The Open Mind I: Riposte

ShrinkWrapped has replied to The Open Mind I: Call Me Irresponsible.  While there has not been much liberal contribution in the commenting (I am a master of understatement) what comment has been made has been highly civil. It is a matter of importance to me, and SW has requested it of his own commenters. I request the same. Comments here are closed; please post any comments at ShrinkWrapped’s

The Open Mind I: Riposte

In reading the comments to Jay’s post The Open Mind I: Call Me Irresponsible, I was, once again impressed by the obvious intelligence, breadth and depth of knowledge, and talent of the commenters. I doubt that I have very much to add to the discussion that has already taken place there.

It seems to me, however, that the discussion of responsibility, cultural or individual, is somewhat unnecessarily obfuscatory. For example, when one proposes that the larger culture accept its responsibility for the destruction of the Native American culture(s), the fine line between responsibility, guilt, sin and its resultant punishment risks being erased completely. If reparations, in some form or other, is offered to native Americans, that money will have to come from tax payers, which means that I would be required to pay for crimes that neither myself nor any of my ancestors had any hand in. The argument then that since I am a part of the culture I must share in such responsibility is problematic for several reasons, not least because the American Indian is not a monolithic concept, a great many descendants of Native Americans have become assimilated into the culture, and there no longer exists the primal culture imagined to have once inhabited this land. And here is where I think the entire argument fails:

There is no Native American culture without an American culture.

[This is a conscious homage to D. W. Winnicott’s comment that, when considering child therapy, “there is no baby without a mother.” In other words any change that takes place in the child is filtered through its relationship with its mother. You can treat a child in Psychotherapy or Psychoanalysis, but never forget you are intervening in a system with multiple feedback loops and its own homeostasis.]

Allow for some elaboration. Consider a hypothetical stone age tribe with minimal technology, a long oral tradition, and unique mythology. That tribe’s culture is over the moment it is contacted by a more highly advanced society. In the bad, old days, the stone age culture (or any culture less developed) would be essentially exterminated by the stronger culture, with its people taken into bondage or murdered. As people became more civilized, conquered peoples were treated somewhat better, since civilized states understood that there was ultimately greater value in maintaining the conquered than destroying them. To my knowledge Rome was the first great civilization that had an explicit program of assimilating conquered peoples into the empire. Rome was an exception, however.

The greatest change in ethical and moral approaches to the conquered arose from Western Civilization, yet even without physically destroying the Other, the less robust culture is doomed from the moment of contact. Back to our hypothetical tribe of stone aged people. Where once they would have been completely destroyed now we attempt to preserve their culture. We no longer offer to “civilize the savages” with our religious beliefs but we do offer them our technology to adopt and adapt. What happens next destroys the culture as surely as genocide or small pox. Our stone age subsistence tribe lives in a precarious balance with nature, expanding its population to the limits of its ability to feed itself from the land upon which it lives. Once we begin to meddle with our life saving technology, their numbers increase and their old ways of living can no longer support the burgeoning numbers of people. This is the conundrum that is left out of all the equations. I am fairly certain that those who believe we should do all we can to allow the Native to preserve his own culture would be horrified at any suggestion that medical technology should be withheld from the tribes; that would surely be barbarism. But once their numbers have increased beyond what their culture can support, what next? We can set up reservations upon which they can live, maintain their old ways, and forever be dependent on the larger culture (until they discover, as many Indian tribes have, more productive ways to support themselves, ie casinos, tax-free cigarettes.) Or we can encourage assimilation in which case their native culture is preserved primarily in their myths and stories.

This is not a unique problem for Native Americans. It is a problem for all cultures that impinge upon competing cultures and is at the core of our difficulites with the world of Islam. For example, Eastern European Jews had a vibrant culture based on Yiddish, yet today almost no one speaks Yiddish. An entire culture has been lost. Yaacov Lozawick has a poignant post today, worth reading in full:

Remembrances of Things Past

Not long ago I read Aaron Lansky’s fun book Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Lansky, an American Jew with a tenuous connection to Yiddish until college, set out in the 1970s to find Yiddish books to read, realized they were mostly to be found in places with no future such as the homes or social clubs of elderly Jews whose children were not interested, and decided to gather them up. The experts he consulted told him there might be as many as 70,000 volumes to be found if he was systematic; he and his friends ended up collecting about 1,500,000. It’s a poignant book – I read long stretches of it laughing and crying, both.

The people he met along the way are just about all gone by now, but so is their world, in a way far more profound than the mere passage of time would explain. Three main things did it in. The first, chronologically, was the Shoah, which destroyed the Eastern European heartland of the Yiddish world – for Yiddish, as a thriving culture, was an invention of 19th century Eastern Europe. Previous to that it had been a living language of the Jews for about a thousand years, but it hadn’t been the language of their cultural creativity – that had been Hebrew, or Arabic, and near the end, German.

