Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Geronimo and Alan Watts and Syncretism

I make a half- to three-quarters-hearted effort to keep this blog eclectic. Again, it doesn't have a lot of pictures and embedded stuff, but for what it lacks in that I hope it makes up for in... well, easiness to load I guess. Anyway, this thought is about seemingly random multiple notions that intersect and converge in a way that allows more integrated ideas to come out of the interaction.

Twitter has gotten a lot of attention, for various reasons. One reason is that it harkens to the "wild west days" of the early internet, only in a microcosm, where disparate people appear to rub elbows and freely exchange ideas with one another on equal ground-- at times you can in fact carry on a perfectly reasonable conversation with someone who famous or recognized as talented that would not be accessible otherwise.

Another more insidious reason (because it wouldn't be a 21st century blogpost without some hint at dark conspiracy) is that it is fertile ground for diabolically-flavoured "marketing synergies". A marketing synergy is when the suckers are basically enticed to knock on the door where they can then be gladly invited to be part of the game whose goal is further fleece them, of course.

And, another less apparent reason is that when a large number of people converse in writing in a way that everyone else can "hear" them, you get exposed to a lot of different information, including more indrect information on the uses of language and cultural style, and you maybe get some context (if you are paying attention) that you would otherwise not pick up and as a result might be more willing to see things from a different point of view.

It is generally accepted and often said that people find it easier to say things over the internet in writing that they would not say face to face, with all of the advantages and pitfalls that brings: people are nastier because they can get away with it, hence all the trolling and flame wars.

But one thing that is not often said, I think, is that it is also easier to change your mind about something when someone isn't watching or listening. Because we don't like to let people have the victory of convincing us about something that we were orginally disposed against.

I'm not talking about "wrong" and "right", something being proven one way or the other, but in terms of being able to shift our opinions in a way that lends more consideration to the other's point of view.

And the reason for this sort of hair-splitting lead up is this notion of American Indians being offended by various things that non-Indians deem to be inconsequential, the most recent case in point being the use of the code name "Geronimo" to designate a terrorist leader that was the target of a US military operation.

This is something that should be considered more fully, it is more important than it seems. It is not a "victory" if I can convince you of this, it is more a victory that you read the remaing paragraphs because just getting people to pay attention to this sort of thing is what all manner of American Indian/Native American/First Nations artists, writers, distinguished lecturers and activists have been doing for decades if not centuries.

Now, is it because Geronimo's descendants are offended, the existing members of his nation and related nations that this is important? In part that is a consideration. Is it because Native Americans 'labels' have long been applied in a narrow and stereotypical manner to things in a way that has become degrading to people of American Indian descent? That is part of it, also. It is an extension of the disdain for the use of Native Americans as mascots, as if they were charicatures, to the point where the "commercial label" over-writes the label of the people as a culture and of the person as human.

But the whole discourse about this, which has come primarily from the Indian side with a great many distinguished writers commenting on this, is much deeper, as it illuminates with laser-brightness and accuracy how the "code" that is objectionable because of how indians are symbolized in that code.

I recall reading a book called "Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls" which includes interviews with Native American veterans, where they recall some of the particular contradictions they face in the US Military. For example, one veteran recalled his anger when an officer referred to a contested area in Viet Nam as "indian country" to a group of soliders he was among.

Now, to a non-Indian who grew up watching all manner of war movies, the phrase is maybe an unimaginative bit of attempted drama on the part of the officer. But more acutely, it is a cultural trigger: here there be monstrous savages.

Because "indian country" does not mean the wide open spaces of the west and midewest or the forested woodlands of the east or the placid waterways and bayous of the south. It doesn't mean small mostly rural communities who have festivals characterized by fry bread and traditional dancing. It means the "valley of death" inhabited by inhumans.

And it is the pervasiveness of this code, the mainstream culture's thorough subliminal indoctrination in this code and the ease with which it is continually refreshed in the non-Indian psyche that is the current against which the native community swims, the headwind against which they fly.

The story behind the "code" of course goes like this: once upon a time there were good people who were escaping badness, and they came upon a place where they could flourish and along with them their goodness would flourish. However, there were some obstacles in this new place that had to be cleared, and among these obstacles were awful, strange and cruel people who could only be dealt with through violence. Some of them were particularly awful, and their individual names are exemplary of the badness. But, due to the goodness of the good people, these were overcome.

I would guess that there would be few non-Indian people among the ones who would grow up to be of age to serve in the military during Viet Nam that would disagree with the general outline of this story. To affirm that some areas of Viet Nam were "indian country" is to affirm the story that the overpowering goodness would extend to and wash away the obstacles on the distant Asian continent as it had in North America and I would also guess that there are many people, young and old, who still see this outline as essentially valid and respond to the conditioning of decades of Western and World War I and II movies that incorporate these themes. This is a part of the Grand Comforting and Motivational Narrative.

My thoughts about these things are very integrated with reading about the actual history of pre-Columbian times as well as pre-Revolutionary and early American history as well as my inculcation in the Grand Comforting and Motivational Narrative. Given the understanding of Geronimo as an historical character, if we were to map "Geronimo" the symbol in the Narrative to a more accurate representation in modern popular culture it would be the character played by Charles Bronson in any number of the "Death Wish" movies, where the hardworking faithful guy's family is victimized by marauding violent criminals. Yes! Charles Bronson, the one who also played a gunfighter in westerns! Wait, that would make the Americans that Geronimo fought against criminals, wouldn't it? Yes! yes, in the blunt broad sense of the Narrative it would. But that can't be because they were the good guys!!

Well, of course it can and it can't be, because the blunt broad sense of the Narrative is stripped of most of the actual details. None of the "guys" were all "good" or "bad".  But any broadly held historio-cultural narrative has to be stripped of the details otherwise a) it would be too difficult for everyone to grasp effectively and b) it wouldn't work at being comforting or motivating or give any kind of general outline, it would tend to be vexing and a little disturbing. Too much like Shakespeare and not enough like an Aesop's Fable. Too long a movie, too big a cast, too complex.

So, the actual nature of Geronimo as a person, as well as the actual natures of his descendants, closely and culturally related peoples throughout history, "since time immemorial", end up on the cutting room floor.

And that's why it is important.  Because unless our Grand Comforting and Motivating Narrative is an all-inclusive story of an ever evolving and diverse humanity, it-- and we-- are broken.

(p.s: you may be asking, "where is Alan Watts in this post?" and my hope would be, all through it).


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