One of our students here at Iḷisaġvik College was curious about the foxes living out behind our dorms. Olive tells me they will chase a red dot over the tundra, for a little while anyway. She filmed her little experiment.
One of our students here at Iḷisaġvik College was curious about the foxes living out behind our dorms. Olive tells me they will chase a red dot over the tundra, for a little while anyway. She filmed her little experiment.
So, I was in Rapid City recently. I was there to attend a convention of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. It’s a great conference and a great organization. So, I was enjoying myself a great deal, already, when a thought occurred to me. I wonder if there is any street art in Rapid City?
Surely, I thought, there must be a mural or two, maybe not even a great one, but I’ll bet there is something.
Turns out the answer is ‘yes’. There is definitely street art in Rapid City. In fact, the city has an entire alley devoted to it.
(Click to embiggen!)
I think I found the source for Donald Trump’s approach to public speaking. There is a clear precedent for his technique.
It’s Jane Elliot!
Jane Elliot is of course the Ohio grade-school teacher made famous for a classroom exercise in which she taught her students to discriminate against each other on the basis of eye-color. If you watch her in action, you can see the elements of Donald Trump’s rhetoric style unfolding before you.
It’s funny, because I’ve been thinking for some time that I have never seen anyone lie so readily, so easily, and in the face of such clear counter-evidence. Never have I seen anyone whose praise or whose censure was so obviously a function of his own self-interest. It is as if facts have no bearing on his evaluation of anything or anyone, and the only thing that registers significance in his evaluation of the world around him is what he wants to happen. Those who support his goals are terrific, and those who oppose him are failures, sad. I keep thinking, no-one I know of has ever been so obvious about it. But no. The man has a clear role model. If you watch Elliot teaching her students to mistreat each other, it’s all there. She may have meant her exercise to warn people against this sort of thing, but I can’t help wondering of Trump didn’t watch her at some point and say to himself; “Yep! That’s exactly what I want to be.”
Elliot set out to instill prejudice in her third graders in the space of a single day, and then to reverse that prejudice the following day, before debriefing the lot of them and ending the lesson. She didn’t have a lot of time and she wasn’t the least bit subtle about it.She employed all manner of tactics to communicate contempt for the wrong-eyed children in her classroom.
You might think Elliot’s lessons less relevant to real-world politics, because, well third graders, right? But of course, Donald Trump’s own rhetoric has all the features of grade school communication. Far from a detriment, it turns out childish vocabulary and simplistic arguments are actually one of the keys to his success. With his simple words and constant repetition of basic themes, Trump leaves a very clear impression. It is the single-mindedness of Trump’s presentation that seems to resonate with his supporters, and in that respect, his approach is very much like that of Elliot.
But does the nature of the message matter?
You bet it does.
It’s not just any simplistic message that Trump offers supporters; it is a simplistic message about who is a better person; them or someone else? In this respect, his approach mirrors that of Elliot. It isn’t merely that Trump advances a message of hatred; it is that he presents that hatred in terms of a clear pay-off. You are are better than they are! That is what Trump keeps telling people (whoever you are and whoever they might be). It’s an invitation to enter a world with a clear hierarchy of value, and to enter that world on the value-laden side of that hierarchy. You don’t even need to do anything. You are already better than the many scapegoats he offers you (Muslims, Mexicans, the Media, minority activists, etc.) Trump really doesn’t call on supporters to do much more than vote for him. Their role in his his America is to be the real Americans while the rest of us take our lumps. It’s this message that survives all the messy details. It is a message not the least bit undermined by questions of fact, reason, or even the evidence of the senses. In this respect, Trump is very much like Elliot teaching half of her classroom to think of the other half as lesser people.
When I watch Elliot tell a child (at about 5:20) that a blue-eyed parent would never kick his son while using the apparent claim that a brown-eyed parent had done that very thing, I can’t help but think of Trump’s many anecdotal attacks on immigrants. It shouldn’t take much critical thinking to see past the argument, but is that more important than the invitation to be better than someone else?
