Saturday, October 26, 2013

Poem: pomp

The School of Theology

referencing primitive religions

wrapped in human

displayed a book

in Latin Latin

wrapped in human

Lat in

everyone pass ed by

cast an odd look


became ministers


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Protest against the Washington "...skins" this Sunday in Denver at 10 AM

The American Indian Movement of Colorado and Idle No More have called for a demonstration against the Washington "...skins" and their owner Daniel Snyder for the game this Sunday in Denver. This will be the first of many demonstrations against the "...skins." Here is a letter from Glenn Morris about the demonstration and a leaflet for it. Please come, After these, I explore an Onion column which addresses Snyder with every slur against Jews the writer can come up with as a way of highlighting the noxiousness of these terms (Blackhawks, Braves, Indians, Pioneers, Seminoles, Fighting Sioux, take note). For as in the case of Jews - that the words were linked to pogroms and genocide - so in the case of indigenous people...


"Please see attached flyer announcing that the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Colorado and Idle No More (INM) - Denver, will host a protest of the racist Washington "R-skins" when the team arrives at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Sunday, October 27, 2013. The protest will begin at 10 am on Sunday, at Sports Authority Field. Parking around the stadium is very dangerous, as cars are towed on game day immediately. Consequently, people are encourage to park at the Auraria campus, where parking is free on Sundays. People will begin assembling in front of the Tivoli Student Center at 9 am, and will walk together to Mile High Stadium down Walnut Street at 9:30.

This protest is the latest chapter in a thirty-year struggle to bring attention to ongoing racism in popular culture against American Indians. The Washington football team mascot issue has gained new, recent attention through comments by such luminaries as President Obama, sportscaster Bob Costas, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The Denver protest marks the commencement of a strategy to expose and confront the Washington team's racism in every city where it plays this season. Colorado AIM/INM-Denver, specifically call on the players, especially African-American players like RG III, to pressure Washington owner Dan Snyder to change the name, logo and the mascot of the team.

In addition to the protest, Colorado AIM/INM calls on all Colorado media to refrain from using the term "Redskin" when referring to the football team from Washington, D.C.,just as the media would refrain from using the terms "Nigger, "Spic," "Kike" or "Gook" to refer to other ethnic, religious or racial groups. Indigenous peoples are entitled to the same dignity and respect as any other racial or national group, and we insist on no less.To expose the absurd position of Snyder, the most recent issue of the satirical magazine, "The Onion" has lampooned the stance of the Washington, D.C. team:,34292/"



WHEN: Sunday, October 27, 2013, 10 am, (park for free on the Auraria Campus, meet in front of the Tivoli Student Center, 9th Ave at Auraria Pkwy, Denver, beginning at 9 am, & walk together to the stadium down Walnut Street, at 9:30 am).

WHERE: Southeast Corner of Sports Authority Mile High Stadium (near Colfax and Mile High Stadium Cir., Lot A – map reverse)

WHY: The Washington DC football team has been requested by Native people since at least 1968 to change its racist logo and mascot. According to a report by the National Congress of American Indians, the term Redskins “originates from a time when Native people were actively hunted and killed for bounties, and their skins used as proof of Indian kill. By the turn of the 20th century it had evolved to become a term meant to disparage and denote inferiority and savagery in American culture*** The term Redskin has never been one of honor or respect, but instead, it has always been and continues to be a pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for Native Americans.” Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports & the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots,"


Achieving what Bertolt Brecht called an "alienation effect," The Onion grimly applies to Snyder what he applies to Native Americans. Since among Americans, there is currently not an amnesia about the millions of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, the words are deeply disturbing. The stereotypes about indigenous people should be equally so...

There is also some forgetfulness today about the millions of slavs (20 million in Russia for example, or the 200,000 blue eyed blond Polish children – given skull measurements by anthropometists or phrenologists – they had worked before on the 20,000 skulls, cut off from native American bodies and sent to the Smithsonian and other institutions of pseudoscience - and IQ tests by psychologists, see here – who were kidnapped and resettled in Germany during World War II to replenish “the master race" whose soldiers were dying in its aggressions...


The standard objection, and one that should be sufficient, to names like the ‘skins, or "Chief Wahoo" of the Cleveland “Indians” (h/t Steve Fisher) or the Atlantic "Braves" (or the Fighting "Sioux" or the "Pioneers" or the "Seminoles" among college teams) is that they are offensive. But this misses, as the flyer above suggests, the deeper horror.

There are no Arapahoes in Denver on Arapaho Road. There are no Arapahoes in Arapaho County, Colorado. There are no native Americans on the Washington "...skins" and there have long been no tribes around Washington, no “braves” in Atlanta, no “Indians” in Cleveland…Now there are some individuals in many places from the tribes that were slaughtered and cordoned off on “reservations”/concentration camps and many still live on reservations (often, the poorest communities in the country). But the founding amnesia - the survivor of the blatant racism of the "exterminators" who founded Denver and other major cities - is important to illusions about the "peacefulness" of the American government.

For this was no peaceful process, but one of aggression by white settlers backed by a government with big guns (the government would take indigenous leaders to Washington to show the innumerable troops and people and shoot off big guns - it was a ritual of the supposedly intelligent "great White Father" and all the "little fathers" like John Evans - see here, here, and here. The government stole the land from the people (the treaties were written in a language which the indigenous people could not read - there was no equality between the contractors - and the US government kept its word, in treaties, about nothing...) who lived there and cleared them out by murder or forced those left into concentration camps.


This was ethnic cleansing/genocide (I mean by the definition of the UN Convention against Genocide, the destruction of a people “in whole or in part,” and much of the detail including as a late phase, kidnapping remaining children from the tribes and raising them "to be white" in Catholic/Protestant orphanages where they grew crops for the surrounding towns while themselves being malnourished; roughly half died of tuberculosis by the age of 15...


The preferred method of attack initiated by General Patrick Connor in the Bear Creek Massacre of Shoshone in January, 1863 in what is now Utah was to discover winter encampments, launch a surprise attack and kill anything that moved (women and children were, by the numbers, the majority targets of these “soldiers.” Every one of these attacks was a war crime against civilians, and deliberately so (only the story of Hitler on the Eastern Front matches it for ferocity...)

Sand Creek was distinct as a horror – and uniquely condemned by the Federal Government - because the Cheyenne and Arapahoe leaders had made the most intense and determined effort to make peace and believed themselves – with Black Kettle having hung an American flag over his tent – to be at peace…


As the fine historian Elliot West has emphasized, the ethnic cleansing on the East Coast was a gradual process taking roughly 250 years (1600-1850). In the West, the plains Indians were very adaptable, resourceful fighters whom the American army could not destroy – it lost many battles to them despite its superior weaponry – except during the winters when they had to camp. The army then sought them out, killed them, burned the food supplies and drove the survivors off into the freezing cold. The result – a “war” of only 25 years, was a comparative blitzkrieg


So the issue is offensive names and words coupled with mass murder. Daniel Snyder and many others suffer from “Founding Amnesia.” America names the country for Indians from Massachusetts and Connecticut and Mississippi to Arapaho Country, its missiles Tomahawks, its helicopters Apaches, but the appropriated names are those of people against whom these same authorities committed ethnic cleansing.

Where the names are potentially decent, memorials to those killed would be an improvement.


Acknowledging - remembering - these crimes would be a small start in creating a serious democratic regime - one not based on the privileging of a racially/militarily preponderant group, let alone an oligarchy of the .001% - in America.


That is why these names must be changed…


The Onion
"Redskins’ Kike Owner Refuses To Change Team’s Offensive Name
SPORTS NEWS IN BRIEF • Sports • Unsponsored • Issue 49•43 • Oct 21, 2013

WASHINGTON—Denying widespread claims that the franchise is being offensive or disrespectful, the Washington Redskins’ kike owner announced Monday that he remains steadfast in his refusal to change the team’s derogatory name. 'The Redskins represent 81 years of great history and tradition, and it’s a source of pride for our fans,' said the hook-nosed kike, stressing that the team’s insulting moniker is 'absolutely not a racial slur by any means.' "‘Washington Redskins’ is much more than just a name. It stands for strength, courage, and respect—the very values that are so intrinsic to Native American culture.” The shifty-eyed hebe went on to assure fans that he will do 'everything in his power' to preserve the team’s proud heritage."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A letter from Loring Abeyta on the book wrapped in human skin, part 3

Loring Abeyta, who has long played an outstanding role in fighting racism, as one can see from her letter, and patriarchy (and militarism) in Denver, wrote a response to my post on the grisly display of a book bound in human skin at the Iliff School of Theology here and Glenn Morris's response about the Smithsonian hoarding of Native American skulls here. The silence about what it meant for years to display this "holy book" at the entrance to the Library is a living wound on the spirit of Iliff. Despite a fund created by the last graduating class, this abomination needs to be acknowledged. Perpetuating amnesia about it and about Iliff's founding in the Sand Creek massacre and "sacralization" of genocide is a mistake.

Loring is married to Tink Tinker, who has led the way in dealing with this issue and they are currently writing about it.


'Thank you, Glenn, for your response on Alan's post. Tink and I have not yet had a chance to discuss a response, but I think we would like to say something about it.

Alan, thank you for giving the issue broader attention through your blog. Tink and I have worked for years to keep this part of Iliff's history front and center in the Iliff community, and it is discouraging (but not surprising) how each year, it seems as if we are starting all over again. When we teach our annual Iliff course on Race, Gender, Class, we always share the history of the book with our students. I tell the students that change can begin to happen right on the soil where they sit if they are willing to advocate for Iliff publicly owning the history of the book. Last year's Iliff graduating class made a gift to the school specifically to create an educational / consciousness-raising exhibit of some kind that would detail the history of the book. I don't know the details, but greatly appreciated the courage of that graduating class. I don't know what has happened with the project. Probably the most interesting thing that has happened to me in telling the story of the book to an Iliff audience was the first year that Iliff had something called "Diversity Day" (or something similar - I can't remember the title, exactly). I was asked to make a presentation about the book, which I did. Then there was a workshop in Bartlett Lounge, where there was more opportunity to discuss the book. Bartlett Lounge used to be the library, and my understanding is that it was there where the book was so proudly displayed. As I was talking about the history of the book to the students and faculty gathered there, the lights suddenly went out. Everybody just kind of looked at each other. It seemed like any commentary about the strange episode would be trivial. I think everyone knew what was going on in that moment. But, as always happens after any discussion of this part of Iliff's history, the lights came back on, the conversation moved on to something else, and folks went on about their business. And each year, Tink and I have to start over again with telling the history. I feel especially bad for Tink in all of this. I think it's been a painful reality about Iliff that he has carried through the years, mainly because his white colleagues would prefer to forget that part of Iliff's past. Tink only learned about the book many years ago, when he was new on the faculty, because one faculty member could not in good conscience keep the history from Tink. Tink was the school's first indigenous faculty person, and to keep that history from Tink was intolerable for this faculty person. So he pulled Tink aside one day and said, "I think there's something you should know....



It is good that one faculty member told his new colleague this fact and bizarre that those who teach about spirituality saw fit to hire a Native American and not mention this past as something the School means, including through that hiring, to repudiate.

Despite much talk about seeking the truth, that academia is often so removed from conscience is startling.


