We celebrate, William Seward, the man who arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia here in Alaska. We celebrate this man on the anniversary of the signing of the deal he made with Russia.
Not everyone celebrates this date, of course. Some folks question whether or not the Russians could have sold all that land, much of which they were nowhere near controlling in the first place. But in the logic of collective fictions like nation states, it would seem the move has stuck, to to speak. There are those who mourn the consequences, and I’m told some folks in Russia still wonder how the Hell that happened themselves. At the end of the day, this still ends up being a day off work.
Okay, I am still working today, but since a lot of my coworkers aren’t, that means fewer meetings and I can focus on the things I want to, which is a kind of holiday for me. Also, it means I have a little time to knock out a quick blog post.
I’m told the rest of America was doubtful about this purchase at the time it was made.
Something about “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s folly?”
Then again, some folks make way too much of a political cartoon; others have never figured out the difference between a catchy byline and the substance of an editorial. Writers took their shots and indulged in snarky quips back in the day just as they do now. It doesn’t mean they didn’t see the potential. The historian Richard Welch did a pretty good job of showing that public opinion was nowhere near as negative at the time of purchase as people typically assume. Still, it takes a touch of conflict to draw people into a story and the notion that Seward saw something in this state the rest of the country didn’t sure makes for an interesting first act. I suppose the third act in that version of story is statehood.
Or maybe the opening of a Walmart.
Or a Fred Meyers.
There are plenty of other ways of telling stories about the purchase of Alaska. One of my favorites can be seen in the Saxman Totem Park, just south of Ketchikan.
I posted a picture of it last year, right about this time.
…probably not a coincidence.
Okay, so this pole may not be exactly about the purchase of Alaska, but it’s certainly purchase-adjacent. As to Seward’s Day, it’s right on point.
This is known as the Seward Shaming Pole. In fact it’s the third version of that pole, as the first two have succumbed to weather and termites. This version of the pole was completed just a few short years ago (2017). You can google up the earlier versions. As I understand it this one has its critics among the locals owing to the absence of certain things on the earlier verions. I’m told a coat of white paint on the face was among the expected features. I only have this by word of mouth, so I’m not enyirely certain what to make of it, but the differences do seem quite significant. In any event, this is the current version of the infamous Seward Shaming Pole.
What makes it a shaming pole?
Convention of course!
By ‘convention’ I mean the conventions of the Tlingit people. This is one of the varieties of totem poles their peoples use to communicate a number of things. You might think of it as fitting into the totem pole genre within their own cultural order.
Hints that this particular pole is meant to shame rather than honor its subject are contained in the box upon which the figure of Seward sits and the red in his ears. (That red stood out more in previous versions.)
The red, I’m told signifies embarrassment.
Well that is loot!
Specifically, that is loot packed away in a bentwood box, one of the varieties of artwork thriving in the northwest coast cultural complex. In any event, the point is to suggest that Seward took a pile of loot off with him in the wake of a visit to the region.
How did he get the loot?
It was gifted to him in a potlatch ceremony, another of the cultural practices of the region.
So, what makes these gifts loot?
Because Seward never threw a potlatch of his own to compliment the one thrown for him.
To say that this is unacceptable is putting it mildly.
Emily Moore tells the story better than I could, but the essential details are this. William Seward came to visit the region in 1869. He was welcomed with a potlatch by Chief Ebbits of Tongass Village. As a leader of the Taant’a kwáan Teikweidí clan, Ebbits welcomed Seward according to local custom, granting to Seward the honors due to a another great leader. A feast was give in Seward’s honor and gifts were given to him. Then Seward went on his way.
It’s the going-on-his-way part that is a problem here.
The trouble is that a potlatch is not normally a one time affair. It is a gesture in an ongoing relationship. Once given, it is expected that a complimentary feast will be given to reciprocate the first. Doing so is a matter of obligation, and failure to do so leaves an imbalance in the relationship. It’s tough to tell what Seward may have thought himself, but for their own part Chief Ebbits and his clan most likely felt they were initiating a permanent relationship. When neither Seward nor any of his family ever showed up to answer the honor given to him, this cast the entire relationship in a negative light.
