Wednesday, September 06, 2017


Rachel Maddow and parents

Always the last to find out, I didn’t discover Rachel Maddow and that I could watch her show on YouTube until the Trump scandal was already starting.  Right away I was on-board because she explained so much.  Smart, funny, Jewish, highly educated but down-to-earth women were usual on the campuses of NU and U of Chicago.  They frighten people here; sometimes so do I.  Today politics are unfolding just as she reported because she has a team, honors their work, and listens to what they find out.  Her popularity stats went sky-high in a hurry and, naturally, the advertisements made her wealthy.  And encouraged her producers to give her room to grow.

Recently she was missing for a few days here and there and when she came back, she was working even harder to explain, but this time it was with clips from our political history — the stuff your high school teacher was afraid to teach you because it’s terrible stuff and the community would fight knowing about it.  Not Vietnam.  Not even WWII, but the early KKK and white supremacy anti-immigrant movements, which I tend to interpret as the nastiest of the imported European political model, basically the residue of times before the rule of law, when Europe was constantly engulfed in war, resentment, false pride, identification with power that didn’t exist unless it was subjugating someone.  In short, “Game of Thrones.”

It is a brave enterprise to throw back the white covers that protected racist political domination in times just before living memory when film was changing the terms of history as much as the internet and smart phones reframes the present.  Watching a surging mass of people in pointed white masks (in other times identified with dunce caps) is chilling.  But even then not so sub-zero as a photo of a RECENT lynching.

This self-identified racist killer of an old black man looks white to me. 
Trump has not commented.

It is so strange to watch that little “kewpie doll”/Keebler elf at the lectern, rocking up and down on his toes to seem powerful (and taller), talking in a soft child's voice about hatred, exclusion, destruction.  But he has many predecessors and they have been effective.  His model is a USA that was a white country where they are the only credible inhabitants, but constantly threatened by invaders.  His understanding of politics is 19th century: pompous, entitled, wealth-based, ignorant.

He seems to have no awareness at all that there were people here before white Euros.  What he fears is the exact fate those indigenous people suffered when whites came:  disease, terrorism, destruction of a way of life.  This is the most vicious kind of delusion, claiming the evil that we imposed on others as we cannot get enough of them.  It’s a projection, boiling up from the subconscious of a certain population.

I would be willing to say it is a phenomenon of the US Congress, or maybe an obsession of “suits,” but I hear echoes of Native American stigma all around me every day, from family, friends and casual acquaintances.  “They weren’t using the land anyway.”  “They’re incompetent to run Glacier County when elected.”  “Most of them are drunks.”  Even educated “Indians” say things like, “No Indians had writing until the white people came.” 

Every stigma has its mantras and mantras are like ear-worms that people repeat without thinking.  The stigmatized catch them and return their own mantras, obsessive repetitions of things they never stop to think about.

As I listen to all this and try to reframe it, pull it apart, find a new way into the conflict, I’m amazed over and over.  None of the work about thought, the importance of getting outside your own bubble, the generation of options instead of repetitions, has gotten through to people.  Even the most generous of liberals assumes that the ideas they have are all true: reservations (so depressing), NA politics (chiefs), the effects of stigma (stunted growth in children, inadequate access to education, too much drugs and alcohol, scads of money from the federal government, no taxation.)  They drive through reservations without recognizing them unless there’s a casino.

I think much of the fear and hatred of Mexicans and others farther to the south is the half-conscious awareness that they are in large part genetically indigenous Americans — INDIANS!!  That’s how you tell you should make Mexicans show their entitlement to be here, even though they’ve been here for millennia.  They LOOK like Indians.  So politicians don’t talk about “Indians” when they’re talking immigrants.  “Indians” are not factored into the equation because it would no longer balance. 

Not even Rachel talks about “Indians” and if she thought about them, I daresay she would think of movie warriors, not the New Hampshire tribes who fought in the Revolutionary War.  But the “Indians” have learned to create such war over their issues, that no one wants to mess with them.  They just detour around “Indian country.”  No one pulls down statues of “Indians.”  And if they demonstrate to protect their land, the army comes with tanks.  It’s the government side that is militarized.

Liberals and progressives are not much better than the stigmatizing triumphalists who polarize identity.  Elizabeth Warren proudly claimed “Cherokee grandmothers.”  So many people do that, it’s become a joke.  I want to think she was innocent of the implications.  Liberals are uninformed, patronizing, over-awed, wanting to see all that nobleness, and to claim friendship.  It may or may not be true, but legal working definitions of “being an Indian” are so various that the problem has been handed over to tribes.  Formal enrollment in a tribe is the narrowest definition, but each tribe has its own standards for enrollment and they are wildly various.  (There’s money involved, but that’s another post.)  

When asked about Warren’s description of him as a “bully,” Trump told the New York Times, “You mean Pocahontas?”  “I think it’s wonderful because the Indians can now partake in the future of the country. She’s got about as much Indian blood as I have. Her whole life was based on a fraud. She got into Harvard and all that because she said she was a minority,” he added.

So did Trump fail to get into an Ivy League college because he’s white and a majority?  But why do institutions keep requiring that we state an identity anyway?  They just encourage that way of thinking, as though we were species exhibits in the zoo.  They never give you a box to check for "mongrel."  (They do sometimes provide "other" for the M/F dyad.  Why don't ballots have a box for "none of the above.")

Speaking genetically, almost everyone who comes from a family that has been in the US for many generations probably has some Native American genetic characteristics in their DNA, if one can define the specific genes involved.  (Not done so far, though it’s claimed for African tribes.)  The main distinction is that Asians have a different far-distant hominin history that is distinct from Euro genes.  But then, think of all those descendants of Genghis Khan everyone was excited about.  Can Trump guarantee that he doesn’t have Genghis Khan genes?  He does hang around with elephants.

Back to Maddow.  Someone needs to write a book about the political potential of the assimilated but still identifiable indigenous people of the United States — don’t forget Alaska and Hawaii.  They’ve all been slowly organizing and an Internet network is probably much more extensive than anyone realizes.  It begins to be international, a force in the world.  But first we need to know our white selves for what they really are.


Nancy said...

Hi, Mary.
I notice your mention of Maddow as Jewish; she has said that her upbringing was "very, very Catholic." Just FYI.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Nancy. Sorta sets up a good conversation about genetics (Jewish) versus culture (Catholic), doesn't it? However it's labeled, whatever it's sources, I'm glad for intelligence, independence, and accuracy -- so thanks for the correction.

Nancy said...

I agree, culture versus inheritance is fascinating. I'm fascinated by how people's religious upbringing shapes them, that's why I noticed your identification of her as Jewish in a previous column (but didn't remark on it then). I would love to hear her speak about her religious upbringing and how she relates to it now, but I don't find any interviews on the subject.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

My take is that there are two ways to achieve secularization after a strong religious upbringing. One is through science (which doesn't have to debunk religion if it goes to natural order and the wonder of the scope of it all. The other is through law, the deliberate and reflective finding of ways to maintain what is good and growth-supporting. I take it that Rachel has gone to the latter, which is why she has the patience and skills to work her way through all this crazy political stuff.

Prairie Mary

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I think partly I jumped to "Jewish" because Maddow occasionally uses Yiddish slang. But that's very much a Manhattan thing.