Tink Tinker and Loring Abeyta have stood out for truth about these matters for a long time, and at last, as the 150th anniversary of Sand Creek and DU and Iliff nears (2014), the word is getting out...


Michael Hickcox, who took action in 1974 to get the wrapping of human skin sanctified and buried, and the book removed from the front of the Library, also wrote to me. In addition, he put up a forceful comment on my post:

"I just happened upon this account, and just a few days after it was posted. I believe I wrote this story when a question about this situation was raised at the United Methodist General Conference held in Denver in 1996. I'd like to point out that the book really was in the display cabinet as a curiosity - that was clearly the intent of having it on display there. I didn't share the dispassionate amnesia. I saw it as an abomination - and amazingly an abomination on display, and not hidden away in embarrassment. Because I knew it existed, I took action to deal with it; I called a local Native American organization so that appropriate and caring people could determine what should be done. I was encouraged that the leadership of the seminary immediately joined in.

My 'focus on details' that you comment on: I was impressed by the tremendous disparity: one day in the 19th century, someone tore skin off another human being's back to make a book cover. In the late 20th century, someone else did his best to give that very same skin whatever loving care he could. That can never make up for the horrific past, but the man killed so long ago still deserves whatever care and dignity one 20th-century medicine man can give him.

As to why that book covered with human skin remained at the school for nearly 200 years [closer to 100 probably, though the point remains] I loved my years at Iliff School of Theology - but there's no positive explanation for this.

Mike Hickcox"


My response underlined Mike's courage in standing up about this horror, something that all of us could learn from. One person standing up in any situation can make a difference (others had been shaken by the "exhibit," as his original account conveyed, but had not taken action. What he did is part of a process to begin to acknowledge the wounds of ethnic cleansing\"Manifest Destiny," and thus also, perhaps, a very long process, to the limited extent possible, of healing.

"I really admire your standing up about this, Michael. That there is no explanation for the abomination is right. That this was a "curiosity" is something that only people heavily under the influence of racism and without a sense of what is sacred would believe. What those who put out this book at a School of Theology did is a desecration of what is decent about the place."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Discussion with Peter Beinart, Tuesday, noon, Anderson Academic Commons

Peter Beinart will speak at noon Tuesday in the Anderson Academic Commons. Like Andrew Sullivan, Beinart, a former editor of the New Republic, has repudiated his onetime support of the Iraq aggression. He now refers cleverly to the leaders (and himself) as Icarus who flies to near the sun and whose wings of wax melt, plunging into the sea.


The Critis of Zionism reflects Beinart's reconsideration of a deeply held liberal Zionism, based on refuge for Jews and human rights for all, looking at the government of Israel's horrific policies in the Occupied Territories. He now urges boycotting "Israeli" products produced in the Territories. For any of us, deeply held convictions which are wrong need most to be challenged. The person who does this differentiates himself from a partisan or ideologue, and makes some progress toward the truth.

Beinart has been, unmercifully and stupidly, attacked by those who believe that the children of slaves, the children of those warred against in Europe, should become new Tsars or Pharaohs over Palestinians. Israel, as he warns, is illegally and immorally expanding, making Palestine disappear. But the Palestinians live. Apartheid is neither a future, nor, as Beinart warns repeatedly, an honorable solution. These policies have already made what is decent in Israel largely disappear (its face is Netanyahu and Lieberman on the international stage...).

Beinart warns courageously that time is short for a two state solution.


He has spoken more recently of a Jewish cocoon here. By this, he means something like what I mean in speaking of the Founding Amnesias of Israel about driving out the Palestinians who lived there ("a people without land for a land without people"), the American celebration of freedom while omitting the centrality of bondage and the fight for emancipation even in the revolution for Independence (see my Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence), the American forgetfulness about the ethnic cleansing of indigenous people across the Continent, and the Chinese Communist amnesia, in the name of forced modernization and economic development, of suppressing the culture and spiritual life of Tibet. These efforts involved settlement of large numbers of people over the bodies of, on the lands of indigenous people or the bringing in chains of others to do the work for Southern American slaveowners...

For Beinart, the cocoon comes from Israelis or American Congresspersons never going to the Occupied Territies (the Birthright trips for young Jews, a mere effort in propaganda, are one of his striking examples). At the conclusion of the article, he speaks of Sara Roy at Harvard, and what is missed in this amnesia about the parallel ethnic cleanings:

"One hundred members of Sara Roy’s extended family were murdered in the Holocaust. Growing up, Roy, now a Harvard researcher, knew little about her father’s experiences in the Chelmno death camp because 'he could not speak about them without breaking down.' It was living among Palestinians, she says, that brought her closer to her parents, not because Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians echoes the Nazi treatment of Jews—it obviously does not—but because for the first time she encountered people utterly terrified of the state that enjoyed life-and-death power over their lives.

By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we were a stateless people, living at the mercy of others. And by recognizing the way statelessness threatens Palestinian dignity, we ensure that statehood doesn’t rob us of our own."


Beinart points out that Zionists asked young Jews to check their liberalism (or radicalism) at the door of Israel, and they have checked their Zionism instead. Many young people do not fear a renewed holocaust ("Israel, right or wrong," is not an impressive slogan to them), have often befriended Arabs and Palestinians where they go to school, looked into the West Bank and Gaza - see here - and reacted fiercely against Israel's oppression (AIPAC fears that it has lost college campuses, that is, students who have a chance and a determination to seek the truth...).


Beinart is also looking at the growing suffering of the Occupy/Millenial generation (the student-debt, the weak job prospects, the corporations abandoning health care), and a new revolt for decent government policies from below. He thinks rightly that de Blasio in New York is a sign of this.


He also hopes to save Jewishness through the implementation of government-funded Jewish education in American schools which would supplement a liberal education. This is a bold policy, one with perhaps frail chances of success (he fierceness of persecution gave Jewishness a life in exile. With economic security and increasing social and political power, spirituality wanes for many; whether there is a large constituency among Jews for such a policy is not clear.

But of course, bold policies and new thinking are exactly what makes change, what makes The Crisis of Zionism important. The need to salvage something decent from Israel - Anarchists against the Wall represents this in action, and there are a much larger number of ordinary Israelis who are deeply discontent with the ideas of the dominant Right - depends on such thinking...


DU’s Center for Middle East Studies presents

The Crisis of Zionism
A Panel Discussion with


Peter Beinart is Associate Professor of Journalism & Political Science at the City University of New York, editor of The Daily Beast's Open Zion blog & author of The Crisis of Zionism (2013) and The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (2010).

He will be joined by Alan Gilbert, John Evans Professor at the Korbel School, David Goldfischer, Associate Professor of International Studies at the Korbel School, and Jonathan Sciarcon of DU’s Department of History & Center for Judaic Studies.

Tuesday October 22 @ 12:00 PM
Anderson Academic Commons Event Room
Lunch will be served

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Promised Land and Nabi Saleh

For a poem about Martin Luther King, Nabi Saleh and the Promised Land, see here.


Last October, I went with a delegation of veterans of the Civil Rights movement, led by Dorothy Cotton and Vincent Harding, and Jews including two rabbis (Brian Walt was a central organizer of it) to visit with the nonviolent resistance movement in Palestine including several villages on the West Bank. In Nabih Saleh, Bassem Tamimi, the leader, is a follower of Martin Luther King.

Two of the Tamimis - everyone in the village of roughly 1,500 has the surname Tamimi - were murdered by Israeli soldiers for demonstrating nonviolently a few weeks before and two weeks after our visit. Israel is the illegally and immorally Occupying power, so resistance to the oppressors's military force is just. Nonetheless, what Bassem and others are trying to do nonviolently is both effective - they forced Israel to move the wall, cutting the old olive groves. and wise. Some trees that the settlers burn go back to the time of Christ, "pray to heaven" in the words of distraught Palestinians who lose both grounding in life and economic support. See "the Burning of the Olive Trees" here.

Any act of violence - even stone throwing, David against Goliath, you murder my mother and I step on your toe... - is used by oppressors to try to license even more rampant state killing among the Israeli and to some extent, the international public (many of the latter see through Netanyahu's bluster at this point)... See here, here and here.


Bassem, who had been jailed for 16 months for nonviolent protest, participated a short time later in a nonviolent demonstration at a supermarket in Halamish, a gleaming pink settlement on a hill top beyond the Wall.

The protestors had signs against the Occupation and this settlement. When Bassem came out of the market, he was beaten by soldiers, his ribs broken and he was sent back to jail. See here.


Here is how Idan Landau describes Halamish:

"Now is the time to make the ever-necessary note that is always absent from reports of the 'riots' in the Occupied Territories: Halamish itself is a marvel of unlawfulness. First, it was established on occupied territory, in contravention of international law. Second, it was established by force of a military appropriation order and was deceitfully converted into a civilian settlement. Third, large parts of it were constructed without plans or permits, knowing that they would be retroactively authorized by legal channels. In the confrontation between the residents of Halamish and the residents of Nabi Saleh, Israel’s army defends the law-breakers."


As a Jew and a longstanding fighter against fascism and Nazism, I can see those cordoned in a ghetto, being gradually forced out of their homes entirely. They are ordinary Palestinians...

The Europeans who do murderous damage and ethnic cleansing are the Israeli state and its settlers. That state is an increasingly reactionary, anti-democratic regime for Jews only (20% of the population of Israel is Palestinian and they are treated often as second class citizens about whether they can be licensed to practice a profession, about information on missile attacks - in Hebrew, not Arabic -, about whether their Knesset representatives can be part of a governing coalition, and in many other ways) and in the Occupied Territories, a particularly bizarre, illegal, apartheid one. There is little difference between Palestinians and the Jews of Europe (the Israeli government has not yet reached the highest levels of oppression, but comparisons with the Tsar leap to mind...).

Yet the racism of powerful Israelis toward Arabs hurts most Jews (take the housing protests of 2011; the privatization of housing means that ordinary people, particularly students, cannot rent while the .001% make exorbitant profits...).


It takes particular bravery for those Israelis in Anarchists against the Wall who stand out against the racism toward Palestinians and ally with their demonstrations. See here.. But there is room for a Palestinian and even an Israeli spring. A democratic movement from below - including Jews who want a decent future - is needed to stop this oppression and to make a place where two peoples can live in peace.


The Dorothy Cotton Institute delegation to Palestine had a phone call this week about our trip. In the black community, a very powerful resonance with the Biblical story of the Jews freeing themselves from slavery and journeying with great difficulty to the promised land undergirds support for Israel, extending back to W.E.B. Dubois (h/t Bob Harris). This vision of liberation accompanies the role of Jews like my friend Andy Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who gave their lives, with James Cheney, during Freedom Summer in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. The fate of Jews and African-Americans in the United States, and in the world, the joint fight against racism, is adorned with metaphors of the Promised Land:

"I have been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you" said Martin Luther King on the last evening, April 3, 1968, headachy. in the rainy church in Memphis, where striking sanitation workers and their supporters had come to hear him, "but you will get there..."


The Promised Land is a land of freedom from slavery, freedom for all. It is a land of freedom from genocide, freedom for all. It is a land of freedom from ethnic cleansing, freedom for all.

