribal Colleges. One of the topics of conversation, as in all my interviews, was the widespread disregard among the general public of Native America, of its difficulties, of its uniqueness within the society, of the historic injustices, of the continuing injustices. Though I am well aware of darker sentiments – in the early 1990s, for instance, in Minnesota, during a period of dispute over fishing practices, I directly observed the non-Indians who wore t-shirts and baseball caps that declared “Spear an Indian, not a fish” – it was unconscious disregard I thought the relevant problem.

While the Dred Scott decision is justly reviled in the history of American jurisprudence, effectively overturned, in its principles, by the Fourteenth Amendment – and declared to be so by the Supreme Court itself in the Slaughter House cases – no similar revulsion attaches to Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 Court decision that determinatively justified the European taking of Indian land, continued by the United States, by right of Discovery, claiming Indians to be “an inferior race of people, without the privileges of citizens, and under the perpetual protection and pupilage of the government.” Though citizenship was ultimately granted over a hundred years later, it is fair to say that the decision itself, and its historic significance, goes quite widely unknown. For most Americans, Native America is simply invisible. It is disregarded.

Life, however, about such beliefs, as in other matters, is self-correcting, a point of pride among many of your conservative readers – at least regarding conservatives.

That your readership – those among it that comment – is fiercely engaged, there is no doubt.  And they are readers, too, which should be a point of pride. Some, at your blog and mine, attempted to engage me, in gentlemanly fashion, on the issues. Some were congenial at the prospect of our exchanges. Others, however, having heard word that a liberal was coming to dinner, took that as permission from politeness to fart at the table.

Some did me the honor of visiting our blog and reading more of me, even going so far as to read “Aboriginal Sin.” If only they had done me the service of reading more closely, and better, and me, and not the straw man they reassuringly clutch to their chests, to spare them the effort of thinking – on each new occasion, with each new person – anew. With – what shall we call it – an open mind?

One reader perceived – not me, no, some moral grifter in his own mind – whilst I performed a duty to the current commitment of my life, as trying to “guilt-trip” you all. “I think I can sniff out a con game as well as the next person,” the reader said, “and I’m getting a strong smell of the long con here.” Surely, the acquired disability to recognize a genuine belief sincerely expressed, with a humane intent, is among the more regrettable losses of human affect.

Another, empathetic Canadian-based reader recognized in me and my views the reader’s self of twenty-five years ago. As my views, generally speaking – oh, yes, there has been evolution and alteration – are those of my own self twenty-five years ago, the anecdotal implication that conservative transformation is an evolutionary advancement of age seems properly, still, anecdotal and without argumentative force. Perhaps it was the Canadian Club.

Then there was the litany of smug stereotypes and condescensions

one thing that separates liberals from conservatives is that we conservatives are familiar with how liberals think whilst they have no idea what makes us tick…. We’re embarrassed that we once were impervious to facts, logic and evidence.

the only reason to talk to a liberal is to hone your skills at argument and deepen your understanding of what you really think….Talking to a liberal is something you do to strengthen your brain and remind yourself of the futility of it.

I like to think that we conservatives base our values on observed data, not on unfounded assumptions or utopian schemes.

In speaking with liberals it is not their ideas which are problematic but their absolutism. That their concepts are absolutely correct, that they must be universally adopted, that all disagreement is the true sign of a deficient lesser being and must be crushed.

Hmn. “Deficient and lesser being.” Why does that attitude seem eerily familiar? But let’s go on. One reader perceived in me, apparently, some morphing of the Red Coat into the Red Menace as he let loose this hysterical paean to Patrick Henry over coffee with Tom Paine

Compulsion on the other hand does not apply to me as long as I can still breathe and reload. I reiterate for the limited, I do NOT seek to overthrow anything or anybody, neither do I seek trouble with any man. But neither does my knee bend, not to ideology or man.

Whoa. And I didn’t even mention the NRA. Somebody get that man a Quaalude.

But all this is trifling. Really. It is trifling in the expression and in my consideration. I’ve smelled farts before.

The misreading and the misrepresentations among those so much more logical than I begin the substantive part of my disturbance.

