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Aug 5, 2004 1:11 pm


A Burkean Guide to Political Correctness ...



Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke offers photographic evidence of his having been an"Indian Guide." Scroll past that to his thoughts on the emergence of political correctness in the academic left, the legacy of its transfer to the culture in general, and some suggestions about where it went wrong. Burke suggests that we need to think about its lack of interest in proportionality, historical perspective, intentionality, and identity and impersonation in American society.

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David Lion Salmanson - 8/6/2004

I can offer a concrete counter-example. For a while, I pondered working on a summer camp project on the place in New Mexico where I went to and worked. I knew from personal experience that the experience(s) had been profoundly transformational for myself and many others who attended. To name just two examples, my dissertation topic came directly out of my camp experiences and I met my wife there. I also knew that a variety of somewhat important people in local, regional, and national levels had passed through the camp and they had written or publicly commented on the importance of the camp to them. For just one example, check out the dedication to Kurt Vonnegut's novel Galapagos. But I can also add in here the two Udall kids who are now successful politicians, the most prominent TV reporter in Albuquerque, many of the important Park Service folks in the Southwest, a wide variety of Professors and academic type authors (in history, most notably Jennifer Price), artists, schoolteachers, non-profit workers, museum curators etc.. In fact, there is something of an alumni community in Albuquerque that has some influence there through a former director who is now a City Councilman etc. etc.. I did a fair number of interviews with people who were admittedly transformed and I lucked into some interviews with people who hadn't really thought twice about it. What was remarkable is that the people who did have these transforming experiences had certain similarities in their changes and in the ways that this affected their later thinking. So this seemingly minor place, which had something of a "Playing Indian" component to it that I will explain in a minute, actually changed not only these people, but created something of a power network that has had concrete impacts on the world around them in remarkably consistent ways, ideologically speaking.
Okay, now for the Playing Indian part. Through a contingent event, the founder of the camp hooked up with a Navajo man who, although he spoke no English, hit it off with the Director, and established something of a working relationship. Many kids from the camp spent time at his compound with his family, attended family functions, herded sheep etc. Many of hs daughters and all of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the camp and the relationship expanded to the point where campers were helping out with Ceremonials such as puberty ceremonies filling in as labor to replace those who, because of wage labor, couldn't participate. Now in some ways this parallels your Indian Guide experience but in other ways, of course, it does not. And those ways matter a great deal. Now we can get trapped in "authenticity" and all that that entails, or we can recognize that some sources are better than others and that those differences lead to different outcomes. Now not everybody came out the same way, and some kids clearly weren't affected at all (Swat alum and Burke junkie, Justin Hall comes to mind, he was completely miserable the whole time he was there, small world huh). So if this rather small place can have something of an impact, I think the odds are pretty high that the Boy Scouts have a similar impact, especially among Eagle Scouts who completed the whole program. And therefore what the Boy Scouts think, teach, etc. about Native America matters a great deal.


Timothy James Burke - 8/6/2004

1. I actually question whether Native Americans had "the least opportunity" to shape the representations of them within the public sphere. I suppose this is where my larger skepticism about Said's understanding of the genesis of "oreintalisms" enter the picture strongly. When you compile the entirety of the "longue duree" of representations of Indians, I think you find both direct and indirect participation of Native Americans in the historical process of image-making, both acts of deliberate authorship and the garbled reproduction of overheard and appropriated ideas. Nor has that process ended: this is my point about Vizenor, really, and it isn't confined to him. Many Native American activists in the last thirty years have been perfeclty happy to consciously appropriate some of the tropes of the representational infrastructure that coheres around Native Americans in the US, whether it is the substantively inaccurate image of the "ecoloigcal Indian" or tropes of unchanging local "traditions". I don't think that's just a contemporary indication of the reduced condition of Native Americans, but a historical process whose roots stretch back to 1492 of mutual invention and unacknowledged hybridity. That Native Americans got the raw end of the stick in that process, suffered from it, that power was unevenly distributed in it (to put it mildly), that both physical and cultural violence were involved in their grossest forms, is also indisputable, and it is why the intense field of moral arguments and assumptions we deploy today within identity politics can't just be waved away casually as the typical critics of "political correctness" do.