As this particular potlatch was given in honor of Seward’s role in leadership of the United States, the failure in this instance represents more than Seward’s own failure, it is a failure of the United States to acknowledge to live up to its obligations to Tongass Village and to the Tlingit people.
Some might be inclined to extend that out to Alaska Natives in general.
This is the history commemorated in that pole.
In another sense, this is direct commentary on that question about how two nations could swap lands neither one much to do with. If the purchase of Alaska is a done deal, so to speak, it is a deal done by two nation-states. The pole is a reminder of those not present when the deal was made, those whose own acceptance of the deal we celebrate today has been taken for granted all-too-often by the nation which acquired Alaska by means of it.
It has become fashionable to begin open discussion sessions and training seminars by going over a list of agreements with those present. The idea here is to elicit agreement from the audience for certain ground rules of discussion. Things like; “Be constructive,” “Be present,” or “Listen for understanding,” are commonly entered to a list of agreements. Each of these rules are supposed to encourage good speaking and listening behavior, and to help people get a sense for what is expected of them in the meeting to follow. The point of calling these principles ‘agreements,’ and for beginning to meeting by discussing them is, of course, to get some buy-in for the rules of engagement from those present in the session.
As these principles are almost always worded in nice positive terms, I imagine they also serve as a kind of comfort; a way of encouraging people to participate in what follows by encouraging them to act in good faith and to believe that others present will do the same.
It all sounds quite wonderful.
Frankly, these things always make me want to vomit.
First, this is fake buy-in culture at its worst. Like focus groups, an agreement list is often a means of disguising an executive decision as a group agreement. In this case the executive is often a facilitator, but the principle is the same; the group present is being asked to place its stamp of approval on a decision that has already been made. When a facilitator in a large meeting hauls out a list of ‘agreements,’ and invites people to say whether or not they support each individual agreement, they do so in a context ripe with group-think dynamics. Someone might get by with objecting to one or another item on a list of agreements, but they are just as likely to brand themselves the resident trouble-maker, and this is going to happen at the start of the whole meeting. Not to mention, everyone wants to get on with things. Voice enough objections and it’s likely to become a problem. Under such circumstances, there is a strong expectation the agreements brought into a meeting by facilitator are going to be, well, …agreed to. Hence, the notion that these are terms agreed to by a group is often a thinly-disguised pretense for a set of rules fostered by the facilitator.
There may be room negotiation, but some of the participants have a lot more room to maneuver than others.
What does the facilitator get out of this?
They get the ability to say that all those present agreed to the terms in the list, but that assumes the agreements were ever really open to negotiation in the first place, which often as not just isn’t true. Serious input is particularly unlikely in unfamiliar settings and with unfamiliar people, and it is even less likely in the workplace wherein people may have been directed to participate in meetings, often with their bosses present. Either way, the prospect of saying ‘no’ to a given agreement is loaded with unnecessary stress, and most importantly, that stress is unconnected to any standing interest. Somebody who is prepared to voice an opinion about an actual policy will think twice before picking a fight about an issue that will be over at the end of a meeting. So, the tendency is to pass on the invitation to weigh in on the agreements and see how things go.
Yes, people can say no to an agreement, and no, they cannot do so without at least some concerns about how their disagreement will affect their role in the meeting or even in the workplace at large.
A facilitator need not come with prepared agreements to get what she wants out of a group. She can disguise her agreements fairly easily. In true focus group fashion, a good facilitator just asks people what they think the agreements should be. She doesn’t need to show them a list of agreements or even tell them what she thinks should be on it. She can just ask them what they think. She will almost certainly get a number of suggestions about being respectful and constructive, etc. If others present in the meeting are familiar with these lists, they may even chime in with a few more of the current standards. Ask a couple leading questions, and someone in the group may just supply any missing items a facilitator really wants. If all else fails, a facilitator won’t be blamed for suggesting one or two herself, especially not if she waits till the end. It will look like she put others views before her own. They won’t realize that this item or two completes a list that the facilitator was ticking off from the very beginning. Do this right, and folks may actually think the resulting list of agreements are actually the result of a group process,
…well, except for that one item.