Apparently not for a lot of people.
When Elliot begins telling the Brown-eyed children they can’t use the drinking fountain (at around 6:10), and when she restricts their playground privileges, she is effectively telling the blue-eyed children they are special. The things they all used to take for granted now belong only to the blue-eyed children (at least for a day). The pay-off is not substantially different from that enjoyed by an audience assure more of their kind of jobs will be created while watching others threatened by cuts, told their own health-care will be taken care of (somehow) by cutting others loose, and of course their citizenship will not be sullied by the presence of certain kinds of people. (And no legality was NEVER the issue in Trump’s new-fangled Know-nothingism) We on the left haggle over the details of these policies as if they matter. To the average Trump supporter, I do not think they do. He may be right about this or wrong about that, but what matters most to those who support them is that he keeps elevating them above someone else. He does it free of charge. They don’t have to understand anything difficult; they don’t have to work harder (at least he doesn’t say they will); they don’t even have to listen very carefully. Being better in Trump’s world is as simple as saying yes to him and his gold gilded message. In scapegoating enemies domestic and foreign, Trump is telling anyone who cares to accept him that they are special. They get to drink at the fountain. Others don’t.
When Elliot tells her children that the brown-eyed people are slow or stupid, she creates the very facts she purports to describe. Elliot noted (at 13:15) how the student performance rose or fell with the changes in their status during the course of her exercise. There is little to distinguish this from the effects of social stigma and/or poverty on groups for whom prejudice is not simply an exercise. When Trump promotes such distinctions, he generates real harm.
(At about 12:10) “Do blue-eyed people know how to sit in a chair? Very sad. Very very sad.” …this one speaks for itself.
One might think that folks would see past such a thinly disguised gambit. Elliot is working with third graders. Surely, adults would know better!
In the end, this may not be a question of what people actually think. It’s a question of what narratives they circulate. We keep hearing that Steve Bannon isn’t really an antisemite or even that Donald Trump isn’t personally against homosexuals, Mexicans, women, etc., but the Trump camp and its supporters keeps producing stories denigrating to these groups and anyone who gets in their way. Like Elliot, they may know better, but like Elliot, they do it anyway.
Except for one thing.
There will be no debriefing at the end of Trump’s Presidency. There will be no great learning moment, no sudden transformation of the whole situation into a great learning lesson. Whatever cynical reasons he and his supporters may have for throwing the rest of humanity under the bus, there is little reason to believe it will stop any time soon. The only credible promise this man ever made is that he would hurt people in their name, and for whatever reason, that was reason enough for a number of people last November. We can only hope that enough people come to their senses, and that if and when they do, something can be done about it.
In the interim, the Trump administration continues its own experiment in social control. The continue teaching us to humor this man’s fantasies, and to think of ourselves as better for doing so.
Let us hope the nation as a whole can respond a little more appropriately than Jane Elliot’s third graders!
Suffice to say that some people have tried.
This is part of the reason for interest in feral children, and of course we sometimes read of ancient experiments depriving children of exposure to language (or in some cases any human interaction). These experiments wouldn’t get past a human subjects review panel in a modern university, but the stories are certainly interesting. A large part of that interest comes from the prospect of finding a person who became a person without any significant human interaction whatsoever. What kind of person would they be? What kind of language would they have? How would they think? These stories are long on legend and short on data, but it’s not hard to understand why people would want to investigate such things.
…even if only in a story.
The thought experiments of certain social theories are not far off from such stories. So very many people have attempted to imagine the nature of a human isolated from social connections. Chapter XIII in Thomas Hobbes’ book, The Leviathan would be a good example. So, would be the calculations of many rational choice theorists, those attempting to find the self-interest in just about any human interaction. And of course, there are always the masturbatory fantasies of Ayn Rand and her cult of ‘objectivist’ fan-boys. (Honestly, I feel kind of bad mentioning her alongside serious thinkers, even those I disagree with, but with the likes of Paul Ryan and Ran Paul claiming inspiration from Rand, one must admit the woman remains relevant.) What these approaches have in common is a rather atomistic vision of social life. They take an individual human being as a given and problematize questions about how and why that individual human does what he does in relation to others. In effect, they reduce social life to individual psychology; tey reduce social interaction to individual self interest.
