“The House I Live In” depends quite a lot on the input of David Simon, the originator and writer of “The Wire,” which is basically the same point of view in conventional fiction narrative form. A few nights ago I watched “Why We Fight,” by Eugene Jarecki, the same director who made “The House I Live In” and with quotes from David Simon at length. I see both movies as an attempt to move across the divide James Flynn described in the way people think about life. We are watching people who live in a concrete, self-circumscribed, primary experience life but watching through the mind of Simon, who is an analytical, abstract, systems thinker. In short, a Raven. If you can think with Simon, the result is galvanizing. If you cannot, go read something else. There’s no use lingering around this blog.
“The House I Live In” is about the drug “war” in the United States, not in Columbia or Afghanistan. Nor does it blame anyone so much as it reveals a horrifying urge in all societies to get rid of those who are different, esp. if they compete with power or resources. It is not a surprise that Jarecki is Jewish and still thinking about the Nazi holocaust. Neither should you be surprised that I apply his conclusions to Irish/Scots and Blackfeet. The point is that the answers to some of our most horrifyingly tragic forces are looked at in concrete provincial terms so that we always blame individuals as rotten individuals. That way we don’t have to change the social arrangements that push people into drug use.
Beyond even drugs, the causes may also account for war, famine, and AIDS. They amount to the same thing as keeping population under control by systematically killing or confining about 17% of the population, one way or another.
Here’s the formula:
1. Identification: Who are the people we can separate from the others and that others don’t particularly care about?
2. Ostracism: Demonize and stigmatize them so that the mainstream will pull away even farther. Never let people realize that they are human beings.
3. Confiscation: Begin taking their belongings as illegitimately acquired or being bad for society. This includes abstracts like the right to vote or access to subsidies. In the early days of the rez the government quietly gave land, timber and hay to the railroads without ever passing the profits on to the tribe.
4. Concentration: Create ghettos and gerrymander voting blocks. “Round up the usual suspects.” The original reservation idea.
5. Annihilation: It’s not necessary to use a machine gun. Simply make it hard for them economically, educationally, democratically, so that natural attrition -- as much an invisible hand as Adam Smith’s capitalism and often the same thing -- will wear them away without anyone noticing.
So this analytic formula is brilliant, because all we have to do to reverse it is to turn it on its head. Let’s use the example of Blackfeet.
1. The identification of who is Blackfeet is a major problem at present and seems like a drawback, a source of damage as people stop qualifying for tribal membership, government subsidies, employment priorities and so on. But the more it is confused -- both by the fancy definitions of provenance (misleadingly called blood quantum), by the contrasting ways of living that the people choose, by intertribal marriage, and by life off the reservation -- the harder it is to say THIS is a Blackfeet and THIS is not. Culture is even less specific and concrete. Blackfeet is becoming an abstract category. It’s harder and harder to “round them up.”
The hardest “identification” problem is in the concrete public mind where they remain 19th century horseback warriors.
2. Ostracizing Blackfeet gets harder all the time. There are enough now to field state representatives and to form voting blocks. Businesses cannot afford not to take their purchases and contracts seriously. Stigmatizing is easier, when the media is eager to sensationalize every sign of conflict or malfeasance, but tribal members are now lawyers and letter writers who are educated. It’s easy to ostracize a staggering, slobbering individual as a concrete known person, but it’s pretty hard to exclude people who look and act like everyone else. Even physically recognizing an Indian face may not be very easy these days.
3. Confiscation has been a problem since Euros confiscated the continent. Now the artifacts of the tribe are confiscated at the border when they are carried by whites or for other excuses. When there is a bottleneck where people can be held until they forfeit, there will always be temptations to use it for selfish ends. Federal and other officials are high-handed about impounding, quietly converting to private trophies, or returning to favored individuals in the tribe rather than the group as a whole. Beyond that, confiscation of land is easily managed by debts, federal and otherwise, that cannot be paid off, so result in default. The feds often seem very generous about granting money for schools or hospitals, but then might deduct the money from the profitable management of the tribal and individual assets in trust with the government.
4. Concentration on the reservation worked pretty well until wars and relocation scattered half the tribe all over the nation. Even so, there are internal concentration problems with a small community like Heart Butte or some subsidized housing plots. Stigma and ostracism within the tribe is as real as it is between the tribe and the “outside” world. Education is the best and quickest way to scatter concentration, but it is also a form of assimilation to the larger culture. When educated tribal members return and rejoin their people, the stigma of concentration is diluted. We should be far more concerned about the concentration of Indians in prisons, but the concentration of Indians in the military appears to be a plus.
5. Annihilation was once actual, immediate, and bloody. Now it is subtle: drugs, alcohol, violence, and child neglect. Abuse of the weak, rejection of justice, and the slow erosion of cultural identity proceeds.
Much of the “help” given tribal people is in the name of “compassion,” which the Blackfeet speakers often translate as “pity.” The recovery of alcoholics and so on usually rejects “pity parties.” The idea is to surrender to greater powers and then get to work. Easier said than done. Sovereignty taken seriously is self-reliance which CAN be protection of the entire tribe.
There is no doubt that there needs to be a curb on world overpopulation and there is no doubt that it would be easier to just pick out the 17% of the world’s people that we don’t like and simply machine gun them -- although it would take a while to get rid of the bodies. Some dictators have done that very directly. They weren’t around to realize that the people they didn’t like (intellectuals, nonconformists, artists and sexworkers) were sorely missed and damaged the quality of life for everyone. But we can watch them and learn: Pol Pot is not a good role model.