So, I am sitting in the dentist chair for a deep cleaning, and the woman doing the procedure asks what I do? I tell her I teach.
“Oh really, what do you teach?”
I tell her its history. (It’s actually more complicated than that, but my jaw is sore, I’m stressed, and my whole mouth is numb, so this is more than I really want to say about this or anything else at that particular moment, really it is.)
My dental tech. (I don’t know her official title) then goes on to tell me that history has changed a lot lately. It’s one of those comments that could mean a few different things. Just too general to mean much to me, and I am still working on getting the ball back in her court, so I try to wrap it up with something equally vague and unworthy of follow-up commentary; “history is always changing.”
I know. That doesn’t mean anything either. What I really meant to say is; “Get on with it!”
I think she was waiting for the latest numbing shots to set in, so she added some commentary about how America used to be thought of as a good place, but now people thinks it’s awful, so they want to change history. She adds that some people should go back to their home country if they think America is so bad.
I didn’t respond at all this time, and she soon resumed her work.
Now before you imagine this woman in terms of redneck, xenophobic, white lady stereotypes, let me just add a couple important details. This woman was Asian. She had a very thick accent. I think likely that she is an immigrant. She probably finished her training as a dental tech. (or something like that) in a strange country speaking a strange language, and that HAD to be a Hell of a challenge. I will add to this that she did a good job and I am very happy with her work today. This woman is not an idiot, and I have no reason to believe her a bigot. She is an accomplished professional who has almost certainly experienced the difference between America and some other place in terms far more vivid than anything in my own background.
Still, muted as I was now by the sharp pointy things once again attacking the space between my teeth and my gums, I couldn’t help but think about her words. I couldn’t help but start down the paths toward answering her, the ones I would have taken had I more time, less stress, and a functioning tongue.
And also if I was free of the pointy things.
I wanted to tell her that I teach at a tribal college and that my indigenous students have legitimate complaints about America, complaints that are not well answered by telling them to go home. (Indeed, some of those students might suggest a fitting answer would be for me to go home.) Of course, I would want to expand on this by suggesting that “go home” or “go somewhere else” doesn’t really answer any questions about injustice or oppression, even when such arguments are not made with perverse irony. Sure, there may be some folks with less to complain about than they imagine, but there are also plenty with more cause to complain than they themselves imagine. And of course many with legitimate grievances of which they are quite well aware.
Whether or not this all adds up to America being a terrible place is another question. Being critical of America doesn’t necessarily entail such a sweeping condemnation, and in my experience, that sweeping condemnation has as much to do with the way some people hear the criticism as it does with the intent of the critics. Slavery, genocide, patriarchy, colonialism, and many other themes can be voiced with or without the rancor. For some these are causes to hate America; for others they are simply things that must be abolished, and that in and of itself is the point.
Bottom line is that I think there is more to the criticisms my dental tech alluded to than this she might have imagined. I could be wrong. I mean, details matter, but absent a specific reference to a specific complaint, I think it rather likely that I would be inclined to support at least some of the complaints she was unhappy about.
I do think it rather likely that this woman picked up on some of the recent right wing response to critical race theory (CRT). To be honest, I was never that keen on CRT, but I must say, the right wing effort to quash it, ban it from the schools, and use it to scare the shit our of parents and political donors all over the country has certainly given me good reason to reconsider my take on the subject. The right wing makes a good case for critical race theory. I don’t think they mean to. But they sure do.
All that said, I can imagine at least one line of thought that works positively in favor of this woman’s narrative. As I said, I do think she is an immigrant. Given her allusions to going back home, it seems pretty clear that America has been a positive experience to her, one that likely brought her increased possibilities and genuine improvements in quality of life. Maybe not, of course. But, given her comments, this does seem likely. I can well imagine that someone with such an experience would find those critical of the United States quite objectionable. I can well imagine that their narratives might strike her as wrong-headed, even as deceitful and clear evidence of bad faith. I can well imagine that her own life story, had she the time to give it to me, might well have served as a great reminder that there are some good things about this country, and that those good things are not limited to the experiences of the dominant white majority.
