Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2014

Braddock America; The Hadza: Last of the First

Filed under: Film,indigenous,workers — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

Two very fine documentaries that opened today in New York serve as counterpoint to Joan Robinson’s observation in “Economic Philosophy” that “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

“Braddock America”, which will be showing at the Anthology Film Archive, is an obvious confirmation of Robinson insofar as it demonstrates the terrible human costs of a Pennsylvania town losing 90 percent of its jobs as the steel mills closed down. By contrast, “The Hadza: Last of the First”, which opens at the Quad, suggests that the worst thing for a gathering-and-hunting tribe of a thousand souls that has lived outside the capitalist economy for millennia in Tanzania would be wage labor. Furthermore, the primitive communism of the Hadza points to alternatives to the current wage slavery that offers nothing but a Hobson’s choice to humanity: “take it or leave it”.

“Braddock America” was co-directed by a French team, Jean-Loïc Portron and Gabriella Kessler. If you’ve seen Tony Buba’s films, you will be familiar with the terrain. Braddock is a Detroit in miniature. The film opens with a drive past boarded up homes and abandoned factories. From an economic standpoint, there are obvious comparisons with the Great Depression but with one key difference. In the 1930s the factories were operating at full tilt and as such the workers could apply immense pressure on the bosses by withholding their labor. But when the factories are gone, there’s not much leverage. Presented with an ultimatum of “take it or leave it”, the former steel workers of Braddock leave it.

As a documentary, “Braddock America” takes a rather eclectic approach. It is a mixture of Frederick Wiseman cinema vérité, interviews with various Braddock residents affected by the collapse of the mills, and archival footage showing life as it was in the past. In its heyday, Braddock was a bustling town that in exchange for dangerous and backbreaking work could offer wages sufficient to buy a row house and consumer goods, as well as pay for the tuition  your kid needed to get a decent education and an exit out of the mills. One of the interviewees is a middle-aged African-American man who judging by his impressive art collection has benefited from the advantages his blue-collar father was able to provide. As he begins describing the sacrifices his father made, the man begins to cry, something that happens frequently with the shell-shocked interviewees.

Since I am familiar with Buba’s work, I was able to recognize a number of the townspeople who have appeared in his films, including Tony himself. Unfortunately, the directors made an unwise decision to avoid identifying the people who are featured in the film except in the closing credits. Since a number of them were obvious experts on the history of the town, I regretted not being able to follow up by Googling their name. Perhaps this was done in order to maintain the vérité effect but I would advise up-and-coming filmmakers to avoid this practice like the plague.

Although I would be very interested in the Braddock story on its own terms, it resonated even deeper with me as having a similar experience with the collapse of the tourist industry in my upstate New York county that is now one of the poorest in the state. As the counterpart of Detroit’s auto plants and Braddock’s steel mills, the hotels of my youth have either been demolished or abandoned. With no prospects for opening a small business catering to the tourist industry, local residents can also “take it or leave it”. Taking it means working as a prison guard or selling drugs, two jobs that reinforce each other.

“Braddock America” is a graphic reminder of how bad things have become in the United States. Economic collapse has produced a kind of radicalization in the ranks of the people who live there that is a reminder of Marx’s dictum that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” A local cop is heard saying that the CEO’s are destroying the country. A priest opens the service giving what amounts to a liberation theology sermon. All that is missing is the economic power that can put the ruling class on the defensive and ultimately bring its rule to an end. The problem we face in the 21st century is that Robinson’s observation cuts both ways. Not only does failing to be exploited lead to hunger and illness, it also robs the worker of the one thing that can stop the boss in his tracks: the ability to withhold one’s labor.

Of all the films I have seen over the years about precapitalist society, none has come closer to confirming Engels’s take on the Iroquois in “Origins of the Family, Private Property than the Hadza:

There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

The anthropologists who are interviewed in “The Hadza: Last of the First” concur that this tiny group of people living in the Rift Valley, where homo sapiens is first encountered, have a social organization that most closely resembles how humanity lived for upwards of 90 percent of its existence. Among the Hadza, there are no chiefs and nobody goes hungry, as long as there is sufficient food to go around. They are also people who try to avoid conflict as much as possible. When they first realized that the German and British colonizers threatened their way of life, they did not make war. They withdrew into the bush.

Unlike the slanderous accusation made by people like Shepard Krech about precapitalist societies being as wasteful as capitalist, the Hadza only kill what they plan to eat. They also are perfectly integrated into the ecosystem of their surroundings. When they come across a bee hive, they make sure to leave the combs that have been stripped of honey for the honeybirds that use them for their nests. They also enjoy a life of leisure that is unknown to the wage slave. When they have ample food, they stop their hunting and gathering, and rest. They are the perfect confirmations of what Marshall Sahlins called stone-age leisure. He accumulated data that demonstrated that in a representative hunting and gathering society, after adding up all the time spent in all economic activities (plant collecting, food preparation, and weapon repair), the average male worked three hours and forty-five minutes a day, while females worked on average just five minutes longer. Of course, they do not have cable television to stare at in their leisure time but after recently taking in a few minutes of Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, I wonder how much advantage there is in that.

While much of “The Hadza: Last of the First” is inspirational, the same sense of futility found in the Braddock film can be found here. If economic contraction has led to a crisis in a small Pennsylvania town, it is economic expansion that is leading to the same sort of social breakdown in Tanzania. Of the 1000 Hadza people, only 300 live by traditional means. In its haste to “develop” Tanzania, the ruling party has adopted economic policies that favor assimilation of precapitalist social formations into a new national identity based on a common language and state-sponsored agricultural projects—the “African socialism” of Julius Nyere that had little to do with socialism.

Export-oriented agribusiness has been accelerating in Tanzania just like the rest of Africa driven in large part by Chinese neocolonialism. The privatization of land forces pastoral societies to expand into Hadza territory. To create grazing land for the cattle, bush has to be cleared, thus reducing the number of animals that can be hunted.

