Sunday, April 1, 2012

Further correspondence with Tink Tinker on Woody Guthrie and indigenous and other movements

Tink Tinker sent me two more probing letters in response to our earlier controversy (or his criticism and my agreement) about Woody Guthrie’s “This land is your land, this land is my land” here, here, here, and here. They raise deep political issues about what a decent democratic movement is – and the role in it of fighting racism and against militarism and for the earth –
and important metaethical and philosophical issues so I give them below, along with my response. In addition, I include a Denver Post report on a very good protest led by Native American students this Wednesday against the recent outburst of racism – demeaning of indigenous cultures – in some fraternities at the University of Denver.


Thanks for responding. So, we'll get one Indian guy (and the Marxistsystems we have seen have almost instinctively have bought into
euro-androcentrism) to represent the interests of some five hundred
separate Indian nations that have managed to continue to survive up to
today. Wow! That makes for a really powerful Indian, an absolute violation
of every Native culture in north America. And I suppose we would get to
elect that guy. How? Or do you intend to include five hundred Indian folk,
one from each nation, on this "central committee"?

We would only need one White guy, right? One Black, a Chicano, a Puerto
Rican; I can't quite figure out how we would work the Asian contingent..
Well, ok, we Indians might be able to work with that kind of central
committee. But I could never trust some hand-picked lone Indian guy who
doesn't even know my national language to represent my or our interests,
especially when it comes to managing our resources or controlling our
means of production. That would be expecting one Indian guy from one
particular language community to represent the interests of five hundred
nations still living out of three hundred different languages. The number
one is too much dysfunctional power even within a single community!

The biggest problem inherent in any discussion of this sort is one of
incommensurate worldviews.
The euro-worldview focuses intently on the individual, even democratic
individuality. Our Indian worldview is just as intently community-ist.
Indeed any reducing of value to the number one is, in Barbara Mann's
words, dysfunctional. In context she is speaking more immediately of the
euro-notion of "God", but the disparateness of worldviews around the
dysfunctionality of one shows up across the spectrum of the cultural
landscape. The traditional Osage village, for instance, always was led by
a pair of gaihega ("chiefs"?), kind of like having Barak Obama making
decisions on Mondays and switching authority to GW Bush on Tuesdays. That
demonstrates in brief why having a Chief Indian on your central committee
would be hyper-dysfunctional. Our political systems always worked around
notions of consensus and the responsibility of the two gaihega was
precisely to generate social consensus. And at this point any
"representative democracy," or "procedural democracy," where we would
confuse democracy with voting, will prove destructive to Indian
communities and their cultures. The case in point, of course, is the
creation of "tribal governments" as a direct result of the Indian
Reorganization Act passed by the U.S. congress in 1934 and imposed
willy-nilly on each Indian nation in turn. Now we mirror back to the
colonial power its own self, making Indian people and their immense
natural resources much more pliable to central power manipulation. Indian
people overwhelmingly object to this XCEL pipeline coming down from the
Alberta Tar Sands (which you have also written about), for instance; yet
tribal governments will undoubtedly give their pro-forma nod of approval.
They are, of course, the creation of and wholly owned subsidiaries of the

Marx ends the Manifesto saying, "The free development of each is the
condition for the free development of all." An Indian worldview, insofar
as we might possibly work with these categories of cognition, would have
to reverse Marx completely. We would have to insist that "The free
development of the community (the all) is the condition for the free
development of each." This is an important and really deep cultural
divide. Indian thinking must necessarily begin with the community, with
the "group", and not with the individual. Any universalizing, say like a
UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, must just as necessarily prove
destructive to Indian cultures and community aspirations.

Well, I've got to go back to writing my own stuff and sign off for now.
I'll talk to you soon.



I have one more seemingly pertinent thought on this question of worldview disparateness. It builds on the thinking of David Scott who has written a
wonderful analysis and critique of CLR James' history of the Haitian
Revolution. The book is "Conscripts of Modernity." The worldview
difference I have in mind here has to do with the extent to which 19th
century european romanticism continues to grip the heart of both the right
and the left in the United States political landscape. The result includes
the romantic idealism of leftist notions of egalitarianism overlaid on a
complex post modern social whole that begins with modernist bureaucracy
and the modernist notion of the state. For Indians it does not matter
whether the state is socialist or democratic capitalist or anything in
between. The state must nevertheless function in ways that disempowers
indigenous national wholes that continue to exist within the modernist
bounded territories claimed under the sovereignty of the state. We lose.
And there are no notions of Indian national sovereignty that can rise up
to the rescue. At least not in any current notion of political
structuring-left or right.

