Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

April 30, 2008

I’ll apologize for my own sins, thank you very much

Filed under: Ethics,Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:40 pm

Note: This is an editorial written for the Valley City Times-Record, in response to an editorial by Lloyd Omdahl, former Lt. Governor of North Dakota (1987-1992), professor of political science at North Dakota university and newspaper columnist. I believe my piece states his position well enough that I don’t need to reproduce his in full, but I’ll post a URL for his if it appears online.

I post it here because it states my position on the general issue raised, beyond its local manifestation.

Heavy sigh. I should probably be more careful about making enemies…

Lloyd Omdahl said in these pages yesterday that it’s time for the Great Plains states to 1) adopt legislative resolutions conceding guilt for offenses against indigenous peoples, 2) engage in dialog with Native Americans, 3) eliminate “points of pain” between the two societies, and 4) generously enhance economic and educational opportunities for Native Americans.

Mr. Omdahl cited the example of Southern states apologizing for the sins of slavery. He further cites the teachings of Christianity as justification for this proposed collective apology.

I am insulted by this, deeply and personally. That’s putting it mildly. What I am, is furious to the point that I needed to collect myself before I could reply coherently.

Let’s take this point by point.

“Adopt legislative resolutions conceding guilt.”

Whose guilt? Got news for you, I’ve done plenty of things in my life I’m embarrassed and ashamed of, but I’ve never killed a single Indian – or owned a slave for that matter.

But Mr. Omdahl evidently thinks that I, through my elected representatives, ought to apologize and concede guilt for things done by members of the same racial group as myself, mostly before I was born. (Although in point of fact, like many families long-established in this country, my ancestry is not entirely White.)

There is a name for this position. It’s called “racism.”

Second point, “engage in dialog with the Native Americans.”

I am a Native American. I was born here, descended from peoples of different nations, Scots, Irish, English and yes First Nations, who were until quite recently still cheerfully slaughtering each other. That’s part of what being “American” is all about. You’re supposed to give up those old loyalties and hatreds when you become one.

But I’m definitely in favor of dialog. It beats monolog any old day.

“Eliminate points of pain.”

Specifics please. This is vague, feel-good political rhetoric that doesn’t tread close enough to any concrete proposals that the speaker would actually have to defend.

“Generously enhance economic and educational opportunities.”

First point in reply, voting other peoples’ money away is not generosity, any more than sending other people to war is courage. In either case it may be necessary, but it is not the same thing.

Second point, creating “educational opportunities” is in fact one of those “points of pain between the societies.”

Generations of children of the First Nations were sent to government boarding schools, deliberately mixing peoples of different languages so that they would forget their native tongues and culture.

Perhaps the First Nations would rather be given control of their own education through something like a voucher system, rather than trust their children to the tender mercies of their White benefactors.

Mr. Ohdahl cites Christianity as his justification. But Christianity teaches that every individual is individually responsible for his/her own sins and own salvation, not collectively as a race, state or nation.

Mr. Omdahl’s appeal is to what theologians call “cheap grace,” a way to feel good about yourself without any actual sacrifice of comfort or convenience. The kind of grace that is, alas, all too common these days.

May 12, 2007

At the Core

Filed under: Book reviews,Ethics,Literature,Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:33 pm

Issues of courage and cowardice have been on my mind a lot lately. In my reviews of ‘300’ I mentioned that the disturbing thing about the bad reviews I’ve read isn’t that they didn’t like it, it’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, but that much of them seemed to be part of a reflexive dislike of any portrayal of physical courage.

In my post ‘Virginia’, I mentioned that the three responses to deadly danger in rough order of desirability are, 1) avoid it, 2) successfully run away from it, and 3) successfully fight back against it.

Any competent and ethical martial arts instructor knows that one of the difficult tasks of instructing boys and young men, is teaching when and how to escape and evade aggressors. Testosterone overload often makes men want to fight when they should run, or keep pounding on a downed foe longer than the law considers justified. (You could call that “losing by winning”, when you consider the potential criminal charges and/or lawsuits.)

One thing I like to do is to pose the question, “What is the highest military command skill?” I didn’t know the answer myself until it was pointed out to me.

Experts consider the highest command skill to be the ability to lead a retreat in good order.

Think about that for a minute. When in an untenable position, you may have to fall back to a one you are better able to defend. If it has to be done in the face of the enemy, it can all too easily turn into a rout – and then you’re screwed.

Circumstances alter cases of course. For a Greek hoplite, when the day was clearly lost he could possibly save his life by abandoning his heavy armor and running. (“He who fights and runs away… etc.) But if just one man did it too soon he could cause the collapse of the line. (Hence the Spartan expression, “Come back with your shield or on it.”) For a medieval pikeman facing cavalry, dropping his pike and running meant that the cavalry would likely run him down and take him from behind.

The point of all this is that running is not necessarily evidence of cowardice – it all depends on circumstances.

Americans proud of our preeminent position of power in the world, might do well to remember from time to time that our nation was populated largely by people who successfully used the strategy of running away.

Now if you’ll bear with me a moment (I promise, it’s actually heading for a point), I’d like to tell you about a science fiction story I read when I was in high school, lo these many years ago.

“At the Core” by Larry Niven, was part of his Known Space universe, set in the far future and involving his character Beowulf Schaeffer.

Beowulf Schaeffer is hired for a deep space exploration mission by the Puppeteers, an alien race described as looking like “a three-legged centaur with two Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent puppets for heads.”

Puppeteers have a certain outstanding characteristic – they are cowards. All of them.

Puppeteers have an inborn mortal fear of, basically everything even remotely dangerous. So for dangerous tasks such as exploration they hire humans, whom they regard as crazy – but lucky. (A brave Puppeteer is by definition psychotic.)

They hire Beowulf Schaeffer to pilot a new kind of spaceship to the galactic core and report back what he finds.

What he finds when he gets there is that the galactic core has exploded in a chain of supernovas. In 50,000 years the blast wave and radiation is going to reach our galactic neighborhood, rendering it uninhabitable. He reports this and returns.

When he gets back to Known Space, he finds that all of the Puppeteers have fled the Galaxy.

Let’s break here and ask yourself what you’d do if your knew for certain that an unavoidable danger was going to wipe out all life on Earth and all of the nearer solar systems – in 50,000 years? Would you even lose any sleep over it?

Didn’t think so, neither would I.

Beowulf Schaeffer muses on this and comes to the same conclusion. We’d do nothing until the sky started to glow.

He thinks further on it. No Puppeteer ever pretended danger didn’t exist. He may have been looking for the best place to run, but he would never deny the necessity for running.

He concludes, “Maybe it’s humans who are cowards, at the Core.”

(Nice play on words there.)

To belabor the point just a little, it’s not necessarily cowardly to run from danger. As I said, it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes running can save your life, sometimes it gets you killed – or leaves those you love unprotected.

But to deny that danger exists?

I’ll deal more with this later.

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