Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Warren

Wounded Knee and the Achilles heel

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On February 27, 1973, two hundred Native American activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. They were protesting against the unpopular tribal president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, along with the federal government’s failure to negotiate treaties, and the ensuing standoff—which resulted in two deaths, a serious casualty, and a disappearance—lasted for over seventy days. It also galvanized many of those who watched it unfold, including the author Paul Chaat Smith, who writes in his excellent book Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong:

Lots occurred over the next two and a half months, including a curious incident in which some of the hungry, blockaded Indians attempted to slaughter a cow. Reporters and photographers gathered to watch. Nothing happened. None of the Indians—some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations—actually knew how to butcher cattle. Fortunately, a few of the journalists did know, and they took over, ensuring dinner for the starving rebels. That was a much discussed event during and after Wounded Knee. The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes. Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.

Smith dryly notes that the protesters “lost points” with observers after this episode, which overshadowed many of the more significant aspects of the occupation, and he concludes: “I myself know nothing about butchering cattle, and would hope that doesn’t invalidate my remarks about the global news media and human rights.”

I got to thinking about this passage in the aftermath of Elizabeth Warren’s very bad week. More specifically, I was reminded of it by a column by the Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank, who focuses on Warren’s submissions to the cookbook Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes, which was edited by her cousin three decades ago. One of the recipes that Warren contributed was “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing,” which leads Milbank to crack: “A traditional Cherokee dish with mayonnaise, a nineteenth-century condiment imported by settlers? A crab dish from landlocked Oklahoma? This can mean only one thing: canned crab. Warren is unfit to lead.” He’s speaking with tongue partially in cheek—a point that probably won’t be caught by thousands of people who are just browsing the headlines—but when I read these words, I thought immediately of these lines from Smith’s book:

It presents the unavoidable question: Are Indian people allowed to change? Are we allowed to invent completely new ways of being Indian that have no connection to previous ways we have lived? Authenticity for Indians is a brutal measuring device that says we are only Indian as long as we are authentic. Part of the measurement is about percentage of Indian blood. The more, the better. Fluency in one’s Indian language is always a high card. Spiritual practices, living in one’s ancestral homeland, attending powwows, all are necessary to ace the authenticity test. Yet many of us believe taking the authenticity tests is like drinking the colonizer’s Kool-Aid—a practice designed to strengthen our commitment to our own internally warped minds. In this way, we become our own prison guards.

And while there may be other issues with Warren’s recipe, it’s revealing that we often act as if the Cherokee Nation somehow ceased to evolve—or cook for itself—after the introduction of mayonnaise.

This may seem like a tiny point, but it’s also an early warning of a monstrous cultural reckoning lurking just around the corner, at at time when we might have thought that we had exhausted every possible way to feel miserable and divided. If Warren runs for president, which I hope she does, we’re going to be plunged into what Smith aptly describes as a “snake pit” that terrifies most public figures. As Smith writes in a paragraph that I never tire of quoting:

Generally speaking, smart white people realize early on, probably even as children, that the whole Indian thing is an exhausting, dangerous, and complicated snake pit of lies. And…the really smart ones somehow intuit that these lies are mysteriously and profoundly linked to the basic construction of the reality of daily life, now and into the foreseeable future. And without it ever quite being a conscious thought, these intelligent white people come to understand that there is no percentage, none, in considering the Indian question, and so the acceptable result is to, at least subconsciously, acknowledge that everything they are likely to learn about Indians in school, from books and movies and television programs, from dialogue with Indians, from Indian art and stories, from museum exhibits about Indians, is probably going to be crap, so they should be avoided.

This leads him to an unforgettable conclusion: “Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright.” But that’s only because most of the others are prudent enough to stay well away—and even Warren, who is undeniably smart, doesn’t seem to have realized that this was a fight that she couldn’t possibly win.

One white person who seems unquestionably interested in Indians, in his own way, is Donald Trump. True to form, he may not be very bright, but he also displays what Newt Gingrich calls a “sixth sense,” in this case for finding a formidable opponent’s Achilles heel and hammering at it relentlessly. Elizabeth Warren is one of the most interesting people to consider a presidential run in a long time, but Trump may have already hamstrung her candidacy by zeroing in on what might look like a trivial vulnerability. And the really important point here is that if Warren’s claims about her Native American heritage turn out to be her downfall, it’s because the rest of us have never come to terms with our guilt. The whole subject is so unsettling that we’ve collectively just agreed not to talk about it, and Warren made the unforgivable mistake, a long time ago, of folding it into her biography. If she’s being punished for it now, it’s because it precipitates something that was invisibly there all along, and this may only be the beginning. Along the way, we’re going to run up against a lot of unexamined assumptions, like Milbank’s amusement at that canned crab. (As Smith reminds us: “Indians are okay, as long as they meet non-Indian expectations about Indian religious and political beliefs. And what it really comes down to is that Indians are okay as long as we don’t change too much. Yes, we can fly planes and listen to hip-hop, but we must do these things in moderation and always in a true Indian way.” And mayonnaise is definitely out.) Depending on your point of view, this issue is either irrelevant or the most important problem imaginable, and like so much else these days, it may take a moronic quip from Trump—call it the Access Hollywood principle—to catalyze a debate that more reasonable minds have postponed. In his discussion of Wounded Knee, Smith concludes: “Yes, the news media always want the most dramatic story. But I would argue there is an overlay with Indian stories that makes it especially difficult.” And we might be about to find out how difficult it really is.