Regarding the matter of guilt, I always say that while the crimes of conquest were being committed throughout the Western Hemisphere, my ancestors, including, theoretically, all four of my grandparents and my father were being raped and murdered by Cossacks in Ukraine. I feel no guilt. No one not involved in current injustice – and it exists – need feel any personal guilt. And I said this at the end of “Aboriginal Sin” (though perhaps that was too far to read)

We must do this not because we are personally guilty of the crime against native peoples. None of us lived when the genocide was committed, and in the United States most may not have ancestors who were even on the continent when these acts were took place. But if we are not familial, we are cultural descendents of those who committed this wrong, and like any people of conscience, we must accept the full legacy of that which we inherit, all that is so great and kind to us and all that is not.

“Aboriginal Sin” at no point argues, and I never – as so many of your readers seemed to mistake – that we as individuals are in any way sinful because of the history that was its subject. The claim, which it seems clear many of your commenters equally reject, is that the sin – like slavery – is a national, a societal, a cultural sin. I expanded on this theme in Historical Identity and Cultural Responsibility. Some of your readers still in need of an expectorant might wish to read it.

Similarly, several readers attack the straw man of the idealized Native. I wrote in “Aboriginal Sin” that “indigenous peoples need not be idealized to recognize the wrong that was done them.”

I was charged with detonating somewhere (one never knows that precise location of a specter): “Marxist revisionist post-modern neutron bombs” and being “very entrenched in Marxist labor/use theory and liberation theology” – every one of those descriptors being dramatically, laughably inapposite. It was charged by the same reader that I am “[s]omeone who cannot keep himself from evangelizing about the heinous imperialistic slave owning knuckle dragging cavemen who founded AmeriKKKa in his announcement of a blog experiment.” I take that expansive adjectival rush into KKKness as something of a fit, and fortunately there is a doctor in the house, but I challenge any reader to go return to my single clause, alone or within its context, and find justification for that ludicrous mini-diatribe.

Indeed, in “Aboriginal Sin” I wrote

Other nations have no basis upon which to feel condescension and contempt. Racism and cultural arrogance are observable all over the globe. When the imperial nations of the colonial era decided out of practical necessity and a growing moral imperative to forswear slavery and, ultimately, recede from their colonies, they had the luxury of withdrawing into homogenous cultures and maintaining mostly symbolic ties. It is the nations born of their colonies that have had to struggle to face the consequences and obligations of the African diaspora produced by the slave trade, and of the conquest and genocide of aboriginal peoples. It is in the New World and its outposts that the great laboratory was incidentally constructed to test whether human beings can ever live together, heterogeneously, in the face of what they have done to each other.

“Then again, my reading of it all might be wrong,” offers the reader.

Ah, yeah. But then I’m just a liberal, not, judging by descriptions of them, really entirely quite human. Why engage me in a fair-minded and unrabid state?

Let’ s now, though, focus solely and finally on the truly important subject, SW, which is not me but Native America. And as I focus, I’ll be asking some questions that can clarify thought, and they all have to do with making distinctions, a fundamental aspect of clear thinking. Such avowedly logical thinkers as we have among your local commentarial will surely address them with ease.

In the comments there was fairly common talk of American Indians in generality, as if they are a single group. Not to recognize distinction, of course, is to make something disappear. We recognize distinctions in words. To have no word for it is not to think it. If we do not think it, it does not exist. A commenter wrote, “The American Indian was ALL about tribalism. Tribalism, by definition, devalues the ‘other’.” There is certainly no devaluation greater than disappearance. You cannot be more “other” than unnamed. In documented history, who has been more “otherized” for more sustained periods, more pervasively, and  to more devastating effect than the Jew, the African under colonial rule and in slavery, and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere?

The term “tribal” is problematic. Often, used pejoratively, it is itself a form of “other” creation. Almost any negative practice attributed to groups commonly defined as “tribal” can be found in abundance among groups not so designated. Reference was made to inter-tribal warfare. Can any European perspective ever be offered that condemns or diminishes other cultures on the basis of the frequency, extent, or mortal effect of their war making? What is the distinction? Among anthropologists it is found that many cultures referred to themselves as did the Navajo, and it is argued that this is a demonstration not of any elevated propensity for “other” creation but of the ethnocentrism common to all peoples. It is in the integral nature of cultures to prefer themselves over others. I believe I saw evidence of this in the comments

And the best culture won, frankly, and I am glad of it.