I'd be interested in the demonstration you suggest, but I think it's possibly the most difficult historical argument in general that I know. To demonstrate that people who acted a particular way at a particular time also had cultural exposure to particular representations is not hard. To chart out their consciousness in such a way that you can confidently claim a *causal* relation between the two is almost impossible, because it's an implicit counterfactual (e.g., had those officials not been exposed to Boy Scouts and Indian Guides, they would not have done what they did) as well as a knotty chicken-and-egg problem (e;g., would Indian Guides have existed but for an earlier era of violence and incorporation, and if so, isn't it just an epiphenomena of a social process that carried on independently of it?)

I think about the only time you can pull an argument like this off with great confidence is when you find a very direct "quotation" in social practice that comes from a particular cultural institution or text, and only if you have a *theoretical understanding * of cultural history that proposes that culture contains acts of improvisation which change the larger pattern of representations and from them larger forms of social identity and practice, that those improvisations are non-necessary and non-inevitable and rest on the individual inventiveness of particular authors or actors. Which is decidely NOT how most identity politics or histories of stereotype operate--they generally do not argue that stereotypes are the result of contigent, improvised inventions but instead are broadly reflective of social formations, that they are in some sense inevitable and required. If they are inevitable and required, they are not causal of social practice. So it seems to me that in this case, one would have to show that the peculiar character of Indian Guides resulted in peculiar formations of social policy. I *do* think you can make that argument about the relationship between the Boy Scouts and certain ideas about masculinity, that Baden-Powell's construction of eugenics was rather distinctly peculiar and idiosyncratic to him, and through the Boy Scouts, became institutionalized and reproduced in a very contingent way. Maybe you can say the same for Indian Guides, but I doubt it. It is, in any event, a tough sell, at least to me.

However, I shamefacedly admit that I have Playing Indian but it is about ten layers deep on my to-be-read shelf; I frankly should have cracked it open before getting too deep in trouble in this thread :) I will try to take a look at it soon.


Timothy James Burke - 8/6/2004

I wouldn't be at all in favor of termination, though I'm finding myself increasingly critical in a much larger Negri-and-Hardt kind of way of sovereignity as an idea (not just in the Native American context). E.g., I'm more interested in question of whether particular formulations of sovereignity actually confer rights, freedoms, justice and so on to the human subjects within their boundaries than I am in regarding sovereignity as a blanket and unitary thing which is always and inevitably progressive by its very nature. So my question with Native American sovereignities would be largely, "Do they take forms that permit local oligarchies or autocracies to operate within them, that suborn the rights-bearing personhoods of people born within their boundaries?" I would tend to think of that as a particularist rather than general question, that this wouldn't be about Native American sovereignities in general but about practices in specific times and places.

Essentially what that boils down to is I wouldn't write a blank check for anything claimed in the name of sovereignity simply because it is claimed in that form--that sovereignity would be no defense for petty autocracies within reservations, nor "culture" an alibi for illiberality. But termination as a sweeping political argument is not at all interesting to me, nor do I intend to be a stalking horse for it.

As for the larger argument about stereotype, it's why I wanted to disentangle what I would regard as the foundational propositions of identity politics from their later practice, because there undoubtedly *is* a powerful historical relation between some stereotypic representations and discourses and social action. I simply think that argument needs to be very strongly checked by a meticulous historicism, a proportionality, an interest in the intentionality of speech acts, and what David accurately summarizes as an interest in and respect for "hybridity", that there are transactions going on in some performances of stereotype that can't be neatly reduced to being unambiguously reactionary.