It is not a land where those formerly oppressed, conduct themselves against innocents as oppressors. It is not a land where a cruel tyrant, a Pharaoh or a Tsar, proclaims the dangers of "all Arabs" while treating Palestinians like the Jews of Europe...

The narrative of liberation with all its Old Testament force is not about a people "chosen" to become oppressors after being oppressed, but of a people, who with all the difficulties and turning back, nonetheless, went forward to a Promised Land of freedom. It is the example of liberation, a model which is to be emulated, one influential among black people and others in the United States, not a story, all too common, about how members of a formerly oppressed group become oppressors.


The Wall - and a large open air concentration camp - h/t Tom Farer - or reservation or Bantustan, what the Occupied Territories are - is not a dream of a Promised Land. It is its betrayal...


The post below by Idan Landau from +972 blog (h/t Allie Perry) tells the story a year and a half before our Delegation went:

"By +972blog |Published April 19, 2011]

Nabi Saleh: A tiny village's struggle against the occupation

In just over one year of unarmed demonstrations in Nabi Saleh, a small Palestinian community in the West Bank, 155 of the village’s 500 residents were wounded (about 60 of them children); 35 homes were damaged and dozens of the village’s people were detained. Yet even after the protest’s leader was put behind bars by the army, the struggle for the Nabi Saleh’s land continues

By Idan Landau | translation: Dena Shunra

For the photograph, see here.
Nabi Saleh, April 8 2011 (photo: Tamimi Press)

The objects seen in the picture: a magazine (Rifle-Launched Anti-Protesters Grenade ) attached to a Tavor gun, and a human skull, attached to a neck. The gun is vertical; the neck is horizontal. You could say they’ve made contact.

Inside the magazine: 12 to 16 rubber-coated metal pellets. Inside the skull: soft, gray brain tissue. Thoughts and memories. A soul.

The purpose of the weapon: dispersing demonstrations at a minimum range of 40 meters. The purpose of the brain: to live. To remember such moments.

Will the rubber-metal pellets go through that brain? Probably not. However, the thought about it doubtlessly goes through the man’s mind. One could say that this is actually happening at the photographed moment. Does pressing the magazine to the head of a man lying on the ground constitute “dispersion of demonstrations” at a minimal range of 40 meters?

Pointless question. That is not the point here. The point is sowing fear and terror, emotional terror.

Was the picture taken out of context? Did the demonstrator “provoke” the soldiers, perhaps by throwing stones? That is a disingenuous question, the very answer for which takes it out of context. As if the “provocation” and the throwing of stones have no context; as if they do not occur against the background of the basic, unchanging context of occupation and dispossession. What the hell is an Israeli soldier doing on Palestinian land? Why is he protecting an unlawful settlement that robs its Palestinian neighbors, and how does he even expect the Palestinian to just sit there and do nothing when faced with this scandalous conduct?

This could have been the end of the post. For anyone who knows anything about the events at Nabi Saleh, this is quite enough. But not everyone knows, and truly, what can you even understand from this laconic, routine headline that appears on the Hebrew news sites every Friday, “Riots at Nabi Saleh”? So it is appropriate to say more. That every Israeli citizen know what has been done in his name, every week, for 15 months now.


The confrontations in Nabi Saleh over the past year are considered the most violent in the West Bank. In spite of the fact that the Palestinian side is adhering to the nonviolent popular protest, with women and children participating, Israel’s army has broken several records in brutality at Nabi Saleh.

In March 2010, a 14-year-old youth, Ihab Barghoutti, was shot with a rubber pellet in the course of a demonstration. The pellet hit his head and he went into a coma. Of the 500 residents of the village, 155 were wounded since the beginning of the demonstrations; that’s about 30% of the population. About 60 of the people wounded are children. 35 homes were damaged by the shooting of demonstration-dispersing weapons. Fires broke out in seven of these. Based on testimonies from demonstrators, the Israeli army uses live firepower against them, too, in violation of the law.

Just to be clear: throwing stones at an occupying army which prevents you from demonstrating on your own land does not constitute “violent protest.” It is the expected response to someone who not only steals your land but also denies you the basic right to protest this. If the army stops acting against the residents of Nabi Saleh and just gets the hell off their lands, no one will throw stones at it.

The residents of Nabi Saleh are not trying to go to the nearby settlement of Halamish and they are not endangering the settlers. They insist – every Friday – to demonstrate by a spring that was appropriated from them.

The army does not even wait for the demonstrators to get out of the village. The Israeli army simply goes into the village and starts shooting at anything that moves – rubber-coated metal pellets, gas canisters, and other things. Sometimes it sprays entire streets with putrid skunk water: the houses, the windows, the potable water stored on the roofs. Not only is this collective punishment, this policy exposes the true provocateur: Village residents, who demonstrate without threatening any Israeli? Or the army, which invades their streets? (A quote from the testimony of Hedva Isscar: “The first gas canister was shot at us before we had time to get out of the village.”)

Like in Bil’in and Silwan, the Israeli army is trying to chop off the head of the popular protest by making arrests (did it help in Bil’in and Silwan? It did not. Does the Israeli army learn anything from this? It did not, either.) Protest leader Bassam Tamimi was arrested a month ago (in the 90’s Tamimi was tortured by the Internal Security Service [Shabak], after which he was paralyzed for a month). Like Abdallah Abu Rahme from Bil’in, Tamimi is 10 levels of morality above the army that arrested him. Here is what he says:

“We want to offer our people an example and pattern of popular struggle. Since the beginning of the revolution (the establishment of the PLO) and the armed struggle we have made cumulative mistakes which the Israelis used against us, although these were merely responses to the Israeli oppression. We do not have a military answer to Israel. History teaches us that if ever we had even partial success, it was in popular uprisings: in 1936 and in 1987. It is in the popular struggle that we can prove our moral superiority to all and sundry.”

People with that kind of dangerous idea must be put behind lock and key.

The wave of arrests at Nabi Saleh is characterized by the eradication of the difference between adults and minors. Since the protests began, more than a year ago, more than 60 residents of the village have been arrested and imprisoned (that’s approximately 13%). 29 of those imprisoned are minors. In an apparent effort to spare themselves the physical effort of running after demonstrators, Israel’s army has developed an original, new method: Army forces invade village homes at night, wakes up boys from their sleep, and photographs them. This is how they build up a database that will serve for future arrests – and to hell with civil rights and the presumption of innocence. Later, testimonies collected from minors, in violation of the law, without the presence of parents or attorneys and while denying them sleep, are used to incriminated village activists.

Imagine a 14-year-old Israeli youth taken from his home, without parents in attendance, and interrogated for a seven-hour stretch about rock-throwing. Imagine him being put in detention for two and half months. Imagine having one law for you – and another for him.

An Israeli soldier takes a nap in Nabi Saleh's spring (photo: Alison Avigayil Ramer)
Settlers have been coveting the ancient springs in the West Bank for many years. Most of these springs are not natural, it should be noted. They were dug as part of a system of irrigation, pools, and ditches that serve the Palestinian populations. Settlers have already taken over approximately 25 such springs, with the Civil Administration ignoring their actions (This Hebrew piece explains how the system works).

In 2008 the Halamish settlers went down to the Ein Al-Kous spring, placed tabernacles and benches there, marked it up with blue stars of David, and “converted” it to Judaism: now they would call it Ma’ayan Meir, for Meir Segal, one of the founders of Neve Tzoof, which was the former name of Halamish (it is always a good idea to make an outpost or spring into a commemorative site; this way it’s that much harder, politically, to return them). The Civil Administration was recruited to reinforce Jewish control by placing a sign prohibiting entry to an “Antiquities Site”. It later was discovered that the sign had been placed unlawfully, without the spot having been officially declared as an archeological site, and without any findings whatsoever found there. In other words, it was a trick to prohibit entry to Arabs. And indeed, a settler-hand soon interpreted the original text and added the following words to the sign: “No entry to Arabs.”

Ein Al-Kous has always-and-forever been part of the heritage of the residents of Nabi Saleh and the nearby Deir Nazzam, and served for watering herds. In January 2010 the residents presented ownership documentation to the Civil Administration and since then – the C.A. is in no hurry – the documents have been under “judicial examination.” Meanwhile, for more than a year, the settlers and the army have been acting as though the issue of ownership has already been decided in their favor. They are right, of course. The legalistic contortions are meant for foreign eyes, not for practical purposes. The Palestinians are again, as ever, “infiltrators” to their own land. And even if we were to assume that the land was “not legally disposed”, how has the spring become prohibited to Palestinians but permitted to Jews?

Now is the time to make the ever-necessary note that is always absent from reports of the “riots” in the Occupied Territories: Halamish itself is a marvel of unlawfulness. First, it was established on occupied territory, in contravention of international law. Second, it was established by force of a military appropriation order and was deceitfully converted into a civilian settlement. Third, large parts of it were constructed without plans or permits, knowing that they would be retroactively authorized by legal channels. In the confrontation between the residents of Halamish and the residents of Nabi Saleh, Israel’s army defends the law-breakers.

Israel’s governments, one after another, have specialized in blatant lies to the public. A particularly effective method was the concealment of the merely-colonial expansionist greed behind military excuses. Thus, for example, the government decision dated 2 October 1977 establishing Neve Tzoof/Halamish was phrased: “the government records the decision of the Ministers’ Committee For Settlement dated 17 Tishrei 5738 (29 September 1977). The settlers will populate Army camps in Samaraia [sic] and be employed in accordance with army requirements as workers in service of the army. The government authorizes the deployment of the first nucleus to settlement in the Samaria Camp, today.”

“Workers in service of the army.” What has changed today? That the army works in their service. What’s the difference? There is no difference.

Here, too, is the reason for the especially tough measures taken by the military against the demonstrators at Nabi Saleh, in contrast with other places in the West Bank. The Nabi Saleh demonstrations threaten not the separation wall but a territory the settlers have occupied for themselves. The army operates as a militia for retention of the lands by Jews; it perceives the protest as being addressed directly to it, as there is no true difference between the interests of the settler and the interests of the soldiers guarding him. There is no doubt that this is aided by the presence of a senior office in the Halamish settlement - Lieutenant Colonel (Res.) Itzik Shadmi, Chair of the Binyamin Settler Committee, a man whose opinions nestle comfortably between ultra-rightwing Rabbi Dov Wolfa and Kahane man Baruch Marzel.

The Israeli army will lose. The settlers will lose. Israel will lose. On the road to that loss they will wound and displace countless Palestinians, but at the end they will lose. And they will lose because they do not understand what they are contending with, despite the fact that it is in plain view, before their very eyes (as you can see in the astonishing movie, below). Sometimes you need a tremendous, superhuman effort to see that there is a human being before you. And then you need another effort, no smaller than the first, to see that what you ask him to relinquish – in contrast to what you must relinquish – is the recognition of his own value as a human being.

And that, he will not relinquish.


