Monday, July 11, 2016

"RADICAL HOPE" BY Jonathan Lear

East Front of the Rocky Mountains

Where I am I see the end of three huge cultural waves.  One is the advent of grain agriculture, allowing the storage, transport, and plenitude of food.  We’re a little past the climax now, limited by climate change that is hampering the Rocky Mountain water-creator that feeds the irrigation ditches, but also beginning to struggle with the end of soil fertility, and the reality that adequate food means that the population of the world is always pushing to the limit of the supply and beyond.  Add to that the devastating consequences of food as a political force.

The second cultural wave is that of the industrial revolution, beginning about the time of the American revolution, and reaching its climax in WWII, which created a specific kind of culture based on courage and a determination to defend democracy.  The third is Plains Indian horse culture, which is almost to the end of assimilation, keeping identity through symbols and practices like North American Indian Days, which was this weekend.  It was also a culture based on courage.
Plenty Coups

“At a time of radical historical change, the concept of courage will itself require new forms.  This is the reality that need to be faced — the call for concepts. . .”  This sentence comes from a book by Jonathan Lear, “Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.”  Lear organizes his thoughts around the life of Plenty Coups, who was a Crow chief friendly with Frank B. Linderman, an early writer and advocate for Native Americans.  Near the end of his life, Plenty Coups said, “When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again.  After this nothing happened.”  Lear was so struck by that last statement that this book unfolded from it.

A coup stick

It’s a misplaced concreteness to think that simply bringing back tribal herds can bring back a way of life.  The buffalo are simply a metonymy that stands for a way of life, which is a seamless fabric that includes food, clothing, shelter, family, social relationships, and ideas that are derived from those things.  It’s not that the big picture is changed, but that the screen goes blank.  The people are facing an abyss.  The kind of courage needed now is different because instead of having the strength to follow the People’s way, it means the strength to find a new way, still unknown.

Though my experience has been with the Blackfeet Reservation, there are other tribes here and I think even white people feel the wind blowing up from the abyss.  Black people even more sharply.  Lear’s book is an instrument of reflection.

When the building constructed by Unitarians for the seminary called Meadville/Lombard could no longer be financially sustained and was sold to the University of Chicago, it became the home of the Neubauer Collegium on Culture and Society.  Jonathan Lear is the director of the Collegium.  I won’t make the connection between the abyss and the UU seminary or even the UUA or the educated middle class that has been the ground of being for the denomination.  Plenty of others will do it.  But there is a bitter appropriateness in the sensitive thought of Lear and the concepts he explores.  

This would be a bleak cover, but it is printed on silver paper.

His theme is courage as symbolized by the coup-stick and warbonnet that Plenty Coups carried to the ceremonial burial of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC in 1921 to which nations (including the "Indian Nations") had been invited.  He did not say, like Chief Joseph, “I will fight no more forever,” but he put down the coup-stick and his warbonnet at the tomb, to say that they, too, were dead now.  “After that, nothing happened.”  The screen goes blank.  The coup stick was used to mark a point in battle, a middle ground between two forces.  Now Plenty Coups gives them up.  Plains tribal rivalries mean nothing anymore. The courage of the warrior in battle must now be transformed into other terms, radically different but rooted in impulses as primal as defending homeland and family.  The battle to preserve a way of life was lost when the the food, the buffalo, was extinguished.

Plenty Coups, bravely facing what was now necessary for survival, became a sympathizer and supporter of the overwhelming whites.  Even now some Blackfeet considered his tribe to be collaborators in the pejorative sense.  Crusty, defiant old Sitting Bull came to visit and declared tribal people should fight to the end, the old version of courage.  Encouraged by the new leap-of-faith-based Ghost Dance that promised to restore the former world, he stood his ground in the coup stick way.  

Sitting Bull

I ran across a description of the dance not long ago.  According to that source, it was not a war dance, ecstatic with passion as described by Lear, but rather a sombre measured dance.  It did include hallucinogins and magic shirts that could turn away bullets. Whatever, it freaked out the white men and made them even harsher, powered by fear instead of courage.

It would be interesting if a skillful anthropologist (hopefully Native American) were to interpret the Crow in terms of their breakaway from the Hidatsa, a sedentary agricultural and trading people, as compared to the Sioux who were several allied tribes and who — like the Blackfeet — came down from the north near Great Slave Lake, leaving those cold and wooded waters in order to come to the high plains where the chinook winds gave relief in winter and where following the buffalo meant always having real meat, escaping the White Walkers they called Wendigo.  At least until the Euro-whites arrived.  

In any case, hunters of buffalo, especially after the coming of the horse, were a people prepared for war, or at least skirmishes and this was the key to their understanding of courage: physical courage, adrenaline highs, and proud ceremonies of triumph.  But without buffalo or war parties, how can that kind of courage be imagined?

Lear advises, “What is it about courage that makes it a virtue — that is, a human excellence?  Courage is a virtue, I think, because it is an excellent way of coping with, responding to, and manifesting a basic fact about us: that we are finite erotic creatures.  By finite I mean to point to a family of limitations that characterize the human condition: we are not all-powerful or all-knowing; our ability to create is limited; so is our ability to get what we want; our beliefs may be false; and even the concepts with which we understand the world are vulnerable." 

"By erotic I follow a basically Platonic concept that, in our infinite condition of lack, we reach out to the world in yearning, longing, admiration, and desire for that which (however mistakenly) we take to be valuable, beautiful, and good. . . . as finite erotic creatures it is an essential part of our nature that we take risks just by being in the world.”

There’s more — a lot to digest.  In our times just staying alive sometimes takes heroes.  Even then our children wash up on the beaches of countries that don’t want them. I’m happy to have some of these terms.

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