American Idolatry

American Idolatry

by

Howard Adelman

Three days ago, we raced across five states of the United States of America. We traveled from the middle of Nebraska across Iowa and Illinois and traversed the upper reaches of Indiana to get to Michigan from where we left the next morning to get home late afternoon on the day before yesterday. Arriving home and settling back in is a process that included dealing with a pile of mail higher than me, a telephone message box that was full, as well as the unloading and unpacking from seven months away. Home is a great place to be after you have been away so long, but it requires a couple of days to make it feel like home again.

I have been wanting to write about the responses to the Iranian Nuclear Framework Agreement for days, especially as optimism has turned to pessimism among my friends. But perhaps today’s blog can be considered a prolegomena to another revisit to the Iranian agreement next week. For all agreements are about some degree of trust, even though they are built on distrust and suspicion. This blog is basically about whether America, not Iran, can be trusted to keep treaties.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei last week said that, “If the other side avoids its amphibology [ambiguity] in the [nuclear] talks, it’ll be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues.” This response feeds the hopes of those negotiators who believe generally that engagement if possible is a better approach than either coercive diplomacy or coercion through military action and who see this agreement as merely a first step in negotiating with Iran on its support of terrorism and its attitude towards Israel as well as Iran’s goal of becoming a regional power.

But one does not have to be so hopeful about larger accomplishments to support the framework agreement or so pessimistic about those larger goals to undermine it. In fact, the deal may crash, not because of the spoilers on each side or because the negotiations over the next two months will be so difficult and tough. It may be sufficient that each side has to engage in public relations or spin to undermine those spoilers such that the use of these steps in public relations themselves undermine the deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already warned the Americans that the “fact sheet” issued by the American side would complicate how the deal is received in Iran. What each side needs to make the case for the deal domestically is often at total odds with what each side has to do to make the deal with one another.

For years I have been on the side of those scholars of international negotiations that stress that the most important aspect that threatens peace agreements has to do with those spoilers who oppose them. Peace is often not made by peaceniks but by ostensible warriors who agree to smoke a peace pipe. That is why it is so often the case that peace agreements are often made by the most belligerent ones in domestic politics because they do not have spoilers to contend with domestically. Today, however, I will write about the monument on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota with the famous sculptures of the faces of four American presidents as iconic representatives of the history of America: George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1858-1919), that we visited the day before our mad dash home. I also want to write about the monument to Chief Crazy Horse subsequently though we saw it just before visiting Mount Rushmore. I will leave the discussion of Iran for now.

Let me begin with one of the observations we made in crossing Nebraska and especially Iowa. The corn fields were tiered. We were curious why this was the case. I looked for an answer when I got to our hotel room and found an article in the April 1917 issue of the American Threshholder, a popular farmer’s magazine a century ago that spread the message of good farming practices while advertising new tractors and threshing machines and taking advantage of the changes in advertising brought about by the invention of the linotype press one hundred and twenty-five years ago almost to the day in 1890. (As you will understand in the follow-up, the reference to advertising is relevant.) The article was the equivalent of today’s blogs with reflections by a very astute observer on raising corn in the Midwest.

His main point was to prove that, contrary to what the cattlemen had argued, farmers could raise corn in the territory west of the Missouri River, given that the land was semi-arid with relatively small amounts of rainfall. For the writer, it was an important lesson learned “when there was no more north to conquer.” He noted that even in 1917 in Montana, there was as much land under cultivation for corn – 18 million acres – as in Iowa and Illinois put together. The author also posed a challenge to the cattlemen with whom the farmers were in contention. And it always seems to have been thus as ironically implied in the song in Oklahoma. Farmers and cowboys should be friends but the never seem to have been.

The challenge was simple. Recognize truly who the Indians were. Contrary to cowboy beliefs, Indians were not savages. They had been settled farmers who raised corn; the white man had learned the techniques of growing corn, including tiered farming, from the Indians. Evidently, constructing the rolling lands into tiers was used to preserve scarce water. Further, the American settlers had learned those methods from the Indian women. “Are you saying,” this early twentieth century blogger argued against the cowboys, “that the white man cannot do what their Indian sisters had already proven could be done?” He reminded those cowboys that a century earlier, the Lewis and Clark expedition, which had opened up the West for Western and northern expansion, had survived partially by the corn they bought from the Indians.

