Thursday, April 26, 2012

Part of My Culture

A good place to begin might be with the story of eighteen-year-old Laxmi Sargara from the great state of Rajasthan in India, who was betrothed to the slightly older Rakesh when she was one year old.  She knew nothing of this agreement until very recently ("a few days ago," according to the BBC story), when her in-laws tried to claim her.  (It's reminiscent of a motif in some European fairy tales, isn't it?)  Her parents wanted her to go through with it, so she consulted an NGO and with their help, was able to annul the marriage.  Child marriages are now illegal under Indian law anyway, but they are still common in "rural and poorer [read: "traditional"] communities."  (I suspect that the parents were trying to get around the law by delaying the actual wedding [as opposed to the betrothal] until the kids were of age, but they didn't reckon with the growing disrespect and rebelliousness of Kids These Days.)

According to the BBC, this is "thought to be the first case of its kind in India."  Needless to say, I hope, I consider find it immensely cheering and I admire Laxmi Sargara for her courage and determination; I hope her parents don't feel obliged to punish her for her defiance of their wishes and their authority, to say nothing of their shame before their neighbors.

I found Sargara's story in my Tabloid Friend's news feed on Facebook, along with this comment from one of his friends: "This is sick, this is wrong. What kind of 'parents' did this poor girl get stuck with? And how many instances are there that we don't know about." I replied:
"‎Sick" and "wrong" are two different things. But arranged marriages are examples of the "traditional" marriages that so many gay people have told me they want. They're biblical, in fact. Betrothal at the age of 1 is a bit extreme, but only in kind, not in degree. At least they didn't turn the girl over to her in-laws at 8 or 10, as often happens. This was a fairly liberal arrangement, and not abnormal for good families in India -- to answer your question of "what kind of 'parents' did this poor girl get stuck with?" Normal Indian parents, that's what kind. 

Understand: I'm not saying this was a good arrangement, and I'm cheering that girl for her courage and determination. It takes physical courage to go against your culture as she did. I'm just saying is case like this are why I cringe when people assume that marriage is a beautiful thing, and talk about "marriage equality." Marriage is a lot of things, many (or even most of them) bad -- especially for women.
The earlier commenter replied that just because it's biblical doesn't make it "right or proper," and I naturally agree.  Nor does the fact that something is normal in a culture.  That's why I drew the analogy to marriage in the US today.  Almost everyone seems to pay lip service to the goodness of monogamous marriage -- it's the benchmark that same-sex marriage "equality" aspires to -- even though that institution is problematic for women in many ways.  Even someone like the anti-religious, sexually radical Homo Superior can claim that "there is no progressive case against gay marriage as an issue of social justice," and that "all social justice movements of the past have sought to change access to existing institutions".  By his logic, there's no real problem of social justice in Laxmi Sargara's case, since both children were betrothed by their parents: no inequality between the sexes was involved.  If parents betrothed two male or two female infants, you'd have arranged-marriage equality.

This is just one instance in a larger problem that I've written about before: the "respect" that supposedly is due to different cultures than our own.  It's not easy to resolve; in fact I believe it is impossible, and can only be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.  But a lot of bad arguments are deployed whenever it comes up.

I came upon the story of Laxmi Sargara soon after I started reading Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism (Minnesota, 1999) by Craig S. Womack, a Creek/Cherokee writer who's now Associate Professor of English at Emory University, specializing in Native American literature.  I'm only about 60 pages (of 300) into Red on Red, and so far I'm conflicted about the book.  Womack has plenty of sense, but he also swerves into bad sense periodically.

I'm sympathetic to the project of Native American academic separatism, as I am to separatism by other groups -- women, queers, people of color -- but I'm also aware of the contradictions it inescapably involves.  For example, American lesbian separatists of the 1970s did their best to withdraw not only from men, but from men's institutions; academic feminists of the same period were not separatists: Women's Studies (or Afro-American Studies or GLB Studies) Departments don't constitute separatism any more than Chemistry Departments or Business Schools do.  Native American Studies will have plenty of non-Indian students, just as Afro-American Studies draw whites, Women's Studies draws men, and GLB Studies draw straights, the more so since whites have been involved in Native American Studies all along.  Serious separatists know that they need to build their own institutions, not join those of the oppressor.  Which doesn't mean that it's invalid to do Native American (or other) studies within the white man's university, only that it's dubious as separatism.

I certainly don't object to Native American Studies programs being defined and directed by Indians; that's exactly what I want, as I want from everybody else: to hear from them how the world looks to them.  Separatism would demand that I not read, not listen, but as I've said before, I've never let that stop me before.

That's where the contradictions come in.  In the introduction, Womack quotes "Anna Lee Walter's cogent remarks" (9):
Scholars or authorities from academia, from outside tribal societies, do not necessarily know tribal people best.  There is an inherent right of tribal people to interpret events and time in their worlds according to their own aesthetics and values, as a component of American history, even when this interpretation is different from that of mainstream history.
"I might add," Womack adds, "especially when the interpretation is different from that of the mainstream."  To which I might add, oh, indubitably, but big whoop.  Walter's remarks can be transposed to any other other group: try substituting women, or gays, or African-Americans, or Jews, or Rajasthani parents for "tribal people."  There is indeed an inherent right of any group to interpret events and time in their worlds according to their own aesthetics and values, but that doesn't mean that academics don't have an inherent right to use their intellectual tools wherever they wish; academics are a tribal group with their own traditions and values, which often puts them at odds with the mainstream. (But what is the mainstream? -- a question to which I'll return.)  Academics just shouldn't be given power over others; I'm not sure if anybody should.

