Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2015

Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Indian

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

An excerpt from:

“We hold this truth to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, and one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom, our noble constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white man and the African.” So spoke Philadel phia’s prosperous black sailmaker, James Forten, thirty-seven years after the declaration first received printer’s ink.7 Was Forten mistaken that white Americans of the revolutionary generation subscribed to the notion that inalienable rights were universal, not limited just to white European males? Many historians believe that men such as Forten were wrong, that the founders really meant all white men are created equal, that only they were entitled to the fabled “unalienable rights.” Conventional wisdom has it that white revolutionary leaders believed Africans–even those who were free—were not endowed with fully human attributes and therefore were not considered to be among “all men” claimed in the declaration to have been created equal.8

To be sure, many white Americans did not intend to include African-Americans and others (such as women) under the canopy guaranteeing inalienable rights and equality as a birthright. But many did. Forten did not misremember the days of his early service in the Revolution; nor did he invent the climate of opinion in his hometown of Philadelphia. Hardly any writer who attacked slavery in the 1760s and 1770s imagined that Africans were not part of the human race. James Otis made this explicit in his Rights of the British Colonists in 1764, and a decade later the Massachusetts Genera Court debated a bill premised on this principle. Abigail Adams expressed the same view in 1774, insisting that black Americans had “as good a right to freedom as we have.” In the same year, Tom Paine insisted that “the slave, who is the proper owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it.”9 Samuel Hopkins, writing in 1776 from Newport, Rhode Island, the center of New England slave trading, made it his business to keep the matter squarely before the Second Continental Congress. The enslaved Africans, he exhorted, “behold the sons of liberty oppressing and tyrannizing over many thousands of poor blacks who have as good a claim to liberty as themselves, [and] are shocked with the glaring inconsistence.” Hopkins warned that if the leaders of the nation struggling for independence did not erase this “national sin,” the American people would never survive God’s wrath. Almost simultaneously, the New York legislature stated that slavery was “utterly inconsistent with the avowed principles in which this and other states have carried on their struggle for liberty.”

In southern as well as northern colonies important leaders acknowledged the universality of rights proclaimed by the declaration. As early as 1767, Virginia’s Arthur Lee stated baldly that “Freedom is unquestionably the birthright of all mankind, of Africans as well as Europeans.” Two years later, Jefferson argued before Virginia’s highest court, in a case involving a mulatto consigned to thirty years of labor, that “under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own: person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.” Nearly all Virginia leaders admitted as much as they began drafting a constitution for the state in 1776. George Mason’s draft, in the very first article of the Declaration ration of Rights, stated “that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty.” Objections immediately arose for fear that the first clause would “have the effect of abolishing” slavery or might be “the forerunner of … civil convulsion.” The language had to be manipulated “[so] as not to involve the necessity of emancipating the slaves.”12

Edmund Pendleton, a shrewd lawyer and expert wordsmith, rescued the Virginia leaders from the problem of making the essential claim of natural inborn rights while not giving slaves an opening. The accepted revision averred that “All men are by nature equally free and independent,” but acquired rights only when they enter into a state of society.” The last clause solved the problem because it could be said that slaves were not in a state of society. Such sophistry would do for the moment, though many Virginians were already on record saying that Africans were part of humanity and therefore as possessed of natural rights as Europeans, Asians, or anyone else. Though Jefferson would use many of the key words in the natural-rights proposition in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, he knew better than to slip in the weaselly clause about “when they enter into a state of society.

Virginia’s crafty circumlocution later proved useful in legal matters, but it did not change the minds of many southern leaders that Africans were born with natural rights, including the essential right to freedom. John Laurens, the son of South Carolina’s largest slave trader and one of the colony’s la slave owners, believed the half-million slaves in North America were justly deprived of the rights of mankind.”13 The young Laurens, infected by study in the Enlightenment hub of Geneva, Switzerland, made this statement in 1778. But most white southerners held negative views of Africans’ attributes, and some, like Jefferson, speculated that such negative qualities were innate. But even in disparaging descriptions of African moral and in intellectual capacities, and even in arguments that abolishing slavery was impractical, the claim was rarely made that Africans—or any other caste or clan people—were born without unalterable rights. The revolutionary generation’s problem was not in its conception of universal rights, as expressed in declaration, but rather its inability to honor them.

British writers, fellow inheritors of the Enlightenment, agreed. “How that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” inquired England’s Samuel Johnson, a former schoolteacher and creator of the Dictionary of the English Language, the masterpiece that today still commands such encomiums as “a portrait of the language of the day in all its majestic beauty, and marvelous confusion.” Johnson asked this question in 1775 in the context of his disapproval of American pretensions to independence, a position he spelled out piquantly in his Taxation No Tyranny, where he flummoxed American colonists by calling them selfish, ungrateful children—”these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence.” Lind, a British government writer equally eager to unmask American hypocrisy, put it as strongly: “It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths—that all men are created that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” If so, why were they complaining to the world “of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings [by the British], of the offer of reinstating them in that equality which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights with which, in this paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?”15

If Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence blithely absolved American colonists from complicity in the slave trade, he was equally dishonest in his blanket indictment of Native Americans. The charge that Jefferson buried in the declaration among the long list of grievances against king and Parliament must have astounded Joseph Brant, Attakullakulla, Logan, Daniel Nimham, or any other Indian leader whose stories we have followed. They would surely have agreed with the charge that “the king had blocked new appropriation of lands,” since they knew full well that Parliament had issued the Proclamation Act of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 to create a buffer between the land-hungry colonists and the interior Indian nations. But they must have been deeply offended at the assertion that the king had “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian sayages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” These pungent words from Jefferson’s hand, “submitted to a candid world” and borrowed exactly from his preamble to he Virginia constitution, were left untouched by drafting committee members Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and by the Continental Congress sitting it as committee of the whole.16 The silence of historians on this disingenuous charge is deafening in the most notable studies of the Declaration of Independence spanning more than eighty years. In Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922), in Garry Wills’s Inventing America (1978), and in Pauline Maier’s American Scripture (1997), not a word appears on this vicious caricature of the American Indians, who had been trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts as often as enemies for two centuries.

Jefferson, like most signers of the declaration, knew that this inflammatory charge was duplicitous. The first part of it—that the king had incited Indians against white settlers—had been charged in grievances expressed by several colonies and in Congress’s “Declaration on Taking Up Arms” in 1775. Rut the second part of the loaded sentence—that the known rule of destruction followed by Indian “savages,” where no woman, child, or person of any condition was spared, was Jefferson’s own formulation. To write this, Jefferson had to bury recent memory. Fourteen years before, finishing up his study at the College of William and Mary, the nineteen-year-old Jefferson had been spellbound by Chief Outacite, one of the Cherokee leaders who passed through Williamsburg on their way to take ship to London, where he hoped to find justice for his people. After spending two days in Virginia’s capital,Outacite gave a farewell speech that Jefferson remembered so vividly that he described it in detail, even to the phase of the moon, fifty years later in a letter to John Adams. “I knew much the the great Outacite, the warrior and orator of the Cherokees,” Jefferson told Adams. “He was always the guest of my father on his journeys to and from Williamsburg. I was in his camp when he made his great farewell oration to his people the evening before his departure for England.” It was a moment burned into Jefferson’s psyche, though he buried it while writing the Declaration of Independence. “The moon was in full splendor, and to her he seemed to address himself in his prayers safety on the voyage, and that of his people during his absence, his sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated actions, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration, though I did not understand a word he uttered.”17

What had happened to this awe and veneration when Jefferson drafted the declaration, sitting in a rented room looking down on bustling Market Street in Philadelphia? Of course, it was no time for Jefferson to sentimental. In drafting the declaration, he was all too aware that he was writing a propaganda missive, a legal brief to justify American independence from his own experiences in Virginia’s piedmont region that attributing a genocidal urge against “all ages, sexes, and conditions” to Indian more appropriately described the “rule of warfare” practiced by Virginia’s frontiersmen. We can never know how his sleep at night might disturbed by his suppression of the recent atrocities against peaceable Americans, for example the massacre led by the Paxton Boys in 1763 and the slaughter of Logan’s family in 1774. Jefferson knew of these heinous attacks in all their gory details, but in the flush of finding stirring rhetoric to voice the sentiments of an aroused colonial people, Jefferson ignored his deep respect for native people. A few years after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to his remembrance of Outacite’s stirring oratory and noble composure. In summing up his drama-filled years during the Revolution, he decided that nobody could find in the “whole orations Demosthenes and Cicero and indeed in all of European oratory” a “single passage superior to the speech of Logan.”18

Jefferson’s reduction of half a million Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to “merciless savages” had propagandistic value, but many who read the toxic words in the declaration at the time knew that most of the troubles with Indian nations began with white land hunger, unscrupulous trading, and arrogance. The judgment of Thomas Pownall, the governor of Massachusetts only a few years before, was well known and uncontested: that “the frauds, abuses, and deceits that these poor people have been treated with and suffered under have had no bounds.” Nor were Jefferson members of the Continental Congress unaware of the much circulated report of 1755 that proposed a plan for biracial comity. Edmond Atkin, the trader of South Carolina who had years of intimate contact with southern Indian nations, wrote that “In their public treaties, no people on earth are more open, explicit, and direct. Nor are they excelled by any in the observance of them…. With respect to … all ruptures of consequence between the Indians and the white people, and the massacres that ensued … the latter were the first aggressors, the Indians being driven thereto under oppressions and abuses, and to vindicate their natural rights”.19

Many colonists agreed, admiring the Indian traits of morality, generosity, bravery, and the spirit of mutual caring. Indians seemed to embody these Christian virtues almost without effort while colonizing Europeans, attempting to build a society with similar characteristics, were pulled in the opposite direction by the natural abundance around them—toward individualism, disputatiousness, aggrandizement of wealth, and the exploitation of other humans. “As a nation,” wrote John Brickell of the Delawares, with whom, he lived for more than four years, they may be considered fit examples for many of us Christians to follow. They certainly follow what they are taught to believe more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than we Christians do the divine precepts of our Redeemer.”20