In reading this essay, I was reminded of a number of observations:

–          The American practice of continuing to use the term Indians, both by native peoples as well as non-natives, contrasts with the Canadian practice that has replaced the term “Indians” with “aboriginal peoples”

–          The American stress was on expansion through settlements combined with the exercise of power

–          Farming was carried out by women in Indian societies as the men hunted and trained to be warriors

–          When we visited the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn where General George Armstrong Custer made his last stand, when the American cavalry first attacked the Indian encampment, they slew women, children and old men as the warriors slipped out of the village into the surrounding forests to be able to regroup later and prepare to counter attack

–          The first casualty that really alerted the Indian encampment was the killing of a young Indian boy; the second was the killing of an Indian woman who had been picking turnips – it was these two killings, and not the famous use of the Indians’ early warning systems, that really woke up the camp to the fact that the camp was under attack by the U.S. cavalry.

–          Runs the Enemy, an Indian chief, was smoking his pipe in his teepee when, “Bullets sounded like hail on tepees and tree tops” as reported by a Hunkpapa warrior. The family of Chief Gall – his two wives and three children – were all killed in the attack

–          The determination that led to the slaughter of every last man under Custer’s immediate command was a result, not only of the determination of the Sioux and Cheyenne to preserve their lands and their way of life as promised, but because of the fury that fired them up when they learned that the American cavalry had so wantonly slaughtered women and children

As one last final point to drive his message home, the author pointed out that the early fur traders had founded a distillery on the Yellowstone River using corn raised by Indians.

All of this is but background to discuss my observations after visiting both the monuments to the presidents at Mount Rushmore and the monument to Crazy Horse 17 miles away in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We were especially pleased that we had seen the latter monument before visiting Mount Rushmore. Let me signal my main general observation. We loved our visit to the monument to Crazy Horse in spite of all the reservations and issues the monument raised. We spent four hours there. We were totally disappointed and put off by our visit to Mount Rushmore. We spent less than an hour there. This was in spite of the fact that I was enthusiastic about the latter visit and had been looking forward to it, and only learned about the monument of Crazy Horse en route (revealing my ignorance of the American west) and we decided to make a side trip to see the monument to Crazy Horse before visiting Mount Rushmore.

To readers unfamiliar with American monuments, especially non-Americans, I only knew of Mount Rushmore because of the important role it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest. (More on this in a subsequent blog when I combine film analysis with social observation.) Carved right into the Black Hills of South Dakota, considered sacred to many Sioux people, the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, dynamited and drilled tons of rock to create huge iconic faces of the four former American presidents, except they do not appear in the order in which they served. Theodore Roosevelt looks out from a position further back between Jefferson and Lincoln.

The monument evidently receives three million visitors a year. As the promotional material advertises, “Today visitors come to appreciate this colossal man-made creation, learn about the design and construction process, appreciate its significance as a symbol of the American history of ‘monumental’ leaders (my italics), and to learn about the natural and cultural history of the Black Hills region.” I came away with a very different response. I was both disappointed and very critical of American egoism and insensitivity.

The Black Hills in Sioux culture was the place where the spirit of their ancestors abided. White men scarred the landscape to create a tourist attraction. Further, they did so by boasting that the four figures selected represented different ideals of American development. Washington stands for independence from foreign rule and there are no notes that I read about George Washington’s speculation in land in the Indian territories. Those lands had been recognized by Great Britain as belonging exclusively to Indians “in perpetuity”. They were to be reserved for the Indian peoples.

Washington was motivated to fight the British much more, in my understanding, not primarily because of unfair taxes, but because of restrictions on American expansionism that Great Britain’s treaties with the Indians imposed on American settlers. The fight over taxes that continues until today was just a cover for a much different imperial agenda. Washington at the age of 17 worked as a surveyor for the Ohio Company. That experience aroused his covetous desire for the land across the Allegheny mountains. After all, Washington embodied the opportunistic and visionary businessman as well as a military commander and democratic leader. At the time of his death, Washington owned fifty thousand acres of western land worth then a half million dollars. No other Virginian had been so active in lobbying and working to acquire the West for the expansion of settlements.