The economic pressure on Tanzania from global capitalism threatens the existence of a people who are the closest link we have to a long-lost world where greed and violence were unknown. Despite the nonsense from Napoleon Chagnon and Jared Diamond, the evidence that Hadza society presents is one of peace and harmony even if it rests on a very thin margin. The mortality rate of the Hadza is very high due to diseases such as malaria and diarrhea, endemic to people living in remote areas where mosquito infestation is widespread and where water contains impurities.

The answer of course is to combine the communism of our ancestors with modern technology. Marx spent much time compiling an ethnological notebook. He was determined to find justification for his belief in the unnaturalness of capitalism by compiling the record of how peoples lived in its absence. I can only imagine the big smile that would have come across his face as he sat through a screening of “The Hadza: Last of the First”.

 

September 20, 2014

Sustain CounterPunch and sustain yourself

Filed under: anthropology,Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:24 pm

Screen shot 2014-09-20 at 10.17.19 AM

This is as good a time as any to urge my readers to take out a subscription to CounterPunch magazine, especially since the latest issue contains an article I wrote about Indian gaming casinos that I am particularly proud of. It weaves together strands about the history of New York state’s indigenous population, popular culture and political economy in an effort to look at a controversial issue: do gaming casinos rob indigenous peoples of their identity?

There is some irony in me publishing this article in a magazine identified with the late Alexander Cockburn since I gave him hell about his support for casinos way back when (as I did over any number of questions, while remaining an ardent fan.)

When Jeff St. Clair suggested that I write such an article, I mentioned this to him but confessed that I could not even find the article that had sparked my pique (it doesn’t take very much.) In a fresh attempt this morning, I not only found it but realize now that it was much more nuanced than I appreciated at the time:

[from Alexander Cockburn, "Wild Justice," New York Press, October 21-27, 1998]

The hunters crashed out of the resort at 5 am. and I read a few pages of Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide. He certainly raises victim,hood to the level of political manifesto arguing that his purpose is to claim genocide for Indians on the grounds that genocide has given the Jews moral authority and he wants the same moral authority for his people. This seems to be a sad posture, claiming moral authority by dint of the percentage of your number wiped out, with 100 percent moral authority established presumably when you are 100 percent extinct.

Do the Mandan have greater moral stature than the Blackfeet because a white man’s disease, smallpox, wiped out a higher percentage of their number? Do some Indian tribes, surviving in higher numbers, like the Yurok, have diminished moral stature? Or is It just A matter of “Indians” without. regard to specific tribes or destinies? For Churchill it is. He takes a population estimate, pre-white conquest, of 15 million Indians, subtracts the 248,253 Indians counted in the 1890 census and sets down the balance in the ledger of genocide. Ergo, moral authority amid the ruins. Rhetorically, it’s hard to argue with him, because In Churchill’s moral arithmetic you somehow become a denier not only of the Indian but of the Jewish Holocaust as well.

Do Indians really need a holocaust to give them standing? Surely not. To be frank, they’ve done better with casinos. Is it not more uplifting to see Indians as gallant and savvy survivors than as victim-dead? They certainly ended up with more land than two other ethnic grows on the losing end, the Spanish and Africans in North America. It’s true that disease, evictions and cultural dislocation wrought a devastating toll. On the Plains there were massacres: Sand Creek, Washita, Marias River, Camp Grant, Wounded Knee. In these infamous events there were somewhere around 1260 Indians dead. Between 1789 and 1898 the U.S. Army records 1535 Indian fights, with estimates of Indian dead running anywhere from 3000 to 6000. On the other side, between 1789 and 1898 Indians killed maybe 7000, soldiers and civilians. Of course Churchill would disdain such calculations as obscene efforts to establish some sort of moral equivalence, which was certainly the intent of some of the white historians totting up the numbers and claiming that more Indians were killed in intertribal warfare on the Plains than by the white soldiers. There’s no need to haggle over moral equivalence. The whites were the latest of the arrivals on the scene and got every thing. But rather than tout genocide as the battle standard, It is surely better to see Indians as brilliant diplomat-warriors who stood off three major sets of white invaders for centuries. In the end, the true hero is Red Cloud, the warrior/diplomat, rather than Ian Frazier’s (and no doubt Churchill’s) hero, Crazy Horse. Surely this is a more bracing lesson for young Indians than the cover of Churchill’s book, being photographs of the dead at Wounded Knee, and a drunk Indian on Main St., Anywhere, USA. I say, Get over it.

We drove across the rest of Montana, up over the road to the Sun in Glacier National Park over the Lolo Paw, down through% Idaho and into the tolling wheatfields of eastern Washington, like the most kitsch of Soviet socialist realist posters; With a great red sun going down, a grain elevator and a tractor in the foreground (and, as it happened, a child murderer going down to lethal injection in Walla Walla prison, just the other side of the horizon), Down the Columbia, past Sam Hill’s strange museum, down through a couple of stops by Washington and Oregon cops who probably thought we were ferrying dope. Into Oregon City we came, in the ’64 New Yorker with 4000 miles on the odometer, which now stands at 150,324. Back, most surely, in late 90s civilization. Our hosts, Jeffrey St. Clair and Kimberly Willson-St. Clair, are moving house and had just boarded Sam the Newfoundland until new fences could be built. A chipper young woman at the Clackamass Pet Spa had quoted him $14 a day for Sam’s bed and board, with optional extras. Sam could get a “nature walk” through Oregon’s dwindling Douglas firs for $1.50 a day, a ‘snack and snuggle for another $4 a day, “Indoor play” for another $4, and “sunbath” with restoring oils for $2 and a birthday party for $8. If he had a cat, she told the bug-eyed Jeffrey; pussy could, at $4 a day, enjoy a “mock mouse hunt.” So much for frontier days. This is how the trail ends.