So, what am I left with? A sense that this woman was unfairly dismissing the legitimate grievances of people who have been treated unfairly in this country. It’s not that I think this woman is wrong to love America; it is that I think she is wrong to dismiss who seem to think otherwise. As I see it, she is right to think of America as a wonderful place. I also think that others are right to think it a terrible place. It’s not even that I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
I think both of these takes are true at the same time.
One of the most profound moments in American history came in “the Revolution of 1800.” This phrase refers to the election of 1800 in which Democratic Republicans gained majorities in both the House and the Senate as well as winning the Presidency, effectively wresting control of both the executive and legislative branches of government from the Federalists who had retained it since the Constitution first went into effect. This may not sound like much of a revolution. After all, that is just what the Constitution tells us will happen when an election. They takes over the relevant seats of government, and if that means control government switches from one faction to the next, then so be it. That is how republican government works.
It is one thing to put that plan of action on paper, and it is quite another to put it into practice. The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another is by no means a forgone conclusion, as many people from all over the world can tell you. Those voted out of office, do not always leave peacefully. Sometimes they never leave at all. Given the rancor between the newly formed parties, and the scale of conflict occurring during the Adams administration, it was by no means a forgone conclusion that the plan of the Constitution would be followed. Could those behind the alien and sedition acts really be expected to surrender power to those who had produced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions? The answer was by no means obvious.
What makes the revolution of 1800 significant is the fact that it took place without violence.
Oh there were plenty of efforts at manipulation to be sure. Lots of games in the counting of the votes. Still more games played in the effort to control the judiciary going forward. At the end of the day, however, the Federalists respected the outcome of the election, and they peacefully surrendered control of American government to the Democratic Republicans.
“When I first viewed Ken DeRoux’s ‘Be Afraid,’ it was wrapped up around a cardboard cylinder with bubble wrap, evoking the qualities of both protection and vulnerability I associate with art. As I watched it unfurl, I saw each ‘stripe’ with its symbols or partial quotation revealed as carefully as it was doubtlessly assembled.
“You are seeing it suspended, specifically by safety pins. From an artist who devotes himself to the language of representation – light, shadow, horizon, perspective – I assume purpose for each element of this work.
“Suspend your evaluation for a moment while we look at the language of representation. This is not a flag, it is a banner. Specifically, it is a confederation of ‘banners’ in the newspaper sense of lead quotations. This is cloth, not tapestry. There is no weaving or even binding of the images; they are held together in loose collage by the beautifully ironic safety pins.
“The left edge of the banner is significantly more irregular than the right, suggesting the effects that wind has on a deployed banner. That, in conjunction with the purposeful irregularities in the body of the banner, is effective in portraying an image of embattlement.
“I don’t look at art to ‘figure it out.’ So I don’t pretend that subtle observations were intended by the artist except to the extent that he certainly expected observations. Here are a few observations. The largest quotation, and one of the two written bottom to top as opposed to left to right, is from Condolezza Rice. I suspect the reason for her prominence is that her quote is far more specific in items to fear than the generalized warnings of the other figures. In that sense, her observation has the stark qualities of a symbol, most of which appear at the periphery of the banner. By the way, the only other citation written vertically is also from the State Department. Is this because the execution of foreign policy must take a different, more specific direction than the more generalized ‘slogans’ of elected officials?
I am fascinated by the safety pins. Is our ‘safety’ only possible by considering the compilation of these warnings and symbols? Is our ‘safety’ the coming together symbolized by the clear visual reference to the American flag – the symbol of our Union? On the other hand, do the safety pins represent the current status of our union as a people, as in ‘only held together by safety pins?’
“Despite the title of the work, the symbols do not appear to be aimed at fear. They seem almost cartoon like, as does the sole terrorist figure. It seems to be more a work of inquiry than intimidation, to the point that the title ‘Be Afraid’ could as easily be “Be Aware.’
“The prediction is that this work will be controversial. I think it will be conversational if we enjoin one another to hold our evaluation until we are done thinking.”