American expansionism was built upon a foundation of disrespect for international treaties and a belief in territorial acquisition as much if not more than a resentment of inherited aristocratic authority. As a result, the native Shawnee and Delaware Indians were pushed off their land. “If he (Washington) was at all restless, the form it took was in a determined quest to gain vast tracts of western land that he considered his both by right of discovery as a surveyor and right of conquest as the Virginian who had held on to the frontier backcountry through years of bloody battles and raids. Here his appetite was unquenchable.” Washington matured as a rapacious frontiersman, though, when he retired from his political and military career, as an elder statesman and patrician, he urged Congress to treat Indians more humanely in contrast to his early contempt for Indians as savages who threatened white settlement.

Washington led the faction that believed that the only way to defend against that savagery of Indians was through offence and carrying the battle into Indian territory. The British House of Commons had passed the Quebec Act which expanded the borders of the Quebec colony to include the West south to the Ohio River, thereby denying the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” (Washington) to acquire western lands across the Ohio River. Further, the rights of a freeborn Englishman meant the right of possessive individualism.  “No country ever was or ever will be settled without some indulgences. What inducements do men have to explore uninhabited wilds but the prospect of getting good lands? Would any man waste his time, expose his fortune, nay his life in such a search if he was to share the good and the bad with those who come after him? Surely not.” These words of Washington should have been etched in the stone at Mount Rushmore, but that would not enhance the propagandist vision that Americans have of themselves.

At Mount Rushmore, Thomas Jefferson is not celebrated for his contributions to American democracy and universal human rights, but as an iconic representative of expansionism. After all, Jefferson had written James Monroe (author of the doctrine of America’s manifest destiny) that “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” His acquisition of the western territories of the Mississippi valley in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of America.

At Mount Rushmore, Abraham Lincoln is not celebrated for his contribution to the emancipation of Blacks from slavery and especially not for his personal humility, but for his preservation of the union and his willingness to use coercive force to achieve that goal. Further, in the quest for unity as an ultimate value, the Lincoln administration had introduced the equivalent of a loyalty oath. Trustworthiness and loyalty to the union became the key criterion for government workers rather than “civil service”.

Theodore Roosevelt, the least visually correct image of his actual visage and with only a hint of his pince-nez as he lurks in the background, is celebrated, not for his belief in the power of America or his open imperial advocacy of expansionism or even for his love of the natural environment, but ironically for his defense of individual rights, but as those rights had evolved into an ideal of the freedom to exercise individual will with the fewest constraints possible on the individual by the state. Yet this colossus was created through federal patronage while the monument to Crazy Horse was created on the libertarian idea of refusing any aid from government.

The political message of Mount Rushmore comes across clearly before you come close to the platform to observe the faces as you proceed to the viewing platform along a wide pathway to pomposity and imperial ambition bordered by pillars with the flags of each of the states. The monument is a dedication to what I would consider false advertising about those presidents, to the art of capitalist “realism,” the American counterpart to the iconic figures of Soviet socialist realism with the same artistic virtues of the worship of the colossal using iconic abstraction for ostensible virtues that ought to be considered vices. Mount Rushmore is propaganda and idolatry at its worst, representing humans as embodying abstract ideas, though there is acknowledgement that everyone has not been pleased with the decision to make the carvings. The monument to Crazy Horse, as I hope to write about, is a direct challenge to American iconography. Given the values that have emerged in the aftermath of post WWII America, it is no surprise that there have been no monetary allocations since 1941 to ensure the completion of the sculptures. The abstract iconic faces will presumably never have bodies.

As one Black visitor wrote as a response to visiting Mount Rushmore, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image!!! Being a Black American I find Mt Rushmore to be another insult to minorities everywhere. Four slave owners (sic!) being recognized for what? Some people just don’t get it and unfortunately it’s the people who are making decisions about America. We (Americans) are slowly being taken apart and if America does not wake up WE are headed [for] destruction. Funny thing is all WE have to do is treat everyone with respect. Make sure that everyone is treated the same regardless of their ethnicity and culture. Unfortunately, America still refuses to respect all people and until that happens, America will continue to fall. America is the best country, WE just have very poor leadership, and it started with those four individuals on MT Rushmore!!!!”

 

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