So I have posted, on the subject of Native America, “Call Me Irresponsible,” and ShrinkWrapped has riposted. His commenters have contributed in full measure. We’ve had a couple of other voices. Where do we stand?

One ShrinkWrapped commenter had some sage advice at the start:

let’s practice listening carefully to each other and asking clarifying questions when needed. So many arguments go down a rathole when we assume we know what the other person means, but those assumptions can be wrong. (I make this mistake all the time and am trying to learn to see my assumptions and translate them into questions!)

The commenter’s advice was not much followed. People state their position repeatedly. They try varied arguments toward the same end, and if it appears there has been an answer to an argument, they do not acknowledge it, but simply move somewhere else. The effort always is to hold ground and concede nothing. That way lack of progress and a sense of futile argument for argument’s sake lies. I tell my students that one does not persuade on matters of values at the time of argument, in fact, probably never, but that if one does, it is over time, with seeds of an argument that have been planted long before.

Here is an attempt to state where we are.

Photograph by Julia Dean
Photograph by Julia Dean


Three major issues of division arose. The first was on the issue of “responsibility.” On the whole, conservative commenters responded on that subject with great umbrage, persisting in perceiving responsibility as “guilt.” To be told that the United States today should accept a responsibility for the historic treatment of Native Americans and the continuing effects of that treatment was, in their perception, to be assigned personal guilt for acts they never committed. Some even spoke of any present day policies to benefit Native America, out of the sense of responsibility I call for, as “punishment” to them. (Though I never raised the issue, and there are so many policies that might be pursued, many presumed I was calling for reparations and angrily rejected the idea.) Despite my own persistent efforts to direct conservative commenters to a much broader range of meaning for the word “responsibility,” the meanings I intend when I use the word in the context of this discussion – obligation, duty, care – I have been unsuccessful, and they continue, often, to use the word “guilt” despite the fact that it is not that idea that I mean.

It does strike me, however, that insisting on a meaning for the word “responsibility” that I do not intend, and which I have said I do not intend, “guilt” – there are multiple meanings for the word, and “guilt” is not one that I intend – makes it easier to reject my argument. I would reject it too if what was meant is “guilt.” As I have stated, I have no cause to feel guilt, and do not feel any. What I have done is used the rhetorical figure distinctio – I have defined the meaning of a word for the purposes of discussion in the context of a discussion I myself have raised. To reject, in part, my argument based on a meaning for the word I did not intend is not to reject my argument, but an argument I did not make.

Another aspect of the responsibility divide had to do with both the collective and temporal nature of any responsibility toward Native America. Conservatives rejected the collective nature of responsibility in several parts. One is that there is always an individual component to collective responsibility, and so an individual will be made to pay in some way – if financially, through the use of one’s tax contribution – as a manner of restitution, for a transgression one did not personally commit. This collective concern was intensified by the temporal concern: the farther back in time any hypothetical transgression, the less of any kind of personal responsibility – the manner in which conservatives frame the matter – conservatives were willing to consider. I am not unsympathetic to these concerns, especially to the extent that individuals are, on an actual individual basis, diminished in their situation or prospects in order to address what is conceived as a collective responsibility. I expressed this concern in Affirmative Factions and Finding Meaning in the New Haven Firefighters Case.

However, while the conservatives at times seemed blank in the face of my notion of a national-cultural collective responsibility, as if I were conjuring a fifteenth dimension beyond anyone’s ken – or pulling a rabbit from a hat – the reality is that this responsibility pervades the very concept of a national entity, and every aspect of the functioning of the state. With regard to taxes, people’s tax money is expended daily on policies they do not as individuals support – wars, health programs, educational programs, the very tax policies themselves. The social contract requires that individuals accept – to an always contested degree – that they have collective obligations (responsibilities) separate from those that arise from them individually.

I mentioned to one commenter the German reparations to Israel (a nation that didn’t even exist when the Holocaust occurred) as an obvious example of a collective national responsibility being enacted. The commenter rightly pointed out that those reparations have gone to “actual victims” of the Nazis. I remarked in return that the example at least demonstrates the principle of collective national responsibility for a national crime, even if particular individuals in the responsible nation were not themselves blameworthy. Another example is from the U.S. itself, where reparations were paid to Japanese-Americans – along with apology made – for the World War II internments.

The Japanese-American reparations established two precedents. The first is that many taxpayers, including me, whose tax payments funded the reparation payments, were not alive during the Second World War, and thus contributed financially toward amends making for a transgression they did not themselves commit. It was never suggested in the process of amends making toward Japanese-Americans that individual Americans, including those whose tax monies funded the reparations, were themselves individually guilty of any crime. Indeed to make such a claim without supporting through evidence the specific individual guilt of each individual would be to commit the fallacy of division – to distribute to the parts of the whole the attributes of the whole.

In addition, some of the reparation payments went to heirs, and not only to direct victims of the internment policy, which thus was a breach of a temporal barrier between direct victims and an act of rectification.

The Japanese-American reparations and apology were not without controversy, and so do not argue as a matter of course for my position on Native America. However, they do further establish that reaction to my argument as if it were the proposal of an outlandish, unheard of new conception – collective national responsibility – is without foundation.