There is a reason idiots like Dave Bronson get into positions of power. It sure as Hell isn’t because people they can make a public apology after equating mask mandates to the Holocaust. It’s because they make such comparisons in the first place. It’s because they are happy to pander to the first thoughts of countless morons who learn about everything from medicine to history from Fox News and the half-remembered headlines their buddies regurgitate three beers into a Friday night. It’s because they give voice to the willfully obtuse, the unteachable, and the truly deplorable among us. Those people will celebrate Bronson’s idiotic speech long after his subsequent apology has been completely forgotten.
…and the lives lost while shameless opportunists play games like this instead of instituting responsible policies will never come back, not even when some of these fools finally come around.
Yes, that’s right. The present mayor of Anchorage defended use of the Star of David by anti-maskers in a public hearing. His argument went like this:
“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight, but there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that and the message was, ‘Never again.’ That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget. This will never happen again.’ And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”
Notice also that he explicitly identifies himself with those equating the two things.
I suppose I could explain why that is such an incredibly foolish thing to do, and a terribly stupid argument to make, but frankly, I think that should be obvious enough to anyone with any sense at all.
Sadly, that excludes more Republicans with each passing day.
Utqiagvik joined the list of communities throughout the U.S. that saw demonstrations in support of women’s reproductive rights today. About a dozen folks participated in this event, encouraged by occasional honks and waves from passing drivers. They gathered at the Barrow Whalebone Arch and marched out to the front of the bank building where, a few of the organizers gave speeches before the event came to a close.
This is a small voice from a distant corner of the nation, but it’s nice to hear it just the same. I can only hope it joins a chorus loud enough to be heard in all the right places.
I see people passing this meme around from time to time. It’s pretty devastating, actually, or at least it ought to be. This of course makes the meme an awful lot like a lot of criticisms directed at the Trump camp insofar as one could really wonder why this isn’t an end-game argument? Except, in this case, there is a clear answer. The quote in the meme is not real.
At least, it’s undocumented.
The quote really is just a bit too perfect, really. It seems almost as if it was made up for the sole purpose of discrediting the man along with anyone foolish enough to vote for him. And the unfortunate fact is that it was probably made up for just that very purpose. In any event, there is no evidence that Donald Trump ever really said this.
Maybe this would have got some folks attention.
Then again, so many other things that should have mattered when he ran for President didn’t, not in 2016 anyway, and not now for those still waiting for the second coming of the deplorable messiah.
In any event, a few other folks have checked into this quote (The Reno Gazette Journal, Snopes, Politifact, CNN, etc.); all have found the quote to be spurious. Several noted that the meme itself first made an appearance in 2015, but all of those who checked for an actual source have come up empty.
Significantly, the meme attributes the quote to a statement made to People Magazine in 1998, but the image likely shows an appearance by Donald Trump on Oprah Winfrey in 1988. More on that later…
From time to time, I have tried to suggest that people refrain from passing along this meme as it does not appear to be accurate, and of course I encounter the usual bullshit responses from people too keen on their delicious gotcha-game to give it up on account of pesky questions about evidence. (It’s a little bit more frustrating to see such weak sauce coming from folks you might otherwise agree with than it is to hear it coming from the mouths of the deplorables, but anyway!) I still figure anone who thuinks they have to use a likely fake quote to criticize Donald Trump has not been paying attention to the living train wreck that is his public life.
One thing does fascinate me…
I have frequently encountered people who swear up and down that they have heard Donald Trump make this very statement.
One of the reasons this caught my attention is the fact that I too once thought I remembered seeing a video clip of Trump saying this very thing. In the run-up to the 2016 election, I recall making a point to find the clip so I could post it on every corner of the net that I could reach. (I really wondered why a link to the clip wasn’t the obvious answer to every pro-Trump statement any republican could make? Only I couldn’t find the clip anywhere, nor could I find an audio-recording, or even a credible written source. I did find a clip from the episode of Oprah in which she interviewed him about the possibility of making a run for the Presidency, but Trump does not say this on that clip. (In fact, his tone is wrong for the quote anyway. In the clip, he is trying to sound moderate and thoughtful, not brash and rude as he appears in the quote, or pretty much at any time during his Presidency.) Realizing that was likely the clip I thought I had remembered, I chalked it up to a bad memory and accepted the fact that I was likely wrong on that subject.
