Continued from last post . . . America's problem was several initial institutional corruptions that prevented them, from the start, of ever realizing that beautiful democratic ideal. To become an American, all you had to do was contribute to building America.
Literally, join us and labour with us. Our work building our country will set us free!
Quite literally a government of and by the people. The people’s work builds the state, the institutions, the government, the whole country. In building the country, you established your freedom, and it was as simple as working. Anyone who could work could be part of the American project.
Well, not anyone.
The first people excluded from the productivity of American inclusion that I want to discuss are the indigenous. The existence and deep economic integration of slavery results in an even more damning paradox than the indigenous genocides of the American frontier. But more on that later.
The exclusion of indigenous Americans from the productive project of America went according to a script we all basically know. But we rarely recognize how terrifying this racism really is.
America’s genocides against its indigenous peoples* were often through direct violence: raids and massacres, biological warfare of purposely exposing them to diseases like smallpox, mass starvation, forced relocations that amounted to death marches halfway across the continent.
* And these are peoples we’re talking about here. One aspect of anti-indigenous racism is considering all native peoples to be a homogeneous population: natives. This ignores the massive diversity and variety of cultures, governance models, and languages of all the different indigenous societies of North America. Just look through this list and think to yourself that each of these was a society comparable to modern groups like the Lao, Catalan, Bavarians, Tartars, Tamil, or Gikuyu. Your heart will sink.
My own country, Canada, also participated in a genocide against its various indigenous peoples, and in many of our institutions, the genocide continues. Canada has rarely approached the genocide of the indigenous with the incredible speed or brutality of America’s death marches and mass murders.
But our genocide has been even more insidious. Nominally keeping to our treaties with the different indigenous nations of Canadian territory has, for a long time, convinced many indigenous people – up to and including even the current generation – from participating in our democratic processes.
Canadian indigenous have historically seen their primary governance relationship as with the Crown of England, because their treaties pre-date the creation of the Canadian state.
But this relationship never protected them from our own instances of biological warfare and mass starvation, as well as the slower genocide of economic marginalization through isolation on decrepit reserves, the denial of political rights, and the destruction of their culture** through our residential school system.
|The explicit purpose of Canada's residential school system|
in the mid-20th century was the total destruction of all
the country's indigenous cultures.
** As well as constant, inescapable subjection to sexual violence and murder by their teachers. Only a few decades ago, it was Canadian state policy to rip indigenous children from their communities, then rape and murder them, and casually dump their bodies in unmarked mass graves.
So that’s a brief catalogue of the violence. What was the reasoning behind it? The concept that made it ordinary, acceptable, and even good to visit all this terror on millions of people for centuries?
Indigenous Americans weren’t considered human. They were considered other than human, aspects of nature.
A major concept of Western modernity is the categorical separation of humanity from nature. This concept is a major subject in my book Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, where I considered how it facilitated mass-scale ecological destruction.
It was also the concept that made it morally acceptable to kill indigenous Americans. Indigenous people weren’t considered human, but instead part of nature. The image persists, even among people who promote indigenous rights.
That’s the image of the indigenous person as closer to nature than self-degraded Western man (or rather Man™) who debases himself with technology. It simply takes the same dehumanizing, Othering concept that was originally applied to indigenous peoples to justify their destruction – they’re more animal and akin to nature than humanity – and makes it a virtue.
But it’s just as racist and disgusting.
Conceptually speaking,*** the most horrifying part of the American destruction of the continent’s indigenous peoples is that the country’s radically democratic constitution made it logically necessary.
*** And not viscerally speaking, because the horror of massacres, sexual violence, biological warfare, mass starvation, and death marches is more than viscerally violent enough for anyone.
I praised this concept yesterday, that America’s constitution and philosophical context in The Federalist Papers put the productive power of the people as the constitutive power of America itself. America wasn’t a country or administration, it was a project whose people themselves would build.
But if there are already hundreds of societies and cultures living throughout the North American continent, then the expansion project that allowed the American people to build the country couldn’t have happened.
A neighbouring society with the same rights to self-determination as the American settlers would have stopped the country’s expansion. At the same time, this wasn’t an imperialist affair because they weren’t conquering their neighbours.
American authorities, leaders, and people were literally clearing the indigenous away, exterminating cultures and people like pests so Americans could have the space to build their freedom.
America was to be built from nothing. That’s the foundational ideal of American productive democracy of the Jeffersonian period. So the indigenous cultures had to be treated as if they weren’t really human societies.
That way, American settlers – the builders of the country – could clear them away like brush and weeds from farmland. And feel just as neutrally about mass murder as they do about a brush fire.
And there is more horror, the horror of slavery. . . . To be continued.