David Scott's critical idea (still europeanist, however) is that
romanticism must give way to the modalities of tragedy. He moves from his
critique of CLR James' first edition, along with a useful critique of
Trotsky and Michelet' histories which served James as models. All three
revolutions were fueled by romantic idealism, and yet, Scott argues, all
three failed significantly. An analysis, he continues, rooted in tragedy
would be a far more useful way to proceed than to continue the old
romantic trajectory. And indeed, much of what you and I both hate about
the american narrative is exactly that sort of romanticizing, the ideation
of the notion of american exceptionalism, etc. The suggestion is that
tragedy can give us a completely different handle on critiquing our

Of course, even as we read David Scott (a Jamaican scholar, after all) we
need to remember that tragedy is still rooted, as I say above, in
euro-thought. Scott gets at tragedy via Nietzsche, Aeschylus, Sophocles,
and Euripides, tracing a clear trajectory through european thinking about
tragedy. To get at a cultural fit within the landscape of Indian peoples
will take a bit more reflection on the part of American Indian thinkers.

Hope you day is a good one.

“Dear Tink,

I support struggles against oppression led by indigenous people, including that of AIM-Colorado against Columbus Day (an infamous celebration of genocide), against the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines – see here and here – and against the war criminal Alberto Gonzalez (at least, Glenn Morris and the Native American students at the University of Colorado at Denver took the lead in it and it strikes me as something at least partially to be credited to AIM). I am also grateful to the Native American students at the University of Denver who have fought against the repeated demeanings of indigenous peoples, most recently a proposed Cowboys and Indians theme for a University celebration and the mocking costuming of some fraternities. See below. It is good given the protest from below that representatives of these fraternities saw some of what is offensive about this and apologized at the rally (my apologies for not being able to come; my house was under a pre-evacuation order because of the wildfire in Conifer).

We have all learned from the grotesque racism surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin (it now turns out, on police film, that there is not a mark on the shooter Zimmerman…). See here and here. And there has been a national outcry. The crimes against indigenous people are, however, so deeply rooted in commercial/”mainstream” culture that to attack native americans is as ingredient to America as Columbus Day or apple pie. So the protest at DU has been very good at working toward mutual recognition including eliciting the response of Chancellor Coombe who sent out a fine letter Friday about it.

The University of Denver is nicknamed the Pioneers. The actual pioneers, licensed and protected by the state and the army, stole the lands of and murdered indigenous people. They were part of a process of aggression, mass murder (registered, inter alia, by the “removal” of the Cherokees – against which I have just discovered there was considerable resistance from below) and resettlement, like the settlers in Israel as opposed to the Palestinians (jews had initially suffered genocide in Europe, but the Palestinians, who had done jews no wrong, were harmed in 1947, and the occupation now is deeply destructive of any decent possibilities in Israel as well).

John Evans, for whom Evans Chapel, Mt. Evans and Evans Blvd (and the Evans professors, though I and others are trying to change that) are named was the Governor who sent out Chivington to murder women, children and the elderly at Sand Creek. Chivington’s statue is still in front of the State House….

While I like and admire Woody Guthrie, his song “This land is your land” does have in it a denial of indigenous people which is real. Once you pointed it out (I had not seen it), I felt strongly about that, though I also agree with some of the criticisms of capitalist property the song suggests. For workers and other poor people and students, black, chicano and white, are oppressed by capitalism. And one may sympathize with them or ally oneself with them while pointing out sharply that racism toward indigenous people – a further and deep division – has weakened the common cause, and that whites and others will not make progress as long as they accept one bit of racism toward alleged "others."