David Lion Salmanson - 8/6/2004

Tim,
If that is what I am doing, it is not at all what I am trying to do. Rather, what I am saying is that groups like Indian Guides and the Boy Scouts (and I should add, I would push this back to the turn of the century or thereabouts, especially for the Boy Scouts), acted as schools for teaching about Native America, that they were the sole or main basis of knowledge about Native America for many or most non-Native men who made up the polity, many of whom assumed positions of power, that these institutions reinforced the same or similar narratives in circulation (James Fennimore Cooper, for example). I am arguing that at the very least, Indian Guides acted as a mirror of the ideology of the era, and the fact that it didn't take with you and that even your dad recognized it as hokey indicates the end of the prevelance of the idea.
Let me be a little more clear about why I think your choice of cases makes it very challenging to prove your point.
First, as the most frequentedly targeted (politically, violently, etc.) members of the American polity, Native Americans had the least ability to shape their public image.
Second, as largely rural folks, many of whom were partially or completely cut off from anything bearing any resemblence to public access to media, they had the least ability to enact agendas or even get agendas a public hearing. For example, the Navajo Nation didn't have any paved roads before 1950, limited transportation, no telephones, little electricity and that provided by generators, etc. etc.. In fact, many of the elected tribal leaders did not speak English (the two dominant languages being Navajo and Spanish). There were no schools on the rez, and most Navajos had no formal schooling.
So you have a bunch of institutions with some social power and whole bunch of access shaping perceptions for about 50 years pretty much unchallenged. Is it any wonder that the termination policy came of age just as the generation most likely to be influenced by Scouts/Guides gained power?
Institutions like the Boy Scouts and Indian Guides do have set curricula and while there is local variation they do draw on a somewhat standard set of "lesson plans" such as "The Boy Scout Handbook" which has undergone numerous revisions. If I could show that large numbers of people involved in making federal and state Indian policy had their ideas shaped by Guides/Scouts, would that be sufficeint evidence to convince you that stuff like this matters?
Have you read Phil Deloria's Playing Indian? If so, what did you think? In some ways, I see him arguing things similar to you, but in other ways, I see important divergences.


David Lion Salmanson - 8/6/2004

Christopher,
I am not Professor Salmanson, I teach high school. I know Tim a little and I don't think he is arguing for termination per se. I think he is arguing more of a hybridity argument that counters claims sometimes made by Native American communities that they are unchanged and authentic from point x.


Christopher Riggs - 8/6/2004

I’d like to offer some comments and ask some questions regarding Prof. Burke’s postings.

1. In regard to his assertion that American Indian social groups only existed in the past… Tribal societies and cultures today may not be exactly the same as they were in 1790, to use Prof. Burke’s date. But that does not mean that tribes as political, social, and cultural entities ceased to exist or that today’s Indian peoples have no connection with the past. Can mainstream U.S. society be said to be exactly the same today as it was in 1790? If it is not, should we then conclude that the United States is simply a thing of the past, no longer in existence, and that Americans of today have no connection with their counterparts earlier in time? Are there not both elements of continuity and change, tradition and transformation, within the history of any community or society? Why is it so unreasonable for Native peoples to ask that members of the dominant society acknowledge that point?

2. I don’t know Prof. Burke, and I apologize if my next point mischaracterizes his position and/or intent. His argument about Indian tribes not existing today is not new. I have heard it a number of times. But the version I am familiar with is generally linked to a two-part anti-tribal sovereignty political position: (1) Indians, sometime in the past, ceased to exist as culturally distinct sovereign nations with a unique legal status. (2) Indians’ rights and federal services that were based on that unique status and sovereignty are therefore null and void. Indian nationhood and Indian peoples’ unique legal status have long been recognized, at least in theory, by the United States, and they entail rights for tribes and their members that include self-government, land title/use, and access to federal services such as education and health care. In other words, this version of the argument is a call for a kind of 1950s-style termination policy (mentioned by Prof. Salmanson), which called for assimilating Native Americans by abolishing their distinct legal status (or, as in the more recent variation, claiming that status had already been abolished).

My question for Prof. Burke is whether is he making a conscious argument against tribal sovereignty (and its related rights) and in support of termination. I am not attempting to label him and his ideas in order to dismiss them, nor am I suggesting he is not entitled to argue any point he wishes. The fact is, termination involves a reversal of generations of precedent and stripping Native Americans of some if not many of their rights. The application of this policy to certain Native groups in the 1950s and 1960s had disastrous consequences, and its revival would have tremendous implications for Native peoples today. Given what I perceive as similarities between Prof. Burke’s argument and those made by some recent termination advocates, and given the real-life implications for American Indians, I think that a full and open discussion requires asking whether he views his argument as advancing a termination-style policy.

