Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Burn all the flags everywhere

Ever since the tragic shootings in Charleston, SC on June 17, 2015 of nine African Americans at a historically important black church, there has been an animated discussion of whether it is appropriate to fly what is commonly known as the Confederate flag. Although it was never the flag of the Confederate States of America, the flag known as the Confederate flag has long been popular among white people in the states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861, namely, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia. Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. To many African Americans, however, the flag is a painful reminder of centuries of slavery, followed by generations of racial segregation and systematic humiliation and marginalization at the hands of white people. In the wake of the racially motivated murders in Charleston, people all over the United States are arguing that the symbols of the Confederate States of America are divisive and racist and therefore no longer acceptable in a country trying to heal the deep wounds of a disgraceful past.

In following this debate, I have been struck by the fact that most of the claims made about the Confederate flag in the South could also be said of the star-spangled banner that waves over the state of New Mexico. The flag of the United States of America symbolizes the most recent in a series of conquests that this piece of land has experienced during the past five hundred years. The flag of the USA began to fly over New Mexico shortly after the the war of aggression that President James K. Polk initiated against Mexico in 1846. As a result of that war, in 1848 the United States of Mexico ceded Alta California (which included parts of the modern states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming) and Santa Fe de Nuevo México (which included most of the modern state of New Mexico, and western Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and parts of Kansas and Colorado) to the United States. In 1848, the flag of the United States of America replaced the flag of the United States of Mexico, which in turn had replaced the flag of Spain when Mexico gained its independence on September 28, 1821. To many of the native Americans whose ancestors had lived in what the Spanish had called Alta California and Nuevo México, none of these flags planted by the descendants of Europeans was especially welcome.

During the sixty-four years between the time that New Mexico became a territory of the United States of America until it became a state in 1912, there was constant discussion in Washington, D.C. over whether New Mexico was fit to be admitted as one of the United States. Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana argued strenuously that the Spanish-speaking and Indian population of New Mexico were incapable of self-rule and must be ruled without their consent by Anglo Americans. It was the responsibility of Anglo Americans, said Beveridge, to educate and civilize the peoples of New Mexico, which of course meant teaching them English. Senator Beveridge’s opinion was shared by a succession of American presidents. President Zachary Taylor favored statehood for New Mexico, but his premature death in 1850 brought an end to presidential enthusiam for that prospect. The next twelve presidents, preoccupied with other issues, were at the best indifferent to New Mexico. President McKinley (1897–1901) was concerned that New Mexico would not be ready for statehood until the various “savages” in the territory were outnumbered by English-speaking Americans. His successor, President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), made no attempt to disguise his contempt for the Spanish, and he feared the Spanish influence in New Mexico had made the men of the territory far too effeminate to rule an independent state, while the Comanches and Apaches were considered untamed and recalcitrant obstacles to the advance of civilization. For a good many of the residents of the territory of New Mexico, the flag of the United States of America betokened a condescending paternalism that was used to justify the exploitation and colonization of the territory and its inhabitants, and statehood came as an indication that the territory had been fully conquered by English-speaking Euro-Americans. It is impossible to see the American flag flying in the state of New Mexico without being reminded of the racist and anti-Catholic attitudes behind the domination of the territory on the way to statehood.

Thinking about the matter even further, what is true of the Confederate flag in the South and the United States flag in the Southwest can probably be extended to every flag planted everywhere in the world (and on the surface of the moon). Flags are to human beings as urine is to canines. They claim territory and mark boundaries. They are by their customary usage symbols of domination, exclusion and exceptionalism. They indicate a willingness to fight to preserve the marked territory. While it can hardly be said that flags are themselves the cause of wars, they are certainly manifestations of all the underlying conditions of war. A flag says “Those who salute this piece of cloth belong here; those who do not should go elsewhere.” Flags—whether they be those of nations, states, counties, municipalities, corporations, educational institutions, religious institutions, rebel organizations, criminal syndicates or yacht clubs—are manifestations of the most animalistic and savage side of the human race. It is time to consider taking every flag ever designed off the flagpole and consigning it either to a bonfire or to a museum of horrors. And it is certainly time to evolve out of all the territorialism and competition for which flags stand.