…and that other one too!
The positive nature of the principle can also be quite deceptive. I once attended a meeting in which people were told to take off their hats. Sitting there with my literal hat in my literal hand, I wondered what this meant. We were told that it meant people should forget their role in the work organization; that they should speak freely and without fear of consequences. I remember thinking that if this were true, none of us would have been there.
And yes, I am quite serious about that. This particular meeting was scheduled an a terribly inappropriate time and many of us were stressing over the work we were not getting done while in this meeting, work that needed doing immediately.
More to the point, this was an incredibly naive thing to say, recklessly so, given that the point was made by an outside consultant who would soon return home while the rest of us went back to worth with each other, and with our bosses
…remembering who said what about whatever.
The potential for serious negative consequences was very real in this instance, and it was completely irresponsible for this facilitator to suggest otherwise. It’s one thing to encourage good behavior, and it is quite another to provide false assurance that such behavior can be expected of others.
In the end, the problem with agreements is all to simple; they represent a kind of two-faced use of authority. On the one hand, a speaker is using agreements to lock down the rules of engagement for a discussion. On the other hand, they are trying to distribute authority for those rules among all those present. It’s one of the many ways in which people uncomfortable with their own authority try to hide it from themselves and others, even as they use that very authority to control others. Some are more heavy-handed than others, and not every agenda is anything to be afraid of, but there is little positive to be gained from disguising an actual agenda or the authority used to advance it.
Frankly, I would rather a facilitator just told us what they expect from a group rather than pretend we are all making the discussion together. The rest of us can like it or we can lump it, but I figure a facilitator ought to do us the courtesy of acknowledging their own authority while exercising that very authority themselves.
What I am talking about here is a landmark piece of legislation, known as the Blue Lake Amendments, which was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. The law returned Blue Lake, along with its watershed to the people of Taos Pueblo, in effect placing roughly 48,000 acres under trust title for the benefit of the Pueblo. This rationale for doing this was explicit; this was done because it was deemed the only effective means of protecting the religious freedom of Taos Pueblo and its people.
Congress placed 48,000 acres of land under trust title because doing so was necessary for the protection of religious freedom.
To fully appreciate this, you have two wrap your minds around two things (at least by my reckoning);
it isn’t clear that Native American peoples practice ‘religion,’ or at least that this term with all its Euro-American baggage can be applied to any aspect of Native American society without distorting a few things in the process.
Prior to 1970, Native Americans simply did not enjoy religious freedoms, and the elders of Taos Pueblo had been especially targeted for abuse on the basis of religious practices.
Is that a contradiction?
To say that Native Americans don’t necessarily have religions, then to say that their religious practices have been attacked?
But only because language is a tricky thing.
The first point is a question of social morphology, i.e. the language we use to chop up society into meaningful chunks of related activities. As it has typically been defined in western traditions, religion is a function of what you believe. Your membership in a given faith is a function of your decision to affirm or deny its tenets, and you religious practice is largely a function of prayer. Church may be a good place for prayer, but prayer is something you can do yourself.
As to the role of priests, mileage varies.
My point is simply that the concept of religious freedom has developed in a tradition in which religion is defined largely in individualistic terms. We can see how religion influences art, education, politics, and so on, but we can usually find some means of separating what counts as religion from what counts as the rest. It’s a lot harder to do this with Native American societies in which ceremonial participation was typically a function of community membership. Rather than helping Lutherans distinguish themselves from Methodists, etc. these ceremonial systems were historically much better suited to uniting communities, at least for a moment of social interaction. The practices in question are accordingly ubiquitous. Native ceremonial themes pop up in their politics, their art, their kinship, their hunting and farming techniques, etc. This is why the establishment clause was omitted from the Indian Civil Rights Act. It’s also why the word ‘sacred’ has become a highly over-used buzz-term in Indian-white relations. It’s short-hand for “this is important,” and for; “You guys probably wouldn’t understand.”