(In the interest of full disclosure on my end, I oppose any form of forced termination and support the preservation of culturally distinct and sovereign Indian nations.)

3. It strikes me that, in and of itself, the “Indian Guides” organization probably is of relatively minor historical significance. I certainly do not believe Prof. Burke’s membership in the group is responsible for the termination policy, and I don’t think the Guides as a rule had malicious intentions. However, regardless of intent, I think that the Guides, combined with other factors (portrayals of Indians in movies and television, for example), probably did foster or at least reinforce a stereotypical view of Native Americans among members of the mainstream society. And, as Prof. Salmanson has suggested, stereotypical views of Indians have often influenced government policies. Scholars such as Anthony Wallace, Francis Paul Prucha, and Warren Metcalf have argued persuasively that stereotyped views of Indians (although not necessarily those specifically of the Indian Guides) helped shape policies and programs such as the Trail of Tears, Indian boarding schools, and termination—policies that have not generally been considered high points of Indian-U.S. relations.

4. If writing all of this makes me "politically correct," then so be it.

Thanks for your time.


Timothy James Burke - 8/6/2004

David: I have to say that your observations partly come back to my concerns about the unrootedness of the historicity that comes into these critiques. The policies enacted upon Native Americans that follow that narrative and Indian Guides in the late 1960s and 1970s have a kind of mimesis that connects them, but going from that resemblance to a *causal* argument not only inverts the sequence of events (the policies were enacted first, by rather a large temporal margin) but makes a connection that I think we should now really interrogate rather than take as being demonstrated by the mere fact of a narrative resemblance.

Moreover, what you do with Vizenor and Hillerman is more of the same problem with authenticity again--move Vizenor outside, Hillerman potentially inside. In many ways, my essay is meant as a critique of the way that someone like Vizenor can appropriate a more rooted, historically responsible, locally coherent criticism of "Indian Guides" or any other representation, and can appropriate it through a certain discourse of authenticity. That's where, in my argument, "political correctness" became the punching bag that it now is--when the sensible claims at its core about the relation between representation and action became unmoored from any kind of qualifiers or localisms.

So in the case of Indian Guides, it seems to me that there might be a case to be made in certain localities that the historical relation you described in your other posting is a problematic one--but that's a chronologically and spatially local claim. When it escapes that context and sweepingly encompasses all 1970s Indian Guides from Seattle to Pensacola, I think that's where things go bacly wrong, and where someone like Gerald Vizenor and a cast of similar thousands gets a point of entry.


David Lion Salmanson - 8/6/2004

Tim,
I'm pretty incredulous that you would claim Indian Guides made people more sympathetic to Native Americans. There is a pretty big literature out there on Native Americans and youth culture (mostly summer camps) that found that people were profoundly shaped by the following narrative: basically one is removed from civilization, becomes "Indian," grows and matures, then leaves the Indian persona behind as s/he matures over the course of the summer so that s/he can be reintegrated into civilization. The founders of the boy scouts were explicit about this, for example. This narrative is surprisingly similar to actual policy enacted upon Native Americans.
Finally, as far as Vizenor goes, he's work is pretty immense, but not widely cited by Native Americans outside his field in the way that say, Vine Deloria, Jr. is. Compare say Ward Churchill's take on Tony Hillerman (he's bad) with the Navajo Nation's giving him various awards, not to mention various rumors on the rez that the guy is part Navajo, or grew up on the rez etc. etc.. Which represents the more credible take? Also, Vizenor has the whole trickster thing going on, which makes anything he says at any point, particularly in front of academic audiences, incredibly suspect.


