The Gymnastics of Patriotism

Steve Russell

I've been watching and thinking about Gabby Douglas, the teenage heroine of the London Olympics. Or so I view her. I was thinking of Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller—all young girls who taught us that tough is not just a masculine trait.

I was looking forward to seeing Gabby Douglas on the Wheaties box. I have granddaughters.

Then there was the uproar about her hair. Really, America?

Then there was the uproar about her mother's bankruptcy. Hey, America, if Gabby's mom had the sum the Romneys spent training and feeding Rafalca the dressage horse, she would not have gone bankrupt. I hate to break it to you, but since 2008 a lot of hard working people have gone bankrupt in lesser endeavors than boosting a daughter towards Olympic gold.

And I mean no disrespect toward Rafalca. As the Cherokee cowboy Will Rogers said, “A man that don’t love a horse, there’s something the matter with him.” It may be a rich man’s sport, but Rafalca is a fine animal and if she were mine, wild horses could not keep me from watching her dance.

Now there's an uproar that Gabby Douglas wore a pink leotard rather than red, white, or blue. Like Michelle Obama before her, she's "unpatriotic," goes the narrative.

What is this urge white Americans always have for black Americans, not to mention American Indians, to prove their "patriotism?" America, your involuntary citizens from Africa or Native America prove their patriotism every day they don't set out to kill you.

And if that's shocking, and you just can't wrap your mind around the history of white people vis-a-vis black people and Indians, then can you wrap your mind around the history of disturbed individuals and mass murder?

Make yourself two lists.

Including political motivations or not is arguable, since people who commit mass murder for political reasons are in my view no less disturbed, but I understand reasonable people can differ.

Put aside those who kill without racial selection of victims.

But then you are left with how many times a black or an Indian since, say, Nat Turner, has set out on a mission of wholesale slaughter of white people.

Now think about how many disturbed white people have engaged in wholesale slaughter of black people or Indians, and to be fair in light of the last paragraph we can exclude Chivington and Custer. Wounded Knee I, a massacre of noncombatant Indians in 1890, might be a fair cut off date, since that also excludes the Civil War.

You can even put the Asian guy who shot up Virginia Tech in the "general racial minority" category, even though it dulls the point of historical injustice. Asians have suffered racial injustice big time, but as purposeful immigrants. American Indians are not immigrants and African-Americans were imported to serve whites.

Go ahead, use Professor Google. Make your own lists by your own standards.

How many minority mass killers targeted whites, and how many white mass killers targeted minorities?

"Patriotism" in the American context is fidelity to the constitutional principle of peaceful coexistence with others not like you, whether they are different in what they believe or different in how their bodies appear.

There is something cockamamie in the way white people deploy the term "patriotism" as a cudgel against blacks and against American Indians. This cudgel comes into play whenever the disfavored minorities do something to win the admiration of the American public. I am reminded of the jihad against the great Sac and Fox Olympian, Wa-Tho-Huk, also known as Jim Thorpe.

If I point out this inconsistent public discourse, I will of course be accused of “playing the race card,” a term that entered the American political lexicon when OJ Simpson proved that a rich black man could buy as much “justice” in America as a rich white man. Google T. Cullen Davis.