Before giving you a flavor of what I wrote, I want to emphasize why it is important to subscribe to the CounterPunch print edition. It, along with yearly fund drives, is a major source of funding for one of America’s leading left institutions. I should probably have said global since the webzine has readers from every corner of the globe as I discovered after a very well-informed Swede wrote me concerning the ultraright. At $55 per year (10 issues) for the print edition and $35 for digital, it is great reading and won’t bust your budget.

In addition to my own jewel of an article, there’s one by David Price that is of particular interest to me since it overlaps with my own long-standing opposition to racism in anthropology that so often victimizes American Indians as “dinosaurs” that needed to be superseded by “civilization”.

In an article titled “The Bio-Social Facts of American Capitalism: When the FBI Dreamed of an Epidemic for College Professors”, Price, a professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s College in Washington state, takes aim at E.A. Hooton, an anthropologist at Harvard University who espoused eugenics and the theory that there were distinct “races”, each with their own distinct genetic “intelligence” capabilities. Harvard University, can you imagine that?

Using a FOIA request, Price was able to get the FBI files on Hooton that included some articles the good professor wrote during WWII, including one that called for “a program of supervised breeding, sterilization of the unfit, and increased control over the development and education of its future parents.”

A drawing contained in Hooton’s tract “Up From the Ape” illustrates his crude racist beliefs. In the past Harvard had no problem with someone like this holding a post and the U. of Illinois was okay with Robert Weissberg spouting similar racist filth but if you are too sympathetic to Palestinians, you’d better watch out.

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As I indicated above, my article tried to tie together various perspectives to help understand the role of gaming casinos in American Indian society today, especially as they relate to Governor Cuomo’s signing off on them in Sullivan County where I grew up. Among the tribes who had considered making a bid was the Munsees who once occupied the very land beneath my feet when I lived at home. From my article:

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? [A casino boss stereotyped in a “Sopranos” episode.] In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states:

The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been trans- ported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of Gotham, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting 60 Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

Want to read the rest of the article and David Price’s as well? Go ahead. Take out a sub right now: http://store.counterpunch.org/subscriptions/. It will help sustain CounterPunch as well as sustain you politically and psychologically in the protracted struggle against capitalism.

August 25, 2014

Chief Illiniwek

Filed under: Academia,indigenous,repression,Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

Chief Illiniwek performing at a football game

“As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.”

–Phyllis Wise, U. of Illinois Chancellor

From Wikipedia:

On January 17, 2007, the Executive Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, issued a resolution asking that the University of Illinois return the regalia to the family of Frank Fools Crow and cease the use of the Chief Illiniwek mascot. The resolution was delivered to the university’s Board of Trustees, UI President B. Joseph White, and Chancellor Richard Herman. The campus’ Native American House was authorized by the Oglala Sioux to distribute the resolution to the public.

Some Illiniwek were forcibly removed from the state of Illinois during the time of Indian removal. The forced relocation of Indian nations between 1818 and 1833 made way for non-Indians to claim the territory as the state of Illinois. Due to government-sponsored assimilation programs, many Native people moved in the 1950s to large urban areas such as Chicago. Founded in 1953, Chicago’s American Indian Center is the oldest urban Indian center in the country, and there is a substantial American Indian population in Chicago.

In 2006, the University Board of Trustees opted to study the issue and passed a resolution calling for “a consensus conclusion to the matter of Chief Illiniwek.” Many on both sides of the issue found this resolution problematic, given that former trustee Roger Plummer determined that a compromise on the issue was not possible. At that point, the Board of Trustees has not consulted on the matter with the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program.

On March 13, 2007, the University of Illinois board of trustees voted to retire Illiniwek’s name, image and regalia.

In October 2012, the Chief made an unsanctioned halftime appearance at Memorial stadium, in the Homecoming football game against Indiana.

Students and fans still chant “Chief” during the performance of Three In One during halftime. Since neither the NCAA nor the University have any control over what the fans chant, opposition groups have called to additionally ban the Three In One performance.

In April 2014, an indigenous student, Xochitl Sandoval, sent a letter to the university administration (which she also posted on her Facebook page) describing her thoughts of suicide resulting from the daily insults she felt due to the continued presence of “The Chief” on campus, including other students wearing the old image and name on sweatshirts and the continued “unofficial” performances the current “Chief”, Ivan A. Dozier at some events. She stated that these thoughts came as a result of her feeling that she had no recourse because the university had not enforced its own policies regarding racism and the creation of a hostile environment for indigenous students such as herself; but had instead stated her only recourse would be personal action.[51] Soon afterward there was a gathering on the Quad organized by the president of the Native American Indigenous Student Organization in support of Sandoval, and calling for further action by the University to eliminate the presence of the Chief on campus. The Campus Faculty Association (CFA) also issued a statement in support of Sandoval.

 

 

July 18, 2014

Apocalypto

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 11:51 am

Conquistadors as Liberators?

The Mad, Mad Mayan World of Mel Gibson

by LOUIS PROYECT

Since I doubt that any CounterPuncher would be inclined to watch Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” except on a dare, I almost decided not to include a spoiler alert. Gibson’s reputation precedes him, so much so that I avoided watching the film for the longest time. On a particularly arid cable TV and Netflix evening a month or so ago, I decided to give it a shot partly out of boredom and partly out of morbid curiosity.

I will give the devil his due. Gibson threw caution to the wind and made a movie that defied conventional Hollywood studio expectations. This is a tale set some time in the distant past in the Mayan empire of Central America that pits a classless hunting and gathering society against Mayan class society, with Gibson standing up for the primitive communists—as Frederick Engels dubbed such peoples.

Ironically, the film echoes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with the hunting and gatherers living in a state of peace and harmony soon to be threatened by a technologically more advanced society but one with more retrograde values. Also, like the original “Planet of the Apes” that starred Charlton Heston, “Apocalypto” relies on a deus ex machinasurprise ending that is intended as a commentary on civilization and progress.