Idan Landau is a linguist at the Beer-Sheba university. This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Idan’s blog. It was translated and posted here with the author’s permission.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Poem: promise

in a rainy church

with a headache

Dr. King spoke

in Nabih Saleh

on that last night

the children of slaves

fire stench gas

shoot demonstrators

into water tanks

against the Wall

of Promised Land

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Smithsonian’s ghoulish hoarding of 20,000 skulls – a letter from Glenn Morris, pt. 2

In response to "Iliff’s grisly display of a “biblical” text wrapped in human skin" here, part 1 of what will be a series, Glenn Morris sent me a moving and horrifying letter with two attachments on the seizing by the Smithsonian of 20,000 skulls. I knew of this zeal for phrenology and craniometry - two grotesque pseudosciences, in this case, "legitimizing" grave robbing by the army and "scientists" (the heritage of racism in what has become modern archaeology and anthropology is bizarre and strong...). But the detail was new to me. Revulsion at American Nazism, er eugenics, comes up pretty fiercely in hearing about this.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), Public Law 101-601, 25 U.S.Code 3001 et seq., 104 Stat. 3048, enacted November 16, 1990, requires the return of these skulls for burial (the Smithsonian may have returned a quarter of them, now after 20 years). Decent people might have done it long before, though I am sure, as at Iliff, some were concerned. But in violation of the law, this governmental institution could not, as of 2011, be bothered to "figure out" what, let alone whose skulls they have. They "had something else to do" (curious that having Nazi-like, illegal practices is not a sufficient motivation for them to move...).


The ghoulishness at Iliff was changed in 1971; the federal government's ghoulishness continues to this moment (even with Obama as President…).


Racism toward Native Americans, in particular, a murderous gut hatred, has been cultivated by the elite since the colonial period. See the fine new books by Billy Stratton, Buried in Shades of Night and Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors. The unity of the Revolution against the British including some blacks who fought centrally for the American side and helped, along with poor white abolitionists, bring about gradual emancipation in the North, was also partly directed against Native Americans, as Silver righly suggests. The unity versus the British was admirable; unity of extermination toward the indigenous people of New England was not.


Even Patriot recruitment of indigenous people – Narragansetts, for instance, played a huge role in the First Rhode Island Regiment – was met with depredations against and stealing from other indigenous people (just as dependence on black soldiers – the main dead on both sides at the crucial battle of Yorktown and drivers of gradual emancipation in some states following the Revolution - did not lead to the abolition of slavery in the South. The failure of gradual emancipation in the South startlingly contrasts with all the other independence movements in South and Central America where emancipation, either abrupt (Saint Domingue/Haiti) or gradual in Venezuelas, as in the American Northern States, was accompanied by independence. See my Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence.


The idea of natural "superiority" as a license for bondage goes back to Aristotle. It is the false claim that the privileged are minds (observably false since the defense of privilege requires lying and frequently naked stupidity) and others – barbarians, immigrants, indigenous people, slaves, women, etc. – mere bodies "needing" command. And this is ostensibly due to "nature" (you keep a person in chains all her life – and her ancestors for theirs or murder them, and then wonder that she has trauma; of course, those who do this have something worse than trauma...). Call this view Colonel Blimp tricked up with skull measurements...


What Samuel Morton says about native americans described by Glenn Morris below is what Edward Banfield in the Unheavenly City (1970) says about Irish immigrants (once upon a time) and Blacks in the 1960s. They putatively have "lower class culture" - are violent and like sex - and are “present-oriented.” Banfield, an "important" and odious figure, was an advisor to the violent Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and a colleague, correspondent of and occasional cooperator with Leo Strauss.


The litany of racists never varies far. IQ testing has been its “highest accomplishemnt,” relegating Jews and other nonwhite - non-"Nordic" - people to feeblemindedness at Ellis Island early in the 20th century (they took tests in English when they did not yet speak English. They were asked the name of the Brooklyn National League baseball team at the time – this important bit of “genetically determined” information is not the Dodgers...


But Carl Brigham, author of A Study of American Intelligence, testified before Congress in 1921, that the Nordics (Scandinavians) who came in the 1890 were brighter, had a capacity for "abstract intelligence" which others supposedly lacked (see Glenn's account of Samuel Morton below). It did not occur to Brigham that they had learned English by the first World War, while the newer immigrants had not (racism kept his eyes determinedly shut to this obvious alternative). This Professor at Princeton who was vital in the passage of the 1924 immigration law 0 one which referred to the preservation of “the pure Nordic stock” of the United States - and for whom the Library at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton is named, was not, himself, an example of Amerian intelligence…

Thinking, let alone, "abstraction," was not what he did.


Still, the quality of the atrocities, in particular, murdering and collecting skulls from indigenous people as part of the long Civil War in the West (the one lasting until 1876, focused on ethnic cleansing) stands out. There is often medical experimentation on Jews in Nazi Germany and Austria (racist doctors, psychologists and sociologists - pseudoscientists - provide there another startling illustration of how tricked-up prejudice can sanction genocide).


In the aftermath of the Cvil War, the American elite feared the sense equality from below – the decency of abolitionism/radical Republicanism – that had won the war against bondage. So the government also promoted skull measurements on blacks, moving toward Jim Crow.


Similarly, in reaction against the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later, Daniel Patrick Monynihan launched the matriralrchal thesis about the black family. Slavery and racism no longer existed in America, he imagined (as Bobby Kennedy once said of him, “Pat has a problem with racism…”). Therefore, the reason that blacks don’t get ahead is: families split up and the boys are raised by…single women. This "explanation" combines racism and sexism in a slightly different form from Samuel Morton’s racist fashion (there are, once again, two or three sociological/psychological/phrenological forms of bigotry touted as "science").


In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech at Howard retailing Moynihan's thesis (a complex figure in this regard, Johnson, under sharp pressure from below, did move the Civil Rights Act). His speech was met with widespread protest.


Whenever there are gains made by protest from below, including the case of Native Americans (there were concessions to Red Cloud and the victorious Sioux in the Black Hills which lasted 3 or 4 years...), these pseudoscientific fashions creep up again, often with horrific consequences. What Glenn describes at the Smithsonian - the storing/"cataloguing" of 20,000 skulls - is the most grisly...


Professor James Riding In, a scholar at Arizona State University and a Pawnee, has done pathbreaking work highlighting the US army/Smithsonian's, as he rightly names it, "grave looting" (he also speaks the spiritual holocaust which accompanied ethnic cleansing). If the bodies are desecrated, Pawnees believe, the spirits cannot rest.

Are these "scientists" and the rest of "white" society willing to have their ancestors unearthed and their skulls kept for "measurement"? To ask the question is to highlight, following John Rawls, that the perpetrators were often monsters (it is hard to imagine, the Joint Congressional Commission wrote in its verdict on Sand Creek, that "beings in human form" could have done this...). James Riding In, "Repatriation: a Pawnee's Perspective," Indian Quarterly, vol. 20, no 2, 1996 here.


Hollywood likes to fantasize that aliens from outer space steal skulls, but really they should just look at Professors and Curators at “great” American (and of course English and German…) institutions.


As Brenda Norelle discusses Professor Riding In's work in her reporting below:

"'[Samuel Morton] never questioned the morality of stealing Indian crania from graves,' Riding In said.

Morton paid soldiers, settlers, and others for Indian skulls. With bounty offered, American Indian skulls became sought after in what Riding In describes as a cottage industry.

The United States Army established a program during the 1860s for studying Indian crania. Among those massacred, beheaded and their crania taken, were a group of friendly Cheyenne, Kiowa [sic - the Kiowa were not camped at Sand creek] and Arapaho near Sand Creek, Colo."


Apparently, Governor John Evans's and Chivington's plans for Sand Creek included skull-stealing...


Samuel G. Morton and others deserve to be remembered with Himmler and Goebbels and Torquemada as important figures in genocide.


Having a history of waging wars of ethnic cleansing, the US army now suddenly names everything for Native Americans. Tomahawk missiles projected for use in Syria, Apache helicopters to further the State of Israel’s ethnic cleansing in the Occupied Territories and Operation Geronimo (Geronimo was a courageous fighter against extreme oppression and deception) as a name for taking out the mass murderer Bin Laden provide some striking examples. See here. The army somehow understands that indigenous names mean something – that indigenous fighters had an honor, a boldness of tactics and a straightforwardness in negotiation. The idea that the American government lies is, unfortunately, the fair inference from its breaking of every treaty that it signed across the Continent. And the U.S. army embraces indigenous names even as its officers and publicists have amnesia about how the army itself carried out the ethnic cleansing, cordoning those not murdered off on "reservations" (concentration camps).


The army cut off people’s heads, stole skulls, and parked them in the Smithsonian. For officers and politicians now to insist that the wars America fought in achieving "Manifest Destiny" reflect a peace-oriented and well-meaning army and policy…- now that is Founding Amnesia…


As Brenda Norell aptly writes in the third article below:

“Between 1877 and 1881, the Army Medical Museum collected human skulls of American Blacks, Chinook, Choptank, Dakota, Eskimo of Greenland, Formosans, Hawaiians, Hidatsa, Nisqually, Philippine peoples, Ponca, Potowatomi, Pueblo, Tonkawa, and Ute. 

Today, while the Smithsonian capitalizes on American Indian history and culture in the promotion of its museums, particularly on the romantic aspects of Native American culture, the Smithsonian delays for years the return of American Indian remains.”


And the fight from below to return the skulls of indigenous people may eventually result in the burial of the others. In America, Jews, though then stigmatized, were spared. America's eugenic cousins in Germany, however, remedied this oversight...


After the Civil War, phenology at the Smithsonian swung into high gear. Blacks and indigenous people were stigmatized for Jim Crow (1876 - see Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by another Name) and to license genocide in the West. It is worth taking in this history and for every decent person who wants to live in a civilized society and university or cares at all for democracy, fighting its criminal heritage to the last breath…


‪"Hello, Alan,‬

Thank you for this account. Unfortunately, none of this is new to most of us in the Native community. For several years, Tink Tinker and Loring Abeyta researched and attempted to rectify these crimes. I am sure that they will be sending a comment to your recent post.

Of course, within Colorado AIM, the work of former Denver AIM director Vince Havier, who has since passed on, was well known. These kinds of indignities against indigenous peoples, as you state, were not only common, but were considered a "normal" fate for those of us from an inferior cultural, religious, political and economic order. As you probably know, the Smithsonian Institution admitted two years ago that it continued illegally to possess over 20,000 American Indian skulls, in violation of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. See here.

A number of the skulls were collected before, and at, Sand Creek, motivated in part by the bounty on skulls for the pseudo-scientific cranial studies that were inspired by Samuel George Morton, often cited as the father of scientific racism. One of Morton's conclusions from his perverse head-snatching/measuring scheme was that:

"In their mental character the [American Indians] are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure. They are crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives. They devour the most disgusting [foods] uncooked and uncleaned, and seem to have no idea beyond providing for the present moment. ... Their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood. ... [Indians] are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects."

Some Sand Creek connections to the criminality of the "American School" of ethnography/craniometry may be found here. This article cites the important work of James Riding In at Arizona State University. I hope that some of this might be useful to you.

Best regards,


"Smithsonian's racist collection of Indian skulls

The history of the Smithsonian Institution, like the history taught in US classrooms, is largely one of deception and fiction

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Photo: Trees at Sand Creek massacre. Photo Brenda Norrell.