The problem in each instance, is that individual psychology is intrinsically social. You can’t be a person without being in relation to someone else, because you can’t become a person without relating to someone else. You wouldn’t survive childhood without someone feeding you, clothing you, keeping you clear of the neighbor’s dog, and giving you the occasional hug. You wouldn’t be who you are if your Mom hadn’t stared into your eyes and smiled at you until you smiled back. You wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere in those early days you didn’t notice that the great-big Mom-face smiled back when you smiled yourself. You figured that out long before you figured out the words for such things, or even the difference between you and the mom-face, or anyone else. And you wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere along the way you hadn’t learned to give a damn about such things.
Even the basic problem of solipsism seems to get this whole thing wrong. We don’t start as an individual and then figure out that others might (or might not) also occupy our world. We don’t figure out how to relate to them long after we’ve decided what we want in life. We don’t decide how to treat other people only after deciding what we want ourselves. We develop our own self-image in relation to those around us, and we base on desires and goals on a sense of the world that is already populated with other human beings, some of which (hopefully) we care about. (Thank you Martin Heidegger!)
All very academic, right? (Well academic, in a loose kinda bloggetty sorta fashion.)
Except, there are moments when theoretical atomism seems to mesh with the more pointed boundaries of compassion and empathy in real life. People don’t lack for reasons not to care about this group or that kinda person. Often as not, people seem to tell us who they do give a damn about in much the same breath as those they don’t. We care about us, but we don’t give a damn about them. What constitutes the difference? Race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, …you get the idea. Any number of categories will do. It’s a pretty familiar dynamic, one with sometimes startling consequences. Those we make our own, so to speak, we may treat with great care, but those we don’t, we may visit great cruelties upon them, often without a second thought.
It doesn’t help when people looking for reasons to reduce their fucks given for others to zero can make ready use of theories breaking all our social connections up into phantom gestures of self-interest. It doesn’t help when the dominant metaphors of government programs (or the lack thereof) come straight of the sociopathic imagination. Whatever the theoretical (de-)merits of atomistic theories, they become far more critical when they become the actual basis of public policy.
I am of course talking about the free market fundamentalists among us, those who consistently reject the case for public welfare wherever they may find it, or at least whenever it might require collective effort, and especially if it means anything resembling taxes. Time and again, libertarians (and often their more conventional conservative allies) will tell us we mustn’t have this or that program because it will violate the individual rights of tax-payers and produce inefficiencies in the market. If someone poor is to receive aid from the government, someone else must pay it, and that payment will be secured by force. Then we have to deal with all the moral hazards of people changing the rational choices on the basis of programs changing the natural inclinations of supply and demand. These are real problems, to be sure, but for some these problems are also damned convenient excuses for denial of social responsibility. If they have their way, progressive taxation is out. The social safety net is a bad idea (goodbye welfare, medicaid, and medicare, among other thigns). Every regulation is suspect, including those that keep poisons out of the air we breathe and the water we drink. And of course everything from schools to the post office would be better if privatized. Why drive on on a federal highway when you could take a toll road? For such folks, it goes without saying; whatever government can do, private business can do it better.
Because private business can be described as the actions of private individuals whereas government is of course a collectivist enterprise. To fall into this mindset, we have to ignore the collectivist nature of modern corporations, but hey, if the Supreme Court says they are people, then corporations are people. So, the actions of these incredibly powerful collective entities count as the actions of private individuals in the narratives of free market fundamentalists. We are supposed to believe that single-payer insurance polices are against the free market, but insurance corporations are not. There is a difference, I know, but that difference doesn’t really support the distinctions made in public policy. One is not individual while the other is collectivist One is not a function of free market policy while the other counts as a socialist scheme.