David Lion Salmanson - 8/5/2004

"The complete overturning of the 'Cowboys and Indians' paradigm" involved undoing things like getting rid of Indian Guides as they were practiced.
In the last chapter of my dissertation, I directly tackle the performance aspect by looking at the conflicts over the Inter-Tribal Ceremonials in Gallup, New Mexico in the late 60s and early 70s said conflicts leading to the kidnapping of the mayor of Gallup and a subsequent shoot-out on the main street (how Western can you get?). Anyway, there were two questions. The first and least important question was performance for profit. Since dances were performed in a non-religous context, the dancers admitted they changed the dances so as not to profane them and that the white folks were none the wiser. That settled that issue pretty quickly. The second, and much more contentious issue, was who made the bulk of the money from the performances. And here the sore spot was Native Americans getting squeezed out from an informal economy by a more regulated economy that was controlled by and benefitted Anglos. While on the surface, it appears to be about dance performance in the press accounts, once you looked at what people were actually saying, it wasn't about the performances per se, but about who profitted.
As for having it both ways, no more so than the Catholic Church. Imagine for a minute that you and I visited a Catholic seminary (or even a very Catholic country like Spain), went to Mass a lot, hung out with priests etc. etc. Then when we re-entered the world we started wearing priestly vestments, holding mass, and offering to teach Catholicism to others all while charging fees to participate in any and all events. How fast do you think we would wind up in jail, or at least have court orders preventing us from doing these things? My guess is pretty fast, and I seem to remember that a guy got busted here in Philly for posing as a Catholic priest. This is not merely parallel, this is equivalent to what some of these "shaman" types do.
Oops, Leonarda is out of the bath. More later.


Oscar Chamberlain - 8/5/2004

Good rejoinder. (Strange as it may seem, I was making a similar argument to yours with a colleague a couple of months ago. I am none who believes firmly that a society free of inadvertent insults will be a society that is not free.

Having said that, I think there is a difference between individual actions and repeated public actions. I submit the Cleveland Indian's logo as exhibit A: http://www.baseballfanstuff.com/indianshc.htm

Let's face it. That's insulting. People know its insulting. And most fans of the team cling to the image knowing full well that it is insulting. In that context, the claim that no insult is intended seems a bit weak.

I wouldn't want it banned; but I'm not going to say to some who is insulted by it that their feelings are immaterial.


Timothy James Burke - 8/5/2004

Interesting points.

The first thought is another case of something that's more and more complicated the more you get into it. Because in some sense Native American communities *are* past: this where yet another problem that intersects identity politics and "political correctness" comes into play, and that's the way we talk about authenticity and ownership. There's a sense in which Native American communities (and some comparable communities) want to have it both ways, to be recognized as the sole heirs and owners of an unchanging tradition or authenticity, but also to be recognized as a people who are within and part of history, in motion like everyone else in modernity, a part of the present. This comes up a lot in Africanist historiography too--we tend to decry the trope of Africans "caught in between" tradition and modernity, but some of us also want to grant Africans a kind of monopoly on certain kinds of performances of authentic identity, to perform culture that we recognize or label as being continuous with some sort of autochthnous "tradition".

Are today's Sioux the Sioux of 1790, in any meaningful respect? Is performing a Hopi "tradition" for an audience of tourists a past or present thing? The Native American of the collective American imagination *is* a past thing, and even as such is frequently misremembered or misrecognized by us all, including Native Americans themselves. I recall hearing Gerald Vizenor rail against anthropologists (and William Least Heat Moon) for "stealing" Native American culture, but felt a curious sense of disorientation as he went on to sketch out the "real" Native American with tropes and facts that come straight out of four generations of ethnographic research.

Where does something like "Indian Guides" come into this all? In a messy and I think minor way. Did Indian Guides in the 1960s encourage the kids to think of Native Americans as past, dead, gone, rather than a living presence in American life? Maybe, but in a very weak way, and probably in a way that varied hugely from chapter to chapter.

The second point one is an easier thing for me to deal with. Racists *always* claim that they "know" the people they're discriminating against--it's the most predictable trope in modern segregated societies I can think of. That claim is a polymorphous thing: no single text engenders it in a person who is otherwise disinclined to to deploy it in a malevolent or discriminatory way; someone acting in that manner is going to claim that they "know" X or Y people regardless. On the flip side, there's a growing literature that recognizes that exhibitionary culture and the culture of cross-racial impersonation is also (and to my mind, much more powerfully) a place where dominant social groups develop a desire for, identification with, connection to, or complex sensibility about historically oppressed groups, that there is something messily transactional going on in all the many sites of such activity. I'd be much more inclined to credit the significant revisionary appraisal of Native American claims for inclusion in the American present, not to mention the complete overturning of moral framing of the "Cowboys and Indians" paradigm, to something like Indian Guides than I would be to attribute a Republican BIA ramming discriminatory policy onto Indians because he was once an Indian Guide.


