Tag Archives: America

Surrendering a Pocket Knife

IMG_4603There wasn’t much going on at the Spokane International Airport. Its two runways did not seem busy yesterday as I navigated the rigid airport security system. I diligently took off my shoes, placed my laptop in its own plastic tub, and placed my sparsely packed backpack in another tub. Shoeless, coatless, without my glasses and a little sleepy, I went through security. Past the body scan, I then waited as a TSA agent rummaged through my backpack.

“It looks like there’s a knife in here,” he said to me, casually.

Of course. My air travel backpack is the same as my camping backpack. Before packing, I had emptied my backpack of all my camping equipment, and even emptied it of pens and pencils, just in case. It seems I had missed a pocketknife, which took the agent a few minutes to locate after it slipped into one of my backpack’s many pockets. Only an X-ray could detect it. He held the knife in front of me, saying I had three options. I could have it delivered somewhere from the airport, put it in my car (I didn’t drive there), or, as he put it, I could “surrender it and let it go to knife heaven.”

I paused for a second. My flight would begin boarding in thirty minutes, and I probably had enough time to have it mailed back to my apartment and then go through security again, even though the knife was the only issue. But the line behind me and the agent’s calm patience made me feel embarrassed, even ashamed, at not doing my civic duties and preparing my backpack for Thanksgiving travel thoroughly enough. I chose to surrender the knife.

During my flight, I mulled over the word surrender. There are so many other ways of putting it: confiscate, disavow, give up. Instead, the situation looked like this: a TSA agent held my knife at me and told me to surrender.

It occurred to me that I felt safer at an airport than I do in my own classroom. I cannot take a knife on a plane (fair enough), but if I wanted to, I could bring a concealed handgun into my classroom while teaching. Idaho’s laws are finicky, and concealed-carry gun-owners, while on campus, are not allowed to reveal their weapons, but I still have the option to have one, and so do my students.

The argument is that the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and yet we don’t apply this logic to airplanes. On the plane, we cannot trust anyone with a pocket knife, or scissors, or toothpaste, so we regulate these things, or at least we collectively agree to embrace the cognitive dissonance required to believe that the good guy/bad guy hypothetical situation works everywhere except a plane. Nobody is trusted on a plane, but we have to trust that good guys will be everywhere else.

While teaching my last class before the holiday break, a man walked into my classroom, abrasively opening the door and marching toward me. He was older, balding, and looked frantic. Before I could panic, before I could beg him not to shoot me, he pointed to the lectern at which I stood and said, “I need to get a flash drive.” Then, in a few quick moves, he unplugged a flash drive from the computer. Evidently, he was another professor who had previously used the same classroom, and had left his equipment there. He apologized for the inconvenience and walked out. My students didn’t seem bothered. Maybe they’re all just good guys.

As my plane landed, I thought about something Charles Olson wrote in his 1947 literary criticism Call Me Ishmael: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” I’m skeptical that there is one central fact of America, but after the twin incidents in the classroom and airport, I’m inclined to think the central fact of America might be surrendering. This might be the case for every nation-state, but I cannot speak to other countries, but it seems more widespread in America: If I were not white, I can’t imagine what the TSA agents would have done to me after discovering a pocket knife in my backpack.

The word surrender has another, more sinister layer. Only combatants can surrender to another authority, lesser or greater in force. Soldiers surrender in war, and criminals surrender to cops. It suggests a more equal power dynamic than what is actually recorded in history. Native Americans surrendered land and life, Afghan children surrender security under drones, politicians surrender principles and we surrender to them our votes and our privacy, the working poor surrender their labor. What the state calls surrender is more like seizure because those who are asked to surrender are made to feel responsible for their defeat, as if it was their choice to enter into a conflict with America, large and without mercy.

And what was I ashamed of? That I was caught not remembering the state of terror we live in? I think, in truth, I was ashamed that the first time I relaxed this semester was walking into an airport, that I felt safer in a security complex designed to reinforce fear than I do in a classroom designed for comfort and an easy pace, and that I’m made to feel responsible because I’m not a good guy with a gun. Instead, I walk into a classroom with pens, pencils, markers, books, and slideshows, but none of those things, it seems, are enough to make me good.