There are 562 federally recognized American Indian tribes. More, such as the Pamunkey, who were among the Powhatan Confederacy, present when the Jamestown colony was founded – and whom I have traveled now to see in Virginia – are State recognized. There are approximately 250 European languages in just 3 genetic units. Estimates are that there were as many as 1500 North and South American languages at first European contact. California alone has 74 indigenous languages, with 18 genetic units. Language is a fundamental designator of cultural identity. It is why the United States, through culture destroying Indian boarding schools, focused on denying the students forcibly removed to them their language. It is why so many in the United States care so much about the English language and resent claims of preference for others.

To deny the existence of cultural distinction – eliminate identity in difference – is to demonstrate The Dominating Mentality of Conquest. Readers may wish to engage it if they’ve some phlegm left to expel. Conquest has different forms. Domination is most profoundly exercised in the very blindness to it. The other isn’t even seen. For more, read The Honor of the Mascot.

One of your readers, commenting on the Mentality of Conquest, at the sad red earth (some utopian I!) took strong, disdainful issue with my reference to the Indians’ “inherent” right to be here in contrast to the “circumstantial” right of others. Now, you and I, so far, have identified one area of agreement – our resolute support of Israel. On what do you base yours? Mine flows in great measure from my identity as a Jew, but we both know that is no guarantee of the kind of support we both feel. Some assert a religious claim. The land was promised by the God of the Covenant. Not I. Nor most, I think. Jews have a right to a state, a homeland in Israel because of their historic connection to the land. It is an essential right, an intrinsic right, an inherent right, almost two thousand years later or not. To the point, anti-Semites, within the Arab world or without, will often attempt to deny the Jewish claim by absurdly denying the historical connection.

So we come to the argument your readers made more than once, that displacement of one people by another has been the course of human history. Interestingly, the first draft of “Aboriginal Sin” began on just that point. (But magazines have limitations in coverage and sharper focus was required.) But is there any distinction between migratory expansion, let us say, of early Homo Sapiens into Europe, because of any kind of sustainability or climatological impetus, through which it ultimately, evolutionarily, supplanted Homo Neanderthal, and a group enjoying the early or mid-level developments of civilianization – including codified behavioral norms – making war on another such group in conscious pursuit of material gain and the aggregation of cultural power?

Is there any difference between this second instance and a more advanced civilization – one with highly articulated religious beliefs, moral codes, and philosophical concepts, beliefs, codes, and concepts that would, by any measure, preclude and forbid it – engaging in the same behavior, and doing so with utter brutality?

Argued one reader

By our standards, that doesn’t make what the white man did right, but that is how everyone ‘played’ back then. And the operative ‘rules’ of the time are the only fair barometer in applicable judgment….It is in the liberal premise; that what is true for us now, should be the barometer of judgment for previous generations, wherein the dispute lies.

This question, then, is related to the last: when does “back then” cease to be “back then” and become now? What was the age – the year CE – of civilized majority at which national cultures became ethically responsible for their conduct and it was no longer acceptable to write transgressions off to some pre-moral, pre-responsible age of development? Did we reach it only with the Holocaust? Is that an acceptable Turkish defense for the Armenian genocide? Is 1890, the commonly designated end of the Indian Wars, the convenient demarcation?

This is not a matter, as one reader put it, of whether the European was an “outlier in history.” There was sufficient brutality, from the Spanish chopping off the feet of the Acoma Pueblo men who survived their attack, and enslaving them, to the pathetic concentration camp that for years was the San Carlos Apache Reservation, to the near extermination of the Pequot in 1638, to the display of the Wampanoag King Phillip’s head on a stake at the Plymouth Colony for twenty years.

There is among the comments an inclination, it seems, to defend the European conquest on the basis of its very success. That the American Indian could not resist the European advance is proof of European cultural superiority. That’s the way it was back then, and besides

thousands of years of human occupation of the Americas had not produced cultures that were able to both hold and defend the values in which Jay so deeply believes.

