Thursday, March 14, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 13: Culture Wars, Old and New

Culture Wars, Old and New
by Randall Auxier

I lived in Oklahoma for some years, and learned to be suspicious of pictures like this one. Friends there helped me begin to grasp the depths of my own unconscious racism. One day I was walking with a colleague and our Dean to the lunchroom. We were discussing campus politics and I made the remark “it’s time to circle up the wagons.” After a pause, my colleague, a member of the Choctaw tribe, remarked, with a half smile, “yes, there must be some wild savages out there.” I wanted to crawl under a rock.

This stoic looking fellow was named Charlie Potato. The picture was taken in 1938 by Barry Goldwater. Yes, that Barry Goldwater. He was a very good photographer–as my friend Crispin Sartwell says, he’s no Ansel Adams, but he’s very good. You should visit his photography site. When you do, you will see that Goldwater regarded this as one of the most successful of his photographs, and it is certainly the most famous. The photo is now called “The Navajo,” but it was originally called “Charlie Potato.” The subject himself wanted the title changed. Goldwater obliged. I like the original title better, and so did Goldwater, who didn’t like stereotypes. Speaking of an equally rugged looking photo of a Mexican friend, he said: “There is no more typical Mexican face than there is a typical face of any other people.”

Whatever Goldwater was doing here, it wasn’t supposed to be about the “Noble Savage” or the “Stoic Indian.” He was sensitive to that side of the question, but, like my thoughtless remark about the wagons, perhaps he overlooked some crucial unintended information conveyed by his image. Of Charlie Potato he wrote: “the dignity of the ancient citizens of Arizona shows clearly in the features of this man.” That seems to contradict what he said above, but there is a difference. It isn’t the face as an example of the race or the tribe, it is the dignity of a group of citizens that Goldwater sees in his features. Is he referring to bone structure and cranial capacity? I don’t think so. Goldwater intends us to see, and himself only sees, a citizen who has worked all his life, someone who is representative of the dignity of others who work in the heat for their living.

That is a thin line, isn’t it? The racial generalization compared with the intended meaning. The racial generalization might be defended by some, since some generalizations may not be automatically racist. We are hyper-sensitive to it these days. It's the culture wars. Try to forget, if you can, who took the picture and attempted to convey his intention. It is the very same man who initiated the present culture wars. “Extremism in pursuit of liberty is no vice; moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.” That’s what he said. But what he meant in practice is that government shall not be used to protect this man’s civil rights, because given the authority to do that, government will also have the authority to deprive him of those rights.

In my last post I pointed out that Victor Hugo, and indeed, the anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, have more in common with Goldwater than with radicals of Emma Goldman’s stripe. Unlike her, these strange bedfellows believe, with heart, mind, soul and strength, that the individual is both the most basic unit of social reality and that its liberation is the meaning of history. And they are all willing to kill (and die) for that idea. Goldwater looks at Charlie Potato and sees an individual he can respect, and a citizen, and a person whose work is etched into his physiognomy. It is a powerful story, quite appealing when defended by de Cleyre, based on unselfishness rather than narcissism (Barry and Victor needed a few hours with de Cleyre).

But they are not conscious of everything they could learn. I am not sure what my Choctaw friend would say about this image (and I may get a chance to learn, if he sees this post), but I think it is good to balance this image against the sobering reminder of the troubled history between the Navajo and the Hopi. I don’t dare recount the story as if I had scholarly understanding, let alone genuine cultural understanding. I have read that the Hopi have always been agrarian. The Navajo have always been herders. These are incompatible ways of life. The story of the Navajo and the Hopi looks a good deal like the Bible, wherever Canaanites and Hebrews had land disputes, and with similar results (it doesn't pay to be a Canaanite). The history of the range wars in the US recapitulates this same history, except the herders eventually lost. It has happened ten thousand times in ten thousand places over the last ten thousand years. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel devotes fair attention to it.

This is the primal culture war. Until recently the agrarians almost never prevailed. Prior to modern times, agrarians were physically smaller and did not usually cultivate the arts of war. They defended themselves when necessary, but determined invaders almost always won. Agrarians are not mobile and they need a lot of land--too much to defend. Herders are mobile. The politics, religion, ethos and outlook of these two groups are profoundly incompatible. Agrarians tend to be communitarian and to favor customs over formal organization. Their religions are about fertility and the earth. Herding peoples tend to have very strict rules that lead to frequent and violent conflicts within and without the group. One result of the herding ethos has been, over several millennia, the creation of individuality. Their God is an individual with a powerful will and, generally speaking, a plan.

Barry Goldwater was no agrarian. But he respected hard work, and this is something that good people from both cultures generally agree upon. The ground of dignity is hard work. If Goldwater, Charlie Potato, and the communal Hopis have something in common, it probably grows from hard work. But Goldwater could not and would not recognize that the communists and socialists he despised also believed in hard work, at least as ardently as he did. They do disagree on what motivates people to work hard. For Goldwater, it is only the lash and the lure, the ignominy of failure and the rewards that go with success. For his opponents, what makes work dignified is precisely because we choose it freely. Those who will not work do not respect themselves, according to Goldwater, but for his communitarian counterparts, those who will not work fail to respect anyone.

If you were expecting a suggested resolution to these culture wars in a blog post, then you are of a hopeful nature. The individual and the community may always exist in tension. My own moral feelings are agrarian. I merely tolerate individualism, at the visceral level. I do not know how that sort of thing happens, since my family, like most I think, has both temperaments within it. But I will say that if ever I saw “the individual” romanticized, I see it more in this picture of Neil Armstrong than the one of Charlie Potato. I want to talk about this next.

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