The Endless Relitigating of the Past as a Postmodern Condition

In 2016, in the context of the protests over the Keystone pipeline, Inside Sources asked me my opinion of the criticism that white environmentalists were hijacking the indigenous concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other American Indian tribal nations across the country. Part of the concern for the indigenous was that the pipeline ran through sacred grounds. I disagreed with the suggestion that the American Indian protest was being hijacked by environmentalists at the expense of the concerns of American Indians. I pointed out that environmentalists and others have legitimate concerns about the pipeline. I emphasized that “the Dakota Access Pipeline involves land that could affect millions of people downstream.” Moreover, I said, “there is the larger issue of fossil fuels and climate change.”

I worked my answer around the problem of “the sacred.” I was then as I am now interested in people not tribes. But the news today has inspired to make sure that my opinion about such matters is clear: I always hesitate add my voice to the framing of the issue of Indian lands in terms of claims of sacred spaces since I do not believe lands can be sacred in this way. That would require me to accept a premise of which I am deeply skeptical as well as eschew my commitment to the individualism of democratic-republicanism over against tribal thinking and practice. If the lands are public, then this is a matter for the government to decide. I opposed the pipeline on rational grounds.

File:Mount Rushmore detail view (100MP).jpg
The Mount Rushmore National Monument in the Black Hills in Keystone, South Dakota

On June 29, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Harold Frazier, called for the removal of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. This has become a national issue because President Donald Trump has planned to celebrate our nation there for the Fourth of July. “The United States of America wishes for all of us to be citizens and a family of their republic yet when they get bored of looking at those faces we are left looking at our molesters,” Frazier wrote. The “Great Sioux Nation,” was betrayed by a country that carved faces into “our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore.” Frazier is not alone. A campaign to remove the monument is gathering energy.

Keep in mind that the first site chosen for the monument (the Needles) was rejected because of objection from the Sioux. The sculptor and tribal representatives agreed to build the moment on Mount Rushmore. The monument idea moved from a narrow regional appeal to a more inclusive and national display by including four great liberal and populist figures of world democracy. I am well aware of the treaty disputes that saw the United States claim parts of the Black Hills as public property and the transfer of land in 1876 as the result of the Great Sioux War (known for, among other things, Custer’s last stand). I am also aware of the politics of the sculptor. The politics of artists do not impress me. I am interested in the product and what it speaks to and what it inspires.

Although I reject the concept of sacred land as it is often cast in supernatural terms, I do wonder why it appears to be the case that some are entitled to sacred lands and symbols while others are not. Are we not right to be skeptical of the claim that land was in some mystical way given to anybody? (Check out the conflict in the Middle East for guidance on that question.) Mount Rushmore carries the faces of four great Americans—George Washington, who led the American colonists in the War of Independence and served as the first president of the new republic, Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist, a populist, and a progressive, and Abraham Lincoln, who saved the republic and emancipated blacks from the indignity of chattel slavery. Together, these four men represent the Great American Nation, a nation of people who threw off monarchy to establish a democratic republic that built the most advanced and prosperous nation in history and led the world in liberating people from the bondage of servitude. In as much as we can regard a monument to such achievement and progress as sacred, Mount Rushmore is sacred.

I have long wondered about the principle in operation here. Is there one? If it were discovered that Stonehenge, constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC, were built on sacred ground should it be torn down? On whose authority is that land sacred? Sacred to whom? There is some suggestion that it is an ancient burial ground. There appears to have been an earlier structure there, possibility thousands of years older. Should we leave it up but have no speeches delivered there? Should we prevent tourists from visiting? What should the people do? Don’t drive dirt bikes through it. Don’t deface it with graffiti. Don’t plant flags on it. Don’t push over its stones. Anathemas and curses are fine. They don’t do anything. But tear it down? Deface it? Cover it up? It think that is probably against the law.