The plot of “Apocalypto” is quite simple. Within fifteen minutes after the beginning of the film, a Mayan raiding party attacks a small village living in Yanomami-like simplicity deep within the rain forest, killing women and children wantonly. The men are then put in chains and led off to a Mayan city, where they are doomed to be sacrificed to the gods in the grizzliest fashion. A high priest cuts open the captives’ chests one by one and plucks out the still-beating heart to the adulation of the Mayan masses.

Gibson makes sure to make the Mayans look as scary as possible, with tattoos and piercings in such abundance that you might think you are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

read full

March 17, 2014

Thoughts on a Counterpunch article paying tribute to Cormac McCarthy

Filed under: indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Cormac McCarthy

In today’s Counterpunch—my favorite online and print publication—there’s a tribute to Cormac McCarthy, my least favorite novelist, by a Texas attorney named Carl E. Kandutsch who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Often set in Texas and the old west, McCarthy’s novels leave me with the impression that they are a mosh-up of overwrought Faulknerian or Melvillian prose and the Warner brother’s Roadrunner cartoons.

I first became—how should I put it?—obsessed with McCarthy after seeing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007. When the most likable character, a blue-collar worker who has absconded with the drug money found at the site of a shootout that left the dealers killed, is killed off himself long before the end of the flick only to leave a sheriff played by Tommie Lee Jones to blather on about the state of the world, I turned to my wife and said, “What the hell? Is this the way this stupid movie ends?”

That led me to an examination of the Cormac McCarthy fan’s website (http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/), where I saw his 1985 “Blood Meridian” described as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Since I guess I am one of those people who subscribes to the “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization”, I had problems with McCarthy’s novel even before I read it.

Kandutsch’s tribute references “Blood Meridian”, a novel most pro-McCarthy critics regard as his finest and liken to “Moby Dick”. With respect to the “politically correct” question, Kandutsch states:

There are no “noble savages” in these novels, and the Indians described in Blood Meridian are every bit as brutal, rapacious and blood-thirsty as the lawless gang of gringos who patrol the border badlands destroying villages in search of Indian scalps to sell for bounties offered by the Texas and Mexican governments.

Before I turn to the Comanche “noble savage” topic, I want to say something about McCarthy’s style. In the interests of transparency, I have to admit that I can’t stand overwriting so that probably disqualifies me as an objective critic of McCarthy to begin with. The late Nora Ephron, a wise and witty critic of male foibles and a pellucid prose stylist, had these words on McCarthy in the New Yorker magazine as related in a bedtime chat she was having with an unidentified man:

She opened the book and started reading from the end.

He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.

Who?

Cormac McCarthy.

As the best example of what I find troubling about both McCarthy’s writing and his politics, there’s no better example than this passage from “Blood Meridian” that describes a Comanche band returning from a raid on a Texas village as if it was a Walpurgisnacht procession:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Wow, that’s all one sentence! Back in 1977 when I was working for Salomon Brothers, the programmers took a workshop on writing memos that was better than any writer’s workshop class I ever took at Bard or NYU. We learned to avoid the passive voice, number one (you’ll rarely see them in my articles.) The next thing was to understand the Gunning Fog Index that rated prose on the basis of readability, including the average number of words in a sentence, etc. Running the passage above against a Gunning Fog Index calculator (http://gunning-fog-index.com/fog.cgi) returned a rather feverish reading of 102.2. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunning_fog_index) states that texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12 and those for universal audience require an index of less than 8.

Turning to the substance of the passage, a careful reader with a tolerance for high Gunning Factor Indices might wonder what Comanche Indians were doing wearing stovepipe hats, an umbrella, white stockings, a bloodstained wedding veil, etc. As McCarthy was reported to have read extensively on the historical background of the Comanche Indian wars celebrated in films like “The Searchers”, you would have to believe that he was not making this up. In fact there was such a procession of weirdly dressed Indians with a telltale sign of a recent massacre of whites (bloodstained wedding veil) in Texas history.

This was a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in the aforementioned sinister costume party.

However, what McCarthy leaves out is the incident that led to the raid. While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

McCarthy is not interested in this part of the story since it would interfere with the Hobbesian vision of his novel. Without mentioning the philosopher who is always pitted against the “novel savage” vision of Rousseau, Kandutsch seems to get that it is his philosophy that guides McCarthy’s narrative: “Others have attacked his allegedly reactionary moral and political stance, based on little more than his commitment to pessimism and his evident distaste for modern urban life.” Yup.

In “Blood Meridian”, the most repugnant character among a host of vile bodies is “The Judge”, the leader of a band of bounty hunters trading Comanche scalps for dollars who is based on the historical figure John Joel Glanton. The Judge muses:

These things are known to all the world. The world is construed out of blood and nothing else but blood. Death is the condition of existence and life is but an emanation thereof. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood. Before man was, war waited for him. The idea that man can be understood is an illusion.

Now McCarthy is a pretty smart guy even if he cant write worth a lick (that’s a McCarthy parody italicized there.) This notion of perpetual bloodlust is one I am very familiar with after having seen numerous accounts debunking the “noble savage” myth from one sociobiologist or another over the years, starting with Jared Diamond. McCarthy seems to be aware of their legacy from the appearance of the epigraph to “Blood Meridian”:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

You see, war must be in our genes based on the evidence of scalping 300,000 years ago.

It turns out that the primary resource for “Blood Meridian” was T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Comanches: the Destruction of a People”. Fehrenbach, who is considered the dean of Texas history writing, died on December 1, 2013. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study was likely the inspiration for the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War”. These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who was determined to prove that there was no “noble savage” even if it was necessary leave out those aspects of Texas history that undermined his fictionalized sociobiology.

