“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

21 October 2013

The American Indians and the shame of my culture

I have been meaning to write about the American Indian peoples and their clash with ‘Western’ civilisation almost from when I set up this blog.

Some visitors might have seen and perhaps clicked on some of the video links detailing some fragments of Indian history. Many of these are deeply moving, but they are only fragments.

I have recently read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an amazing book which approaches the clash between Indian and white people from the point of view of the various Indian tribes which were defeated by ‘white’ civilisation. I am now reading another book on the American Indian Wars.

However the more I have read, watched, and heard, the more this topic, with its tragedies and dreadful abuses, expands beyond my capacity to deal with it in a blogpost or website article. Like the Lakota (Sioux) man Albert White Hat said of his personal predicament in this video from the terrific PBS series The West, “it’s too much”.

There are a great many factors which led to the ultimate suppression of American Indian populations, from greed and capitalism backed up by legal strictures (which were antagonistic to the ways of native peoples and not understood by them), to the population explosion in 19th Century Europe. There were underlying ideologies which served to justify the breaking of treaties and the appropriation of land. Some of these resorted to simple racism clouded with mystical nonsense: for example that the white man’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ was to usurp the Indians and take their land, with all the resources on it. When the American Civil War secured notional citizenship rights for black people, Indians were excluded.

The culture which did this is my culture: it was largely born and fed from English or British laws and customs. The fate of Indian children under the British King and Queen’s sovereignty in Canada and that of the United States to the South was remarkably similar. Children were stripped from their Indian parents with view to “killing the Indian within the child” and assimilating them into the dominant culture.

Canada’s government and political parties apologised for this a few years ago [check out the link], but the pain and the suffering and other consequences of splitting up families remain. The abuses that have come to light for example on Vancouver Island as revealed by Reverend Kevin Annett are shocking and bring great shame to the Churches and the wider culture. The same happened in the United States, as evidenced by the tearful Chippewa Cree man Andrew Windyboy here. He says: "For the white man it's a terrible shame for him to treat people like this. Because we are a people. We just need to be accepted."

That is all for now though – except to say that the culture that gave birth to many of the practices and habits which conquered North America could be seen clearly in Danny Boyle’s London Olympic Opening Ceremony last year. [for me, best in Spanish] As the Pandemonium sequence illustrated, one of the first stages of a rapacious and confident new way of being was to conquer native land for exploitation and drive many of its people to submission, just as happened to the Indians progressively from the same period.

*I would recommend checking out some of the videos in the right-hand sidebar here, on American Indian culture and history. There is plenty of interest in all of them in my view.

15 October 2013

A question to Jon Cruddas on Labour’s “organisational renewal”

I was fortunate to get an invite to a talk by Labour’s Policy Review Coordinator Jon Cruddas yesterday evening hosted by the Civitas think tank in Westminster.

Cruddas made a typically interesting and enigmatic speech, on the theme of ‘One Nation Labour:  work, family and place’ (transcript here), outlining how the Policy Review is unfolding around these themes and exploring them in some detail.

I won’t go into much of that detail here (click the link above to read the speech); instead I want to focus briefly on the “organisational renewal” within Labour that Cruddas spoke about in glowing terms.

This is the attempt, led by the American community organiser Arnie Graf, for Labour to become more connected within communities, engaging with voters more on their terms and with less focus on “harvesting their votes” using Voter ID data (which puts you into categories and defines you without campaigners even needing to meet you).(For some of Graf’s own thoughts, click here).

Cruddas said that the Policy Review is proceeding “hand in glove” with organisational renewal. “We are literally changing Labour so we can change the country”, he said. Later on he added: “It is a cultural reformation that is happening.”

In the Question and Answer session I put a rather pointed question to him about this. The gist of it was as follows:

“I am particularly interested in this topic of organisational renewal, and Labour as an institution. I like what you’ve said about it here and elsewhere. I like the theory and some of the practice in what Arnie Graf is doing. But Arnie Graf doesn’t run the Labour Party. The NEC (National Executive Committee) runs the Labour Party. It sets the rules and the practices and largely sets the tone for the party. And the NEC is dominated by interest groups which in some cases engage in quite antagonistic identity politics, especially those around class and gender.

"So my question is that isn’t it Labour’s most important task in organisational renewal to confront its own paralysing bureaucracy, and that someday there will have to be a reckoning between the Graf approach and that of the interest groups?”

Understandably (and even, you might say, rightly!), Cruddas largely evaded answering the question, which he addressed in conjunction with one about the role of unions within Labour. He pointed to the effort to get union members involved in the party as individuals, which will form part of the reform proposals discussed by a Special Conference next March, and also the role they have been playing in some of the Graf-led local campaigns around things like the Living Wage and “usury” (which I took to mean the payday lenders).

He did say however that the changes being attempted represent the “early skirmishing” within the party, adding that he is content with where Labour is now, three years after the 2010 election defeat (which he likes to present as one of Labour’s worst ever – something that I wouldn’t agree with).

This is fair enough. Cultural change takes time, especially in an institution so beset with fiddly internal bureaucracy as Labour is.

My worry remains however that the fiddly bureaucracy is precisely what maintains the power of the powerful and their top-down approach of command and control. The big unions and women’s lobby for example will not give up their welter of special privileges lightly.

Hopefully most people will see that opening up as a party, becoming more democratic (not in the GDR-sense as it is now), and starting to drop the more antagonistic identity politics, is best for everyone.

For Labour to grow into some sort of mass movement (as is the intention), which attracts ordinary people rather than deters them, it is surely necessary; likewise for Labour to present itself convincingly as a ‘One Nation’ party.