-jk

Before Wounded Knee

wounded-knee-massacre

Photograph of civilians collecting the dead at Wounded Knee.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 is widely considered the end of military hostilities between the U.S. government and Native American Indian tribes. The Standing Rock protest today, however, is building up in similar ways to the Wounded Knee Massacre, and although there are key differences, it seems that the relationship between the U.S. government and American indigenous peoples has remained largely the same since 1890.

In 1888, a Paiute man named Wovoka began a religious movement centering around the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s movement asserted that the Messiah would return as a Native American Indian and the continent would be freed from pioneering and settler oppression, and the Ghost Dance would usher in the Messiah’s return. The movement quickly swept across Native American communities, reaching the Dakotas by summer of 1890.

Followers of Wovoka such as Arnold Short Bull, brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a drought and amid numerous treaty violations, which included reduced food rations for the reservation and white settlement on land designated for Lakota use. The Ghost Dance accompanied federally sanctioned violence, starvation, and a small environmental disaster. The U.S. government was suspicious of the Ghost Dance as early as May of 1890, and continued to treat it as a militaristic threat rather than a religious movement. On October 30, an agent for the Pine Ridge office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the BIA commissioner indicating that, in his view after observing the Ghost Dance,

“. . . the only remedy for this matter is the use of the military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the government can build up in a month” (Royer 65).

Here, the BIA acted as an observation tool for the U.S. government, keeping track of Native American Indians forced onto reservations with little water and food. A religious spectacle became a mode of unity, an expression of organization, which the government deemed, without question, a threat. Earlier, BIA commissioner R. V. Belt wrote in a letter dated October 17, 1890, that the Pine Ridge Agency should inform those

“. . . engaged in encouraging the Ghost Dance and other like demoralizing conduct, and inciting and fomenting dissatisfaction and discontent among the peaceably disposed Indians that [the Secretary of the Interior John Noble] is greatly displeased with their conduct” (Belt 75).

Belt went on to describe the Ghost Dance as “bad advice and evil,” and that the Secretary of the Interior will “exert whatever influence he may have over any of the Indians to turn their backs upon the medicine men who are seeking to divert the Indians from the ways of civilization” (75-76). There was a connection of correspondence linking BIA agents at Pine Ridge to the White House expressing anxiety about the Ghost Dance. These agents wanted “peaceably disposed Indians” who did not express discontent.

But all evidence suggests that they had every reason to express discontent. They were surviving a genocide, forced onto difficult land after military engagements against them, after numerous other massacres and battles. It seems that BIA agents and the U.S. government associated Native American discontent with militaristic hostility, conflating the two, because to the U.S., the moment a tribe became vocal, the moment its members made themselves visible, they challenged the established systematic erasure of an indigenous population and the colonial narrative of European settlement on an otherwise unpeopled land rich with untapped resources.

The Ghost Dance as a religious practice did not emphasize military struggle or armed combat. On October 31, Short Bull gave a sermon to his followers, referring mostly to the coming of the Messiah and mentioning combat only once, when he said,

“You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of, but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see they do no harm. Whatever white men tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all” (Sitting Bull 65).

Anxieties over Native Americans not listening to those attempting to defeat, control, indoctrinate, and relocate them culminated in the military’s arrival in November at Pine Ridge, to keep the peace. Following Royer’s suggestions, the military became a remedy to stop the Ghost Dancers from breaking down what the U.S. government had built up. Cavalry divisions arrived at Pine Ridge, forcing surrender and disarmament. On December 29, in the process of disarming a few Ghost Dancers, a rifle went off, and soldiers panicked after being informed that an armed insurrection would take place. Fueled by fear and rumors, soldiers fired at the Ghost Dancers, and a massacre ensued. There were casualties on all sides as some Ghost Dancers attempted to defend themselves. Estimates vary, but up to 300 Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them children.