I think you could honestly say that Native American societies do contain almost everything we typically convey with the term ‘religion.’ What I don’t think we can say is that they isolate those elements of religious meaning from other aspects of their social life. This makes it kind of difficult to think about religious freedom in the context of Native American social practice.
Course it helps if you try.
Which brings us to point number two, which is that for most of United States history, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thought about any aspect of Native American life in terms of religious freedom. Few in Native American circles seemed to try the argument, and fewer still outside those circles were prepared to respect those freedoms, or even to recognize them as such. When the office of Indian affairs turned its attention to cultural warfare instead of literal shooting wars, one of the first things they did was to formulate the religious crimes codes outlining punishments for Native American religious practice. This was all part of the effort to ‘kill the Indian’ in order to ‘save the man,’ so to speak, but for the present, the point is that government officials deliberately sought to punish Native Americans for practicing heir own religions. They even used the word ‘religion.’
The word ‘freedom’ didn’t enter into it.
It’s hard to say just how much these rules were enforced. It fell upon indigenous judges to do this, and it should surprise no one if more than a few of those judges found reasons not to. What we can say is that Taos felt the sting of these codes well into the twentieth-century, In the 1920s, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke had a number of Taos elders locked up on the authority of the Religious Crimes Codes. He was particularly outraged that they had taken children out of the schools for purpose of training in the ceremonial kivas.
Somewhere between the 1920s and 1970, the political climate in America had changed sufficiently that same government which had once locked up Taos elders for practicing their faith (and in particular, for teaching it to their children) was now prepared to protect the religious freedom fof Taos people, even to the extent of making claims on a rather large tract of land.
Significant changes in Federal Indian policy combined with shifts in the national culture may have helped the case for return of Blue Lake, but much of the credit would have to go to the Taos people themselves. Their own response to conflict over the lake forged much of the logic for return of Blue Lake to their land base. Arguably, their decisions also transformed the way that native and non-native alike came to view a range of issues now commonly thought of as involving matters of religious freedom.
The trouble began in 1906, when…
No, it began before that.
The trouble began with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. This treaty concludes the Mexican-American war. Its terms include cession of lands to the United States, including present-day New Mexico, and it also includes guarantees that pueblo land grants within New Mexico would be recognized and protected by the United States. Unfortunately, Blue Lake was not in the land grant for Taos, a fact which had never been much of an issue under Spanish or Mexican occupation. As Americans began settling into the area, the lack of title would soon become a problem.
This brings us back to 1906.
In 1906, the Federal government placed Blue lake and the surrounding lands under the control of the Forest Service. Today, some will tell you this is when the trouble began. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t seen as trouble at the time. An informal understanding with administrators in the Forest Service served for a time to help protect the lake from outside encroachment. It wasn’t until later, with changes in local administration, that this legal status became a problem.
What made it a problem?
It was a problem that the forest service clear-cut a section of land within the watershed.
It was a problem that they stocked the lake with game fish for sport fishing.
It was a problem that they built a cabin by the lake.
It was a problem when they allowed visitors into the area.
None of these things were consistent with the Pueblo’s own use of the lake which was largely centered around ceremonial practices carried out at the lake at specific times of the year. The Forest Service was implementing its own multiple use policies and planning long-term harvesting of the trees, consistent with the conservationist policies of the era. Such practices threatened the pristine environment critical to the significance of the lake in Taoseño cosmology. These changes were already too much. Who knows what could happen next? So, the Pueblo began to seek return of Blue Lake.