Yet people still insist they too have seen the clip and/or that they know other people who can verify that Trump did in fact say the very thing attributed to him in this meme. When I Tiked a Tok about this in 2020, a couple people told me that they would look around the net and get back to me when they found it. When I Tiked another Tok about it a couple weeks back, well over assured that it was real. A few people even got downright testy with me for doubting the matter. All of which leads me to winder…
Is this the Mandela effect in action?
I know, pop-psychology is another net-hazard, but I can’t help thinking this instance might add up to a decent case for it. For those unfamiliar with the term, “The Mandela effect” refers to a shared memory that turns out to be false. It gets its name from a woman named Fiona Broome who had become convinced that Nelson Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s. She was also convinced that thousands of others shared this belief, all of which must have made his tenure as president of post-Apartheid South Africa from 1994-1999 rather surprising). Some might have their doubts about this particular source, but there are plenty of other examples of the Mandela Effect to be found. I’m not entirely sure why the notion of a shared false memory is all that surprising to begin with. We know that memory is a creative process, and it shouldn’t surprise us that perfectly public sources of information could skew the memories of more than one person thinking about any given subject. So, before, anyone goes off to see this as proof of an alternative universe wherein Trump actually did say this…
I suddenly realize I should have written this entire post on the premise that these are memories of an alternative universe in which Trump actually did say this, and perhaps even one where the Mandela effect really is proof that alternative universes do exist, but I can only hope that there exists an alternative universe wherein the American people were smart enough to say ‘no’ to this festering bloodfart back in 2016, but then, dammit, why do I have to live in the one where a whole buncha people just weren’t?
…Okay, so, before you go off thinking this effect points us to alternative universes, let’s just say this is just the sort of distortions that we ought to expect from perfectly fallible people trying to reconstruct our perfectly fallible memories in the present.
Anyway, the point, is I can’t help thinking the number of people who seem to remember seeing and hearing this (likely fake) quote might be a good example of the Mandela effect.
One person told me the quote comes from Playboy magazine, but I have yet to see any direct reference to any specific publication.
Others have suggested the quote comes from an interview that Trump did with Howard Stern, but I think this is actually a reference to a clip in which Stern describes Trump as being contemptuous of his fan base. The stern clip is interesting, but its not Trump saying it himself, and I have yet to see any other relevant clips coming from Stern or any of his shows.
Quite a few folks have pointed to People Magazine, but this claim has been checked pretty thoroughly (see the fact-check links above), and nobody has found any evidence for it.
By far and away, the most common angle is to suggest that the actual quote comes from the Oprah interview that seems to be the source of the image contained in the meme. This is the most common clip from that interview. As you can hear from the clip, it does not contain the quote in question. A search on Oprah’s website, reveals a couple other clips that seem to come from the same interview, which appears to have occurred on April 25th, 1988. What I can’t seem to find, on Oprah’s website or any other source on the net, is any full-length recording of the complete interview. Apparently, others cannot find such a clip either.
The inability to find a recording of the complete Trump interview with Oprah creates an interesting problem. Why can’t we find such a recording? I for one have no idea. I don’t know how Oprah’s archives work, how thorough they were back in 1988, or just how common it would be for people to have at least an old VHS tape (or even a Beta) of the interview. I really haven’t assessed the odds against this absence of an episode actually happening by natural chance. For at least a few folks, however, this is all so damned suspicious. They will commonly tell us the complete clip has been scrubbed from the internet, and that the elites (including Oprah) have conspired to prevent any evidence of the quote coming out. We could talk about how likely this is (and here the Streisand effect might also make an appearance), or we could insist on asking for solid evidence for the authenticity of the quote, rejecting any excuses for the lack of it. That so many people swear they remember hearing Trump actually speak the words contained in the quote doesn’t count for nothing, but eye-witness testimony isn’t the most dependable source of information. It’s a little less dependable when it’s provided by random guys on the net. At the end of the day this leaves us with a larger question…
What do we do when we don’t know?