The Smithsonian's dark history includes the collecting of American Indian brains for a racist experiment which claimed to reveal the relationship between race and intelligence. Brains were collected for bounty. One of the massacres where this sinister collection of brains was carried out was at Sand Creek in Colorado, a brutal massacre where fleeing Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children were murdered in 1864. The following article is republished, so the facts will not be forgotten, with a special thank you to Pawnee professor James Riding In who provided much of the information. After publication of this article, I wrote the Smithsonian and asked if it was true that more than 10,000 Indian skulls remained at the Smithsonian. There was no response. --Brenda Norrell

Smithsonian harbored Ishi's brain
by Brenda Norrell
(March 19, 1999)

The Smithsonian Institution admits, after a probe and nearly a century of secrecy, that it housed the brain of Ishi, a Yahi Indian who walked into Oroville, Calif., in 1911.

But the admission comes only after American Indians demanded a befitting burial and University of California researchers probed the whereabouts of Ishi's remains, that the Smithsonian admits that Ishi's brain was in a warehouse at the National Museum of Natural History.

Pointing to scientific racism, James Riding In, Pawnee professor at Arizona State University, said American Indian skulls at the Smithsonian are part of the U.S. Army's research intended to show that whites were superior based on the size of their skulls.

Riding In said the Smithsonian has been less than forthcoming about the American Indian remains in its possession, as mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Riding In said Smithsonian Institution curators previously acquired 18,500 bodies and most of the skulls were collected by the Army Medical Museum in the 1800s. While most of the crania gather dust at the Smithsonian today, others have been destroyed by carbon 14 dating analysis.

Riding In's research is now included in law seminar course material at Arizona State University, "Symposium on Land, Culture, and Community: Contemporary Issues in CulturalResources Protection."

The research shows that Samuel G. Morton, in the early 1830s, worked in craniology and phrenology, to devise tests on skulls, in relation to intelligence and crania size. He poured mustard seeds into human skulls to determine size and volume in his research.

In the process, Morton assembled a large collection of American Indian skulls.

"He never questioned the morality of stealing Indian crania from graves," Riding In said.

Morton paid soldiers, settlers, and others for Indian skulls. With bounty offered, American Indian skulls became sought after in what Riding In describes as a cottage industry.

The United States Army established a program during the 1860s for studying Indian crania. Among those massacred, beheaded and their crania taken, were a group of friendly Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho near Sand Creek, Colo.

The final chapter in the legacy of Ishi, whose biography became a documentary film, is included in this dark, untold chapter of American history.

Although Ishi made a final request that there be no autoposy, the anthropologists who supposedly befriended him, removed his brain during an autopsy in 1916. The removal and transfer to the Smithsonian were kept secret until recently.

"It was not uncommon to study brains in the early 20th century," said anthropologist Orin Starn, who led the Smithsonian to admit the location of Ishi's brain. "Some people thought that different races had different brain sizes."

Starn said Ishi was "really was a victim of a holocaust."

The investigation was spearheaded by Nancy Rockafeller, a research historian at the University of California in San Francisco in the History of Health Science Department, and Starn, a Duke University anthropologist.

Rockafeller said that before his death in 1916 from tuberculosis, two persons appeared to befriend Ishi, anthropologist Thomas Waterman and museum curator Alfred Kroeber. Rockafeller determined that after the autopsy, Kroeber sent Ishi's brain to the Smithsonian for study in 1917.

Native Americans in California plan to carry out a proper burial at Ishi's homeland at Mount Lassen. (A proper burial of Ishi did follow.)

Additional reference to the US collection of American Indian skulls: "In 1862, during the Civil War, the Surgeon General established the United States Army Medical Museum (AMM; now the National Museum of Health and Medicine of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology)."

Photographs of American Indian skulls at this museum: "Tribes or races represented are Apache, Arapaho, Arikara, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Dakota, Eskimo, Hawaiian, Negro, Paiute, Ponca, San Miguel and San Nicholas islands (California), White, and Wichita." Read more here.


Smithsonian's morbid collection of Indian skulls
Posted by Brenda Norrell - June 14, 2011

Smithsonian continues racism and morbid disrespect harboring Indian remains in violation of federal law

WASHINGTON -- The United States now admits that the Smithsonian Institution's process will take decades to return 20,000 human remains to American Indian Nations and comply with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. 

The US Government Accounting Office reports that the Smithsonian's repatriation of thousands of Native American human remains and funerary objects "may take several more decades" under the current system.

The delay in complying with federal law continues a pattern of sinister racism, secrecy and morbid dishonor at the Smithsonian. 

The Smithsonian has tried to avoid publicity of its collection of skulls in a racist experiment aimed at determining skull size in relation to intelligence. The payment of bounty for Indian skulls for the Smithsonian led to the Massacre at Sand Creek in Colorado and the slaughter of Cheyenne Arapaho women and children, and massacres and murders elsewhere by Army Scouts.

The Smithsonian has not been forthright in admitting the truth about its collection of Indian remains. It was a researcher who discovered the remains of Ishi, known as the last of the Yahi, at the Smithsonian. Initially the Smithsonian refused to return his skull for reburial in California and only did so following adverse national publicity.

 The Smithsonian is not the only US museum that harbored large collections of Native American skulls. The United States Army Medical Museum posted online a list of collections of American Indian skulls transferred to the Smithsonian.

 The morbid lists of skulls include this statement by the US Army Medical Musuem (AMM): "Tribes or races represented are Apache, Arapaho, Arikara, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Dakota, Eskimo, Hawaiian, Negro, Paiute, Ponca, San Miguel and San Nicholas islands (California), White, and Wichita." See here.

The two US museums were involved in exchanges and deals. 

The Smithsonian states, "The anatomical collection grew as the result of the Surgeon General's Circular No. 2 of 1867. It called on military medical officers to collect crania together with specimens of Indian weapons, dress, implements, diet, and medicines. Other specimens came from arrangements with the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian agreed to transfer its collection of human remains, including future acquisitions, to the AMM. In return, the AMM agreed give the Smithsonian artifacts that came into its possession."

The Smithsonian admits Indian remains were obtained by executions. However, the Smithsonian uses the word "battles." instead of the more accurate word "massacres," referring to the Massacre at Sand Creek and others.

 "In May, 1898, the AMM transferred 2,206 skulls to the Smithsonian. Some specimens were obtained after battles or executions and such data is noted," the Smithsonian states in this report.

Between 1877 and 1881, the Army Medical Museum collected human skulls of American Blacks, Chinook, Choptank, Dakota, Eskimo of Greenland, Formosans, Hawaiians, Hidatsa, Nisqually, Philippine peoples, Ponca, Potowatomi, Pueblo, Tonkawa, and Ute.

Today, while the Smithsonian capitalizes on American Indian history and culture in the promotion of its museums, particularly on the romantic aspects of Native American culture, the Smithsonian delays for years the return pf American Indian remains.

The press statement below reveals that the Smithsonian views this is a "workload" issue, rather the return of ancestors to their families and communities for reburial, in accordance with federal law.

Here is the statement of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers regarding the long delays in the Smithsonian returning human remains:

GAO Finds that Smithsonian Institution May Still Take Several More Decades to Repatriate Native American Remains and Objects

WASHINGTON, June 13, 2011 -- The Smithsonian Institution's process to repatriate thousands of Native American human remains and funerary objects in its collections is lengthy and resource intensive and it may take several more decades to return items to tribes under its current system, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

 This GAO report is the second of a two-part, three-year effort to examine how publicly funded institutions are complying with the two federal laws that direct repatriation to Native Americans. Last year the GAO examined the repatriation work of eight key Federal agencies and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). 

According to the GAO report, Smithsonian Institution: Much Work Still Needed to Identify and Repatriate Indian Human Remains and Objects, examiners suggested that Congress should consider ways to expedite the repatriation process and that the Board of Regents considers four administrative changes.

In 1989, Congress passed a law that created a repatriation process for the Smithsonian Institution; two of the institution's 19 galleries and museums hold important collections of Native American human remains and sacred objects. The law also created the National Museum of the American Indian. Though not certain of the exact number, the Smithsonian states it has about 20,000 catalog records of Native American human remains plus many more catalog records of cultural objects held at the National Museum of Natural History and the American Indian museum. Only a quarter of these have been repatriated to the rightful Native Indian owners, according to the GAO report released in May. 

In addition to not regularly reporting to Congress, federal auditors said the repatriation process is lengthy and resource intensive. Both museums use a two-step repatriation process that starts with a printout from an electronic catalogue system that lists human remains and cultural objects that is sent to the tribe. The Indian tribe is then required to file a claim to either museum indicating their interest. Only then does the museum begin a lengthy process of using the "best available information" to build a case report that may or may not recommend repatriation. This process requires an Indian tribe to review thousands of electronic records, which, many times do not contain all relevant information.

When the Smithsonian did repatriate remains and objects, the GAO discovered it took a median of nearly three years for an item to be returned by the Natural History museum and a median of 1.5 years at the American Indian museum. One tribe waited more than 18 years.

 "The GAO has confirmed twice now that the two federal laws enacted for the benefit of Native American lineal descendants and communities are not working. The amount of work that needs to be done by Indian country is overwhelming, whether at the Smithsonian or at a federal agency repository," said Reno Keoni Franklin, chairman of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO). "Unless changes are made, the burden has been shifted to the Indian tribes and most simply do not have the resources to conduct this important work."

NATHPO supports the GAO's recommendations that Congress seek to expedite the Smithsonian's repatriation process and that the Board of Regent's take actions to expand the oversight and reporting role of the Smithsonian's Repatriation Committee, establish an administrative appeals process, and develop a policy for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable remains and cultural items.

In addition, NATHPO calls for Congress to ensure that the Smithsonian will:

1.Improve the records management for both the Natural History and American Indian museums so that both museums have an accurate count of Native American remains and cultural objects in their collections (The GAO report stated that the Smithsonian cannot provide a reliable estimate of the number of funerary objects in its collection);

2.Promulgate regulations on the Review Committee, as required by Pub. L. 101-185, to further define and clarify the advisory committee's responsibilities and to seek public comment and conduct tribal consultation;

3.Implement a single and consistent Smithsonian-wide repatriation process, rather than allowing for two different repatriation approaches and processes;

4.Fully engage Indian country in the repatriation process using all available Smithsonian resources, rather than looking at the remaining repatriation work merely as a workload issue;

5.Ensure greater openness and transparency on such basic issues as to publicly post the National Museum of the American Indian's board of trustees and repatriation committee members and to publish public notices prior to the repatriation of Native American human remains and funerary objects.

NATHPO also calls on Congress to request a GAO examination of the repatriation work being conducted by the approximately 450 museums that hold over 110,000 Native Americans.

Last year, the GAO audited eight key agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, and issued NAGPRA: After Almost 20 Years, Key Federal Agencies Still Have Not Fully Complied with the Act. In 2008, NATHPO, in partnership with the Makah Tribe, conducted an independent audit of NAGPRA, which led to the 2010 GAO report. The GAO began its work on NAGPRA in 2009 based on a joint request by then Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV). The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will conduct a hearing June 16 on the policy goals of NAGPRA and the Smithsonian.