The logic leading up to the massacre might be difficult to track, but was built on a number of assumptions. First, that Native Americans practicing a large, organized demonstration was the equivalent of cultural and military dissent, or in other words, a problem. Second, that the only way to “solve” the problem was through the use of military force. Third, that expressing dissatisfaction with an understandably bad situation was unacceptable.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the blurring of police and military forces. In a post-9/11 surveillance state in which citizens and combatants are considered difficult to distinguish from one another, the police and military begin to serve similar functions. While this fact has become more obvious in recent years, and while there have been many instances in the U.S. in which the state treated its citizens as combatants, this has always been the case for Native Americans. Since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have always been designated a threat to westward expansion simply by their presence, their visibility, their voice. Historically, soldiers keeping peace and soldiers engaged in combat have served the same purpose for the U.S. when engaging its indigenous population.

I’m not a proponent of the notion that history repeats itself; I find it too simple. However, the events surrounding the Standing Rock protest are eerily similar to those that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre: Native American Indians express discontent over treaty violations, land abuse, and environmental disasters, and as a reaction, a militarized police force steps in. Tensions have already resulted in violence against protestors and the arrest of journalists for covering the events. Contexts may be different, but the logical framework the U.S. uses to understand and address the protest remains almost identical to how the U.S. addressed and understood the Ghost Dance. Whether or not there will be another massacre remains to be seen.

Coleman, William S. E. Voices of Wounded Knee. University of Nebraska Press (2000).

Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror: A Brief History of the United States

Civil WarThe current state of American History in public schools reminds me of this old Monty Python sketch:

“Hello, good evening, and welcome to another edition of Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror,” a host begins. “And later on we’ll be talking to a man who does gardening” (Season 3, Episode 4, aired Nov. 9, 1972). Students in American History classes, much like Monty Python’s audience, expect one thing (blood and horror, American history), and get something else entirely.

Last year, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson accused AP U.S History standards of painting America in such a negative light that students “would be ready to join ISIS” upon completing the course. Mr. Carson’s statement may have been a bit exaggerated; despite the fact that students who completed AP U.S. History courses did not rise from their chairs, move to Iraq, and become serial rapists who behead children, the standards for teaching an Advanced Placement U.S. History course changed to paint a less brutal portrait this nation’s history, and by extension emphasize American Exceptionalism.

Historians and history nerds, myself included, lamented these changes, but not because they revise history. Historiography is in a constant state of revision as new evidence and perspectives surface, and as our contemporary understanding of ourselves changes the way we see the past. But most historical revisionism is inclusive, while the College Board’s revisions are painfully exclusive.

History is the process of unburying the dead and interrogating the bodies about how they lived. The deeper we dig, the more we compress time and space, and the closer we find history’s ghosts among ourselves. Perhaps we start to see these ghosts wandering among us. Perhaps we even start to notice that the dead are clawing out of their graves demanding that we listen. The changes made to the AP U.S. History standards are an attempt to rebury and silence the dead, ultimately a vain but nonetheless disheartening act.

For those unfamiliar with the term, American Exceptionalism is the current ruling monarch in a long succession of myths intended to make the U.S. look better than it actually is, and thereby justify any of its actions at home and abroad. Its predecessor myths include Manifest Destiny, the notion that white American pioneers had the exclusive right, as sanctioned either by God or superiority of heritage, to claim and tame all land in the American West, despite the indigenous populations already living there. Another popular myth is America’s Predestination, which asserts that the United States was not only an inevitability, but a holy fate of history, a part of God’s plan, even.

All historians worth their salt know that nothing in history is inevitable. Such an explanation removes human agency, and therefore human responsibility, from our lives. American Exceptionalism feeds upon its predecessor myths; if America is supposed to be, so too are the consequences of its actions, and by that logic, the U.S. can do no harm.

But the truth is that America has done, and continues to do, harm. If America is part of God’s plan, then chattel slavery and Native American genocide are also part of God’s plan. If America really is exceptional, does that mean Arizona only became exceptional in 1912? Did the Southwest miraculously become unique only after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848? Were Japanese Americans suddenly not exceptional between the years of 1942 and 1945? Did the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limit the potential exceptionalism of Chinese immigrants? Was U.S. involvement in the ousting of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile an exceptional act? What about the House Un-American Activities Committee? What about the fact that the Southern Colonies went into the American Revolution fully aware that British judges were already passing sentences threatening the institution of slavery, and that a declaration of independence was the only way to preserve their plantations? Is the prison-industrial complex a truly exceptional institution worth upholding because it is a by-product of the United States?