What do we infer (or simply assume) when we don’t get a definitive answer to our questions?
Short of any substantial evidence in support of the alleged quotation, this effort to suggest the absence of evidence isitself evidence of a larger conspiracy isn’t the least bit helpful. I like my conspiracy talk in the other guy’s camp where it can keep good company with the likes of Q-Anon fans, Birthers, and Truthers, none of whom have anything worthwhile to add to our present-day politics. I think it far more likely that all the people who think they remember seeing and hearing Trump speak the words in this clip are reading them into their memories of the common Oprah clip. It’s a shared memory, but it’s a false memory.
…and Trump is every bit as awful as any of us might remember. That memory isn’t false.
…and we don’t have to make up anything to criticize Trump.
The notion that gun control was the key to Hitler’s tyranny (and in particular to the holocaust) has become a standard talking point among gun rights activists. To say that this is utter and complete bullshit is an insult to bullshit, which somehow ought to be accorded more dignity than this perfectly idiotic and highly deceitful bit of right wing rhetoric. It is, among other things, an effort to co-opt the story of an atrocity for the convenience of an interest group defined largely by those in positions of relative social power, and frankly, one that has historically included a rather large number of Nazi sympathizers. Simply put, those harping the notion that gun control is the gateway to the holocaust includes far too many people who face no such threats themselves, consistently show little to no concern for those that do, and who frequently express views which would put them closer to the guard towers of than the inside of any concentration camps.
There is nothing about this game that merits respect.
For the present, however, I wish only to remark upon one thing; a funny little made-up quote that features prominently in the babblerized politics of the gun lobby. Yes, it’s the quote of the meme to the left, which isn’t really all that funny after all, I suppose.
Except that there is no evidence that Hitler ever said it.
Of course, quote mining is a childish and deceitful enterprise to begin with. A single line here or there, presented entirely devoid of context, is no basis for drawing conclusions about anything. So, even when the quote is accurate, those passing these contextomies around like the tokens in a collectible card game are certainly not doing anything of merit.
But the whole pathetic project does get a lot worse when the quote itself is fake.
Excuse me, …spurious.
Oddly enough, Snopes thinks they have a candidate for something that comes close to this quotation, so they give it a mixed rating, saying that the claim that he said this is partially true. I think they are being overly generous, frankly, but anyway…
“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subjugated races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subjugated races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty. So let’s not have any native militia or native police.”
Of course, this passage does not match the wording of the quote in question, and those spreading that quote are not content to frame it as a paraphrase, so we probably shouldn’t let people get by with pretending to have an exact quote only to fall back on the pretense that it was only intended as a paraphrase.
It’s probably less helpful when someone else has to make that argument for them.
Snopes goes on to say that if you interpret “conquer a nation” in the spurious quote to mean making yourself a dictator over that nation, then sure, this actual quote from the actual Hitler would not fit the bill, because it is actually about the need to disarm peoples subjected by foreign conquest (eastern Europeans in this case).
If on the other hand, the phrase “conquer a nation” is taken to mean actually conquering another nation, then this quote might fit the bill after all because that is exactly what Hitler is talking about in the passage from the Table Talks volume.
The problem here is that the right wing use of this meme assumes the former definition, because the gun rights crowd is consistently using it as a means of commenting on domestic gun control. As always, the constant equation between gun control and disarmament is one of the central lies perpetuated by the gun lobby, but putting that aside, this quote doesn’t work at all if Hitler is really talking about how he means to treat subjugated populations of foreign countries, which Hitler is clearly doing in the table-talk passage. So, even if we grant the possibility that the quote could serve as a kind of paraphrase of the Table Talk passage, then the result is a passage that has no relevance to its present use by gun rights advocates.
So, even this bit of nothing much doesn’t mean what some folks might want it to mean.
Hitler simply didn’t say what some folks keep telling us he did.
At least, there is no reason to believe that he did.