December 25, 2013

John Ford and the origins of the Hollywood Western

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

John Ford

From Glenn Frankel’s “The Searchers: the Making of an American Legend”:

As John Ford liked to point out, movies and Westerns grew up together, a natural marriage of medium and genre. The first moving picture in the United States was a series of still photographs in 1878 of a horse racing down a track south of San Francisco on the grounds of what became Stanford University, stitched together by Eadweard Muybridge to prove that horses did indeed gallop with all four feet off the ground. From that time on, horses and pictures seemed to go together, as Ford himself once noted: “A running horse remains one of the finest subjects for a movie camera.”

The official end of the American Frontier, solemnly announced like a death in the family in 1890 by the Office of the Census, virtually coincided with the birth of motion pictures. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis—that the West had provided a safety valve that had defused social tensions and class conflict during the American nation’s adolescence—became a template for the Western film, which was from its beginnings a form of elegy for a time and place that had already vanished.

After The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the genre slowly took shape over the course of a decade, overlapping with genuine remnants of the past. Ford himself befriended the legendary lawman and gunslinger Wyatt Earp, who spent his final years loitering around Hollywood film sets. Buffalo Bill Cody, Frank James, the surviving Younger brothers, the former Comanche captive Herman Lehmann—all appeared in various cinematic accounts of their life and times, adding a dab of color, showmanship, and faux authenticity.

The first moving pictures of Indians were likely made by Thomas Edison in 1894 for a small kinetoscope called Sioux Ghost Dance, an immediate hit on the penny arcade circuit. The early films were makeshift and improvisatory. They used real locations and real Indians. One of the first was a short called The Bank Robbery, filmed in 1908 in Cache, Oklahoma, in the heart of the former Comanche reservation by the Oklahoma Mutoscope Company. One of its stars was the former Comanche warrior turned peace chief, Quanah Parker. After outlaws rob the bank at Cache, Quanah rides with the posse that tracks them to their hideout in the Wichita Mountains. Quanah is involved in a shootout in which all of the robbers are either gunned down or captured. The money is restored to the bank and the outlaws are hauled off to jail. Despite his Comanche ethnicity, Quanah Parker is undifferentiated from the rest of the volunteer lawmen—just a good citizen doing his duty.

But that notion of the Indian as ordinary community member was quickly supplanted. As the Western film and its storytelling evolved, it quickly adopted a fixed set of ideas and images about Native Americans from nineteenth-century literature, theater, and legend. There were two dominant stereotypes. The first was the Noble Savage: the Indian who appreciated the benefits of the white man’s civilization, wished to live in peace, and was often more heroic and moral than the craven whites he had to contend with. This was the role Quanah Parker had sought to play after his surrender in 1875, both to protect his people and to enhance his own stature.

In Hollywood’s first full-length feature film—Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man, made in 1914—an English nobleman journeys to the American West to create a new life for himself after taking the rap back home for a crime he didn’t commit. He falls in love with a beautiful Ute maiden who kills an evil rancher to save the nobleman’s life. They marry and have a child, but when a determined sheriff comes to arrest her for the killing six years later, the doomed maiden kills herself to protect her family and prevent an Indian war. The Squaw Man, which was remade several times over the next few decades, presents two enduring social lessons: consensual sex across racial lines is almost always fatal to the Indian participant; and the Noble Savage is far too noble to survive in the modern world ruled by whites.

Over time this stock figure was pushed aside by a frightening and dramatically more potent stereotype: the treacherous, untamable, sexually voracious Cruel Barbarian, abductor and murderer of white women and children, and obstacle to civilization. This Indian was a much better fit for the needs and imperatives of feature-length films. And just as Indian characters helped shape movies, so did movies help shape our modern image of the Indian. The old myths about Indians from frontier days were readily transferred to the new medium of film, writes Wilcomb E. Washburn, a cultural historian with the Smithsonian Insti-tution, “because the characteristics that define American Indians are all dramatically conveyed by film. In violent, exotic and dramatic terms—savage, cruel, with special identity, villain, hero, worthy foe. Objects of fantasy and fable.”

One of the first films of D. W. Griffith, founding father of American cinema, was The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913), a twenty-nine minute short starring Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish, in which a band of drunken Indians launch a war against white settlers after a misunderstanding leads to the death of an Indian prince. The Indians kill a white woman and murder an infant by crushing its skull. Marsh’s character saves an-other white baby by racing onto a battlefield to take the infant from the arms of a dead settler and crawling back to safety. The Indians then be-siege a small cabin of settlers and the end seems near; one man aims a gun at the head of Gish’s character to spare her the classic Fate Worse than Death of rape by savages. But the cavalry arrives in a nick of time to save the small band of settlers, mother, baby, waifs, and puppy dogs.

Almost from the moment he got off the train at Union Station in Los Angeles in 1914, the young John Ford worked in Westerns, first as a stuntman, cameraman, and actor. Tornado (1917), the first film he directed, was a Western, and he once estimated that perhaps one-fourth of his total output of movies were in the same genre. He groomed and cultivated Western film stars like Harry Carey, George O’Brien, Henry Fonda, and, of course, the greatest of them all, John Wayne. His entourage included wranglers, stuntmen, and Native Americans, and he eventually came upon Monument Valley, a remote and breathtakingly beautiful corner of Utah and Arizona, and used it as the setting for a half dozen of his finest films. His greatest silent movie, The Iron Horse (1924), was an epic Western, as was Stagecoach (1939), the film that revitalized the genre artistically and commercially after a decade of stagnation and helped make a star of Wayne. These films were rip-roaring adventure stories, with good guys and bad guys, Indian attacks and gunplay. But they were also fables about how America became great.

“A director can put his whole heart and soul into a picture with a great theme, for example, like the winning of the West,” he told one newspaper interviewer at the height of his silent-film career in 1925, and you can hear the enthusiasm spilling out from the page. Movies like The Iron Horse, he proclaimed, “display something besides entertainment; something which may be characterized as spirit, something ranking just a little bit higher than amusement.” The heights that film creators can achieve, he added, “are governed only by their own limitations.”