This all constructs an ages old theory of justice: might makes right. Thrasymachus argues in defense of it in Plato’s Republic. If your readers haven’t read it, I’ll recommend them to it. Socrates does a far better job of exposing the theory’s flaws than your humble correspondent could ever hope to do. And a good eighteen hundred years before the arrival of Columbus, too.

Some of your readers seem deeply perturbed that anything might be asked of them – responsibility for anything or anyone, and even money:

We’re supposed to feel guilty, yes, for things we had no responsibility for which happened long before we were born….But we can’t stop there, we have to do more to acknowledge our guilt and be redeemed: we have to give money. Reparations.

I’ve never said a word about reparations, and, of course, it is not for me to say. I will point out that the Black Hills of South Dakota, of which one reader wrote, were the subject of a suit that went before the Supreme Court. The Court, in fact, found for the Sioux, in 1980, and awarded them the value of the land in 1877, the year the land was taken in violation of the existing treaty. With interest, the amount came to $105 million. However, the Sioux do not want the money, but the land, and have refused the award, which today has grown to over $400 million.

But, as one reader wrote, “At the end of the day, people are just people,” all alike The Sioux just don’t seem to get that. Another deficiency, no doubt.

Here is a thought, though: let’s forget about reparations – some chance – and consider instead the two trust fund litigations, the Individual Indian Money Trust Funds and the Tribal Trust Funds, trusts that have been holding compensation to Native Americans for use of their land since 1887. Your readers can find informative links at the sad red earth. The former suit is now thirteen years old. In 2007 Alberto Gonzalez testified before Congress that the IIM monies could amount to over $200 billion. Not reparations, but the Indians’ money, which the BIA has misappropriated, and for which it cannot account. The case led Judge Royce Lamberth – a Republican appointee of President Ronald Reagan – to declare after ten years of presiding over Department of the Interior stalling over the case:

Alas, our ‘modern’ Interior Department has time and again demonstrated that it is a dinosaur — the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago, the last pathetic outpost of the indifference and Anglocentrism we thought we had left behind.

Now there was an opened mind.

So, you see, no one needs to be responsible for the past, for anyone else’s actions. All we need do is be responsible for ourselves – I think we’re all in favor of that – and for our own actions, in the present. All we need do is give Native Americans what they are properly owed.

Well, now, for me, as I write, the hour is late, and this communication has been already two days delayed – and I’ve gone on very long. I want to close by offering you a series of quotes. Some are from among your readers’ comments, some are from the nineteenth century, from people who appear in the public record as, let us say, no friend to the American Indian. I have made some minor, cosmetic changes to the reader comments, altering verb tense and particular vocabulary that would be revealing of time period. Anyone is free to make comparisons to see if I have done anything unfair. I wonder if, without checking, you can distinguish them.

The Indians are children. Their art, wars, treaties, alliances, habitations, crafts, properties, commerce, comforts, all belong to the very lowest and rudest ages of human existence. … they are utterly incompetent to cope in any way with the Europeans or Caucasian race

Indians have no concept of mercy and compassion. Those concepts are entirely foreign to their culture. The proverbial ‘law of the jungle’ is fully operative in their cultures.

If they stand up against the progress of civilization and industry, they must be relentlessly crushed. The westward course of population is neither to be denied nor delayed for the sake of all Indians that ever called this country their home. They must yield or perish

As for ‘stealing the land’ from Indians…stealing is the Indian’s standard ‘modus operandi’. You can’t do the right thing and buy the land from the Indians in an honest trade for they have no concept of private ownership, nor of tribal ownership beyond that of ‘might makes right’.

Of all the groups in America I have seen and lived around, Indians are the most personally corrosive and socially destructive I have encountered, bar none.

The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian

Wherever they go, this inferior native population, as a result of amalgamation, and that great law of contact between a higher and a lower race, by which the latter gives way to the former, must be gradually supplanted, and its place occupied by this highest of races….

Open minds? Maybe with a forceps to the cranium.

Yours truly,

AJA


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