If some of the people who built Stonehenge were slaveholders, do we know whether the people who lived there before the people who built Stonehenge were also slave holders? They may very well have been. It could be that they were slaveholders but that those who built Stonehenge were not. We don’t know any of this, but it is certainly possible. We can be certain of the horrors of human sacrifices to the Huitzilopochtli at the Templo Mayor, the main ritual structure at Tenochtitlan. Should we tear down the structures built by the Aztecs because the builders were arguably the worst human beings who ever lived? Are we supposed to mourn the fate of the Aztecs as the hands of Spaniards or cheer for the surrounding tribes the Spaniards liberated from genocidal maniacs obsessed with blood sacrifice? Are we to mention the strict hierarchical organization of Aztec society as justification for defacing their monuments? I’m guessing that those monuments are also protected by the law.

The horrors of human sacrifice at the hands of the Aztecs

Looking at all the monuments and structures around the world, weren’t many (most?) of them built by men who owned slaves? Men who conquered other men? Who killed other men? Weren’t many of these structures in fact built by slaves? I’m pretty sure all the ancient Egyptian monuments were built by slaves. I’m pretty sure they weren’t the only ones. Should we tear these down as well? Are men of reason expected to be no better than the Islamists who blow up statues of Buddha? Or those who chiseled off the nose of the Great Sphinx? Or the Bedouins who shot at the urn at Al-Khazneh in Petra to force it to give up its treasure?

“But those statues and monuments mean something to somebody, to history,” I can hear voices objecting. Indeed! So what about our statues and monuments? On what grounds are we not allowed to have and preserve statues, monuments, and historic structures? On what grounds are we forbidden to venerate the deeds of our ancestors by throwing down sacred markers of their accomplishments and sacrifices as other peoples do? It can only be because there is a need to delegitimize our history. Be honest. If our history were venerated in the same way that others insist we venerate theirs, then we would not be having this conversation.

Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the NDN Collective (an “Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power [though] narrative change [to] decolonize…and movement-build…], has said, “Stealing our land and then carving the faces of four white men who were colonizers, who committed genocide against Indigenous people, is an egregious act of violence.” If we must abandon, shutter, deface, demolish, etc. Mouth Rushmore on these grounds, then we must do the same with everything else, no? We’re not talking about the mascot of an NFL team (lose the mascot, Washington). The men on the mountain represent America. If some Americans choose not to be included in that construct that’s their business. If these are genocidal and violent men, then America is a genocidal and violent nation. But that cannot possibility be the whole story.

Notice how the argument turns on race: “four white men.” That’s what is so objectionable. Did not the Sioux war with the Iroquois? Intertribal warfare carried devastating effects for people throughout America (take a look at the 1770 episode at the Dalles of the St. Croix between the Dakota and Ojibwe). Nobody thinks about that. The injection of race into the matter means that intertribal warfare with large-scale killing and enslavement is okay if it was between Indians. (This style of thinking is part of what lies behind disregard for the large-scale warfare occurring daily in the inner cities of the United States. Since blacks are killing their own, it’s not as significant as when whites are killing blacks. Race determines who gets to use the sacred words. I can insult my sister. You can’t. And so on.) Don’t forget that the Dakota War began when, in the summer of 1862 Indians wiped out a white family to initiate of a campaign of terror against white settlements. Most of you never forgot about that because you never learned about it. It’s not that America or Americans have not done horrible things. It’s that America and Americans never cornered the market horrible things.

