Saturday, January 16, 2010

Crime and Civilization

A few quotations having been haunting my thoughts—

“Is his prayer his promise—a trust of the wind?” (Charlot 385)

“There has been all the time, in the white American soul, a dual feeling about the Indian […] The desire to extirpate [him]. And the contradictory desire to glorify him” (D.H. Lawrence qtd. in Deloria 4)

“The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are” (Baum).

“Yet, they [white settlers] say we are not good. Will he tell his own crimes?” (Charlot 387).

“Savage Indians served Americans as oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized National self” (Deloria 3).

“Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth” (Baum).

“Disguise readily calls the notion of a fixed national identity into question. At the same time, however, wearing a mask also makes one conscious of the real “me” underneath” (Deloria 7).

If we define civilization in opposition to savagery as something that values law and life, as a moral force that overcomes violence in favor of reason, then what must we make of the policy of genocide so readily embraced by our government? And yet, if accounts are true of slain settlers, can we not also understand the fear that prompted these abhorrent policies? Haven’t we seen a return to such modes of thinking as recently as 9-11? Are we civilized even yet? Or is civilization—and, on a more personal scale, civility, a constant struggle against the savage instincts we continue to feel in the face of threat? As much as I’m sickened by calls for genocide, I also understand how fear prompts that thinking. I’ve always thought civilization was instituted to help us contain our own savagery, but when civilizations clash, it seems they can also cause savagery.

In my post on Dickens I argued that Sioux writer Zitkala Sa’s memoirs of her girlhood show ample evidence that Native American tribes in the 1800s were civilized and mannerly. She gives us pleasant domestic scenes from her childhood. Yet the Sioux were regarded as a fierce tribe. The tranquility of her domestic scenes has everything to do with feeling safe. In the absence of threat, people are peaceful. White writings from the same period offer portraits of similarly peaceful domesticity, yet Frank L. Baum’s editorials, like Dickens essay “The Noble Savage,” display how savage Europeans became when trying to protect their “civilization.” It seems each person holds within him/herself measure of savagery and civility that wax and wane in response to perceptions of outside threat.

And still, I’ve oversimplified. There are always individuals in are cultural who are more prone to violence and those prone to less. What then?

Charlot puts the question better than I: “Is his prayer his promise—a trust of the wind?”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Playing Village People

In class the other day, Corey mentioned that he was thinking about our class while he was at gym.  Specifically, he was thinking about the Village People, whose group members all wore costumes, including that of a cowboy and an Indian.  It's a wonderful connection, and one I hadn't though of, so I was especially glad he brought it up.  I've been thinking about it ever since.

The Village People were one of the first openly gay bands to gain widespread acceptance.  Being "out of the closet" is very much a part of their group's identity, and their openness contributed greatly to the growing acceptance of a wrongly hated and valuable portion of American culture.  Yet at the same time they were publicly out of the closet, they were also wearing the closet.  Why the costumes?  Why these costumes?

If Philip Deloria is right that non-Native American "play Indian" to try to access a set of values that they're assumed to have (rebellion, dignity, environmentalism, etc, etc, etc), then what does this particular grouping enact and why?  Why cop?  Why biker?  Why soldier?  Why construction worker?  Are these collectively our most manly figures?  Is there a conscious attempt to make these guys opposite to one another--the biker and the cop in opposition, like the cowboy and Indian?  Is there an attempt to choose figures who are traditional enemies so that they might bring them into unity?

I honestly don't know enough about the Village People to begin to answer, but I'm betting there are others who do and might comment here.  Their website offers this tidbit of history into the groups start: "Producer/Composer Jacques Morali, with partner Henri Belolo, found Felipe dancing in his Indian costume in a crowd in NY's Greenwich Village. Felipe's special visual attraction brought the idea to mind to put together a group of Village icons from various American social groups." (Note that they started with the Indian costume.)  They say nothing, though, about why they selected the other iconic figures.  Curiouser and curiouser.