Whether members of the Continental Congress who pored over Jefferson’s draft of the declaration considered the effect the insulting language used to describe Native Americans might have on the Indians themselves is not clear. But as historian Daniel Richter points out, they knew that England, as the war clouds loomed in 1774-75, had neither attempted to make formal military alliances with Native Americans nor encouraged them to descend on iIlicit frontier settlements. To be sure, English ministers were discussing how to mobilize Indian support if the undeclared war mushroomed into a full-scale fight. So was the Continental Congress. In fact, Congress had already enlisted the support of the Christianized Mahicans, Wappingers, and Housatonic Indians living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1775. Seventeen Stockbridge warriors fought with the Americans at Breed’s Hill in June of that year.21 A few months later, commissioners of the Continental Congress met at Pittsburgh with the Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca, and Delaware to secure their pledge of neutrality. Once again, just as Congress was declaring independence, American commissioners at Fort Pitt received a renewed Six Nation pledge of neutrality. Creating a generic, colonist-hating Indian might be useful in kindling ears of a British-Indian conspiracy, but how could it serve to woo Indians to the American side or even convince them to remain neutral? The Ame seizure of Sir John Johnson, son of William Johnson (who was beloved by Mohawks), and the imprisonment of his wife and confiscation of his pro gave the Iroquois further reason to distrust the Americans.

June 7, 2015

Charlie’s Country

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:50 pm

Opening last Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in NY, “Charlie’s Country” is now the fourth film I have seen that stars Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil who I first saw in “Walkabout” back in 1971 when he was 18 years old. Now 65 he is just as capable of conveying the psychological depth of an indigenous person as he ever was, in this case more essentially since he is the co-author of the screenplay.

Directed by Nicolas Roeg, “Walkabout” depicted the complex interaction of a young white brother and sister stranded in the outback with an aborigine out on a rite of puberty testing his ability to survive in the wilderness. As a perfect complement to his first film, the latest shows him returning once again to the bush but more as someone in the twilight of his life in a search of a more meaningful existence but one that has been destroyed by the white Australian colonizer.

Charlie lives in a native settlement that has all the same problems as an Indian reservation in the USA: drugs, alcohol, unemployment and despair. In the beginning of the week, Charlie gets a public assistance check and then spends it before the week is up. His days are spent wandering about his village aimlessly or shooting the breeze with other village elders.

In a manner that will remind you of Ferguson, Missouri or any other city where poor Black people are policed by white cops in an oppressive fashion, the local cops–all white Australians–treat their subjects with a mixture of paternalism and brutality. After Charlie and a crony go out into the bush to hunt a buffalo, they are stopped by the cops on the way back to the village and have their car, guns and game seized for lack of a proper license. A few days later, Charlie decides that he will have the last word on hunting and fashions a spear in a manner that has been handed down for generations among aboriginal people for millennia. On his way back to the bush for another hunt, the cops apprehend him and seize his spear because it is a “weapon”. I could not help but be reminded of the Baltimore cops chasing after Freddie Gray for carrying a concealed pocketknife.

Throughout the film, Charlie longs for nothing more than a return to traditional life, which the script makes clear is unattainable. This is the tragedy not only of Charlie but an entire race of people who were victims of genocide. As someone who has paid close attention to the anomie and suffering of Blackfoot Indians both through my research and by what I saw in visits to reservations in Montana and Alberta, I was struck by the similarities. When the game wardens arrest Charlie for hunting on land that belonged to his people for ten thousand years, I remembered that the same thing happened here:

By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty.

Like the American Indian, Australian aboriginals are facing a daunting task of trying to recapture a hunting and gathering ethos when capitalism has virtually destroyed such a possibility. Ironically, it is exactly a return to a precapitalist ecosocialist balance that will make the survival of both “advanced” societies.

I strongly recommend this film and any other that David Gulpilil has appeared in, including the two that I have reviewed: the 2002 “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the 2007 “Ten Canoes”.

“Rabbit-Proof Fence” depicts the flight of two young girls from a residential school that was intended to forcibly assimilate native children in the same way that took place in the USA and Canada as I indicated in my review:

Since Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 at the time of the movie, her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are all “mixed breed” children, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal Protection Act, which more properly should have been called the Aboriginal Genocide Act.

Since one of the goals of the legislation was to place such children in residential schools where “primitiveness”, including their native language, will be indoctrinated (or beaten) out of them, it would certainly qualify as genocide in terms of the United Nations. Article II of the UN Convention on Genocide stipulates that “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” for the purposes of assimilation qualifies as genocide. Despite the paternalistic language of the Australian drafters of this legislation, they had much more in common with Heinrich Himmler who stated: “I consider that in dealing with members of a foreign country, especially some Slav nationality…in such a mixture of peoples there will always be some racially good types. Therefore I think that it is our duty to take their children with us, to remove them from their environment, if necessary, by robbing or stealing them…” (Telford Taylor, “Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials”, p. 203. This was cited by James Michael Craven in an indictment of residential schools in Canada.)