The campaign to secure return of Blue Lake was a long haul. It took many twists and turns, not the least of them being an effort to bargain with the Pueblo Lands Board (in effect, conceding interest in lands held by non-native squatters in exchange for a recommendation that Blue Lake be returned, …the concession was accepted; the recommendation was not made). Somewhere along the line, there was a cooperative agreement with the Forest Service, but that didn’t work out. When the Pueblo won a case before the Indian Claims Commission, they side-stepped the financial compensation to which they would be entitled, seeking instead to secure the return of Blue Lake and its watershed. This was not within the mandate of the claims commission, so the Pueblo turned to Congress.
This is where the argument for religious freedom came in.
(Believe me, I am skipping a lot of great detail here.)
In their dealings with Congress, lawyers working for the tribe began making arguments for the return of Blue Lake based on an explicit appeal to the principle of religious freedom. The people of the Taos Pueblo needed exclusive access to the lake and its watershed to perform the rituals central to their religious practice. It was, so the argument went, their church. Even the need to explain all this placed a double-bind on the tribe, however, because much of the religious symbolism of the lake and the ritual performed there was secret, being known only to leadership in the kiva societies. As each of these societies was responsible for different aspects of the ceremonial system, this meant nobody within the Pueblo had full knowledge the matter themselves, let alone some outsider. Explaining the details of the ceremonial sustem to outsiders would violate their religious interests as effectively as preventing access to the lake. This was a problem that cut both directions. If providing this information was a threat to the religious freedom of the Pueblo, failure to do so was a problem for Congress. They had to be sure they were acting on good faith claims. The solution took the form of outside experts. Anthropologist John Bodine, was particularly helpful in outlining the significance of the lake for the Taos people to the satisfaction of Congress.
To be clear, this was a hard sell. Some folks balked at the notion of 48,000 acre church, let alone one that could not be fully explained to outsiders. Additional concerns were raised about other indigenous peoples with sacred sites of their own. What sort of precedent would this set? All of these questions and more stem from the uneven fit between indigenous ceremonial systems and mainstream American ideas about religious freedom, but how was Taos to answer them? How was Congress? A court might have addressed these issues differently. A court would have had to demonstrate its fairness to an opposing legal team, and a court would have had to think quite seriously about that legal precedent they were setting for future cases. But this was Congress, and Congress could set aside 48,000 acres without answering to an appeal or spelling out a precedent for the future. As a legislative body, Congress had more options than a court would, and that meant it could accept the argument for religious freedom as the basis for a one-time decision.
One-time deal, or not, Blue Lake was a precedent in the moral sense. It established the principle that Native Americans were entitled to religious freedom, and if their traditions were more difficult to address within the context of American legal system, this was no longer an excuse for ignoring them altogether. Congress would later pass The American Indian religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), affirming the principle of religious freedom for Native Americans and arguably mandating that federal officials take that freedom into account in their own policies. This didn’t always go as planned. Courts had a way of finding against native claimants throughout the 70s and 80s, a pattern which included several cases involving sacred sites, and of course Scalia took a wrecking ball to the whole damned free exercise clause in the Smith peyote decision. Compliance with the AIRFA by federal agencies has been a mixed bag. Yet, even these mixed results are a marked improvement over previous eras. Lest this seem like faint praise, one has only to remember the crimes codes and the fact that it was once official U.S. policy that Native Americans could be locked up for practicing their own ceremonies. Today, the notion that Native Americans are entitled to religious freedom, just like the rest of us, is now commonly accepted as a given.
It was Taos Pueblo that brought made this possible.
What does a sacred site look like?
In this instance, it looks like a lake that most of us will never see.
That is a kind of religious freedom.
A note on sources: At one time or another, I read everything I could on this topic, but that’s ancient personal history. I wrote this mostly from memory, and from an old grad school paper, but my old files aren’t with me. As far as I am aware, the best single source to get a relatively complete version of this story here was written by R.C. Gordon-McCutchan, Taos Indians and the Battle for Blue Lake.