One layer more, though: the Village People fansite contains a link to photos of fans dressing up as the band. Now, not only are we playing Indian, but we're playing musicians who are playing Indian.  What do we do with that?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Confronting a Prejudiced Dickens

In his 1851 essay “The Noble Savage” published in Household Words, Charles Dickens scathingly reacts against the art of painter George Caitlin and others ( Perhaps Dickens’s anti-American writing in American Notes should have in some degree prepared me, but I have to admit I was surprised by the depths of Dickens’s ire. Unlike his portraits of uncouth white Americans who are over-fond of spittoons, this essay offers no humor to off-set its bitterness.

Dickens is blatantly and unapologetically racist, and as deeply as I admire his novels, I have no desire to apologize on his behalf. Dickens got this one wrong. We can see just how narrow his thinking is when he tries to use specific examples to back his views. He lumps African and American Indian cultures together, blurring not only tribal differences but the distinction between two wholly different continents.

What is more interesting to me is the basis of his complaint. He rails against what he sees as a false portrait of “nobility” in “savage” races, which makes me want to question his definitions of both terms. Dickens seems to attribute nobility to European culture exclusively because of its laws, customs, and manners—traits he feels that Native Americans and Africans lacked.

Dickens opens the essay with this paragraph:

TO come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance, and an enormous superstition. His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth. I think a mere gent (which I take to be the lowest form of civilisation) better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage. It is all one to me, whether he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears, or bird's feathers in his head; whether he flattens his hair between two boards, or spreads his nose over the breadth of his face, or drags his lower lip down by great weights, or blackens his teeth, or knocks them out, or paints one cheek red and the other blue, or tattoos himself, or oils himself, or rubs his body with fat, or crimps it with knives. Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage - cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.

His final sentence offers a catalogue of his discontents, centering mainly on his discomfort with the difference in customs. I almost laugh at some of the charges he levels, which mainly boil down to irritations over language use (“His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him”—surely this is more of a translation issue than an intentional slight on the speaker’s behalf) and objections to their fashion-sense (“he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears,” etc)—until I remember the net result of these prejudicial statements: hatred and the perpetuation of racial prejudice.

Of course, the customs he attributes to Native Americans show his ignorance and the same tendency towards caricature rather than characterization that many readers complain about in his novels. It is unfortunate that Sioux writer Zitkala Sa would not publish her memoirs for another fifty years. Her accounts of her childhood with its emphasis on manners (serving coffee to visitors, for example—see IV “The Coffee-Making” in Impressions of an Indian Childhood, 1900) and her mother’s insistence that her daughter not “intrude herself upon others” (“My Mother,” Impressions) seem like precisely the type of traits Dickens valued in his own heroines.

Perhaps what it most interesting, however, is Dickens’s failure to recognize his own incivility. He levels the charge that Native Americans are “murderous” only sentences after he himself has advocated the annihilation all non-European Native American and African cultures, writing, “I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth.” True, he hasn’t called for genocide per se. He wants them civilized away rather than killed, by which I take it that he would have supported the kind of Indian boarding schools in which Sa and many of her contemporaries found themselves. Yet his attitude here is hateful, and I can’t help but feel the link between it and the attitudes of the murderous white soldiers about which George Caitlin had written (quoted in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Chapter IV “The Poncas” in Century of Dishonor).

I’d like to believe that Dickens would have rethought his over-simplified notions that European = civilized = morally good and that non-European = savage = morally corrupt if he had read the accounts of broken treaties and the murder of American Indian women and children by US citizens and soldiers, but I doubt this for two reasons: 1) Dickens never would acknowledge that an Englishmen was capable of cannibalism after it came to light that the members of the failed Franklin Expedition had been reduced to this extreme, and 2) his portrait of Americans in American Notes gives me some doubts as to whether he would qualify Americans as civilized or savage.

Dickens over-simplified defamation of Native American and African tribes seems largely prompted by what he saw as the over-simplified praise of the same people, evidenced in Caitlin’s portraits and Pope’s famous passage in “Essay on Man”:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

But by embracing the extreme opposing opinion, Dickens ultimately commits the same fault of failing to see the complexity of each individual human’s character. How sad, really, that a writer famous for the world of characters he invented was so tragically limited in imagination when it came to recognizing the complications and contradictions of the diverse array of people that made up each side of his binary.