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2018 at 8:44 am

The end of flexibility

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A few days ago, I picked up my old paperback copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which collects the major papers of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. I’ve been browsing through this dense little volume since I was in my teens, but I’ve never managed to work through it all from beginning to end, and I turned to it recently out of a vague instinct that it was somehow what I needed. (Among other things, I’m hoping to put together a collection of my short stories, and I’m starting to see that many of Bateson’s ideas are relevant to the themes that I’ve explored as a science fiction writer.) I owe my introduction to his work, as with so many other authors, to Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, who advised in one edition:

[Bateson] wandered thornily in and out of various disciplines—biology, ethnology, linguistics, epistemology, psychotherapy—and left each of them altered with his passage. Steps to an Ecology of Mind chronicles that journey…In recommending the book I’ve learned to suggest that it be read backwards. Read the broad analyses of mind and ecology at the end of the book and then work back to see where the premises come from.

This always seemed reasonable to me, so when I returned to it last week, I flipped immediately to the final paper, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” which was first presented in 1970. I must have read it at some point—I’ve quoted from it several times on this blog before—but as I looked over it again, I found that it suddenly seemed remarkably urgent. As I had suspected, it was exactly what I needed to read right now. And its message is far from reassuring.

Bateson’s central point, which seems hard to deny, revolves around the concept of flexibility, or “uncommitted potentiality for change,” which he identifies as a fundamental quality of any healthy civilization. In order to survive, a society has to be able to evolve in response to changing conditions, to the point of rethinking even its most basic values and assumptions. Bateson proposes that any kind of planning for the future include a budget for flexibility itself, which is what enables the system to change in response to pressures that can’t be anticipated in advance. He uses the analogy of an acrobat who moves his arms between different positions of temporary instability in order to remain on the wire, and he notes that a viable civilization organizes itself in ways that allow it to draw on such reserves of flexibility when needed. (One of his prescriptions, incidentally, serves as a powerful argument for diversity as a positive good in its own right: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaptation’ necessary for unpredictable change.”) The trouble is that a system tends to eat up its own flexibility whenever a single variable becomes inflexible, or “uptight,” compared to the rest:

Because the variables are interlinked, to be uptight in respect to one variable commonly means that other variables cannot be changed without pushing the uptight variable. The loss of flexibility spreads throughout the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the uptight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology.

When I consider these lines now, it’s hard for me not to feel deeply unsettled. Writing in the early seventies, Bateson saw overpopulation as the most dangerous source of stress in the global system, and these days, we’re more likely to speak of global warming, resource depletion, and income inequality. Change a few phrases here and there, however, and the situation seems largely the same: “The pathologies of our time may broadly be said to be the accumulated results of this process—the eating up of flexibility in response to stresses of one sort or another…and the refusal to bear with those byproducts of stress…which are the age-old correctives.” Bateson observes, crucially, that the inflexible variables don’t need to be fundamental in themselves—they just need to resist change long enough to become a habit. Once we find it impossible to imagine life without fossil fuels, for example, we become willing to condone all kinds of other disruptions to keep that one hard-programmed variable in place. A civilization naturally tends to expand into any available pocket of flexibility, blowing through the budget that it should have been holding in reserve. The result is a society structured along lines that are manifestly rigid, irrational, indefensible, and seemingly unchangeable. As Bateson puts it grimly:

Civilizations have risen and fallen. A new technology for the exploitation of nature or a new technique for the exploitation of other men permits the rise of a civilization. But each civilization, as it reaches the limits of what can be exploited in that particular way, must eventually fall. The new invention gives elbow room or flexibility, but the using up of that flexibility is death.

And it’s difficult for me to read this today without thinking of all the aspects of our present predicament—political, environmental, social, and economic. Since Bateson sounded his warning half a century ago, we’ve consumed our entire budget of flexibility, largely in response to a single hard-programmed variable that undermined all the other factors that it was meant to sustain. At its best, the free market can be the best imaginable mechanism for ensuring flexibility, by allocating resources more efficiently than any system of central planning ever could. (As one prominent politician recently said to The Atlantic: “I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try…Really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we’ve got a set of rules that lets everybody who’s got a good, competitive idea get in the game.” It was Elizabeth Warren.) When capital is concentrated beyond reason, however, and solely for its own sake, it becomes a weapon that can be used to freeze other cultural variables into place, no matter how much pain it causes. As the anonymous opinion writer indicated in the New York Times last week, it will tolerate a president who demeans the very idea of democracy itself, as long as it gets “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” because it no longer sees any other alternative. And this is where it gets us. For most of my life, I was ready to defend capitalism as the best system available, as long as its worst excesses were kept in check by measures that Bateson dismissively describes as “legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.” I know now that these norms were far more fragile than I wanted to acknowledge, and it may be too late to recover. Bateson writes: “Either man is too clever, in which case we are doomed, or he was not clever enough to limit his greed to courses which would not destroy the ongoing total system. I prefer the second hypothesis.” And I do, too. But I no longer really believe it.

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