Second, the Yiddish world didn’t survive the emigration to America. At one point Lansky notes that a significant majority of Yiddish books ever published, were published in New York. Yet the Eastern European Jews who came to the New World and the Goldene Medine migrated so their children might have better lives in the land of the free. They were wildly successful in this, but at the price of putting the new land above just about all aspects of the old country – and Yiddish was about as Old Country as possible. So the immigrants’ children had no use for Yiddish, their children never knew it, and their children – mostly – neither know about it nor care in the slightest. The world of Yiddish wasn’t strong enough to compete. (This goes for other lands of immigration, too – the English speaking ones, but also the French, Spanish and Portuguese ones).

The third reason the Yiddish world disappeared is that it’s roots were too shallow to thrive in Israel. People who know better than I tell me Yiddish is a better tool for studying Gemara than any other language, with myriad turns of tongue that can explain an entire complicated passage in three or four words. (A teacher I study with often uses “shrek fun allen seiten” to clarify a knotty problem, but we’re not really using Yiddish; it’s merely a remnant). But faced with Hebrew as a living language for all parts of life, Yiddish never had a fighting chance. After 1948, when the largest group of Jews in Israel were from Arabic-speaking lands, it wasn’t even in the competition.

Here is the crux of the problem for the Native American. In the Darwinian struggle, their culture was less fit than the larger American culture. This is not a value judgement (though I agree with my commenters who have pointed out that it was the West that invented the idea that “might doesn’t always mean right”; it is also the West that invented the scientific method and the notion of progress upon which we all depend today.)

As long as the Native American looks back to what he lost (and more often looks back to an idealized fantasy of what he lost) he will consign himself to a position of dependence and marginalization. This is true for all “victims” who persist in their victimhood long after the trauma of loss and pain has passed. Even if they were to gain a fraction of the money they believe is owed them, their culture is gone and will not come back. (Perhaps some will renounce all technology brought by the Europeans since the 1600s. I doubt that would be tolerated by the larger culture; look how much of a conundrum Christian Science presents when it comes to an ill child.) To insist upon living a faux Native life on a reservation means that they will always be wards of the state, living off the crumbs distributed by the larger culture. We are a wealthy culture, but life in poverty is never a joy.

[I have written quite a bit about how victimhood ensnares a person or culture in a hostile dependent position. In Unintended Consequences, “Accidents”, and Unconscious Processes I described a patient who maintained herself as a victim long after any actual insults to her had taken place. In The Victim and his Gods I elaborated upon how a culture can come to ruin in its insistence upon its own victimhood, and noted:

Victimhood is crippling. The victim is unable to effect changes in his environment by virtue of his need to maintain himself in a passive position in relationship to the world. Sometimes the victim actively fights to retain his passivity and victimhood. Patients who take this position in therapy are unaware of how they enslaving themselves and are incapable of truly changing any aspect of their lives until they are able to accept agency and responsibility. Even the language of the pseudo-psychological helpers reveals the essential requirement that the patient never depart from the victim position. Patients are to be empowered by the helpers to take on the system and get the benefits that are due them. The rare patient who endeavors to find his way to independence faces tremendous impediments that make success much more difficult than it needs to be.

I pointed out the victimhood mythos that cripples part of the American Black community in Conspiracy Theories and Victimization.

Once a person has embraced victimhood, which includes the belief that their problems are essentially not of their own making, they are lost. The typically short sighted and cynical empowerment movement is designed to reinforce victimhood and extort reparations of one kind or another from those who have the money and the disinclination to fight back. The victim “wins” by getting what he deserves from the “man”. This leaves the victim forever at the mercy of others, unable to change in ways which could enable them to live more productive and successful lives, and basing their entire sense of self on their grievances. A community that accepts such a designation can only be an abject failure. Of course, that is not the conscious goal of the black power movement…

If Barack Obama truly wanted to start a productive discussion about race in this country, he would talk to those black men who do not graduate from high school. He would direct his brilliant intellect and his glittering oratorical skills toward identifying the dangerous and self-defeating meta-communication that contaminates the black value system that his church professes. He would not tolerate the excuse that racism is somehow preventing them from learning. He would not presume that more money to a system that is failing will somehow make it succeed without fundamental changes in approach. He would not reaffirm to his black audience that their problems are not their responsibility.

Black Americans have a long legacy of racism to overcome. They will never overcome until they are willing to stop being victims.

As long as people insist upon remaining victims, their culture will be forever trapped in amber, and they will be left wondering through the world as zombies, neither fully alive nor dead.]

My ancestors came from Eastern Europe and my grandparents spoke Yiddish, which I do not speak. They left because life for Jews was untenable and they came to America where they could become Americans and remain Jews. A great many Native Americans have become Americans who can take pride in what has been lost as they also take pride in what they have become part of.

At this point I do not think the question of original (colonial) sin can be settled. I do not know the case that Jay is most focused on but would hope that a court, wiser than me, can find a way to end the litigation and allow the claimants to get on with their lives. Sadly, no matter how much money they do or do not receive, they do not have a culture to go back to, only the choice of a culture to join or life as a simulacrum in a simulation. With enough money the simulation can be made more comfortable, perhaps even superficially convincing, but it will not being their culture back.

I did not intend to address questions about our treatment of the Native American, however, it is a rich vein to mine. I appreciate Jay’s attempts to address the comments directly in his follow up comments. I know he has been pessimistic, as have some of my commenters, on the feasibility of this attempt, but I hope we can continue and hone our arguments.