Regarding the pictures, I am still nervous about them. It wasn’t that long ago that visitors to Taos Pueblo were expected to refrain from taking them. A few years back, I remember being told we could take them for personal use, and the last couple times I visited, we were simply allowed to take pictures with no restrictions mentioned. I think I still refrained from taking any pics for at least one visit, and finally snapped a few pics. It is a really beautiful place though, and if it is now okay with the Pueblo, as I believe it is, I thought I’d like to share the few images posted here.
But Tom Horn and George Armstrong Custer definitely died for your sins.
If you are American anyway.
Tom Horn definitely died for your sins.
I am, of course, talking about an old Steve McQueen movie. I might also be talking about the real Tom Horn whose life and death inspired the movie, but I’m definitely talking about the Tom Horn of that movie.
This is one of the last films that Steve McQueen did. He was reportedly short of breath during filming, a symptom of the cancer that would soon take his life. It’s hard to escape the parallel between this story about the final days of a frontier legend and the final days of a Hollywood legend. It may be hindsight, but something of the tone of this film suggests a sadness not entirely contained within the plot of the film itself.
The real Tom Horn was tried in 1902 and sentenced to death for the murder of a Willie Nickell, the 14-year old son of a sheep rancher. Questioned while drunk, Horn reportedly confessed to the murder, saying; “(it was) best shot that (he) ever made and the dirtiest trick that (he) had ever done.” Suffice to say that many have questioned the validity of the trial, and of Horn’s drunken confession. Suffice it also to say, that few have questioned whether or not Tom Horn was guilty of murder, but many do question whether or not Horn was guilty of THIS murder.
In his life, Horn had served as a scout in the Apache wars. An ill-fated attempt at ranching afterwards had left him broke and bitter. Cattle thieves had taken the bulk of his stock. Horn spent the much of his life in subsequent years serving as a cattle detective. By all accounts, his ‘detective work’ was often a cover for the hired murder. Whether or not Horn’s murders were restricted to cattle thieves or other criminals, we will never really know. The range wars of the old west claimed the lives of innocent and guilty alike, and Tom Horn had been a willing participant in several of them, yet THIS trial and THIS killing is still a controversy.
The question of whether or not Willie Nickell was one of those murdered by Horn is one of the great legends of the old west. That this question is framed in relation to the final days of the old western period (or perhaps even a little after that period had ended) makes the story a bit more poignant. It makes the story about Tom Horn’s execution for what may or may not have been his final crime a question about what the old west actually means in American history. It makes of his trial an occasion to ponder the significance of the frontier in American history.
McQueen’s version of Tom Horn has the confession reading a little different. He has Horn saying that IF, he had shot the McNickell boy, that WOULD HAVE BEEN the best shot he ever made, and the dirtiest trick he had ever done. The account provided in court is, according to this version of the story, a sleazy twist his actual words, one arranged in an effort to railroad Horn to the gallows. Like the actual controversy itself, however, McQueen’s Horn stops well short of saying he had never committed a murder.
McQueen’s Horn refuses to defend himself from the actual charge at the trial. Asked whether or not he committed the murder in question, Horn replies that he won’t give the court the satisfaction of a direct answer. He knows the fix is in, arranged by the same people who who had arranged for his services as a cattle detective, and he simply will not humor the court by pretending his answer matters.
Now, whether you shoot me, or hang me, or take my horse and rifle, one reason is as good as another. I believe that, I really do. That’s my last word on this matter.
The problem from the perspective of McQueen’s Horn isn’t whether or not he actually killed the child. It is that his trial is no more about justice for the murder sheep-herder’s son than the murder of the sheep-herder’s son had been in the first place. Both are about the needs of the cattle industry, and in a larger sense, the needs of the establishment now growing in the frontier he had once known. Horn’s coming execution is as much a function of financial interests as any of the killings he had carried out in the name of those very same interests. His killings had once been effective in removing obstacles to big ranchers, and now they were an embarrassment, even a scandal. In the larger story of the American west, by 1902, so had all the killings carried out by men like Horn.