Of course this is just scraping the surface of the garbage-heap that the present-day understanding of Nazi history among America’s ever-more fascist Republican base. Those closer America’s right wing gets to going full Nazi themselves, the more effort they put into redefining fascist policies and distorting the history so many of them now choose to emulate. Hell, I remember Glenn Beck once suggesting that empathy was the first step to the Nazi atrocities. If there was a time when America’s ‘conservatives’ would have known better, I can’t help thinking it is long since past. All of which is to say nothing of the not-even-post-hoc fallacy that goes with talk of a certain supposed gun control law, the Germans passed in 1938. In any event, the quote pictured above is fake.
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.
As we close out Black History Month, and my two efforts to say something worthy of the subject ended up in the e-trash, I was thinking about giving Nina Simone the final word on the month here on my blog. A question struck me; has anyone covered “Mississippi Goddam?” Would anyone dare?
Have you ever had anyone cite the following words from the “Constitution?”
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
To be fair, I have seen people on both the left and the right make this mistake.
Some in the middle too!
Also, to be fair, the left, the middle, and the right are not equally invested in the mistake.
When the left confuses this passage from the Declaration with the U.S. Constitution, they are generally aiming at a point not altogether different from that of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Lefties confusing the passage from the Declaration with the U.S. Constitution are trying to establish the importance of rights in the formation of government. Whether these rights are best thought of as ‘individual rights,’ ‘human rights,’ ‘civil rights,’ or even ‘natural rights’ is a rather more complicated question. The left and the right differ on that one, but most will find rights of some kind to be at issue in the nature of American government. Suffice to say the Declaration is content to describe them as ‘inalienable,’ which was enough to put them on the table in 1776. I have yet to see anyone on the left misquote this passage for any reason other than to establish the importance of our rights to the formation of the U.S. Government.
Perhaps, people can be excused for confusing the two passages, at least insofar as they both evoke the importance of government in facilitating the happiness of human beings (ignoring for the moment the gender politics of the passages in question). If there is any difference between the two passages, it lies in the agency involved. The Declaration is a little bit ambiguous as to who creates the governments ‘among men,’ but it does mention a ‘Creator’ as the source of inalienable rights. God is not mentioned in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution; it lays the responsibility for creation of the new government squarely at the feet of the people.
…which is where we get the biggest difference between the left and the right on the misreading of the passage from the Declaration.
When the right mistakes the Declaration for the Constitution, they are generally trying to tell us that the passage in question establishes the importance of God in our Constitution. Cultural conservatives will often tell us that God is mentioned in the actual Constitution. The only actual reference to God in the Constitution would be found in the date of its signatures wherein the document says;
done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Name
That reference isn’t much to hang your hat on.
Those simply telling us that God is mentioned in the Constitution are most likely thinking about that passage from the Declaration of Independence, which they have confused with the Constitution itself. In their imagination, and that of other confused Americans, the second paragraph of the Declaration is also the Constitution. The two documents are one in the same.
When cultural conservatives confuse this passage with the Constitution, they are working a very particular angle. Their point is not the existence of rights (individual, civil, natural, or human); it is the existence of God. What they are trying to show us is that belief in God (or more specifically; belief in Jesus) is essential to the founder’s vision of American government. They wish to instill in American government (and by extension American law) an explicit homage to God in some official or quasi-official form. They like having Him on our money and in our pledge, and they like prayer in public schools and in public meetings, and many will happily seek additional entanglements between religion and government when and where they can get it. To them, the establishment clause of the Constitution is a narrow principle that prevents little more than explicitly sectarian policies (if it prevents even that). A general acknowledgement of God [or the Judeo Christian God (or, frankly; …Jesus)] in the official policies of the U.S. government is to them quite consistent with the Constitution, even required by it.
How do they know it is required?
Because that is how Jefferson wrote it.
Simply put, because the Declastution derives our rights from God, so conservative thinking goes, everything else that follows must hinge on the existence of God. Take away God and we have no rights and hence no government, and no ice-cream for desert, dammit, just go to bed!
(Sorry. I get carried away sometimes.)
Simply put; when the right confuses these two documents, they do so with a purpose.