Today, American militarism (imperialism and the war complex) has nearly, through its wars in the Middle East, collapsed the United States at least for ordinary people. Is the continuing passion in the corporate media for war with Iran and demonization of alleged enemies – and its influence in the culture (though very many people see through war and I have yet to run across an enthusiast for attacking Iran in a class – not rooted in the genocide against indigenous peoples and in the ravaging of the environment (the slaughter, for example, with no sacred understanding, of the buffalo)? Is not the trashing of the earth – the Keystone XL pipeline for which Hilary Clinton shils and to which Obama is now again caving – part of this same militarization?

Unlearn and fight racism or die…

This is the core point of moral and political agreement we have before I take up the differences in metaethical perspective you raise. I agree with much of your political or pragmatic position, just not the metaethics with which you accompany it.

The struggles waged by AIM and the Native American students and others are in the common interest of humanity and while indigenous people have special ways of envisioning these matters from which the rest of us can learn, there is nothing incommensurate (or incommensurable) about the demands being raised or any impossibility of others learning from/respecting some aspects of a deeper perspective on life.

Put differently, there is theoretically a core to moral argument or ethical sensibility. People who believe that ordinary standards, say about murder or torture, do not apply to other peoples are making a racist error. Their arguments are not incommensurable with ours (even Nazis think officially that murder is bad among Aryans…), but empirically wrong and as a program of action, monstrous. One can ask, say as Aristotle once did, what a decent life is for human beings, and it is not only a Greek or Arab thought that murder and torture are not included...

These are core moral standands which, coupled with empirical, social and biological theory disputes, and sometimes large differences in perspective (it was God's command to Abraham to slit Isaac's throat...), result in clashing, complex moral and political judgments. But the underlying standards are common.

Given a core moral commonality about the preservation of human lives, there are also wide differences of practices and customs which have no distinctive moral significance except that they are up to individuals and peoples to choose and develop for themselves and any external power who attacks this unfolding is committing a crime (cf. Ward’s Churchill’s Kill the Indian Save the Man about the horrors of Protestant and Catholic kidnapping of indigenous children in Northwestern North America, imprisoning them in "orphanages," trying to deprive them of all memory of their parents and community, and working them to death, often by the age of 15 - half died of tuberculosis - to produce food for the surrounding communities).

And such differences are often spiritually and aesthetically important in ways which any decent person would want to be open to, to learn from. This is part of the point of what I call democratic internationalism, broadly speaking (I defend such views in detail in Democratic Individuality and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?).

In addition, it is important to have serious and effective leadership (which AIM exhibits on the occasions I cited, among others) and for AIM to further the development and continuity of indigenous viewpoints. A certain nationalism in the face of oppression and perhaps consensus has proven a good way to do that (and a way that a number of indigenous people and peoples have creatively chosen).

A movement must be measured by what it does. So I was suggesting nothing – I am a radical democrat and a critic of some important features of Marxism – about subordinating yourself to some stupid central committee that coopts people (as you note bitterly at the beginning of your first letter). And Marx himself and some socialist and communist movements have paid little attention to the struggles of indigenous people (though Marx and Engels have a conception of original communism which is rather obviously sympathetic to, to be glossed and refined by various kinds of indigenous experience) so the response is very understandable.

On the other hand, the problems of (radical or democratic) leadership extend into indigenous communities and to leaders. They are visible not only in the problem of "official" tribal chiefs and XL, but in the onetime bitter conflict between Colorado AIM who supported Brooklyn Rivera and the Miskito Indians against the Sandinistas and national AIM which supported the Sandinistas against American rapaciousness. Personally, I can see forceful, moral considerations on both sides, and empathize some with each. I find the bitterness of the conflict sad – though in all movements from below, such things are difficult over time, to avoid – and have come to look to Gandhi and King, and not Marx or Lenin despite a certain clarity about the importance of disagreement and clear-cut decisions, for a way to work with, perhaps even, rarely, overcome such differences.

And liking the Paris Commune and political institutions which genuinely rest in the people - are seriously democratic as you suggest - I sympathize entirely with the point that the modern state is an enemy of indigenous peoples (this was also the point of Lenin’s State and Revolution - the state does good things only when there is democratic struggle against it from below and not in its ordinary functioning - and there have been diverse movements to figure out how to make direct democracy – and some federation thereof – work. That repressive states, over and above the people, are no fertile ground for indigenous freedom is true; they are also no ground for anyone’s freedom. One of the great contributions of Occupy is to show how the state (and both parties) are brutally the servants of the 1/10th of 1%.