Think of conflicts between middle-American gays who know they were born gay and who denounce academic Queer Theorists who, they allege, think it's just a choice.  Think of conflicts between the Talented Tenth of middle-class African-Americans who made careers for themselves in historically black colleges (a prime example of separatism), and the other ninety percent of African-Americans.  Then think of white progressives who denounce hoity-toity academics of any color who make "race" an object of study, even though it's a social construct.  And then think of academics from non-Western societies who study in American universities and feel free to interpret and judge American gay communities by their (supposedly non-Western but actually Western-academic) aesthetics and values.  Think of Christians who are upset by academic Christian scholars for questioning and undermining the beloved traditional grounds of ordinary believers' faith.  And so on.

Womack declares, "I do not bother much in this book with the skepticism of postmodernism in relation to history.  It is way too premature for Native scholars to deconstruct history when we haven't yet constructed it" (3).  He then quotes "Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau":
I never even encountered the word "essentialist" before coming to grad school, and then it was thrown at me like a dirty word, mostly because I wrote something about Native writers and the land in a paper.

.... The same professor who labeled me "essentialist," said there was no truth, no history, just lots of people's viewpoints.  I argued that some things actually did happen.  That some versions of history are not just a point of view, but actual distortions and lies.

It is just now, when we are starting to tell our stories that suddenly there is no truth.  It's a big cop out as far as I'm concerned, a real political move by the mainstream to protect itself that Native people, African Americans, gay and lesbian folks ... are telling.  If everybody's story is all of a sudden equally true, then there is no guilt, no accountability, no need to change anything, no need for reparations, no arguments for sovereign nation status,  and their positions of power are maintained [3-4].
For better or worse, most people probably encounter words and ideas in graduate school that they'd never encountered before; that's not in itself an argument against those words and ideas.  In fact, it's one of the reasons one goes to graduate school.  Which doesn't mean that Savageau's professor wasn't full of shit.

But notice the irony here.  There's nothing about "postmodernism," as Womack presents it, that forestalls anybody from "get[ting] our stories told" (4); rather the opposite: that stance would discredit any attempt by Savageau's professor to privilege his stories, his labels, his viewpoint over anyone else's.  If nobody's story is more valid than anybody's else's, there's no reason not to tell all of them.  But an essentialist stance would justify the professor's dismissal of Savageau's ideas, since he was the authority and she was just a lowly graduate student, and an Injun at that.  When I read stuff like this, I wonder what would have happened to me if I'd gone to graduate school.  Since I disagreed with my professors on such issues on more than one occasion as an undergraduate, I imagine I'd have gone on doing so, and it might have made my career or it might have ended it.  I can't help wondering if part of Savageau's problem was that her tribal truth required deference to elders "and their positions of power", no matter how wrong they were.

Later, Womack quotes "Phillip Deere, a full-blood traditionalist from Nuyaka Grounds" (54):
I think a lot about these things.  Sometimes it makes me wonder how many of our people will be destroyed?  How many of them will be lost forever?  I keep looking around.  I keep a thinking and I hope that I'm not the only Indian left because of knowing this.  We may look like Indians, we have the color of an Indian, but what are we thinking?  What are we doing to our own children who are losing their language, their own ways?

I sometimes think that even within the government, there's an all-out effort to lose Mr. Indian.  Even Reagan, his new Federalism or whatever it is, it means cutting off all the funding from the Indian people ... But on the other hand, what's our people acting like?  Are they still trying to be Indians or are they just benefit Indians, a three-day Indian, a clinic Indian, or BIA-school Indian, what kind of Indian are they? [55].
I take Mr. Deere's words very seriously; he says important things.  But he also sounds exactly like a white right-wing Republican conservative elder.  Let me just rewrite the first paragraph with a few minor substitutions:
I keep a thinking and I hope that I'm not the only American left because of knowing this.  We may look like Americans, we have the color of an American, but what are we thinking?  What are we doing to our own children who are losing their own language, their own ways?
When I read Womack, I find myself remembering the struggle over American history and how it's to be taught.  "Full-blood traditionalists" don't want a bunch of postmodernist college perfessors trampling on the inherent right of American people to interpret events and time in their worlds according to their own aesthetics and values.  The David Brooks column I just linked to is full of the same complaints that Womack vents, but from the Anglo-American tribal viewpoint.

I agree that different opinions and arguments should be listened to, especially when they go against the mainstream of history and culture.  But I'd apply that to Native Americans' mainstream interpretations, no less than I do to mainstream American interpretations.  Outside of academia and other select hotbeds of dissent and "deconstruction", I might be less inclined to question mainstream views, but in the university everything is fair game.  But why limit it to the university?  If I, and other people, don't question mainstream views that are objectionable, who will?  Consider again Noam Chomsky's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s dictum that one must first criticize one's own country and culture; is that a "mainstream" view?  Certainly not; it's why people like Chomsky and King are attacked by the mainstream. (Nietzsche said something similar: "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions: rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.")

So, when Womack writes that "an important characteristic of the Creek nation [is] its tendency to 'swallow up” smaller groups that moved into Creek country (these groups would often become assimilated Creek, most eventually adopting the Creek language) … This 'swallowing up' effect is important because it demonstrates that Creeks were able to view nationalism as a dynamic, rather than a static, process" (30-31), I have to giggle and smirk, just as I do when a mainstream American glosses over little problems in our shared history.  Perhaps the Creek aren't as different from the Whites as Womack wants to think, I suspect. Then I want to know more, which is why I'm going to continue reading.