Just as the sheep-herder’s son, Horn himself had to go. Whether he had killed the boy or not, his own execution was, in effect, a murder arranged by cattle interests.
Horn understood murder.
He was fine with murder.
Even his own.
In this account, Tom Horn, and so many like him, are the civilizing agents of the west. Their rough lives, their conflicts, even their outright murders, all committed on the mythic frontier, are what made present-day American society possible. We in the present-day share in their crimes to the extent that we enjoy the fruits of their violence, and while we may balk at this or that terrible act, we are who we are now and live how we live now because of those very acts. America is what it is because of murderers like him.
Horn’s execution is thus a kind of final, necessary crime, one carried out by faceless men, acting in concert to erase the violence which made their success possible, the violence which made America possible. Professional killers like Horn, once the rock-stars of their day, were now an uncomfortable presence, and a reminder of uncomfortable truths. Like Jesus going to the cross voluntarily, Horn accepts his hanging, because that is how it must be. His crimes were necessary, so to speak, but so is his execution.
We cannot have the likes of Tom Horn living on into the modern era, reminding us every day that cruel men once killed children on behalf of the upright citizens of our great country.
I know it seems odd to think of a hired murderer as a Christ-like figure, to think of him as the savior of the American people, but to me it seems a bit more fitting than the Prince of Peace. Time and again, it’s been murderers that saved our nation. They have saved us from real enemies, to be sure, and they have saved us from innocent people who merely stood in our way. We don’t always know the difference, because we really don’t want to, and that is why the Tom Horn of this movie has to die.
Confined to the frontiers of our nation, men like Tom Horn even save us from thinking to much about the whole thing.
I am talking about one of the many wannabe-Rush-Limbaughs currently working the right wing ‘satire’ game for all of it’s worth. Rubin describes himself as a ‘classic liberal,’ and apparently holds some left-ish views, but none of them are important enough to prevent him from pandering to right wing extremists on his show, The Rubin Report. As with so many who feign political neutrality, Rubin’s right wing agenda grows ever more obvious.
I saw Dave Rubin at a comedy event hosted by John Fugelsang back during the 2016 campaign. One of the themes of the night was the mainstream news media pandering to Donald Trump by giving him more airplay (and more favorable narratives) than he deserved. It was Dave Rubin who noted, quite reasonably, that the comedians present that night were also giving Trump the limelight, just as others did. It was also Dave that stated quite clearly that his own show got more attention when he referenced Trump than when he didn’t, which is why he, and the comedians present, and the whole of mainstream media kept helping Trump by giving him more airtime than he deserved. I thought Rubin was right on target with those comments. What I didn’t realize at the time was just how prophetic these remarks would prove to be. Like Candace Owens or Diamond and Silk, Dave has discovered that right wing punditry pays more than any comparable options on the left, so he has drifted further and further to the right over the last few years. It’s a move seems to have been good for him.
What has me thinking about Rubin just now?
The Cat in the hat does.
Well, Dr. Seuss anyway.
Yesterday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they would cease publication of 6 titles from Dr. Seuss over concerns about racial stereotypes contained in them. The works are; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Dr. Seuss Enterprises stated had consulted with a number of experts over concerns about a number of his books, and concluded that these 6 books would be best left unpublished from this point forward. As they put it; “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
So, naturally the echo-chamber burst out bubbling mad!
Dave Rubin is just one of the many right wing hacks to weigh in on this decision. Apparently, Glenn Beck thinks it’s all fascism, but then again Glenn Beck thinks compassion if the first step to fascism. …which is probably giving Glenn Beck too much credit, because I have yet to see a shred of evidence that Beck thinks at all. …about anything! Dave Rubin? Well, Dave should know better. He really should have.
Still, Rubin came out against the decision.
…because of course he did.
From about the :44 to the 7:20 mark on this episode of The Rubin Report, Dave Rubin weighs in on Dr. Seuss. What fascinates me about this is the way that Rubin talks about the controversy without ever addressing any of the concerns about the books in question. (You may read about the actual concerns here, here, here, and here. A defense of Dr. Seuss from his stepdaughter may be found here.)