Seventeen years after New Mexico became a state, President Herbert Hoover signed a Congressional resolution making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States of America. The song had been composed in 1814 after a crucial battle in the the Anglo-American War of 1812, the first war declared by the United States after it gained independence from Great Britain on September 3, 1783 . The anthem is a song about the nation’s flag and about American militarism. I first became uncomfortable singing it (and not only because it is a fiendishly difficult tune for anyone but a trained singer to carry) while I was an adolescent, and I have never been willing to sing it as an adult. The same is true of the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I simply will not say those words. It is my conviction that the age of nations must come to an end so that the human race can evolve beyond itself and leave itself behind—something it must do for its own survival.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Our War Against the Past

The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.—Edward Abbey

In 1966 construction was completed on the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. The beautiful Glen Canyon was flooded with waters that eventually formed Lake Powell, now the second largest artificial lake in the United States. The purpose of the dam was to generate hydroelectric power, a large percentage of which went to Las Vegas, Nevada to help keep that city’s bright lights illuminated all night and its fountains flowing around the clock. One of Edward Abbey’s best-known novels was a dark comedy called The Monkey Wrench Gang, which featured the antics of a team of environmentalists and anarchists determined to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.

Throughout the time of the dam’s planning and construction, opposition was mounted by people concerned with the impact the dam would have on the delicate ecological system of the Colorado River, while advocates of the dam heralded the recreational revenue that the reservoir would provide, not to mention the electricity the facilty would generate. The argument was made that in its wilderness state, Glen Canyon was accessible only to a handful of outdoors enthusiasts capable of navigating the often-difficult Colorado River by boat or to a few hikers capable of the arduous walk into the remote area, whereas Lake Powell would be accessible to everyone via paved roads. To favor a handful of physically fit individuals who could visit the Glen Canyon wilderness over the thousands of vacationers who would visit Lake Powell, said the advocates of the dam, was elitism, perhaps even anti-democratic.

I remember the arguments well, for the effort to prevent the construction of the Glen Canyon dam was the first environmental campaign in which I participated, to the limited extent that I was in a position to act as a student in high school. My father, one of those hardy few who had gone through Glen Canyon by rowboat, was much more involved than I in the opposition campaign. The completion of the dam was felt as a bitter defeat within our family. (Little did I know then that many more would follow.)

Despite my taking sides against the construction of the dam, no doubt heavily influenced by my environmentalist father and all the literature of the Sierra Club that lay on coffee tables around our house, I did experience a conflict over the issue mentioned above. It did make sense to me that Lake Powell would bring pleasure to a large number of people, and I had just enough of a Hedonic Utilitarian streak in me that I was then not quite able to find a good response to the charge that wanting to preserve the wilderness for a few was a form of elitism. I knew that I personally strongly desired for the geological record of the canyon’s wilderness to remain intact, and I knew that I thought that leaving the flora and fauna of that region intact was more important than the opportunity for hundreds of vacationers to race around an artifical lake in speedboats. But why should preference be given to what I personally desired when so many other people clearly had different desires?

Five decades after the completion of the Glen Canyon dam, I find myself once again wrestling with the same issues and taking the same side in the seemingly endless war against the past being waged by denizens of the present. And although I have taken sides, I still experience an intellectual conflict lurking beneath my unambiguous emotional clarity. The war is being waged on many fronts. I will mention only one.

I was born and spent my youth in New Mexico, a land that has been populated for at least ten thousand years by various peoples. Europeans began coming relatively recently, around 1540, and they promptly claimed the land for Spain. As a New Mexican of European (mostly English) descent, I have always felt it important to learn as much as possible about all the peoples who have been in this land before my own ancestors came in the 1930s. No doubt this feeling was reinforced by the strong influence of an uncle who spent most of his adult life studying the archaeology of the ancestral Puebloan people of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. It has always been axiomatic to me that the Euro-Americans have a moral responsibility not to obliterate the traces of those who first settled this land and learned how to survive the challenges of an arid region that only begrudgingly tolerates human occupation. Like most things that are axiomatic to a person, that conviction of moral responsibility is not something I have questioned very deeply. My instinct is, whenever possible, to leave traces of the past intact, whether it is the relatively recent human past or the billions of years of geological past. Even my decades of Buddhist indoctrination in the principle that everything is impermanent have not made much of a dent in my instinct not to let the past slip entirely into oblivion.