Your description of Gaihega is very interesting. Most mainstream or commercial or oriented toward electoral power political discussions in our society leave out many points of view, notably, without protest, those of indigenous people. In any "room," voices are silenced. To give voice to the full range of judgments and opinions is, in general, racism for example excepted, a good thing and one necessary to finding any decent political solutions. This is a psychological as well as political problem. The practice of two opposed Gaihega is promising and even striking in this regard (though neither Bush nor Obama, who are elite politicians - despite what is obviously better about Obama, for instance, his response to the murder of Trayvon Martin - give voice to many of these things). American mainstream practice - now in a quite decadent way - suppresses other voices (listen to Scalia snarl on the Supreme Court...). So prima facie, this Native American practice seems wiser...

For myself, I do not identify deeply as a jew except to acknowledge the prophets and oppose the oppression of the Palestinians (the jews of the Occupied Territories as I sometimes call them). I do, however, know something of the history of pogroms and the holocaust and demonization and murder. And one cannot heal history – what has gone before - though one can tell the stories, which include resistance (I just have a new book out on the fight for emancipation in the American Revolution: Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence).

The angel of history, Walter Benjamin once said, looks backward on the suffering that cannot be undone (also on the heroism of those who in their ordinary way resist). I particularly admire the words of Adrienne Rich who died this week:

My heart is moved by all that I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

The combination of sustained and continuing racism and what has happened to indigenous people in America at Pine Ridge and elsewhere is hard to bear.

And I think tragic is a good way to name it, and look forward to further insights into it (I find Ward's book, naming the truth about an aspect of it, healing in a way) and sympathize with your account of Campbell’s Conscripts of Modernity which I will get (I teach James, Robin Blackburn, Laurent Dubois and others on the great uprising - the one successful slave insurrection in all of history - which created Haiti). But seeing history as tragic - for instance, that Toussaint was a great leader but had little clue of how to reconstruct the economy once slavery was gone - does not call for submission (hence, the resistance of AIM among many others). One can learn politically from the errors as well as the strengths of what has gone before. So we should fight against these forms of oppression – try to change them, at this point to save humanity from itself (re militarism, global warming, racisms, and the like) to the extent we can.

On the meta-ethical issue of incommensurability, I wonder how much disagreement we really have. Interestingly, you invoke what is basically Max Weber’s charge against Marxism and the Russian Revolution (originally, Nietzsche’s). Or at least your point about equality coincides with theirs and they have given it forceful expression (nothing distinctively either indigenous or incommensurate here, however shocking the history of genocide against indigenous peoples is).

But I also doubt that either of them was right and both – particularly Nietzsche – opened the way to Nazi communalism. And that is surely not what we both find attractive in the community-ism of indigenous peoples….So the moral point does appear to be primary over the sphere of difference and indeterminacy or the communal nature and creativity of different peoples (devouring other peoples is no part of such creativity...).

The problem you raise – how populations which have suffered genocide and been ruthlessly divided – can mount effective resistance against modernity – given the corruption of states that cal(ed) themselves socialist – is a vital political or pragmatic issue, not a meta-ethical one. And one can use Weber who, by the way, opposed anti-semitism, though he was racist toward slavs and black people – see here - as an illustration. And the tragedy of what you raise - that indigenous peoples have fought against and suffered genocide, that some indigenous people now have resources which are constantly threatened by capitalism, that the modern bureaucratized state seeks to steal these resources, that to preserve the integrity of indigenous cultures is to engage in the very hard fight against this from below, and that pro-statist conceptions by people who think themselves sympathetic to indigenous struggles often feed into the oppression - is real enough.

But I don’t find the useful Euro-thought or Euro-androcentrism useful because it is much too broad and groups together many different movements, practices, customs and clashing lines of thought. It is also, though a way of fighting for something important, also a way of alienating potential allies who are needed to win most of these political fights.