American Exceptionalism is a downright lie. No textbook would dare claim Germany is exceptional because of its history, nor that Russia or Great Britain or India are exceptional, predestined countries. I do not intend to suggest that America is an intrinsic evil, either. The United States is guilty of a plethora of injustices, just like Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and India. Like those countries, who gave us Bach, Tolstoy, Monty Python, and Bollywood cinema, the United States has let bloom flowers of its own: our greatest export remains our jazz, blues, hip-hop, rock ‘n roll, rap, and bluegrass. But nothing makes us exempt from our crimes.

Just like Germany, which must confront the Holocaust; Russia, which must confront the gulags; Great Britain, which confront colonialism; and India, which must confront the one million people who died in its partition with Pakistan, the United States does not have the right to run away from its past, because no matter how far we run, the past will always catch up.

Unburying and interrogating the dead does not allow for discrimination. We must listen to every ghost of our past. As a historian, I believe the dead always have something to tell us, forever on the tips of their tongues. Shutting our ears will only make them shout louder at us.

-jk

Boots on the Ground

Civil War Soldiers

Statue Commemorating Civil War Veterans

Some of the best advice I received about historical research is that oftentimes the surest way to find sources is to have boots on the ground and look for sources in person. This usually involves going into public archives or getting access to private ones, but I’ve heard tales of finding rare documents forgotten in the trunk of a car or simply on display in a book fair. This week, while visiting family in Appleton, Wisconsin, I decided to experiment with boots-on-the-ground-history.

March to SocialismI discovered that historical research is more than just skimming through a few letters. It’s detective work, a methodological investigation, and I did not rise to the challenge. As I prepare to go to graduate school to study creative writing, I worry that I may leave history behind. History is close to my heart, but requires a patient diligence.

McCarthy

Statue of Senator Joseph McCarthy

The challenge of in-person research yielded a few interesting results. Appleton’s public history emphasizes its positive qualities, such as the fact that magician Harry Houdini claimed it as his hometown, though he was born in Hungary. There is a museum with an entire floor devoted to Houdini’s life and work. However, another famous man claimed Appleton as his hometown, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who engaged in congressional witch hunts during the early 1950s to remove suspected communists. Popular opinion has since turned against McCarthy, but as journalist Edward R. Murrow said in an open challenge to the Senator’s unethical methods, “He did not create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it.” Now that Red SpiesMcCarthy is remembered as an aggressive demagogue, his hometown has taken a statue of him that once stood in public view and placed it in a museum’s bottom floor, under the stairs.

Apart from some obscure anti-communist propaganda, one from 1950 and the other from 1967, a World War One Dough Boy memorial statue and a Civil War memorial statue, I could not find any major historical documents in Appleton’s history, simply because I did not look that hard. It is not surprising that they hide McCarthy’s image and highlight a still-popular celebrity. Any research on the Cold War in Wisconsin daily life would require interviews with those who remember it, access to radio and news archives, local newspapers, and other hidden sources. Perhaps I might be able to dig up a few rare pieces of propaganda if I looked deeper, or uncover a story of Cold War espionage, but such research requires more time and energy than I can offer. I’m not a specialist, or a driven detective. I am, for the time being, only an interested amateur.

Patriotic WWI Statue

Doughboy Statue Commemorating World War One Veterans

Perhaps I can one day conduct better historical research. Perhaps I will one day dare to dig deeper, open doors that should not be opened, find people who have answers. I was inspired by a year-old article about Amor Masovic, who has been looking for burial sites from the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1995. That massacre, part of the Bosnian Genocide, was the first act of genocide on European soil since the Holocaust, and one that the world ignored for years. Today, the perpetrators still live side-by-side with the families of the victims, and reconciliation is a great challenge. But Masovic pursues burial grounds, is still looking for the missing victims to piece together the community of Bosniak Muslims that existed before the massacre. He’s been working for nearly twenty years and there are still bodies unaccounted for.

Will I ever be such a researcher? Will I ever contribute to as admirable an effort as Masovic? It’s unlikely, but I do not want to leave history behind. I’m too compelled and too haunted by its ghosts to allow myself to give it up completely. History truly is obsessive, and maybe the only way to make a difference is to simply embrace that obsession, dig my boots into the ground, and dig as deep as the past will allow.

-jk