Early, in the segment, Dave names each of the 6 books in question, making up a few faux-criticisms (highlighted in red) as he goes. Here is a transcript of the segment from Youtube;
i’ve got all 02:18 six of them for you here 02:19 scary titles each one of them 1937’s 02:23 mulberry street nano getting rid of that 02:25 one 02:26 in 1947 he published mick elgat’s 02:29 pool we’re getting rid of that mick 02:32 elegance pool i suppose that is 02:34 1950s if i ran the zoo you can only 02:37 imagine what racist stuff was happening 02:39 there over at the zoo 02:40 uh 1953 he had scrambled egg 02:43 super where did the eggs come from who 02:46 what how many villages did you have to 02:48 destroy to get those eggs 02:49 this one is fairly obvious why they had 02:51 to get rid of it 02:52 1955’s on beyond zebra 02:56 you can imagine with the black and the 02:57 white with the zebra something something 02:59 wasn’t right 03:00 and of course in 1976 his truly racist 03:04 manifesto 03:05 the cats quizzer these will no longer 03:09 be published by random house children’s 03:12 books 03:13 anymore uh because you know 03:16 tolerance and stuff because we’re 03:18 becoming so evolved 03:20 in 2021 that we’re erasing books of 03:23 1937. 03:24 duh
Just to be clear, not one of the faux arguments Rubin attributes to Dr. Seuss Enterprises comes from Dr. Seuss Enterprises or the people they consulted with. Each is a flippant remark made up by Dave Rubin himself in order to make fun of their decision. To be fair, Rubin doesn’t really suggest that these are real arguments, but also to be fair, he makes no effort whatsoever to address any of the actual concerns anyone has raised about Dr. Seuss. This kind of sarcasm is all you get, leaving the entire segment devoid of any effort to engage the actual substance of the issue in any way.
Rubin moves on to read passages from; “Oh, the Places You Will Go.” He tells us this volume is far worse than the others, because it advances the notion of individual empowerment which the social justice cowd will surely want to censor. Finally, Rubin adds that the book has no page numbers which lefties would love because apparently we hate math. Thus, Rubin alludes to two completely different elements of the culture wats, neither of which has a damned thing to do with the concerns over Dr. Seuss. In both cases, his narrative is gratuitous in the extreme, enabling Rubin to present himself and his fans as proponents of self-reliance, and math, which his political enemies (and those of Dr. Seuss) evidently oppose.
In the end, Dave’s criticism of Dr. Seuss Enterprises fails to address ANY of the actual controversies associated with the Dr. Seuss Books. What he does instead is to present social justice criticisms in caricature while advancing a narrative having nothing to with the decision in question. Of course, the sarcastic tone enables him to do this without actually making making any false claims about Dr. Seuss. So, it’s all sarcasm, right?
This juvenile approach to the subject enables Rubin to bypass the actual issues entirely while generating a narrative flattering to his own audience, and to the politics they support. Add Rubin to the chorus of other right wing hacks howling about this and you have the echo chamber re-enforcing a message that condemns Dr. Seuss Enterprises without ever addressing the actual reasoning behind this decision in any meaningful way. You have a deceitful narrative that invites bigots and bullies to fancy themselves defenders of free thought and free markets, and even math. That sounds a lot better than describing them as people who insist that children’s books promoting racial stereotypes continue to be published, even over the objections of the objections of the man’s own estate.
Dave Rubin could have raised questions about the standards used to make this decision. He could have suggested alternatives to discontinuation. He could have addressed inconsistencies such as the fact that “Cat in the Hat” is still in publication despite also being the subject of similar concerns about its content. If Dave Rubin objects to the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, he could have addressed the issues squarely on his show. Instead, he chose to make snide remarks and tell stories he knows his ever more deplorable audience audience will love to hear.