People vary in their source material, educational background, and rhetorical strategies, but somewhere in the din of all this free market noise, I can’t help but hear the echoes of Hobbes and the others. Hell, I can’t help but hear echoes of the Pharaoh Psamtik. He is the source of one of those legendary experiments I mentioned up above. According to Herodotus, Psamtik had two children raised without any communication in order to see what language they would speak. He was disappointed, according to the legend, to find the children grew up speaking Phrygian, but of course they would actually have come out of that experiment speaking nothing at all, and being hardly human. Such an experiment would be a disaster for the children.
Is it really all that different from the social experiments urged by those seeking to deny essential support to future generations? Time and again, the brave heroes of the free market tell us that individuals must rise above their circumstances, as if poor schools, poor healthcare, and poor infrastructure could be resolved by the platitudes of a motivational speaker or the narrative arc of a Horatio Alger novel.The denial of social responsibilities thus comes with a bundle of narrative solutions, all of which work much better for the narrator than they do for any real life protagonists.
These stories particularly don’t work for children. Often as not, children don’t even make it into the narratives of libertarian rhetoric. We get the stories that deny aid to adults (why should I pay for someone who won’t work and might even be taking drugs?), and then someone else has to point out that aid also goes to children.
In the end, I can’t help thinking the failure to account for childhood is the most critical feature of libertarian approaches to policy, but its not just a theoretical failure. It’s also a very critical failure of practice. Just as atomistic theories of individualism could never account for the way one becomes a fully functioning human being, the practitioners of atomistic policy cannot, and will not, account for the needs of children through public policy. They won’t even account for the needs of adult women who produce these children, not in any realistic manner. The wealthy can of course throw money at the problem, and damn the rest of us to Hell anyway, so it seems is the only real answer we will ever get from the free market fundamentalists. Of course, there are other boundaries beyond which social responsibilities can easily be denied.
If the atomistic mindset is inadequate, the consequences of its inadequacies do not fall upon all of us equally. Some need the help more than others, and the denial of it serves some better than others. Whatever the strengths and weakness of free market fundamentalism, it will always have a little extra appeal for those in power.
Some people are just a little more obvious about this than others.
“You can’t handle the truth!”
It’s a popular response in political debate, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a powerful denunciation (delivered in the midst of an amazing performance), a line that serves both to deny someone the right to an honest answer and to place responsibility for that denial on those to whom the truth is denied. It’s the sort of response one could follow with a mic drop. Really it is.
What people seem to forget is that this is a line issued by a character who really is lying in defense of a crime he really did commit. When you keep that in mind, it puts efforts to use the line in real life in a whole new perspective.
I was so happy with what my girlfriend gave me for a post about Monument Valley, that I asked her to write this post about Cadillac Ranch, which we also visited this December. This is what she said;
…sometimes the magic works. Sometimes she says ‘no’.
Anyway, she did send me a couple of her pics to add to the post, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.
…but I still do.
We did stop by Cadillac Ranch this December. Arrived just at the golden hour and got a few pics. As this is basically a picture post, anyway, I think we’ll just get right to it.
(Click to embiggen)
Added a couple pics from other parts of Texas as well.
(You know the drill!)
So my girlfriend and I were talking the other night and she’s asking me about my blog. I told her I should write something about our visit to Monument Valley this December, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say about it. I mean, I could say the usual stuff about it, …Blah, blah, …John Wayne, …blah blah Roadrunner cartoons – all very done-before. But I tell Moni I don’t have anything inspiring to put in with our pictures. So, I tell her she should write the post for me. Moni says she can’t write. I know she’s lying. So, I keep telling her she’s going to have to write the post for me, because I’m mean like that. Finally she says something like “you know what I think of Monument Valley?”
…and I’m like “got her!”
“What do you think of Monument Valley?”
She tells me it’s too stupid; she doesn’t want to say it.
We repeat this about 3 times.