The GAO Smithsonian report (GAO-11-515) and the GAO Key Federal Agencies report (GAO-10-768) may be found on the NATHPO website and at

To read the Makah-NATHPO NAGPRA report and for more information about NATHPO, go to

Special thanks to Pawnee professor James Riding in, at Arizona State University, who provided the initial information for the news report on Smithsonian's collection of skulls for the research on skulls and intelligence.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Iliff’s grisly display of a “biblical” text wrapped in human skin

Micael Hickcox, a student at the Iliff School of Theology in the early 1970s (Master's degree, 1974) was appalled by a Biblical text in Latin donated by a “prestigious” – or at least monied – person and displayed - highlighted - in front of the Library.. For it was bound in the skin of a Native American…


“Near the entrance of the library there were two display cases, one on the left and one on the right. In the display case on the left was a history of the Christian Church written in Latin. The 3 X 5 card in front of the book said that it had been donated by a family that had supported the school. The card also indicated that the book was wrapped in the skin of an American Indian.

The book and its cover were periodically discussed by the students. The book reminded us of stories about the Nazis and lampshades made out of human skin. The atrocious nature of this escaped no one.

As the President of the Iliff League, I brought the book to the attention of a meeting of the student body [of the] organization. The students wanted to seek a proper way to deal with the binding of the book. I was empowered to action on behalf of the Iliff League.

I looked in the Denver phone book to find an appropriate agency or person. I found a number for the American Indian Movement or it may have been Denver Native Americans United. I think it was Mr. Vincent Harvier who later called me back and came to our next meeting and to see the book. He visited, talked with us, and examined the book.

Meanwhile I talked with the Librarian Dr. B.F. Jackson and the assistant librarian Reverend Jerry D. Campbell. Both were already embarrassed by the book and wanted to find a good way to dispose of it, but felt constrained by the book’s connection with an influential supporting family. School President, Dr. Jameson Jones, was also brought into the conversation. Jackson, Campbell and Jones were also pleased to have contact with Mr. Vincent Harvier.

Jameson Jones and Vincent Harvier made plans for proper disposal. Jerry Campbell removed the book from the binding/skin. The book was rebound in a plain cover. The skin was taken at the appointed time to Dr. Jones’ office. That day Mr. Harvier and a “medicine man” [sic – that’s what he was, no quotation marks] arrived at the office. The skin was taken out of the envelope and placed in a velvet cloth and the cloth was folded over the skin. [the focus on details here has an aspect of posttraumatic stress disorder/obsession]. It was then taken away for proper burial.

…The book was in the collection because it was donated by a family significant in the development of the school in the 19th century. It remained as a curiosity [sic], just waiting for someone to find an appropriate way to end an inappropriate presence. It was a disturbing presence and we were grateful for the helpful and concerned response of Mr. Harvier.”

(h/t Steve Fisher)


This may be the single most sickening thing I have heard about a University or School of Theology (although I am sure the depravity of collections of Native American body parts, some of which must have gotten into university collections will yield up competitors as would perhaps the treatment of slaves...).

What does it say of Iliff and Methodism, that despite discomfort, a lampshade er "holy book" made of human skin was exhibited for many years right out front? Has anyone thought of what might cleanse the place, given this? The word “disturbing” is true, but not strong enough (t is no synonym of ghoulish "atrocity")...


It is hard not to be overwhelmed by revulsion for Iliff (or America) and its "traditions." It is good that Michael Hickcox did something about it - had a feeling that it was unholy and repulsive that Iliff long displayed this at its Library. What "learning" does this represent?

But it is almost a mark of craziness that Hickcox then calls it "a curiosity." He shares the common amnesia about the real background: the founding of Colorado in exterminating racism (Major Edward Wynkoop named Evans, Chivington and others the "exterminators," whom he had once been with but defected from...).

For the skin was on display at Iliff because that's what Iliff came from and was - it was the Methodists on its first board, Evans, Chivington and Byers, publisher and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, who did Sand Creek and "ridded" Colorado of Cheyennes and Arapahoes in Evans' retrospective phrase:

“So the benefit of that massacre to the people of Colorado was very great for it ridded the plains of the Indians for there was a sentiment that the Indians ought not to be left in the midst of the community. It relieved us very much of the roaming tribes of Indians.” – Evans’ 1884 interview with H.H. Bancroft (p. 21)

John Wesley Iliff was a big cattle rancher dependent on the railways - both the ranch and the railways were on stolen land, a result of this "ridding"...


Now the book cover was from some other Native American's body, desecrated and offered as "a gift," accepted from a "valued donor." Schools can, of course, refuse such donors and donations and might want to look hard at what they "celebrate"...

German analogies leap to mind, as Hickcox rightly says...

Sophocles' Antigone does also; the Greeks had a deep understanding of sacrilege and respect for the dead. In the play, the new king Creon refuses to let the body of Polynices who fought against the city be buried (Polynices was the son of Oedipus, the previous king). The birds tear at the flesh and spread it - unclean - around the city.

Antigone, Polynices' sister, covers the body with sand. Soldiers apprehend her and Creon orders her walled into a cave to die. But his son who loves her goes into the cave with her. His wife then discovers the suicide of her son, and commits suicide. Sacrilege thus has shocking consequences for the new King, swollen with hubris, on his first day…


One should see this “trophy” long displayed proudly at the Library at Iliff
as a sign of the racism that marked the second Civil war in the West and ethnic cleansing from "sea to shining sea." See here. This skin reveals a “Founding Amnesia”: for instance, that American foreign policy toward indigenous peoples was neither “idealistic” nor “peace-oriented” nor “honorable,” and that in fact, these are the last words that might occur to anyone who knows about "Manifest Destiny" to describe it…


Despite Mr. Hickcox's comment, it is probably not conducive to a soul being at rest to have one's skin divided for such purposes (perhaps the medicine man was able to do some healing). It is also hard not to be buried by one's relatives or tribe (American military depredations often prevented this).

That body parts have been stolen from vast numbers, Native American skulls exhibited, and the like says a lot about the community that conquered and murdered them.

Friday, October 11, 2013

My friend Ralph Miliband and "genteel" anti-semitism in Britain

One can notice in the great T.S. Eliot's poems a certain would be English anti-semitism. Eliot was, despite his music, a Midwestern arriviste, seeking association with English royalism and, in "Gerontion," it is strong in the alliterative:

"My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London."

See here and here.


Anti-Jewish ideology is often a visceral thing in England (and in the American Mid-west, inter alia).


In 1965-66, I studied political sociology at the London School of Economics with Ralph Miliband. Miliband wrote Parliamentary Socialism, an analysis of how leftists come to power in democratic elections, and under pressures of governing a capitalist system with an already set and large bureaucracy, give up their leftism. It is as insightful about the Labor Party (and even prescient, sadly, about his sons, Ed and David, though Ed would do better than the austerity hawking and racist David Cameron) as it might be today in America on the failures, as measured by the decency of his campaigns, of Barack Obama. Be it noted, however, that Obama looks good in many respects, and so does Obamacare, the Heritage foundation proposal for extended health care coverage, taken up by Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, compared to the pseudo-"Republican" party and its analogous racism toward "the other," "a Kenyan anti-colonialist, Muslim, Communist, National Socialist, Socialist in the White House who lacks a birth certificate...".


Turn the coin and it is of you I speak...


The Daily Mail, edited and written for by two assimilating Jews, has defamed Miliband, given his prominent sons, for being a "Bolshevik." Ralph fought for Britain against the Nazis (did these "patriots"?). He also fought for changes to secure a common good for working people in Britain against the rapacious politics of the .0001% (we are now seeing what these policies mean in America where a default will mean the mudslide of the rest of the former middle class into poverty).

He analyzed the State in Capitalist Society, something that looks, given current control of the government by a handful of ultra-rich, grasping people and the desire to ravage social security or wrest even food stamps from poor children, prescient. Anti-Jewish ideology was also intimately linked, by Hitler and his fellow anti-semites, with anti-radical ideology. The aim was initially to block reform and ultimately to refashion the world (see here, here, here, here and here on Martin Heidegger). It is the purest and oldest of poisons...


Though the arrivistes who said these anti-semitic lines are of Jewish origin, what they spew is the pure stuff...


A Jew Not Quite English Enough
Published: October 7, 2013

LONDON — A 16-year-old Jew of working-class Polish descent flees Nazi-occupied Belgium at the last minute and, arriving in May 1940, finds refuge in Britain. He joins the Royal Navy and serves for three years, fighting to defeat Hitler and save stranded relatives, several of whom die in the Holocaust.

See the photograph here.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

A lifelong socialist — he had joined a socialist-Zionist youth group in Belgium before fleeing with his father — this young man goes on to a distinguished career as a writer and teacher, including a spell as a professor at Brandeis University [Ralph's long career was at the London School of Economics]. But he remains based in North London, deeply immersed in British left-wing circles and intellectual debate.

This is Ralph (born Adolphe) Miliband, the late father of David Miliband, Britain’s former foreign secretary, and of Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party. He is also, for that voice of the British conservative heartland, The Daily Mail, “The Man Who Hated Britain.”

The headline stood atop a recent piece that portrayed Ralph Miliband as a disloyal socialist. He is accused of “availing himself” of a good British education while criticizing the nationalism he encountered on arrival. He helped his father in “rescuing furniture from bombed houses in the Blitz.” He stood reverently at the grave of Karl Marx in north London. He denounced the Falklands War, even while — The Mail insinuates — scheming to avoid death duties on the family house in fashionable Primrose Hill, and suffered from a “giant-sized social chip on his shoulder” that explained his criticism of British institutions.

Sound familiar? The rootless Jewish Bolshevik who profits from others’ losses, shows no loyalty to the society in which he prospers, and devises clever two-faced financial maneuvers that demonstrate his essential hypocrisy: All this could of course have been borrowed from the Nazi propaganda Ralph Miliband fled as a young man.

No matter, for The Daily Mail, that the young Jewish immigrant put his life on the line for Britain. Jews also served Germany with distinction as officers during World War I, but their military decorations, displayed with pride in their Berlin living rooms, did not prove they were loyal Germans (even if they loved nothing more than Germany) and could not save them.

Ed Miliband reacted with fury to The Daily Mail’s slurs on his father. “I loved him and he loved Britain,” he wrote in a response published by the paper even as it defended in an editorial its attack on the man whose grave in Highgate Cemetery “lies 12 yards from the remains of Karl Marx.”

Miliband said of his father: “Like most refugees, the security of our country was really important to him. And like some refugees, he owed his life to it. So my Dad loved Britain, he served Britain, and he taught both David and me to do the same.”

The Labour leader steered clear of the evident Jewish stereotyping oozing from every insinuation in The Mail piece, which was written by a Jew, Geoffrey Levy, and defended most publicly by another Jew, The Mail’s deputy editor, Jon Steafel. For Levy and Steafel, in what the historian Lewis Namier characterized as the land of the “trembling Israelites,” Miliband was somehow not quite English enough. He was the Jewish communist outsider masquerading as an Englishman.

John Mann, a Labour member of Parliament and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, clarified the issue in a tweet. He called the attack on Ralph Miliband a “classical age-old anti-Semitic smear about disloyal Jews.”

Dressed up as a defense of British values — when in fact it was a demonstration of bigotry in a land of overriding tolerance — that is precisely what The Mail article was: a smear laden with stereotypes of the scheming Jew. The fact that it has scarcely been debated as such demonstrates the existence of a problem rather than its absence.