Indigenous people have a much deeper sense of the earth and being part of it than the genocidal European cultures and their later incarnations. But many people of European descent understand that the earth needs to be preserved and are willing to fight on this (Warner Naziel and Freda Hudson spoke of the anarchists who join them to fight the Northern Gateway pipeline, for example, and there is the 350 movement.) That the insights of indigenous people are often deeper and more creative than others and that indigenous people give decisive leadership to this movement (as when Obama spoke at Metro) is true. But the right way of drawing the distinction is not really between native American thought and Euro-thought.

I will look at Barbara Mann's writings. Many European notions of religion sometimes strike others as lacking any. But the foregrounded notion of god is undermined by polytheisms (Hellenic, Scanadinavian et al) and is exploded in various European mystics (Meister Eckhart: "the hardest leave-taking is the leave-taking of God" - or one has to abandon one's image of god to have a spiritual experience; Montesquieu, no mystic, said charmingly in the Persian Letters, that if triangles were to imagine gods, they would have three sides; perhaps the problem, however attractive other spiritual traditions are, is not solely European...). And Jesus and Thomas Muenzer, and Martin Luther King and many others really weren't - aren't - so bad...

Democratic individuality is a theory of what is decent in social arrangements. The democratic element: those economic, social and political institutions which further or at least do not obstruct individuality (a good life for each person, as she sees it, including a common or communal one – note most women live pretty communally since one can’t raise children in a self-seeking way). This theory supports non-exploitative communalism in which everyone is treated decently, an individuality, one perhaps not self-aware, simply each person living her life as part of such a community, that is consistent with genuine democracy; it also justifies other kinds of non-exploitative social, economic and political arrangements which further a somewhat different sense of individuality. I learn from the culture and political struggles of indigenous peoples and detest genocidal chauvinisms.

But turn the point back: what is one to say of social cultures like those of fascism and Nazism? Heidegger is certainly communal as were the Nazis. Heidegger was, by the way, one who also reversed the mistaken philosophical notion of man against nature, seeing Dasein as being-in-the-world and warned of the dangers of planetary technology in a way foundational to deep ecology (cf. Michael Zimmerman’s work on Heidegger on this issue). So Heidegger had a view which opposes what you call Euro-androcentric views, even though his views were, in intent and practice, ultimately the most vicious and grotesque example of German chauvinism or androcentrism about taking lives (Dasein for Heidegger was German Dasein which ate French Dasein and committed mass murder against jews, slavs, roma, gays, “Aryan” mental patients, “defective” “Aryan” children, union leaders, Communists, et al).

Or the current state culture of Israel?

And are the Palestinians admirable for getting young people to blow themselves up, murdering often ordinary Israelis, including children and strengthening the most vicious forces (as part of an Arab nationalist response and a kind of communalism)? Or are they admirable for learning from King , Gandhi and Arab spring and fighting against the bizarre oppression by the Israeli government in the latter way (one which has in it some possibility of Truth and Reconciliation as practiced in South Africa)? Practically speaking as well as morally, the answer is pretty clear (I leave aside questions of a serious mass and violent revolutionary movement, which is not currently among the available choices there – though I also believe even this is no longer a compelling project).

On Marx, you are right that he and Engels praise the free development of each as the precondition for the free development of all. But Marx is mainly a communist - it is hard to suggest that his vision of communism or the Paris Commune does not have a decisive or even primary element of non-exploitative or nonmurderous relationship in it; it is rightly what fascists hate about it... - and his view is one of social individuality (the emphasis on social, as my emphasis on democratic - and social - can be very strong). Thus, he admired the Russian mir – collective, non-capitalist farming - and wondered in the 1870s, in a letter to Vera Zasulich (I think), whether it could provide a basis for direct transition to communism.

The idea of “incommensurabilty” or “disparateness” (if the latter is taken not as a practical fact but as an assertion about the impossibility of any common understanding) has two fundamental errors. First, it is easy to study indigenous cultures and claims, for instance about global warming, and see that these are right and may be species-saving…. But modern science also casts some light on these things. One can link these insights; the combination is very powerful. The idea of incommensurability, however, says against such examples that one can’t combine such insights - there is no common world for them to be true about - and that pro-the earth ideas (scientific ones about the dangers of global warming, for example) and the Emperor’s New Clothes, espoused by Bush and many climate-change deniers are really just part of one "Euro-view." But on the contrary, science and W.'s vapidity are opposites; one is true and sympathetic to at least some leading moral ideas in other traditions (and might learn more from them). The other is false and inimical to the survival of all life on the planet.