In one particularly chilling scene, A.O. Neville, the Australian in charge of removing such children from their parents and played to perfection in an understated fashion by Kenneth Branagh, lectures a group of genteel white women about the goals of the policy. Pointing to three large pictures of Aboriginal children on the wall–a full-breed, a half-breed and a quarter-breed–he explains coolly that in another generation all the “blackness” will have been bred out of them. At the residential schools, not only would they learn proper English. They would be taught useful skills, such as how to clean the houses of their white Australian masters and care for their children.

By contrast, “Ten Canoes” dramatizes aboriginal life prior to the arrival of the colonizers—a time of spiritual and physical well-being even if it lacked the “conveniences” of modern life. In “Charlie’s Country”, Gulpilil’s character does not bother keeping his cell phone charged because he has so little use for it. As he says through most of the film, the old ways were better—a sentiment that inspire “Ten Canoes” as well as I indicated in my review:

The story of “Ten Canoes” has a shaggy dog quality. With narration by David Gulpilil, it is far more interested in depicting the “undramatic” diurnal existence of his people. The opening scenes, for example, depict a group of Yolngu men stripping bark from trees deep within the swamp, carrying them back to their village on their heads and preparing it to be turned into canoes. As they go about their chores, they joke with each other and gossip about village life.

We soon learn that the young and unmarried Dayindi (played by Jamie Gulpilil, David’s son) lusts after the youngest of the three wives of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal). When village elder Birrinbirrin (played by co-producer Richard Birrinbirrin, a Yolngu artist and conservator of indigenous culture) discovers this, he spins out a long tale that amounts to a film within the film about their ancestors from 10,000 years earlier who get involved with similar conflicts over women.

The Aesopian moral of the story is that you are often better off making do with what you have. The general picture of Yolngu mores that emerges from the film is that strife is to be avoided at all costs. When one of Dayindi’s ancestors kills a man from another village in a jealous rage, the rival camps agree to a “payback”, which involves the killer dodging spears thrown by the aggrieved villagers. This “eye for an eye” ritual is understood by all Yolngus as a way of avoiding more costly wars.

“Ten Canoes” can be seen on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqIWW5UGl1s) while “Rabbit-Proof Fence” can be seen there as well for only $2.99 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNbPPVetLCw).

May 16, 2015

In response to Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

A Makah family portrait

Yesterday Paul Watson wrote a commentary on my review of the documentary about Edward Abbey. Before replying to him, let me post what I said about him:

There are also contradictions between some deep ecologists and native peoples over their right to hunt and fish using traditional methods that are often related to their cultural survival. Among the people interviewed in “Wrenched” is Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, a group that carries out civil disobedience to protect whales. Unfortunately, Watson decided to challenge the Makah in Washington State, a small Indian band that traditionally relied on whale hunting for both its sustenance and spiritual identity. One can understand Watson’s brave fight against Japanese industrial versions of Captain Ahab’s Pequod, but couldn’t an exception have been made for people who have suffered genocidal attacks?

Just in case it was not emphatic enough, let me repeat that I value Watson’s activism highly. The fight to protect whales is one that matters a great deal to me as should be obvious not only by what I wrote above but in other articles I have written over the years, including reviews of “The Whale” and “The Cove”. But I must insist that Watson was wrong to campaign against the Makah, as I will explain below his comments.

A Prejudiced Review by Louis Proyect of Wrenched.

Commentary by Captain Paul Watson

In the Review of Wrenched by Louis Proyect, he criticized me for our campaign against illegal whaling by the Makah Tribe of Washington State in 1998. He says it was unfortunate that we opposed the Makah although he endorsed our opposition to Japanese whaling.

Proyect’s understanding of the situation is very shallow. He does not understand that Sea Shepherd was not in Neah Bay to oppose the Makah Tribe but to oppose the Japanese fish buyers who pushed the Makah to kill whales. Japan simply needed to use the Makah to further their own agenda of commercial whaling.

We secured documents through FOIA to prove that the Makah along with the Japanese had discussions to use the Makah to set up a commercial whaling operation in the USA for profit and to embarrass the U.S. position of opposition to whaling.

Proyect also failed to see that we were invited to intervene by some Makah Elders who saw the truth of the scheme and it had little to do with reviving ancient traditions and everything to do with money. He ignored the fact that other First Nations people supported us and some supported the Makah. On my crew were Kwakutl, Haida, Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en, Cree, Mohawk and Kwakwaka’wakw. He ignored the fact that I participated as an activist with the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973.

He voiced the prejudiced position that all First Nations speak in one voice about all issues. They do not.

I knew at the time that we would open ourselves up to criticisms for challenging the killing but I also knew that it would be racist of us to ignore a violation of whaling by the Makah and not by the Japanese or Norwegians.

Sea Shepherd represents the interest of the nation of whales and to whales, the color of the skin or the language spoken means nothing. All that matters is the harpoon and it is the harpoon that Sea Shepherd opposes by anyone for any reason anywhere.

Whales are highly intelligent, socially complex, self aware sentient beings and no human has the right to kill a single one of them.