In his book “Anglomania,” Ian Buruma writes about his grandparents, German Jewish immigrants who became British, felt British, loved Britain — and yet. He writes: “Instead of using the word ‘Jew’ in public we would say ‘forty-five.’ The origin of this odd phrase is unknown. When Bernard was refused a senior position in a famous hospital in 1938, he wrote to Win: ‘It is the old, old story — (45).”’

This is indeed an old, old story. Keep quiet, use code, ignore the occasional comments about “pushiness” or “flashiness” or “stinginess” or “Jewish behavior” (whatever that might be) or a comment about a Jewish woman’s “great conk of a nose.” This, after all, is no more than genteel prejudice, harmless enough, unlike the Continental brand that Ralph Miliband fled.

In The Mail article, a letter of Miliband’s is quoted: “Respectability, good taste, don’t rock the boat, there will always be an England, foreigners, Jews, natives etc. are all right in their place and their place is outside.”

The worst of the piece is that it reflects the attitudes that could give Miliband these feelings at a time when Britain is a far more open society than the one he first encountered.

David Miliband tweeted that his father loved Britain. He now lives in New York, city of full-throated Jewishness.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

what students of Plato may learn from the Apology

Let us consider Socrates’ defense at his trial (in English, the apology, but without apologetic overtones) from the standpoint of Plato’s students. Aristotle studied in Plato's academy for 20 years, much longer than a standard undergraduate and graduate curriculum for a philosopher or scientist. Plato set up the Academy to do this kind of teaching. It is likely that Aristotle and others read Plato's dialogues with great care, looking for weaknesses in the argument, and the relation of the argument to the action - in the Apology, Socrates faces a crowd with many demanding his death... - in order to surmise what Plato was driving at.


Dialogues are mysterious. One can no more say that Socrates is Plato than that Hamlet or Rosalind or Prospero or Macbeth or Caesar or Ariel is Shakespeare. Dialogues need to be "unpuzzled" over years.*


Debating the texts in the Academy and thus, continuing the music of the - in important ways, incomplete - dialogues, such readers differ from those mentioned by Socrates in the Phaedrus, lines 275d-277a, with regard to the weaknesses of writing as opposed to conversation. For superficial readers, written words are "like a statue." If you ask them a question, they have "no father" to defend them. They but repeat the same thing, over and over. Misinterpretation is thus the core of ordinary reading.


I therefore distinguish between what Plato's careful, longstanding students may understand and what ordinary readers take away and suggest that much of today's Plato scholarship is based on the erroneous assumption that the dialogues are comparatively straightforward. Never having asked what Plato expected his students, present and future, to get from them and rarely reading Plato line by line, as if there were an interrelationship in the lines and between the lines and the action of the dialogue, something meant for careful readers, many scholars, including contemporary philosophers, make false inferences. For instance, many imagine that the "city in speech" in the Republic - the city of the military leader Glaucon, hungry to become a tyrant - must somehow be meant seriously (even the remarkably sophisticated Heidegger endorses this as a kind of elective affinity or predetermined view - Heidegger was an arch reactionary and when he wrote on Plato, a Nazi (see The Essence of Truth: Plato's Cave-Metaphor and the Theaetetus - 1943 and here).


In the Phaedrus, Socrates differentiates those who know how to read and who pass on a happiness as great as human beings are capable of from ordinary, bewildered ones...This duality raises the following questions: does Socrates speak for Plato and if so, when? And what happens if Socrates offers an incomplete or contradictory argument in response to a particular interlocutor? (See "the philosopher and the barking dog: Socrates's worst argument ever" here.) Is one to think further about where the argument, better stated, might lead?

The answers are that Socrates does not always represent Plato (one must show how Socrates does, in the context) and that incomplete or faulty arguments are planted routinely in the dialogues - often signaled by Plato as in the Crito - so they are but way stations to the truth as Plato saw it, not deliverers of the truth (there is also the issue of when Plato, a great artist and philosopher, nonetheless, makes mistakes in the argument, but that is a separate matter).


Let us consider the Apology in this context. This dialogue is, unusually, almost a monologue. It is a long speech by Socrates with little admixture of conversation except for a brief exchange with Meletus and, in a way, Socrates brushing off jeering shouts from the crowd. Its focus - central to the Academy - is about knowing, about what one can know.


The speeches of his accusers, Socrates says, are so compelling as rhetoric that he would believe them, except that he knows better. For what they say of him is not true. To teach thinking and questioning is not to defame what is good - the gods insofar as they are good - or to corrupt. He acts honorably, as he understands honorable action. About the action itself – as opposed to Socrates’s possessing a Socratic/Platonic idea of honorable action - Socrates's is, in one respect, a common and straightforward understanding.


For the democrats accuse Socrates of being a clever speaker, but he is foreign to the courts, that is, to a rhetoric of mere persuasion without thought about whether the consequences are good or wicked (see the Gorgias and the Meno). He is, he says, both “atechnos” – without the technique - and more strongly, “xenos” – foreign, a stranger – to the way of speaking here (17d). In one sense, he asks questions which seek the truth, without fear or favor. And Plato’s students are meant to see this.


In another sense, Socrates toys with the accusers, responding with piety, perhaps even a real piety. As we will see, he follows the words of the Delphic oracle; he holds his position patriotically for Athens – as a soldier at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium - and on questioning, at the command of the god. Here, despite his irony at the beginning of the speech, he seems perfectly capable of engaging in a sophistic rhetoric of persuasion. He had, after all, questioned numerous sophists though not when hauled before a court. And yet he does not believe, without questioning, in any of their seemingly beyond question, vaguely specified conclusions. The certainty of religious avowal – perhaps pretend or not very bright religious avowal - slips away.


The rhetoric of Socrates’s accusers creates an opinion about truth or knowledge without the substance. In the case of Socrates’s trial, what they say - in so far as we can get a picture of it, since the case for the prosecution is not presented - is mainly the opposite of truth and decency. And Socrates’s speech, despite occasional rhetoric, is largely true on some important matters for the ordinary hearer (most of those who voted for acquittal), and yet, reveals the limits of merely human knowing under questioning, i.e, to Plato’s and perhaps Socrates’s students.


Socrates speaks of the rumors that have long swirled against him from the old accusers, notably Aristophanes’s in The Clouds, to which he could not respond. The ground has been prepared for the assembly condemning him by a whispering campaign dating from when most of the jurors were children (18d, 19b-c). Combined with the recent defeat of Athens (404 b.c., the trial was in 399), these Athenians were in a much reduced and embittered state. Athens, had, after all, in its democratic strength and imperial splendor, tolerated Socrates for 70 years…


Socrates calls this being compelled to fight with shadows – ἀλλ᾽ ἀνάγκη ἀτεχνῶς (unskillfully again) ὥσπερ σκιαμαχεῖν ἀπολογούμενόν – and to question where no one answers (18d). This is, as I have noted, a flickering image of the cave in which he is here speaking, just as he is conjured as doing in the Republic, where just as here, they kill you for it. See here and here.

Socrates invokes Aristophanes’ mocking image of him treading on air and spouting a great deal of nonsense of which “I know neither much nor little.” Here again, Socrates’s ignorance or better, lack of pretense – the care with which he approaches questioning and saying precisely what he knows and what he does not – comes to the fore. (19c)


Socrates then speaks of the calling of a philosopher, to seek the truth by questioning, where others imbibe and echo opinion. And as a result of this process, he has perhaps "just a kind of human wisdom (ἥπερ ἐστὶν ἴσως ἀνθρωπίνη σοφία, 20d).

Socrates invokes Chaerophon, an impetuous man, who once asked the Delphic oracle: is anyone wiser than Socrates? And the Pythia answered: no.

Chaerophon was Socrates’s best student according to Aristophanes’ Clouds; he also left Athens with the democrats, when the Thirty came to power, as the Apology tells us (20d-21a).

Socrates finds the Pythia’s saying puzzling, since he fashions arguments daily, knowing that he knows very little (his phrase that he knows that he knows nothing is self-refuting, since he knows at least this and, in fact, quite a bit more about just acts as well as beautiful and good and honorable things).


On the one hand, Socrates shows himself to be pious, obeying the command of Apollo. In fact, as an unimpetuous man and as the Crito and the Symposium - see Alcibiades's comments on Socrates's unusual courage in battle - reveal, a man of calm under pressure, he takes what Chaerophon learns and, with piety though on his own assessment of this virtue, explores it. Socrates takes on testing the Oracle's statement by questioning others as a commitment that he will not give up under the threat of or then the reality of death. Here, in one illustration of his famous - but unspecified by Plato - irony, he employs, for the audience, a canny rhetoric.


But on the other hand, even if we grant Socrates this, Apollo may be a Greek but he is not perhaps an Athenian god (it is not clear what the accusers meant in their accusation – again we are shown only the defense of Socrates – if anything beyond worshipping Athena or, indeed, anything coherent at all).

Socrates’ brilliant, seeming defense has yet another self-undercutting aspect. For Socrates does not simply accept the oracle at Delphi. Instead, he decides, following his own devices and with no public mandate, to test the oracle’s saying by questioning those who thought themselves and were thought by others to be wise. Socrates say that he earned much enmity by showing that they were not.


Socrates’s way of testing the oracle’s saying also reveals that he does not simply believe in the oracle. His story resembles his defeating Meletus’ claim that he believes in no gods by citing his belief, acknowledged by Meletus, in spiritual things and spirits [daimonia - a point he returns to at end about his own daimon or divine voice) as children of gods, and thus, in gods (27b-28a):

"But there is no way for you [Meletus] to persuade any man who has even a little sense that it is possible for the same person to believe in spiritual and divine existences and again for the same person not to believe in spirits or gods or heroes (ὅπως δὲ σύ τινα πείθοις ἂν καὶ σμικρὸν νοῦν ἔχοντα ἀνθρώπων, ὡς οὐ τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἔστιν καὶ δαιμόνια καὶ θεῖα ἡγεῖσθαι, καὶ αὖ τοῦ αὐτοῦ μήτε δαίμονας μήτε θεοὺς μήτε ἥρωας, οὐδεμία μηχανή ἐστιν)." (27b-28a)

For this clever refutation of Meletus also does not show that the charge – that Socrates does not believe in the gods of Athens – is wrong.


Socrates continues the rhetoric of answering charges by modelling himself patriotically, on Achilles in the Iliad (Homer was the singer of Hellas - 28d), and invoking his military service at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium. He then adds that he will stand his ground – questioning – in relation to Apollo. This is a double rhetorical turn of patriotism and of piety against the charges. And yet the analogy of his choice about how to respond to the Delphic oracle as a divine command to the city’s telling him to go fight does not follow (the one is authorized by the city, the other eccentric). While this decision is pious in Socrates’ own way, it would not withstand questioning.(28d-e)


Further, there is no way for Socrates to question, to pursue his goals of testing the God’s saying, and not come into conflict with the beliefs of people who benefit from current arrangements (questioning is bad for the powers-that-be who are, in every case, oppressors, exploiters - not a thought of Socrates - and killers of innocents, to one extent or another), unless they are interested – as some, under some circumstances are - in pursuing, among available alternatives that maintain their interests, a (comparatively) decent course.

But to kill people for questioning is surely unjust. And questioning itself – dissenting from harmful or unjust policies - is ingredient to the health and decency of democracy. In contrast, the decadent, bare majority at the trial abandons truth as well as any notion of a common good in a democracy.