David Lion Salmanson - 8/5/2004

I am not sure if Tim intentionally used a worse case scenario or not in terms of Indian Guides but there are concrete reasons why Indian Guides, similar practices in the Boy Scouts, Cowboy and Indian movies, etc. etc. cause direct and concrete harm to Native American communities. This is because in many cases these practices are presented as authentic, carefully researched, or a particular expertise - - despite the fact that they are usually fictions.
1st, they almost always present Native American communities as past, which makes it extremely difficult for current Native Americans to get anything concerning them on the agenda when 3/4 of the country thinks you don't exist anymore, or you exist only as corruptions of your former self. I would argue that if we researched it carefully, we would find causal links behind movements like Native Guides and the Termination program of the 50s and 60s that literally destryoed some Native communities.
2nd because they are presented as expertise, it creates a platform whereby Native communities are not allowed to speak for themselves in the political arena because other people "know Indians" having learned about them in Scouts. This leads to the type of travesties where a Republican banker from New Mexico becomes head of the BIA because he "knows Indians" and therefore is able over strong tribal objections to ram Termination down their throats. This is why from the getgo in the Native American rights movements going after these programs was on their agenda and not an afterthought. And, I would argue, it is no accident that the decline of Indian Guides and related fictions is a major contributing factor in the emergence of a strong Native American lobby that effectively asserts treaty rights in the Courts, in Congress, and at the BIA.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/5/2004

Oscar,

If you're serious about rereading Farenheit 451, do it now. Bradbury posits precisely this argument as the root of the book burning.....


Timothy James Burke - 8/5/2004

But that's part of the problem, Oscar, that the discourse of identity politics says that as long as there are individuals for whom the "straw breaks the back", then there is a political or public problem with a text, a statement, a practice, a representation, a legitimate cause or complaint. Essentially it gives individuals a blank check if they're able to plausibly claim membership in a historically oppressed group to set proportionality wherever they like.

The student I mention in the essay, for example, was free without fear of contradiction or criticism, to say that when white students mistake him for his brother, that is the "straw" that piles on top of the history of blackface and constitutes an offense against him. And the thing of it is, I don't think that we need respond to this student that he's bluffing, or grandstanding, or anything else. Maybe it really *is* the straw that breaks the back for him. Maybe that really is the special personal symbolic practice that actually wounds him. I can't adjudicate that individual's feelings: his feelings are his feelings are his feelings.

But that's why a proportionality test is important and why it can't be left to individual determination, even the hypothetical "reasonable individual" used in some standards. I think it has to be a much more concretized and historicized determination of what kinds of social and cultural work a particular representation or text is doing in the world, and mindful of the intentionality of those who circulate, consume or appropriate that text. So, for example, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" or cross-burning on the lawn of an African-American family's house passes the test not because of how it makes individuals feel, but because you can say very clearly what kinds of political and social work those symbols are doing, quite independently of whether they hurt anyone's feelings, and you can be pretty clear about the intentionality behind them.


Oscar Chamberlain - 8/5/2004

I'm glad you linked Tim's essay. It's provoked a great deal of thought in me. part of me thinks Tim is on to something in suggesting that some of the targets are not worth the concern.

However, I wonder if Tim's empahsis on proportionality misses an important point: that it is the accumulation of insults--substantive and symbolic alike--that leads to this apparent lack of proportionality

Let's work with an ancient metaphor.

Let's say each insult is a straw. Lot's of people have had bales of them over a lifetime. That's the lot of someone in a dominant society that (to put it very generally) both discounts his or her heritage and yet uses emblems of it for the dominant society's pleasure.

Well, in that situation, how do we determine what is trivial--to an individual? If something is the last straw in a context like this, is it still trivial?

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