Makah Elder Alberta Thompson spoke to this in 1997 when she said at the IWC meeting in Monaco that “the men who wanted to kill whales had no interest in other Makah cultural practices, they did not even have any interest in learning the Makah language. All they wanted to do was murder a whale with an anti-tank gun. And that” she said, “is not a part of our culture.”

Ed Abbey was a Sea Shepherd advisor and a friend and I know he would have supported our position to go up against the Japanese puppets posing as traditional whalers yet armed with modern technology and weapons to blow away a whale they had no intention of eating themselves.

In fact during the campaign I said if the Elders asked us to leave we would leave. The Elders who invited us replied they wanted us to stay. So we stayed. One whale was killed by the Tribe, and none since, except for one that was illegally killed by Wayne Johnson, a crime for which he was sent to prison.

We will continue to oppose any plans to resurrect whaling by the Makah as we will continue to oppose whaling by anyone, anywhere for any reason.

My response:

On the FOIA documents

On October 9, 2006 Eric Scigliano wrote an article for the alternative Seattle Weekly that takes up this matter. I urge you to read the entire article but will recapitulate his main points:

–One document purports to show that the Makah sought to operate a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano explains that the proposal came from a non-Makah official instead who they disavowed.

–Supposedly the Makah were combining with the Japanese industrial fishing firm Maruha to build a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano states that Maruha was pretty much out of the fishing business when they were approached. The Makah were primarily interested in ship that could process whiting, a fish that they were invested in commercially. As such, Maruha was a likely contact.

On the Makah and wildlife preservation

The Makah voluntarily stopped whale hunting a full decade before it was outlawed in 1937 because they were concerned about their dwindling numbers. It was only when gray whale numbers increased in the 1990s that they requested an exemption from federal law to begin hunting again. Furthermore, they requested the right to hunt up to 5 gray whales a year and no more. Since there are between 20,000 to 22,000 gray whales in the north Pacific, it is doubtful that the Makah hunt would have any impact on their survival even if the meat of all 5 whales were sold to the Japanese.

Paul Watson’s reliance on Congressman Jack Metcalf for pushing through a ban on Makah hunting

This is probably the most troubling aspect of his activism around this issue. Jack Metcalf is a rightwing Republican who has a long history of opposing Indian fishing rights. He was the founder of S/SPAWN, a group that occasionally used violence against Washington State Indians trying to exercise their legal rights to fish for trout and salmon. While Watson claims that his efforts on behalf of whales is part of his overall commitment to the environment, the Sierra Club ranked him as among the lowest in environmental legislation.

Wounded Knee?

Paul Watson claims that he was there. If so, nobody on the front lines has any awareness of this. In an article by Jim Page on Watson at Dark Night Press, he got feedback from Ward Churchill who would have been in a position to know:

…it’s not just that his name doesn’t come up in any of the literature on Wounded Knee. I’ve queried Ron Rosen, who was in fact a medic at the Knee, and he doesn’t remember Watson being there. Uncle Wallace [Black Elk] doesn’t remember assigning any white guys to save a bunch of “buffalo of the sea.” Neither Russ [Means] nor Aaron Two Elk recall Watson as having been there.

More importantly, being at Wounded Knee does not give Paul Watson a license to crusade against the Makah. Nor does the fact that a Makah elder opposed whale-hunting. There is an element of self-aggrandizement in Watson’s use of such tropes that helps you to understand why he has been disavowed by Carter Camp, an AIM leader at Wounded Knee, even if Watson was there: “Whatever he did (if he was there), I am deeply offended by his assertions that he was guided in his misdeeds by a ‘vision’ he was given at WK’73. We who were there would like to re-interpret his vision for him to show him the Makah, not eco-terrorists, are the ones saving our whale relatives. His view is insulting to those of us who fought at Wounded Knee ’73 and more importantly it is insulting to the spirits of those buried there because of people like Watson himself.”

Finally, my own views on wilderness protection and indigenous rights

I first became interested in indigenous rights when back in 1996 or so when I ran into a magazine called Living Marxism that was put out by the people who became Spiked Online. Using Marxist jargon, they essentially came out in favor of forced assimilation. They were also against environmentalism, a cause that I had embraced long before I became committed to indigenous rights.

In the course of expressing my views on the latter, I became friends with James Michael Craven, an economics professor in Washington State of Blackfoot descent who was deeply involved with the right of the Makah to hunt whales. I recommend an article he wrote that came out of that struggle that was also written for Dark Night Press.

As I began researching Blackfoot history, I became aware that the same clash that took place between the Makah and Paul Watson had taken place in Blackfoot territory. This excerpt from an article I wrote for “Organization and Environment”, a scholarly journal formerly edited by John Bellamy Foster until it became hijacked by the publisher and turned over to a more mainstream editorial team, should make this clear:

I want to conclude this article with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah, or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July, 1996 edition of “Environmental History.”

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus–the first invader–arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the “most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe.” “Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfeet universe.”

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison-hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that its architect was none other than George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was not only a park administrator, but a friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot story-tellers and this allowed him to put into print the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales.” Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians,” this did not prevent him from declaring Glacier National Park off-limits to a people he supposedly admired. Of course, without any self-consciousness he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man.” When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s, when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while banning them from the park.