What is “the sacred”? That which is connected with gods or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration, my dictionary says. I’m an atheist, so pardon my skepticism about the sacred and my reluctance to accept the claims of others on the matter. Is that because I’m bereft of the ecumenical spirit? Maybe. But why should the ecumenical spirit cause somebody to hate their own icons? Is that why BLM and Antifa are tearing down the statues and monuments of abolitionists? Because they’re tolerant of the totems of others? Is it because the mythologies of the Sioux nation—the mythologies of any people—mean little or nothing to me? Maybe it’s because I stand in awe of the accomplishments of man and not in the imaginary entities and forces of primitive religion (or any religion). Do I find religion and history interesting? Yes, I do. That’s why I oppose the toppling of Buddha or the ransacking of museums by Islamists. It’s also why I oppose the toppling of statues of Lincoln and the demolition of Mount Rushmore. Whether your desire is atavistic or you pine for the Year Zero, you cannot stand apart from the forward direction of time without bending the arrow out of line.

Maybe I do have a sense of the sacred. But what is sacred to me is not the theological or the spiritual or the magical. I reject the primitive. What is sacred to me is found in the great ideas and products of history, those that don’t organizes us into tribes, but rather bring us together in the republican spirit that puts human rights and individual liberty first, that insists on the secular, that attempts to grasp the objective world, while curating the stories and respecting the artifacts of historical actors. The promise of the Enlightenment has always been detribalizing—the liberation of individuals from traditional structures and reintegrating them under the rule of law. That system is better and history proves it. Do the comparative work. I want men of science and reason on the sides of mountains. To be sure, that is not sacred in any transcendent sense. Nothing is. Nothing can be. But it is nonetheless important to symbolically mark the humanistic and democratic values that have created the most free and successful civilization in human history. My message to everybody is this: assimilate to the humanist ideal and these can be your statues, too. If you don’t want that, that’s your prerogative, of course. But we can’t keep fighting the same battles.

What would Frazier have us do with Mount Rushmore really? Blow it up? Drape it? Re-sculpt it? Efface the memory of great deeds of great men? Whatever he is allowed to do, I’m guessing. He is obsessed with identity it sounds like. Just some expression of mastery over those faces will do as long as it is dramatic. Those faces are, after all, white. White people were, in the face of their modernizing presence, “maggots.”

Why are we having this conversation now? It’s not just Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore. It’s because the gospel of identity politics is preached daily by politicians and professors. Determined to delegitimize the American republic, the cultural managers teach our children to self-loathe and admire the exotic, elevating romanticism (multiculturalism, ecumenicalism) above the rational. If history teaches us anything it’s this: that path does not take us to a place where human rights are respected.

Try this: Mount Rushmore means something to me. Nobody has any better claim to the significance of that monument or any other than do I on the basis of skin color. I’m not saying my claim is necessarily better (although it is). I am saying that considering my claim to the sacred as inferior on the basis of skin color is not merely wrong—it’s racist. That the faces carved on that mountain are white is no reason to remove them.

Let’s be clear: that is the reason people want to remove those faces. Have you heard? All whites are racist. Only whites can be racist. Whites are colonizers. “White settler colonialism.” Is there any other kind? No other race has ever been. Whites commit genocide and practice slavery. No other race ever has. This is why the idols of others can and must stand while the monuments of the West must fall. They are the simulacra of personified blood guilt. This is a war against modernity and the Enlightenment.

Aztec pyramid of Santa Cecilia Acatitlan

I think we would all agree that we should leave Stonehenge and the Sphinx where they are. We don’t need to know whether the people who built those structures were racists. They probably were something analogous to it. They probably practiced slavery. We know some (most) did. We know they killed people in war (most did). We know that humans were probably sacrificed at the Aztec pyramid of Santa Cecilia Acatitlan. When Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors conquered the Aztec empire in 1521 scores of people were liberated from terror—at least terror at the hands of Aztecs. Should we tear down the pyramid of Santa Cecilia Acatitlan? Should we even spend any time talking about it?

Why can’t we agree to leave Jefferson and Lincoln where they are? Why can’t we agree to stop talking about it and get on with celebrating the greatest country that ever existed? If you want to know the answer to these questions, ask yourself this one: what do people get out of relitigating history? They’re after something.

Happy Fourth of July! If you want to celebrate more of them in future, you had better know what you’re up against.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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