 

December 4, 2013

T.R. Fehrenbach dead at 88; wrote history of the Comanches from a white perspective

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

T.R. Fehrenbach

Today’s N.Y. Times reports on the death of T.R. Fehrenbach at the age of 88. Fehrenbach was a historian and journalist specializing on Texas, his native state. He is the author of “Comanches: The Destruction of a People”, a book that despite its title has little to do with Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and others that see things from the Indian perspective. The review gives you a flavor of Fehrenbach’s approach:

His concern was real people, and he pulled few punches. He wrote: “The moral, upstanding Comanche who lived by the laws and gods of his tribe enjoyed heaping live coals on a staked-out white man’s genitals; a moral Mexican, for a fancied insult, would slip his knife into an Anglo back. The moral Texan, who lived in peace and amity with his fellows, would bash an Indian infant’s head against a tree or gut-shoot a ‘greaser’ if he blinked.”

 It also takes into account what more enlightened historians have to say about his work, in this instance a book titled “Lone Star”, a massive history of Texas:

Light Townsend Cummins, who was the Texas state historian until last year, said in an interview on Monday that “Lone Star” had “reawakened a zeal in the state for the study of Texas history” and, in fact, had persuaded him to take up the subject, too.

But Professor Cummins, who teaches at Austin College in Sherman, Tex., acknowledged that “Lone Star” had come to be seen as a period piece written in “the context of his times.” He said, for instance, that Mr. Fehrenbach placed far greater emphasis on white frontiersmen than do today’s historians, who give considerable weight to the roles and contributions of women, Mexicans, American Indians and blacks.

To say the least.

I read Fehrenbach’s book on the Comanches in an effort to understand the historical background to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, a novel based on the exploits of mercenaries led by John Glanton in 1849 who were to be paid for each Comanche scalp they turned in. Glanton’s gang is depicted as psychopathic killers but the Comanches fare just as poorly, being depicted as wanton murderers after the fashion of a 1950s cowboy movie but in overwritten prose. Here’s a sample:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones … a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim-stone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Mind you, “Blood Meridian” has been compared to Melville, and because the Glanton gang is depicted as little more than a death squad, some left-minded academics view the novel as an assault on American imperialism. Horsefeathers, I say.

Supposedly, McCarthy read hundreds if not thousands of books and articles to get his historical background right. First among these works as an influence was T.R. Fehrenbach’s book on the Comanches.

More recent scholarship on the Comanches eschews Fehrenbach’s good old boy tendencies but share his aversion to their violence. For Pekka Hamalainen, the author of “Comanche Empire”, the Indians ruled Texas in the same way that the Mongols ruled most of Asia under Genghis Khan, using horse-mounted violence against peace-loving peoples. Hamalainen does try to put their violence into historical context, as a means to acquiring horses that were traded for guns and other goods from the “Comancheros”. It is a little bit like explaining the British Empire in terms of its need to use slaves in Jamaica. It was “rational” but cruel.

Around the same time that Hamalainen’s book came out, you had Brian Delay’s “War of a Thousand Deserts”, a book that tries to connect the Mexican-American war with the need to seize territory and make Texas safe for capitalist development. The Comanches might have been integrated into the capitalist mode of production as horse traders (the Model-T of the 19th century) but their control of the plains for bison-hunting was inimical to the needs of the farmer and the rancher. As is the case with the other books, Delay’s is filled with gruesome details about Comanche depredations.

I dealt with Fehrenbach, McCarthy, Hamalainen, and Delay in an article titled “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” for “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. The article is unfortunately behind a paywall ($37 for my stupid article!) but I don’t think the editor would sue me for theft of intellectual property for citing the portion that deals with Fehrenbach:

As is so often the case with long-standing clashes, it is difficult to establish the initial casus belli. Yet it is far more important to understand the underlying social and economic contradictions that made armed conflict inevitable. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Comanche-related scholarship to practically reduce them to having warfare in their genes, thus rendering historical context superfluous. According to Barcley Owens (2000), the primary resource for Blood Meridian was T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: the Destruction of a People. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study inspired the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War” (Fehrenbach 1974, 60). These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who included this epigraph to Blood Meridian:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

Recent scholarship on the Comanche has departed from the quasi-sociobiological ruminations of Fehrenbach but remains committed to the view that they were the southern Plains equivalent of Napoleon Chagnon’s “fierce people.” But in contrast to the Yanomami, there is little question that the Comanche wreaked havoc on anybody who got in their way: rival tribes, Mexicans, and Anglos. History judges that there were genuine reasons to fear them. The notion of a “fierce” Comanche poses a serious challenge to the picture of indigenous peoples that emerged through works such as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David Stannard’s American Holocaust, and even more importantly works by native scholars such as Vine DeLoria Jr. and Jack D. Forbes for whom the Indians are always victims of settlers encroaching on their territory, mounting a fitful resistance until finally being vanquished and herded into reservations.

But the Comanche were different. They were the powerful preying on the weak, showing no mercy to indigenous and non-indigenous alike. Through their mastery of the horse and their access to guns, they could impose their will on rivals throughout the southwest, so much so that historian Pekka Hämäläinen wrote of a “Comanche Empire” in 2008. He made the case as follows:

Comanches reached the zenith of their power. They had revived their defunct trade and alliance network and expanded it into a vast commercial empire, which allowed them to integrate foreign economies into their market circuits and control the flow of crucial commodities on the lower midcontinent. They had halted the expansionist Texas in its tracks and carved out a vast raiding domain in northern Mexico. They held several nearby peoples in a state of virtual servitude and their market-oriented and slavery-driven economy was booming. (Hämäläinen, 2008, 142)

Comanche Empire was published in the same year as Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, another attempt to demonstrate Comanche domination. For DeLay, the Comanche were a powerful force that held Mexicans, Texans, and other Indians in a virtual state of siege. Ultimately DeLay explains the Mexican War of 1846-1848 as killing two birds with one stone. By driving Mexico out of lands it held from Texas to California, the United States would be able to unleash the productive forces of a developing capitalist system without challenges from either the “decadent” Spanish-speaking enemies or the savages. By using the excuse of Comanche anarchy, Washington would be able to secure “law and order” and protect both Anglo settlers and Mexican ranchers, who had been victimized by Comanche raids for a generation.