Spence has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales” and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators never really went away:

“By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

“By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the ‘Red Power’ movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet ‘threat’ as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had been buried in the 1930s.”

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the “wilderness” makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the pre-capitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of “Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains.” (Island Press, 1998) I will conclude with his suggestion for a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and animals that were once theirs:

“The basic Indian goal is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. As Fred DuBray puts it, ‘We recognize that the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.’ In Mark Heckert’s view, this could be called sustainable agriculture ‘because you can get what you need to survive without inordinately disrupting the system,’ and the result would be self-governing tribes in which the bison are thriving again, the ceremonies have been revived, and the bond between Indian people and the bison has been reestablished. At Pine Ridge there is an ongoing program of teaching stewardship: grandparents go into the schools and explain to the children that all the parts of the natural order are necessary and interrelated; they pass on the store of traditional knowledge that has been kept in the memories of the elders of the community The comeback of the sacred bison–and, more specifically, the appearance of a one-in-a-million white bison–would ‘mean a spiritual recharge for our people,’ as Alex White Plume puts it. ‘There’s talk locally that the time is approaching, so people are beginning to get ready, learning the old songs and revitalizing the ritual that they need to go through. It might be within the next ten years. I hope it’s during my time.'”

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia and the truth about al-Qaeda

Filed under: indigenous,Islam,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Since I don’t have access to retired intelligence agency officials either in the USA or Pakistan, I am not in a position to judge most of Seymour Hersh’s 10,000 word article in the LRB but I do want to weigh in on one paragraph:

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’

As should be obvious, Hersh is repeating a claim that he has made for some time now and that is embraced by most of the left, at least that part of the left that views Saudi Arabia as behind al-Qaeda. The words “what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida” resonates with perhaps 30,000 articles that have appeared in places like WSWS.org et al. It is part and parcel of an analysis that Saudi Arabia used al-Qaeda as a proxy in Syria and that its ultimate goal was war with Iran, its Shi’ite enemy.

You can read a 2007 New Yorker article in which Hersh argues along those lines:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Really? Hadn’t Hersh noticed that the USA had spent trillions of dollars installing and then bolstering a Shi’ite government in Iraq that had close ties to the Iranian clerics? Was Maliki a secret Sunni? Who knows? Since Hersh has a way of unearthing conspiracies, maybe there’s an article he wrote somewhere that identifies Maliki as a secret Sunni operative.

This is not to speak of Osama bin-Laden’s attitude toward US relations with Saudi Arabia. Has Hersh forgotten what turned bin-Laden against the USA? It was the presence of American (as well as British and French) troops in the spiritual heart of Islam that apparently led to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was in fact a dagger aimed as much at the Saudi royalty as it was American interests. That is why, of course, Osama bin-Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991.

In addition, Hersh does not seem to be aware that the Saudis fought a pitched battle against al-Qaeda militants in May of 2005 that left 18 dead in a 3-day battle. Furthermore, the violence has continued up until this day. Just this month the Saudi police arrested a number of al-Qaeda members for their role in organizing a suicide bomb attack in Riyadh.

Maybe the confusion is that some Saudi businessmen have given money to jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and that a number of the 9/11 terrorists had Saudi citizenship. If that is the criterion for judging “Saudis” to be behind al-Qaeda, then you might as well claim that “America” was aiding the Sandinistas since Tecnica brigades regularly brought tons of equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s and even provided volunteers to government agencies—including me. I never would make such a claim myself but then again I don’t write for the New Yorker Magazine and other blue chip journals (except CounterPunch.)

Perhaps the confusion is over the actual national identity of bin-Laden and the 9/11 “Saudi” terrorists. Yes, it is true that they had Saudi citizenship but their relationship to the ruling families is not what it might appear.

The bin-Ladens were originally from Yemen and had a strong sense of identity with the Qahtani tribe that was based there and that resented the Adnan tribe that dominated the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni connection was very strong in al-Qaeda, according to Akbar Ahmad, the author of “The Thistle and the Drone”, 95 percent of al-Qaeda was Yemeni or Saudis who were born and raised in Yemen, particularly the Asir region. Ten of the 9/11 attackers were ethnically tied to the Asir tribes, including Mohammad Atta—the mastermind. The 9/11 Commission stated that a number of the men who formed the reserves for the attack were Yemenis as well.

If you want to learn more about the Yemeni connection, I strongly recommend Ahmad’s book that argues that tribalism rather than Islam explains the particularly violent revenge motif that runs like a red thread through Sunni-based jihadi movements globally. He explains that the tribes of Asir are largely nomadic and trace their origins to the Qahtanis.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia that was descended from the Adnans annexed the Asir region in 1934 through a bloody war that cost the lives of 400,000 people. The annexation was followed by an invasion of Saudi clerics who forced their Wahhabi beliefs on the conquered tribesmen. Ahmad’s description of the vanquished Asiri tribes is striking:

The Asir men wore skirt-like apparel revealing much of their legs, and they went without socks. Famously known as “flower men”, they kept their hair long and adorned it with flowers. Even their turbans were decorated with flowers, grass and stones.