This was a major focus of ShrinkWrapped himself, and did not become a fulcrum of the debate with commenters, though it did arise. It is too complex an issue to treat here, essentially from scratch. I do not disagree with SW about the culturally and personally debilitating character of self-perceptions entrenched in victimhood. However, that is not to say that there are not, in fact, personal and cultural effects of victimization on the scale of a culture – and potentially long-lasting, inherited psycho-social dysfunctions that can arise from centuries of slavery or conquest. Of course, this is a long-standing matter of dispute between liberals and conservatives, and manifested itself in the present debates in the “get over it” or “move on” argument.

The Artwork of San Carlos Apache Douglas Miles
The Artwork of San Carlos Apache Douglas Miles

Natural Selection/Cultural Superiority

A commonly expressed position among the conservatives was that a form of natural selection of cultures occurs through history. Human history, and the advance in power, variously considered, of civilizations, has been marked by not only extraordinary human accomplishment, but extreme brutality, even barbarism, as well. With this I agree. One commenter made the point, to which I acceded, that a distinction of the Western culture that ascended to predominance over the latter part of the second millennium CE is that it is primarily the originator of the humane values by which it is sometimes judged by others and itself. Beyond that, however, no consideration seemed to be given to the moral dimension of this historical evolutionary process. Is it appropriate to consider the competition among civilizations and cultures in no manner differently than that between pre-human, pre-civilized species and species of animals, no differently than competing physical adaptations or, as one commenter put, phenotypes within one species? Certainly, there are sociobiologists who argue for this amoral dimension to human evolution, even beyond that the evolution of civilizations. Such an argument, of course, is fraught with implications and dimensions that were not considered in this discussion.

An attempt to limit the amoral boundaries of the natural selection argument was made by distinguishing a morally unaccountable past with a presumably accountable present, whatever transgressions having been committed against Native America occurring, according to the arguments, in this proposed past. I asked questions intended to determine the temporal boundary between this past and the present, and the criteria for making the determination of the boundary. I received no replies. At what point in time national cultures become historically responsible for their collective actions, and before which time they get a “natural selection” pass, remained undemarcated.

There was also the dimension in this argument of a kind of statute of limitations on transgressive national behavior – it seemed based upon the lifetimes of those living in a nation at the time of any transgression, with accountability for the transgression passing with those lives. The implications of such an argument were not considered.

A profoundly embedded aspect of the natural selection argument, sometimes nearly explicitly stated, other times more implicitly so, was that survival through selection is evidence in itself of a form of cultural superiority. Some conservatives very directly accused Native American cultures – almost always addressed as if they were a homogenous whole and indistinguishable as are other cultures – of being debased cultures, with this debased character seeming to, in fact, offer justification for, and excuse from, the European and then American treatment of Native peoples. The argument that Western cultural superiority is demonstrated by the intellectual tradition and humane values it has developed, by which it judges its own behavior vis-à-vis other cultures serves as both a compelling and a contradictory argument. It is compelling, I think, because demonstrably so, but contradictory because the natural selection – if we are to consider it that – took place not because of those traditions and values, but through behavior and policies in direct violation of them: and conservative justification based on natural selection only continues the violation.

Except, briefly, by one non-conservative commenter, no discussion was had on the profound, indeed ultimate, question of what, other than Darwinian success, actually constitutes superiority in a culture: no consideration of what kind of society offers its members – psychically, spiritually, intellectually, and materially regarded – the most satisfactorily integrated experience, within themselves, within the society, and within the natural world. Nonetheless, conservatives did seem to argue from the stance that the victorious American culture possessed superiority to Native cultures (generalized as a single culture).

A Navajo Family
A Navajo Family, photograph by Julia Dean

In Closing

The most recent comment posted to this blog offers a perfect opportunity to close. It highlights a fundamental difference of starting point in a very honest and clarifying way.

By insisting that the acceptance of responsibility must come BEFORE any discussion of an actual problem, you are essentially demanding that I give up any right to logically analyze what problems Native Americans have, and what may or may not best be done about it.  You are demanding that I start the conversation by giving up my right to participate in the conversation.

For those on the left, this discussion (about historical transgression, not current policy choices) was long ago had, and its conclusions clearly reached. For the left, the nearly five hundred year history of colonialism, running through the 1960s, is well established history – there is no more firmly established history – as is the extended history of abuses, deceits, and, indeed, barbarisms committed almost always, perversely, in the name of highly articulated principles and values. Within this history falls the conquest of the Americas by Europe – not the discovery, but the conquest – and as part of that the atrocious record of not occasional, but constant brutality (however much returned) toward American Indians, and the unremitting record of broken vows, treaties, and dishonorable conduct. Even, for instance, the Southern tribes that became known as the Five Civilized Tribes – the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek (Muscogee) – who chose to, and made profound efforts and progress toward, assimilating as long as two hundred years ago, in agriculture, commerce, dress, education, and political organization and participation, were nonetheless consistently abused and betrayed over a hundred-year-long period that nearly destroyed, in fact, at one point, legally disenfranchised their communities.

All of this is the starting point for those on the left, no more arguable than the Holocaust, which is, and should be, beyond argument. When I made the single brief reference I did to Native America in my announcement of The Open Mind, this is the ground on which I stood. What followed followed.

None of this history determines without discussion the understanding of conditions and circumstances today or what policy choices might be made in consequence of understanding those conditions and circumstances. But that history is for the left, for me, the starting point.

If we have made no progress in reaching agreement during this debate – and who can know – I believe we have clearly progressed in delineating the differences.


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