Finally, she starts talking. I grab a sheet of paper and start scribbling as fast as I can. These aren’t quite her exact words, but they are pretty close:
To me, it was a go deal to go to those places, because that’s what America was to me when I was living in Mexico City. That’s the picture that I saw when I thought about America. It’s been a very long time, but it was still a very big deal for me. It took me back to when I was a kid and I was just thinking about coming to America.
I think Moni needs to write more of my blog posts.
(Click to embiggen)
What to make of Indian casinos? I expect a lot of non-natives still don’t quite know how to answer that question. Maybe some Native Americans don’t either. But it’s an interesting question just the same, not the least of reasons being that anyone trying to answer it will have to struggle a bit with the larger questions about the politics of Indian-white relations. Some people handle that better than others of course. I’ve known some folks that seem to think of gambling as a kind of racial entitlement. These same folks don’t seem to think of Las Vegas or Atlantic City as a form of racial entitlement, but all foolishness aside, the topic does raise a number of interesting questions about jurisdiction and the economic impact of gaming in such distinctive communities.
The impact of Indian gaming on different tribes isn’t uniform. We’ve all heard the stories of wild success of certain tribes whose members became rich overnight. Most of us have heard speculation about the membership of certain tribes. Our incoming President had some words about Indian casinos back in the day. They weren’t any more thoughtful than the crap he’s spewing now. But of course these wild success stories are hardly typical of the many tribal casinos out there. There have been some disasters, or at least some scandals, as well. I recall once listening to Ron His Horse is Thunder, former Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe explain the significance of casinos in his own community. They provided a certain number of jobs, he told us. That was it. No miracle. No disaster. Just a steady livelihood for a certain number of people. That was his experience with Indian gaming. I hope I remember him correctly on this, because I reckon that’s a fairly common account of the issue. But of course all of these stories come with the benefit of hindsight.
It wasn’t too long ago that the entire subject of Indian gaming was uncharted territory, that the mention of reservation casinos raised all sorts of possibilities and few people had any real experience to bring to bear on the issue. It was around that time (the mid 90s) that I arrived in Navajo country. Numerous tribes had casinos at that point. The Navajo Nation was not among them. Some out there wanted casinos. Others didn’t. Folks kept a wary eye on the operations of other tribes, looking for some sign to help assess the prospects for gaming in their own community. In 1997 the Navajo General Council called for a referendum on the prospect of gambling on their lands. It was the second such referendum (a third would follow in 2004). It set the stage for a interesting debate which I followed as best I could.
Today, you can find a few casinos on the borders of the Navajo Nation, but in 1997 the answer was no. In some quarters, it was Hell No. The reasoning still interests me.
One of the most fascinating things about the debate over Navajo gambling in 1997 has to do with an aspect of Navajo origin legends. One of the greatest villains in these stories was a character, named Noqoìlpi, The Gambler. You can read more about him by clicking that link I attached to his name, but to put it briefly, this fellow just about wins the world and everyone in it by gambling. Frankly, I think there’s a lesson about the economic effects of modern financialization schemes and the growth of income inequality there in that story (seriously), but I’ll save that for another day. In 1997, the connection drawn by many on the Navajo Nation was a lesson about the evils of opening up casinos on the reservation. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of this argument, it certainly added a rich layer of meaning to an already interesting subject.
Of those working references to The Gambler into their arguments on the topic of casinos on the Navajo Nation, my favorite was the late Vincent Craig who ran an extended series of Mutton Man cartoons addressing this and several other issues in the Navajo Times. He really blended his own critique of gambling with a broad range of (extremely ironic) social commentary.
It all begins with a culture pill. .
Unfortunately, I don’t think I have copies of all the cartoons he ran on this topic. I don’t know that he got a cartoon in every edition of the Navajo Times, but I definitely have gaps in my own collection. Anyway, I collected enough to get the gist of his argument down. I’ll let Vincent and some of his colleagues tell the story from here.