An Asiri tribesman

Within decades the Asiri tribes were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Wahhabi/Adnan culture just like American Indians being forced to become “white”.

Although he was from a different part of Yemen originally, Osama bin-Laden’s father felt at home in Asir. He was there to lead a construction crew that was building highway 51 from the north into Yemen with Saudi funding. Although he got rich, the Asiris got nothing from the oil wealth that was lubricating Saudi society. In 1980 the province had only 535 beds for 700,000 residents. The Asiris regarded the Saudis as arrogant and resented their vulgar displays of wealth.

In 1979 the resentment boiled over into an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 127 Saudi cops were killed and 117 Asiri rebels died as well in the fighting. A further 63 were beheaded after being captured.

Like the Chechens, another conquered people, the Asiris soon found international outlets for their anger. In the 1980s it was the primary recruiting ground for foreign fighters joining the Afghan resistance. Many of them would go on to join the group that bin-Laden formed in 1988: al-Qaeda. In the following decade, these militants would form the backbone of the resistance to the Saudi royal family and its American backers.

I doubt that any of this would be of interest to Seymour Hersh who thrives on reductionist conspiracy theories but if you are in the least bit curious about such realities, I urge you to read Akbar Ahmad’s very fine study of tribal Islam.

February 5, 2015

Thistle and the Drone

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,Islam,Islamophobia,war — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

This review appeared originally in Critical Muslim #10 under the title “Tribal Islam”, which is useful as a way of explaining what is largely missing from the analysis of the Taliban, Boko Haram, and other Islamist armed groups, namely their tribal origins. Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is required reading for anybody trying to understand the deeper roots of such groups, particularly those who trying to develop a Marxist analysis. Akbar Ahmed is a mainstream social scientist but his research is first-rate.

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.

The drone in the title needs no explanation except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: “predator drone”.

The thistle required more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel “Hadji Murad” that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the 19th century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.

Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.

While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

In chapter three, titled “Bin Laden’s Dilemma: Balancing Tribal and Islamic Identity”, we learn that the al-Qaeda leader admitted to an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks were not sanctioned by the Quran but based on a need to “get even”: ”We treat others like they treat us. Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.” As someone who has studied Native American tribes for some two decades, this has a very familiar ring. The Comanches, the Sioux, and the Apache lived by this credo. While they were always loyal to their own clans and treated outsiders with hospitality if they came in good faith, woe betide the aggressor who took the life of a fellow tribesman.

Ahmed elaborates on the connection between American Indians and Muslim tribal peoples in chapter six titled “How to Win the War on Terror”, citing Benjamin Franklin who saw the tribes of the Northeast as paragons of democracy and freedom:

The Indian Men, when young, are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counselors; for all their Government is by Counsel, or Advice, of the sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study Oratory; the best speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the Memory of Public Transactions. These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural and honorable. Having few Artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.

Unfortunately, this is where I have to part company with Akbar Ahmed’s analysis since he gives far too much credit to the founders of the American republic whose treatment of the tribal peoples might ostensibly serve as a guide to Pakistan’s relations with the Pakhtun in Waziristan. Despite the respect that Franklin held for native peoples, the behavior of the American industrialists and plantation owners that followed him were governed by the need to safeguard private property. The American Indian was simply not allowed to live as hunters in the Great Plains as they had in the past since cattle generated far more profit than the free roaming Bison.

Even on the basis of words, there were problems indicated early on. Ahmed cites Thomas Jefferson favorably as arguing against “an augmentation of military force proportioned to our extension of frontier.” However, this is the same Thomas Jefferson who proposed removal of the Cherokee Indians from the Southeast to west of the Mississippi, a policy finally carried by Andrew Jackson in the “trail of tears”. To show that he meant business, Jefferson told Secretary of War General Henry Dearborn “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”

To a large extent, Ahmed’s hope that the White House can be persuaded of the counter-productiveness of drone attacks rests on a view of American history much more in accord with its rulers’ self-portrait than Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ahmed details his meetings with both the Bush administration and Obama’s on how to deal with terrorism, an invitation that would only be extended to someone who tends toward an “inside the beltway” perspective. No matter the limitations of such an outlook, the world would certainly be better off if the Obama administration adopted his proposals on a wholesale basis. For that matter, it would also be far better off if Obama’s campaign promises going back to 2008 had been adopted, promises that convinced some that the Islamophobia of years past would be abandoned. Those hopes now seem vain, especially with the White House’s indifference to the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing murderous attacks on Syrian neighborhoods in the name of defeating “extremists”.

“The Thistle and the Drone” is not only a stunning analysis that will allow you to see the “war on terror” in a new way; it will also have lasting value as a reference book that can be drawn upon for its scholarly citations and baseline for considering “trouble spots” like Somalia, Mali, and Libya. As someone who has more than a glancing familiarity with these nations, Ahmed’s book went a long way to clearing away the lingering fog.