Now the argument in question doesn’t always begin with a confusion of documents. Another common approach is to tell us that the Declaration is actually the ‘foundation’ of our government, and that everything about the U.S., including the Constitution itself is built upon that foundation. Over-used architectural metaphors aside, the point is to read the Constitution in light of the Declaration. We take the principles from the Declaration, as these guys understand them, and we apply them to the Constitution, so if God is mentioned the in Declaration, then he is implied in the Constitution, right?
Even if the Constitution itself says very clearly that the authority upon which our government rests derives from the people!
Anyway, that seems to be the point.
There are a couple problems with this, of course, and probably a couple more. These include the following:
1: Jefferson is the main author of the Declaration, and his own views on God are far from straight forward. He is often described as a Deist, though this might be a bit strong; he certainly was not an orthodox Christian. It is my understanding that he stopped short of denying the possibility of miracles outright (though he was sufficiently uncomfortable with the idea of miracles to remove them from his own account of the life of Jesus). So, what does the term ‘Creator’ mean in this passage? What could it have meant to Jefferson when he wrote it? There is little reason to believe Jefferson was talking about Jesus. Had he been referring to Jesus, there is still less reason to believe he would have had anything in mind like the present-day Christian understanding of their Lord and Savior.
2) More to the point, this is a political document, not a theological tract. Hell, it’s a propaganda piece! In writing it, Jefferson is committing an act of treason and trying to get enough support to survive the consequences of his own actions. He wants and needs to reach every colonist he can get to support the cause of separation from England. “Creator” is a nice way to reach Christians, Jews, Unitarians, and even the most strident of Deists without inviting any real cause for disagreement between them. I reckon, a few other beliefs could be read into that reference too, but I suspect Jefferson was more interested in reaching people in that range. Simply put, Jefferson wasn’t trying to separate the believers from the unbelievers with that reference, not by a long shot. What today’s Christians are doing when they read this document as an explicitly Christian (or Judeo-Christian) tract is to turn a document aimed at appealing to a broad range of religious views into an instrument for narrowing the range of views relevant to contemporary American politics.
Their fight was not Jefferson’s.
Far from it!
3) Finally, did I mention that this was a political document?
Cause its a political document.
Really, it is a political document!
The point of the passage in question is not to prove that God exists or even that belief in God, or subservience to God (or a Creator of any kind) is essential for public life. No, the point of the passage in question to establish the existence of rights, and from there to explain the existence of government as an expression of those rights and an instrument for satisfying them. This of course stands in stark contrast to the “divine right of kings,” which was still very influential in the merry Motherland. Jefferson’s point is not that God exists; it is that rights exist. God (or more importantly, a ‘Creator’) in this passage is merely a premise used to arrive at his political conclusions. Really, it isn’t all that clear that this Creator is all that essential to the premise anyway. Hobbes does a pretty good job of making a similar argument without giving a central role to such an entity. Jefferson’s begins with the assumption that people have rights. That they get them from a Creator is not entirely critical to the argument at hand; the point is that they have rights, and that these rights are the foundation of government.
…a theory of government in direct contrast to the notion that God himself had put the King of England in charge of the British people. The Divine Right of Kings, as James had espoused it, placed the authority for government authority on God, just as modern Christians would have it, whereas both the Declaration and the Constitution set the people up as the source of authority for government power. If God plays any role in this under the narrative contained in the Declaration, it is largely theoretical. Even that is missing from the Constitution.
Irony of ironies then that conservative Christians wish to read the Declaration as an effort to place God at the center of American government.
Not just ironic.
It is no accident that cultural conservatives would wish to base their case for theocracy on the Declaration rather than the Constitution. The Declaration gives them foot in the door, at least if you don’t read it all that carefully. The Constitution doesn’t even give them that much.
The Declastution was born out of the need to ignore the difference.
I suppose the Declastution will live on in American politics for some time to come. People will continue to cite the Declaration while calling it the Constitution, and red the Declaration which they read as though it were a Baptist prayer book, but none of this has much to do with the meaning of the documents in question. It’s a kind of shell game the right wing likes to play with themselves, and with the rest of us.
They aren’t playing this shell game because they are interested in what either document has to say.