Second, if all views are incommensurable – I will take this to mean sealed off from all others, not comparable, neither true nor false about anything and even the terms truth and falsity relate only to a particular paradigm and vanish with it, shaping the world according to itself (and thus, roughly the opposite of a view which honors the earth) - what about the view that all views are incommensurable? Is that true or false? Can one give a coherent (not paradigm-relative) account of what truth even means on this view or does it disintegrate when questioned? Once again, if the emperor has clothes because his counselors say so, this is not yet an impressive statement of fact. And a rocket does not go to the moon because the concept of a rocket is moon-homing...The claim of incommensurability seems to seal itself off, by its pronouncement of incommensurability, from any intellectual interest.

Thomas Kuhn, in his interesting book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, traces the transition from one scientific outlook to another - what is interesting in it is precisely the ability to spell out such changes - and gives this unfortunate and contradictory gloss about "incommensurability" on what he is doing; the gloss has become more popular in academia than knowing the history of science... Incommensurability is a misguided, academic idiom, one around which one can attempt to protect indigenous thinking from racist attacks, but one which also seems to concede a lot of territory to foolishness. In fact, indigenous leaders and movements from below, as you say, might just want to shield themselves from the racism of American culture and other movements, unless shown real possibilities of cooperation...

What is true politically and creatively and spiritually in the many views of indigenous peoples, however unique, does not need the term "incommensurate" to defend it. One can point to the harms done by the (sadly) prevailing cultures instead. The vision and politics, it seems to me, stand very well on their own.

All the best,

DU fraternity, sorority apologize to American Indian students
03/29/2012 10:42:17 AM MDT By Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post

[the photograph did not reproduce}
Tink Tinker, a professor at the Iliff School of Theology and a member of the Wazhazhe Osage Nation, offers a blessing Wednesday at the University of Denver after a fraternity and a sorority issued an apology for a Feb. 25 cowboys-and-Indians theme party. Speakers at a meeting before the apology was read described an ongoing lack of respect for American Indians at DU. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

Representatives of two Greek Life organizations at the University of Denver publicly apologized Wednesday for a cowboys-and-Indians theme party last month that offended American Indian students, in a campus gathering that both sides hoped would lead to greater understanding.

The two organizations — the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority — hosted the party on Feb. 25. Three days later, members of the Native Student Alliance saw photos of the party, including revelers in Indian garb, on Facebook and contacted Johanna Leyba, DU's assistant provost for inclusive excellence and the group's staff adviser, to express their frustration.

Beyond angering American Indian students, who said the dress-up party belittled their culture and spirituality, the theme also violated DU's diversity statement, said Leyba.

The fraternity and sorority responded with a letter of apology on March 1. The NSA asked if they would read it publicly, and they agreed.

Ross Larson, reading from the letter on behalf of the fraternity, said the mistake was made "out of ignorance, not racism." Sorority speaker Molly Gasch said that the party would be "the last of its kind for our groups."

Wednesday afternoon's gathering was preceded by an hour-long private meeting between NSA members and representatives from the fraternity and sorority.

"We were able to meet each other and talk about what we hope DU will be five years from now, with true inclusive excellence," said Simon Moya-Smith, a graduate student NSA member and adviser.

More than 100 students and other onlookers watched and listened as a succession of speakers described an ongoing lack of respect for American Indians that includes continued use of stereotypes.

"We are not costumes," said student Lance Tsosie, NSA president, as his voice shook with emotion. "I ask that we all stand together to learn from this incident."

American Indians on campus said the party was just the latest in a string of offensive incidents this school year, including "cruel" comments aimed at students dispensing information about their views on Christopher Columbus, a dorm party with a Pilgrims and Indians Thanksgiving theme and a planned homecoming celebration theme of "How the West Was Won" — which Moya-Smith described as an "extremely offensive phrase to the Native American community."

"The sad part," he told the crowd, "is that we're taking over a fight for our elders, who have been fighting it their entire lives."

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