 

November 12, 2013

Musicwood

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 10:23 pm

While most of my readers understand that the environmental crisis threatens humanity’s survival, that understanding revolves generally around issues that effect us as a species. This is typified by the loss of foodstuffs and the increase of catastrophic flooding such as demonstrated by the typhoon that just wreaked havoc in the Philippines–very likely the result of the wanton production of greenhouse gases.

But there is more to the equation than that. The environmental crisis also threatens the extinction of many animals, whose loss also affects us in a material way. When predators like the eagle disappear, carcinogenic chemical pesticides become the rule. But the extinction of animals such as the polar bear, the raptor, the orangutan, and the tiger also lessen us culturally. What would our world be if it is left with the pigeon, the rat, and us? It is the same as burning Rembrandts.

“Musicwood”, a documentary that plays at the Quad in NY through Thursday (the film is also available on ITunes and DVD), poses the question of what our world would be like if the great guitars became extinct as well. It turns out that the sounding board of a Gibson or a Martin (the top of the line of which can cost close to $200,000) relies on the Sitka Spruce tree that can be found in the Tongass National Forest of Southeastern Alaska on land that is owned by a First Nations corporation called Sealaska. Although I referred positively to the Inuit and to the tribes resisting the tar sands extraction of Canada as examples of the ecological Indian, I now realize I was being somewhat reductionist. In reality, native peoples have frequently made deals with oil, mining and lumber companies to profit from unsustainable practices on tribal lands. Sealaska unfortunately is one of the most egregious examples, allowing clearcutting of trees ranging from 300 to 600 years old with the raw materials shipped off to Asia where they become furniture or construction material. In the grand scheme of things, it is not much different than burning Rembrandts.

The film makes it clear that the beneficiaries of this wasteful practice are the tribal elite who serve on the board of directors of Sealaska with a couple of non-native men who have spent their careers in the lower 48 states supervising clearcutting operations. They are the moral equivalent of those who are responsible for mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

The two First Nations people on the Sealaska board who are featured in the documentary are hostile to Greenpeace since it has made preserving Tongass a priority. Rosita Worl, a Tlingit who serves on the board of trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian, sets the tone by referring to Greenpeace as the outsiders who want to “save the whale” at the expense of native peoples. As someone who has stood up for the right of the Makah to hunt whales against the interference of the Sea Shepherds, I might have been sympathetic to her objections but there’s a huge difference between a whale or two being killed by a tiny band of Indians desperate to maintain their cultural heritage as opposed to an entire rainforest being turned into coffee tables for sale at Pier One.

The ordinary Indian, who is a shareholder in Sealaska, has no problem seeing through the elite’s pretensions. One native woman shrewdly observes that not a single penny of the corporation’s profits has filtered down into her pocketbook. She and her family, like most other ordinary folks, survive by catching salmon and hunting deer while the Rosita Worls of their world go to cocktail parties in Washington and receive handsome salaries for serving on the board of Sealaska.

The nominal heroes of the film are a Greenpeace lobbyist and a group of guitar industry presidents who understand the need to preserve Tongass through the auspices of Musicwood (http://www.musicwood.org/), an advocacy group that is supported by world-class musicians such as Steve Earle and Ya Lo Tengo who are seen in the film. Unfortunately the guitar companies can be as easily seduced by the dollar as the native elite. We learn that the FBI raided Gibson Guitars for using unlicensed rosewood and ebony from Madagascar.

The struggle to preserve Tongass is ongoing. Like the equally essential “People of a Feather” I reviewed for Counterpunch last Friday, the film’s website points you in the direction of valuable resources. I strongly recommend the purchase of the film for high school and college classes since it poses the question of how capitalism pits people against each other without bludgeoning you over the head in didactic fashion. It challenges the student to think about how justice can be served in a period of declining expectations—mostly a function of the need to preserve corporate profits.

Director Maxine Trump has done an excellent job of making her material appeal to anybody concerned about the planet’s future. In the press notes, she states:

Working with our editor, we simplified the politics as much as possible without doing disservice to anyoneʼs issues, and let the passion, the music, and the spiritual essence of the film take over. We had to make sure we werenʼt taking on anyoneʼs agenda; we let the facts speak for themselves, and got to the truth of the situation.

She has succeeded admirably. Very highly recommended.

November 8, 2013

People of a Feather

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

While nothing could surpass “Nanook of the North” in its place in film history, Joel Heath’s “People of a Feather” that opens at the Quad Theater in New York on Friday, November 8th is certainly more accurate on the realities of Inuit life. This is a film that eschews the exoticism of Flaherty’s film and many like it in the early days of cinema that amounted to National Geographic on celluloid. You will see Inuit on snowmobiles and using rifles, if not watching television and performing their own hip-hop music. But throughout it all, they are the Inuit who know how to not only survive but also flourish in conditions that most of humanity would find intolerable.