Through the testing of others, Socrates discovered that he is wise in this respect only: that “others think they know and do not, and I neither know nor think that I know.”


This insight is characterized by Socrates as a merely human wisdom (the sophos of an anthropos).

"The fact is, gentlemen of Athens, that I have acquired this reputation [the one that brings him to trial, the trouble – diabole - the root of the English diabolic) on account of nothing else than a sort of wisdom. What kind of wisdom is this? Just that which is perhaps human wisdom [anthropine sophia]. For perhaps I am really wise in this wisdom; and these men, perhaps, of whom I was just speaking, might be wise in some wisdom greater than human, or I don’t know what to say; for I do not understand it, and whoever says I do is lying and speaking to arouse prejudice (diabole) against me.”(20d-e)


Human wisdom lies between the ignorance of a beast and the supposed wisdom of a god. Politicians give themselves airs about justice – play god - and kill wantonly (consider Creon in Antigone whose forbidding of Antigone to bury her brother and walling her in a cave leads to his son's - her lover's - and then his wife's suicide - or the hubris involved in Athenian wars, accompanying decline or public corruption – a lack of concern for the common good - described in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic apes the speech of Thucydides' nameless Athenian ambassadors at Melos, asserting murderously the advantage of the stronger (that justice is “nothing but the advantage of the stronger”); the Athenians, fallen through lack of concern for a common good or public corruption in Thucydides’ terms, are headed for death in the quarries at Syracuse). In the Crito at line 48c, Socrates will of democratic politicians and their followers (the many): "Crito, these are really fit topics for people who kill lightly and would raise to life again as lightly if they could - the many ["σκέμματα ᾖ τῶν ῥᾳδίως ἀποκτεινύντων καὶ ἀναβιωσκομένων γ᾽ ἄν, εἰ οἷοί τ᾽ ἦσαν, οὐδενὶ ξὺν νῷ, τούτων τῶν πολλῶν]


One might take Socrates as joking around in the Republic. For after all, though tentatively, seeking justice in the individual soul, he describes a city in speech, a rare, seemingly just city in the Republic. Now many take this city (again, Heidegger and Leo Strauss) as a good one, ruled by a philosopher king. But if he is advocating philosophical rule of such a structured, detailed and hierarchical place, he surely no longer knows nothing…


Taking seriously what Socrates says he knows in the Apology undercuts a claim to know about and recommend philosophical tyranny (philosophical rule is an authority going beyond laws, something alleged to take each case fully into account, but if it goes wrong, arbitrary as well as unjust). But this city, as I have underlined, is, in fact, a satire. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. It is Glaucon’s city – a city created by Glaucon’s hunger for luxuries, a “fevered city” with which he replaced the “city of sows” - rather than a Pythagorean city, a city of Socrates, of a philosopher. See here.


Readers like Heidegger ignore the contradiction between the Apology and the city in speech. But one might, instead, concentrate on it and take seriously that Socrates knows that he really knows little (little, again, of the overall ideas of justice and the good, though much about what just action is).

In this perspective, what Socrates tries to do in the Apology is render democracy, potentially, more just through making space for questioning, and stopping this regime from killing people for it…

In the Apology, when conjuring a dream state in the other world where he could talk with Homer or Heracles, he says, poignantly, “they do not kill you for it there.”


Ignorance and power combined – pretending to be a god - equal murderousness. And imagined wisdom, as we have seen with the neocons, and as Socrates underlines, is a form of ignorance.


If Socrates knows nothing, i.e. does not possess the idea of an overall just city, has only the thought that questioning can sometimes make existing arrangements better, allow democracy to protect philosophy as one small city among the many in the larger city – see here, here, and here - then the city in speech cannot be a just city (it plainly isn’t in many of its details, and Socrates’s seeming recommendation of it becomes far more implausible once one reads the Republic with care).


What Socrates faces, Plato’s close readers learn, and what each of us must face, with no knowledge about the experience except that no one comes back, is dying. No one who has died can share an experience of their personal fate with us, except, perhaps, in dreams or visions. That is the shocking extension of this theme of knowing and wisdom at the end of the Apology which Plato’s students are meant to take in. For Socrates asks whether death is a bad or a good thing. And he suggests that it may not be bad. His daimon, his inner voice or guiding spirit, does not warn him against it.

These beautiful and terrible lines end the Apology:

"But now the time has come to go away, I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to the better place is known only to the god (42a)." "ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἤδη ὥρα ἀπιέναι, ἐμοὶ μὲν ἀποθανουμένῳ, ὑμῖν δὲ βιωσομένοις: ὁπότεροι δὲ ἡμῶν ἔρχονται ἐπὶ ἄμεινον πρᾶγμα, ἄδηλον παντὶ πλὴν ἢ τῷ θεῷ."


That there is a powerful piety in Socrates and a profound untruth in the verdict is indicated by Plato’s finishing with the words: "to the god."


Now, the Laws begins with the word the god; the Athenian stranger asks if a god or some man gave the two other strangers their laws. There the gods become, for the Athenian Stranger, only political instrumentalities. But the Stranger is a not-Socrates, the one who did not go to his death to preserve questioning….


Here the point of questioning about knowledge and its distinction from widely accepted opinion (and ordinary reading) is at its most powerful. And Socrates says that he honors his inner daimon (his guiding spirit, what leads someone who follows it to eudaimonia, spiritual wellbeing over a lifetime and perhaps beyond as Aristotle suggests in the Nicomachean Ethics - that our eudaimonia, he says, is affected by what happens to our children... - what we peculiarly and inadequately name happiness - or his divine sign, ton daimonion, ton theon semeion - 40a-b) in speaking as he did.

"For judges - and in calling you judges I give you your right name - a wonderful thing has happened to me. For before this the customary spirit spoke to me very often and opposed me even in small things, if I were about to do something I should not; but now, as you yourselves see, this thing which might be thought and is generally considered the greatest of evils has come upon me, but the divine sign (theon semeion) did not oppose me either when I left my home in the morning, or when I came here to the court, or at any point in my speech...What then do I suppose the reason? I will tell you. What has happened to me is undoubtedly a good thing, and those of us who think death is an evil must be mistaken..."


Socrates's daimon or semeion did not seek to prevent his death nor warn him against the course he was taking.


But careful students are supposed to read and question the argument that follows about death. Consider the claim that a dreamless sleep is the best night one ever had, so the big sleep must be better than all the others. To dream or, alternately, not to recall our dreams is something that each of us, as it were, chooses, when our souls are in our bodies. Whether dreamless sleep is possible for those who have no body, whose personal existence has vanished, is unlikely, and at best, a mystery. That a story is told does not mean that the story is true…


And would the conversations of Socrates with the great heroes produce more wisdom than his ones with the heroes, sophists and poets of his time? Would Homer (actually a collective of poets) really tell him more about poetry and knowing than the poets he has already questioned? And Heracles, would he really so different, even chastened by death and a better interlocutor, than Glaucon or Callicles?

Perhaps Socrates had already had his conversations, fulfilled his mission for the oracle here. Perhaps many days and nights, many wakings and trances are, in fact, many lives. And perhaps his making space for questioning and philosophy in the democracy, through dying as he did, is a great accomplishment, one which echoes down the 2400 years. For as Martin Luther King says in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail": "To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience."


The really poignant line, however, in Socrates’ exploring of these alternatives is the uncomfortable: “since at least they don’t kill you for it there.” (41c)


It is not clear to me however, that we should say, from this account, with Strauss, that Socrates is an atheist. He seems deeply to be involved in a human quest for the divine, to reach, through the Eleusinian Mysteries, through questioning, toward the truth…


What is true of Socrates is that he lives a life of integrity. He knows who he is as a questioner and follows that path, dissenting and defending a better idea of democracy as well as fashioning arguments philosophically until he drinks the hemlock. That commitment, that possibility is what he powerfully adds, though by implication, to the rhetoric of the democratic laws of Athens in the Crito and thus, seeks to bring out in them. His consideration of their arguments in his actions is more promising than his representation of their speech – see "How to read Plato: the farcical speech of the laws" here and the post "The Crito: How Plato subtly taught his students to read Socrates’s agency," forthcoming. For the laws are rhetorical and self-contradictory – the puffed up and silly: “you are our slave” assertion versus the more plausible: ”you agreed to us as a free man" though accompanied by the vaguely hysterical "and longer than anybody else, to boot” - and need help. What Socrates has them say is primarily to silence Crito, to frighten him that he will be dispossessed if he helps Socrates escape and give him persuasive – largely sophistic, that is, for the courts of public opinion - things to say to the Athenians.


But what the laws say is not what persuades Socrates himself...Protection for questioning – they are putting Socrates to death for questioning – is exactly what Socrates hopes to forge in a future or ideal Athens and elsewhere in the future. That makes Socrates’ action or sacrifice central in bettering the laws (he is, as it were, a Boddhisattva, sacrificing himself for the benefit of others - see here; Buddha was meditating a few hundred miles away, and there are important commonalities between what became Buddhism and the Eleusinian mysteries in Athens…).


The determination to strengthen a space for questioning in Athens is what Socrates brings to knowing in the Apology. Socrates suggests to his students that what one can do is to stand up for arguments, based on reflection. Questioning reveals that each of us knows something of the good and just, but does not and can not fully know (cannot know a Platonic idea of justice, let alone of the good, "the sun in the noetic universe" greater than the sun in the visible universe, as Socrates says in Plato's Republic).

One can live, as a seeker or lover of wisdom, a life of integrity, and die in defense of that life for herself and others, as Socrates did. And perhaps, that is a good death along with Oedipus’s at Colonnus, if there is one. For Socrates quaffs the poison calmly – like a cup of sherbet, says Gandhi in his 1908 translation – see here and here - and perhaps even happily (with eudaimonia). But the theme of not knowing gives Socrates's experience of dying its uncanny power, one that has lasted 2400 years in Plato’s dialogue, and will extend for careful readers, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus, spreading seeds of the highest happiness in their souls, onward...


In the dishonor of putting Socrates, its wise man, to death, the Athenians who voted for conviction went to a bad place. They were wicked, and luckily, their names have mostly been forgotten (Meletus and Anytus appear in the Apology and Meno, but even Lycon, the third accuser, has slipped somewhat away…).


In going about their lives as the “friends of Socrates,” having voted for acquittal, others did a good thing, but are also forgotten.


Socrates’ perished. His body was taken by the flames.

Socrates did not write. He believed that writings were easily misunderstood and that like Tibetan or Navajo sand paintings, one has the conversations, in the moment, that one has and then they are gone. He was, in this respect, a devotee of impermanence...


But the writing of Plato has given Socrates a place, both in democracy and philosophy. For we know of Socrates, wonder over his words and fate, think about martyrdom, satyagraha and less fatal forms of civil disobedience in the light of his experience. His lasting imprint, his spirit, is with us and with the future, and thus, he has, in one important sense, gone to a better place…


*Plato's Pheadrus on the double nature of dialogues:

“Socrates: Writing Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and it is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak and to whom not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled, it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

…in my opinion, serious discourse about them [justice and similar subjects] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless but yield seed from which there springing up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever and which make their possessor happy, to the furthest possible limit of human happiness.” (275d-277a)