Always encroaching on the past is the present and the future (or at least present fantasies about the future). People in the present desire petroleum, natural gas, uranium, copper and various other resources found in the lands that were once occupied by the ancestors of the Pueblos, then by Athabascans migrating from the north and Numic migrating from the Great Plains. Extracting these resources requires building roads, digging and drilling the earth and leaving large waste deposits and scars, all of which degrade or destroy the archaeological evidence of past settlements and, to a lesser extent, the geological record.

One part of the Southwestern United States in which this conflict is strongly felt is southeastern Utah. Elected Senators from the state have said that the the stark landscape of the region has no use other than to provide raw materials for manufacturing and the fuels needed to provide the energy for manufacturing. Preserving the history of the area—especially the history before Europeans settled the region—is not a high priority for those who wish to stimulate the industrial economy. Preserving wilderness is, in their view, a job-killing enterprise and a power grab on the part of bungling bureaucrats in Washington.

There are thousands of recorded archaeological sites in southeastern Utah, and it is estimated that those recorded sites represent about 10% of the sites that are still in the area waiting to be catalogued. Obviously not all of them can be preserved. In fact, archaeological resources are so strained that only a tiny fraction of the recorded sites will ever be studied. Archaeological study is limited not only by a lack of adequate funding and a paucity of qualified archaeologists, but also by the fact that the most probable descendants of the Basketmaker and early Pueblo people who lived in the Four Corners area from 2000 to 800 years ago do not necessarily want their ancestors studied by outsiders. Many tribes, for example, forbid DNA analysis of human remains, probably because such DNA studies as have been done have shown that the Pueblos probably came from Asia rather than being created in North America. Further DNA studies could (but probably would not) show that the ancient peoples in the Four Corners area are not really the ancestors of the modern Zuñi and Hopi and Keres people after all, and a finding like that that would conflict with the oral histories those people have carefully preserved for centuries. Moreover, some tribal elders say their ancestors abandoned their former settlement sites for a reason, and they want those abandoned sites to return to nature. Perhaps, some may say, the past is really none of our business. It should just be allowed to slip away while we pursue those things that really are our business.

Although I have had several decades to find ways of convincing people who do not share my views on the importance of preserving evidence of how those who came before us lived their lives (and how the earth was before much of anything was alive on it), I still have nothing to offer but what many would probably deem feeble sentimentality. But supposing some good reasons could be found not to lay waste to traces of the past, the question arises as to who should do the preserving. Since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, preserving wilderness and historical monuments has been the responsibility of federal and state governments. Those who follow Edward Abbey’s anarchist sentiments might find it alarming that governments involved themselves in such business. After all, Abbey wrote

Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.


A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

Such sentiments as these could easily come from the mouths of today’s Tea Party Republicans and Libertarians.

The most obvious response to such anarchist convictions is the observation that if governments do not take measures to conserve wilderness and historical sites, it is unlikely that anyone will. As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, government should do only those things that only government can (and is willing) to do. Protecting wilderness and historical sites is a perfect example of something that only government can do.

Private enterprise is unlikely to find any economic incentive to pursue archaeological or historical research or preservation of wilderness, and in the absence of economic incentive, private enterprise is unlikely to find any incentive at all. People with a strong ideological bias might sponsor research that finds evidence to support their particular dogmas—one thinks, for example of the wing of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History sponsored by David H. Koch, the message of which is that every time there has been climate change in the past, the human race has evolved to a higher level (leaving the viewer to conclude that climate change, and anything that brings it about, is therefore good).

Leaving the interpretation of the past only to those with vested commercial or ideological interests is not much of an improvement to leaving archaeological evidence of Buddhist Afghanistan in the sole custody of the Taliban or leaving the physical remains of Akkadian and Assyrian civilization in the care of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). If wilderness and artifacts of early human settlements are to be kept intact for the present and future generations to study and contemplate, no one is better suited to carry out that mission than the National Park Service, the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. That said, what remains to be seen is whether we who live here now will have the collective will to give our government the power it needs to preserve the past for the future.