Vincent Craig’s work (Click to embiggen):
A bit more on the subject, also from the Navajo Times (again, click to embiggen):
This summer my gal and I paid a brief visit to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff where we saw this little beauty here up above. It’s the telescope first used in the discovery of Pluto. Last month, we took a long road trip from Los Angeles to Freeport, Texas, and it really was Los Angeles.
Don’t let my girlfriend fool you with any business about Glendora or Azusa. Just different ways of pronouncing Los Angeles, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, she and I took a trip, starting in some place Losangelish and ending at some place Freeportish. Along the way, we stopped at Cadillac ranch in Amarillo where we found this message…
I think not!
…okay, maybe, but I still think it’s amusing.
To the left is one of my favorite images from a mural painted by Shonto Begay and Mike Scovel at the Fort Sumner Memorial in New Mexico. What’s to be memorialized at Fort Sumner, you might ask? It was the site of an internment camp, one which held the Navajo people for roughly 4 years (about 1864-1868). It also held Mescalero Apaches, but Begay’s and Scovel’s mural is about the Navajo end of this story. Specifically, it is about “the long walk” to this place, still called Hwéeldi out in Navajo country.
What fascinates me about the image is a trick of context. It’s just one part of a rather breathtaking piece of art, but to me it’s definitely the most interesting. The larger mural wraps around the wall on both sides of a hallway at the memorial. If you follow the hallway, you come to a small movie theater where you an watch a short film about the long walk and the Navajo experience at Hwéeldi. The images are striking. Devastating. They depict a national disgrace, and in surrounding us with the images, this mural invites us to see that disgrace, not from the standpoint of objective observer, but from the standpoint of someone in the midst of it. Walking down that hallway, one is surrounded on both sides by images of people (Navajos) herded along by soldiers and scouts. The mural depicts a great deal of suffering, and it places that suffering all around us. Begay’s and Scovel’s work seems denies us the chance to step outside the event and view it as a disinterested party.
But when you come to this image, the immersion takes on a different significance. Suddenly, it becomes clear why all the solders seem to be facing us. The Navajo figures simply plod along, mostly looking in other directions, but the soldiers, they look right at us as we stand in that hallway.
It’s an interesting effect to begin with, but when you walk down that hallway, at some point that soldier’s rifle is pointed at you. The soldier in that painting doesn’t care who you are, what your ethnicity is. He doesn’t even care what your plans are later in the day. And as my girlfriend pointed out, his rifle seems to follow your movements a bit, at least for a step or two. (I swear it does!) It’s a rather brilliant move on Begay’s part, because it places his viewers in the scene more effectively than anything else. More than placing the viewers in the scene, it confers a specific role on the viewer, as one of those forced along the walk.
It’s just art of course. We will at some point walk on to other parts of the exhibit, and many of us will no doubt shake off the effect of the image a bit quicker than those whose family histories include stories of those lost along the way. Still it’s an interesting contrast with the many times non-natives have chosen ourselves to assume some aspect of a native identity. Whether playing Indian as school-children, wearing a headdress at some music festival, or aping the Tonto-speak of Indian characters in countless westerns, many of us have done it at one time or another. Hell, some people have made a life out of it! Countless non-Indian actors have played Indian on screen, and countless non-Indian characters have become Indians in the story-arc of a common movie theme. And of course there is the Washington football team! What all of these other examples have in common, is a choice to assume some part of native identity, if only for a moment. They also have in common that the identity assumed is positive. When we non-natives play at being Indian, we get something out of it. It may not be much, often little more than a momentary source of amusement, but the choice is ours, and when choose it, we do so to our own advantage.
That’s the genius of this particular image. It forces that same transformation on anyone walking through the memorial. For just a moment, it makes us play Indian, and to do so on terms we didn’t choose for ourselves. On terms no-one would choose for themselves! We will survive that moment of course, perhaps even without really learning much from it. Still, it’s an interesting twist in the narrative.
That moment, when the business end of a rifle points you right into the story.
Here are a few more images from the mural (click to embiggen)!