My interest in Somalia and Mali was heightened by the need to provide some historical background on two films (I am a long-time critic whose reviews appear on Rotten Tomatoes website). The first was “Captain Phillips”, a narrative film based on Somali pirates seizing a cargo ship. My research persuaded me that the stiffest resistance to the pirates came from the Islamic Sharia Courts that saw such crimes as “haram”, or against Islam. It was this Islamic coalition that America and its Ethiopian and Kenyan allies were determined to crush as part of the war on terror. The second film was “Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary on the Tuareg who have been in a struggle with the Malian state. They are regarded as a jihadist threat rather than a proud people asserting tribal claims for sovereignty and demanding social and economic justice.

Despite Ahmed’s admiration for tribal values, he is no romantic when it comes to Somalia’s clans that he blames for most of the country’s recent troubles. Under Siad Barre’s “socialist” dictatorship, all expressions of tribal identity were suppressed. As was the case with Libya’s Gaddafi, the centralizing state was for all practical purposes the instrument of clan rule in and of itself. Siad Barre ruled on behalf of the Darod Marehand subclan and Gaddafi on behalf of the Gadafa, a Western tribe that tried to bring the Benghazi-based Cyrenaica tribe under its thumb.

The implosion of clan-based warlordism led Islamists to seize power in Somalia in a manner reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the Sharia Court government was toppled by the West and its African allies, the struggle took an even sharper Islamist turn under the auspices of Al Shabab (“the youth”), a group that was responsible for the terrorist attack on a Kenya shopping mall in September 2013.

Since Washington regards Al Shabab as an al-Qaeda affiliate, it has deployed drone attacks at them, often victimizing innocent herdsmen. Like Afghanistan, Somalia seems destined to be part of a senseless “war on terrorism” when the only real solution to its problems—a Sharia based government willing and able to resolve contradictions between its rival clans—had been eliminated.

Mali threatens to become another example of unceasing warfare against a jihadist threat with the Tuareg serving as victims of an American crusade incapable of making critical distinctions between genuine enemies and those unfortunate enough to be wrongly perceived as such. No other people are less deserving of this treatment than the Tuareg, who, like the Kurds, were victims of circumstances far too frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa. French and English colonialism left behind states that did not map to the traditional tribal structures. Furthermore, if you belonged to a tribe that straddled multiple state entities, you were powerless to defend your interests as a people. Regarded by the state of Mali as bothersome nomads, the Tuareg were forced to rely on themselves and their heterodox Islamic beliefs in which the men wore the veils and the women bright and colorful garments.

The French were determined to assimilate the Tuaregs as farmers, something that was as inimical to their values as it was to the Sioux and the Comanches. When Mali gained independence, the drive to assimilate kept apace. The military rulers banned the Tuareg language just as the Kemalists would ban the Kurdish language. In all of these postcolonial states, there was a tragic and unnecessary urge to follow in the footsteps of the colonizer. If you were Islamic in your beliefs and lived according to thousand-year-old tribal norms, your suffering was magnified when you were unfortunate enough to live within the borders of a “modernizing” non-Islamic state like the USSR. Stalinist oppression of its Caucasian Islamic citizens went to genocidal extremes.

The government of Mali was determined to bring the nomads under control, from poisoning their wells to killing their herds. After many years of suffering and neglect, the Tuaregs rose up against their oppressor. In early 2012 the Tuaregs took control of a vast region of northern Mali the size of France. Viewing the Malian state as a firm defender of “law and order”, the U.S. attempted to aid its troops with C-130 transports of arms and supplies. There are two main Tuareg rebel forces in the area, one carrying the banner of tribalism and the other al-Qaeda’s Black Flag. There are worrisome signs that Washington lacks the capability to distinguish between the two. It has called upon the Algerian government to provide military aid to Mali in the name of fighting al-Qaeda but it is likely that the bullets will be fired at Tuaregs whatever banner they carry. The Algerians have been merciless against the Berbers, the Tuareg’s northern cousins, so one must regard any alliance between Mali and Algeria as inimical to the rights of Islamic tribesmen once again.

Let me conclude with some thoughts on Libya, which should not be construed as a criticism of Ahmed’s research. Since I lack his expertise and those of the research team that worked under his direction, I only offer this in the same way that I would pose a question to a speaker at a conference who has just delivered a powerful and informative lecture.

“The Thistle and the Drone” treats Libya almost as an example of a clan-divided society after the fashion of Somalia. But I have been under the impression that such tribalism has always been exaggerated. In an interview I conducted with a young Libyan who took part in the rebellion, I was assured that there are no real tribes in Libya now. He claims that he has no idea what tribe he belongs to and that population flows from one city to another has largely eroded tribal society, mostly through unforced assimilation.

However, there are still centripetal tendencies in Libya that threaten the country’s future. Are they tribal? Can a modernizing state based on the will of all its citizens be created in a timely enough fashion to preempt a Somalia type evolution? A lot rests on such an outcome and one can only hope that scholars like Akbar Ahmed can help provide the insights necessary to help move the struggle forward.

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.

Screen shot 2014-09-20 at 10.05.02 AM

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.

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