Read full review

August 29, 2013

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Comanche man, photo taken in 1892

I just got a copy of the latest Capitalism Nature Socialism journal (Volume 24, Number 3, September 2013) that should be available on JSTOR before long. I was somewhat dismayed to see that a single issue of CNS costs $121 and that a purchase of my article on “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” is $37. I used to get upset over Historical Materialism’s price but was startled to see such an escalation. In any case, if you do have JSTOR access, I urge you to look at this special issue on “Bridging Indigenous and Socialist Perspectives” that includes a piece by Hugo Blanco as well. In the section on “Cleansing and Renewing”, you can find an article by David Bedford and Thomas Cheney on “Labor, Nature, and Spirituality”. I am not familiar with Cheney but I regard David Bedford as one of the sharpest scholars in the field of Marxism and indigenous society. You can read his Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress on the North Star website for free.

I will be including an excerpt from my article below but want to preface it with some background on how I came to write it.

In November 2007, after seeing the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”, I was left deeply unsatisfied by the movie’s ending. When I learned that it followed the plot of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, I decided to look further into his work, especially “Blood Meridian”, a work that some of his boosters in the academy compare to Melville. I wrote:

If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:

In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.

In early 2008 I got around to reading “Blood Meridian”. The best way to describe it was a marriage between McCarthy’s patented overwriting style and a portrayal of the Comanches that is a mixture of George Romero and early 50s cowboys and Indians cliché. You almost expect the Comanches to come lurching across the plains with their arms outstretched hungering for human flesh.

Then, a year after I read McCarthy, Pekka Hämäläinen’s “Comanche Empire” came out. As the title implied, the author argued that in the decades before the Mexican-American war of 1847, the Comanches ruled over what amounted to as a pre-state empire. Not only did whites live in fear, so did other Indian tribes including the Apaches who were driven out of Texas into the lands now coincident with the state of New Mexico.

So what was the truth about the Comanches? Were they part of the “myth of aboriginal victimization” or were they victimizers? I felt the need to get to the bottom of things.

I was moving closer to writing something but I needed a bit of a kick in the ass, something I received from Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, the new editor of CNS who took over from Joel Kovel. Salvatore had sent me email early this year inviting me to write an article for the issue that finally came out. I told him that I was reluctant to write for any academic journal, particularly CNS since James O’Connor had decided not to publish an article that he too had invited me to write. My wife has to put up with refereed journals but as a public intellectual I enjoy the freedom to say what I want when I want.

Fortunately, Salvatore broke down my resistances and I spent a good three months writing a 7000 word article that in my not so humble opinion is one of the best things I have ever written on indigenous issues. I invite you to track it down on JSTOR as soon as it is available. Here’s how it starts:

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Louis Proyect

Despite Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s affinity for Lewis Henry Morgan’s pro- indigenous studies, Marxism has had a troubled relationship to native peoples. As hunters and gatherers were they destined to be superseded, a tragic but ineluctable function of their economic backwardness? Despite Engels’ admiration for the Iroquois, he deemed them doomed because of “an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area” (Engels 1902, 119). Similarly, José Carlos Mariátegui’s later related attempts to reconcile Incan institutions with socialism are widely admired (Mariátegui 2011), but evidence of a lasting impact on revolutionary theory or organizing in Latin America is mixed. In the current context, despite Evo Morales’s commitment to indigenous rights, there have also been clashes between the revolutionary left and the Awa, the Maya, the Miskitos and other Indian nations in years past.

Meanwhile in North America the record is worse. The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party submitted a paper to a conference organized by the American Indian Movement at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1980 in which Russell Means was charged with adopting a “noble savage” stance geared to the “insipid fantasies” of the bourgeoisie (Churchill 1983, 39). They probably spoke for most of the left, which despite its sympathies for AIM’s struggles tended to view factories, cattle ranches and wheat farms as progressive in comparison to the Indian’s “extremely undeveloped state of production.” For example, in “America’s Revolutionary Heritage”, the Trotskyist philosopher George Novack wrote that the bourgeois revolution had to “rid American society of its precapitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery)” (Novak, 1976, 250). It probably never occurred to Novack that the Lakota resistance to General Custer was worthy of support, just as was in turn Custer’s to the rebel army. Cruder readings of the work of Engels (1902), based on the schema of social development proceeding through discrete linear stages like a larva being transformed into a butterfly, continue to haunt the movement. It probably never entered Novack’s mind that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development could be applied to the United States with slavery and capitalism coexisting organically until the contradictions that heightened in the 1850s made that impossible. While Eric Williams (1994) drove home that point, it is safe to say that there is no counterpart to his study that pays attention to the role of the Indian in the earliest stages of American capitalism. Without indigenous peoples’ participation in the fur trade, the merchant capital of a Hudson Bay Company might not have led to the industrial capital of the 19th century.

Comanche Imperialism?

And perhaps even more importantly, the role of the American Indian in procuring horses for agriculture and commerce has never been fully understood until the publication of Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire in 2008. The portrait of the Comanche that emerges in this study is no noble savage. If anything, it echoes sociobiology’s claim that the Indian was just another player in a Hobbesian drama pitting one vicious tribe against another, including the greater Anglo-Saxon tribe that ruled America.

If Hämäläinen errs on the side of perpetuating the myth of an “ignoble savage”, then at least he is more scrupulous than most scholarship or than the more egregious demonizing attempts by such novelists as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). Acclaimed in the May 21, 2006 New York Times as one of the most important novels of the past 25 years, Blood Meridian was the product of the author’s extensive research into Texas history of the pre-Civil War period, when the Comanche Indians were still a force to be reckoned with. When the Comanche make their initial appearance, the effect is ghastly:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones … a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim-stone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. (McCarthy, 2008, 52)

This is a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in a sinister costume party: “one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil” (McCarthy, 1985, 52).

While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

As is so often the case with long-standing clashes, it is difficult to establish the initial casus belli. Yet it is far more important to understand the underlying social and economic contradictions that made armed conflict inevitable. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Comanche-related scholarship to practically reduce them to having warfare in their genes, thus rendering historical context superfluous. According to Barcley Owens (2000), the primary resource for Blood Meridian was T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: the Destruction of a People. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study inspired the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War.”

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