And I still want to see Gabby Douglas, in whatever hairstyle makes her comfortable, on a Wheaties box.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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username's picture
I received very good advice from an Elder when I was in grade school. He said, "turn off the television." What he effectively meant was don't listen to garbage that seeks to manipulate your mind. I am still obeying my Elder's advice because I am writing this comment without reading your column, Mr. Russell. I have read many columns by you that are not red and I refuse to read another one by you, which may be red, but has a strong likelihood of not being red.
swrussel's picture
The "elder" gave you bad advice. You don't learn to think for yourself by avoiding propaganda. You engage it head on. That's how to teach your kids. I will agree that an unsupervised TV in a household with tiny children is prima facie evidence of child abuse. We didn't get a TV until I was in the fourth grade, and starting then I probably watched too much--but I already had developed an attention span beyond the 15 minutes TV shapes. So I raised my kids the same way, TV rationed until they had the attention span thing worked out. I'm not concerned with writing "red." I'm concerned with writing correctly. If, in your universe, race-baiting stands in for political argument, it's not somewhere I want to live. I know this column will be called race-baiting in some circles. I don't think that's the case, but since you haven't read it, I won't bore you with why I think my comments are fair.
hjwjc's picture
First and foremost I like Steve Russell's style of writing, may not always agree with him, but he is a good writer. My television story is/was: Our mother threw the television out of the house when I was about 12, because, like the coke bottle on the "Gods must be Crazy" it, the "TV", was causing fights... I don't think one learns how to think for themselves by watching television. Anyway... One of the first times I ever heard someone use race as a reason for a tribal member's success was from a person who was raised on the reservation, a daughter from a white Trading Post family. This white woman said, "The reason why that tribal member is a success is because they're part white." Not because they are red or read, whatever. Isn't it just like the media to find something to critize a person of "color" about.(Or anyone for that matter.) If not her pink tights, then her hair, it would have been something. Personally I didn't see the pink or the hair. I saw a very good gymnast, like Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, etc. Then again there are some out there who might think otherwise. Be nice to see Ms. Douglas challenge whoever to the floor exercise, balance beam and other routines. I am glad you spoke up.
myche's picture
You really should not lump all white people into the same box. I am of Celtic, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finish background who grew up in the Dakota's who has always felt the Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the tribal bands they belong to should be thanked for dispatching George Custer before he could inflict himself upon the United States by becoming President. My mother's parents came in the early 1900s after the Native American wars were over and a great majority of the Native Americans were isolated to the Rez's or scattered into the wasteland of the cities of the United States becoming the invisible minority. I am well aware of the past history of demeaning attitudes that much of the whites have had toward Native Americans. I am also aware that Native Americans feel that the traditional liberal point of view is just as prejudice as the conservative point of view and sometimes worse. But it is not all whites today that have these attitudes because all whites are not the same but also whites belong to many different ethnic groups which are scattered to many different countries. From my experience teaching on Native American rez s that in at least Navajo have a collective noun such as one for vehicle or white people but differentiate the particular individual members of that group by what it does such as vehicle that flies or vehicle that floats. In your usage of the words "white people" there are no qualifiers that indicate which particular white people are being talked about and what particular attitudes that they have that bother you. As with the usage of the label Native Americans cannot imply anything particular about any of the individuals who identify themselves as Native Americans except in the broadest sense. It simply implies that your ancestors lived on the continents now labeled North and South America before any of the earliest ancestors European American immigrated here. That is all it indicates. Today there are many people of mixed ancestry who wind up on the frontiers of the ancestral disputes such as myself. For can I say I am Irish if I am only half Irish. Then what about my Norwegian-Finnish ancestors or my Swedish ancestors. Can I say that I belong to those ethnic groups also? Or do I simply deny my ethnic back ground and just say I am American as many do? Using the term "white people" and speaking of them as being all one and the same, is just as bad as using the term, "Native American" and saying they are all one and the same. We both know that this isn't true.
duwaynesmith's picture
Michelle - don't be defensive about being white. It puts you in the "guilt trap", an unproductive place. However, I would ask you to consider that 1) African slavery -- 2) the dispossession of Native lands, destruction of Native culture, are two major themes in American history. No one can legitimately ask you to take responsibility for our country's history, but we all should make an effort to learn about it. This also includes Native people who have not taken the time to learn of our mutual history on this continent.
talyn's picture
The comments about Gabby's hair were ridiculous. Most of the gymnasts had their hair pulled back in similar buns or ponytails. It was an entirely appropriate hair style for the strenuous activity she was engaged in. What serious athlete goes to the gym with fancy styled hair? It will just get messed up. Or get in your way. The girl has pretty long hair when she takes it down, and having it fall over her face while trying to spot a landing sounds like a great way to break an ankle. With regard to the first comment, the criticism of the author doesn't make sense to me. What does it mean for an article to be 'red'? If it means that it must be from a native perspective or about issues relevant to native people, I would argue that the fact that it is written by Steve Russell, Cherokee necessarily satisfies these requirements. It may not be every native person's perspective or interest, but I defy you to find any subject that is!
talyn's picture
I recall that we had a television when I was a child. It was rather small, with a handle on top for carrying it around. Occasionally dad would get it out and hold it up while we all danced about him with bits of wire and foil until we found some magic configuration that got reception. Then we all had to try to hold our positions while watching whatever channel we had managed to pick up. One day in the midst of a cartoon, I think, the television suddenly made a loud pop, started spewing sparks and smoke, detached from its handle and plummeted to the floor, where it died in a spectacular spray of shattered glass. We were all left standing there holding our bits of foil and wire, my father still holding the detached handle up in the air with an astonished expession. It was the greatest entertainment the idiot box ever provided. We had never laughed so hard. I still remember it quite fondly.
swrussel's picture
Whew, I knew some white people would call me racist over that column, but I did not expect this particular complaint. I was thinking that "white mass murderers" would be an exclusive enough category even if juxtaposed with "white people who find an excuse to disrespect Gabby Douglas or Jim Thorpe." Is there any particular set of qualifiers that would satisfy you, or am I just stuck with being a racist if I make the complaint I've made in the column?
basnavely's picture
It seems "nationalism" rather than "patriotism" is at the heart of these matters. That great many individuals are unaware of the difference between the two is quite disheartening.
duwaynesmith's picture
Steve, I agree with your points. "Patriotism" is used by some whites as one code word for racist agendas. Using the word can be a way of marginalizing people who do not look like you, have your cultural values or people who disagree with your political philosophy. Not being patriotic can mean you are un-American, not one of us. Not being a "true American" can be a rationale for "remedies" like the House Un-American Activities hearings against Jewish directors in Hollywood during the 1950s, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, etc. . It can be the basis of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, and later, the award of the Congressional Medal of Honor to white soldiers of the 7th Cavalry,one of the great "patriotic" ironies of American history. Learning our history is not the same as accepting personal responsibility for what happened decades or centuries ago. That was my point.