Watching Good Ideas Bleed to Death

Steve Russell

Ideas, like people, can bleed. Unlike people, ideas do not die easily, even the worst of ideas. If you have lost a loved one, you know that palpable sense of wishing them back, undoing their fate so as to undo your own. So it is with bad ideas, but in the world of ideas the wish can easily be the father to the thought, and the thought to the action.

I look at the map showing what members of Congress think it is wise to shut down the government to gain leverage in unrelated matters and I see a map of the Confederate States of America. The Civil War was fought over slavery, lost, and recast in the history books as a war over “state’s rights.”

The legacy of slavery was the Black Codes and Jim Crow. The legacy of “state’s rights” is the “right” to living conditions unbefitting a modern industrialized nation. The US accepts these living conditions on Indian reservations unless tribal governments can parlay what they have into something better, but the US also accepts the same in entire states.

Only one of the Confederate states, Arkansas, accepted the expansion of Medicaid in Obamacare. The body count among poor people from the failure to expand Medicaid will be substantial, but I'm not convinced it will move the voters of those states. The statistics on education in the Confederacy back in the fifties were horrifying, and they led to JFK pressing to do something about it on the federal level, because the states simply would not.

The Confederacy used to be governed by Dixiecrats because the party of Lincoln was the enemy during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Dixiecrats became modern Republicans, who have thrown Lincoln under the bus, along with Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive Republican who bequeathed the national park system and anti-trust law to a GOP now hostile to both.

The historical Confederacy is such a wonderful place to live according to the numbers.

Lower taxes. No unions. More guns. More Jesus.

Lower literacy rates. Higher mortality and morbidity rates. Lower per capita income. More homicides, illegal and legal. Does this resemble any reservations you know, excepting the part about legal homicides, tribal governments being limited in modern times to opting into the federal death penalty rather than imposing their own?

And now, the US has governmental paralysis by a suicidal minority based in the South, so save your Confederate money to buy some dead political science texts.

Turn to World War II in the history of ideas and we can say that the Nazis lost everything, correct? Not exactly. They lost Hitler and his immediate henchmen.

Nazis fled to South Africa and formed the Nationalist Party, leading a white minority to oppress a black majority until very recently.

Nazis fled to Latin America, and our neighbors to the south have only recently emerged from a game of musical chairs played by right wing dictators (often of Germanic surname) to music supplied by the CIA during the Cold War.

Those are real exertions of power. Reasonable persons can differ about how concerned we should be over the neo-Nazi parties worshipping the memory of Hitler everywhere from Germany to all of the victorious allied nations.

While it’s true that you can’t kill a good idea permanently, it’s fair to wonder when bad ideas meet their natural demise?

Consider the Ghost Dance, and the thoughts to which it can claim paternity.

The American bison absolutely can return to the Plains, but it will take careful stewardship over generations. The largest herd living today is run by a rich white guy, but several tribes are involved in the effort and the bison was hunted close enough to extinction that we can’t be picky how the genes are preserved.

The colonists absolutely cannot be pushed back into the ocean. They have nowhere to go.

I presume there’s no need to discuss bulletproof regalia, since Quanah Parker had exactly the same collision with modernity at Adobe Walls?

Federal Indian control law is a house of cards, built with one bad idea balanced upon another. It could collapse if a solid majority of the US Supreme Court ever heaved a frustrated sigh and gave it up as impossible to fix.

Then what?

Do Indian nations become social clubs revolving around historical grievances and genealogy?

Do Indian nations assert their free and independent status in the quickly becoming obsolete form of the nation-state with a modern Ghost Dance where the opposing weapon will no longer be bullets but more likely bemused tolerance?

Or do we plunge into a political war to define the role of tribal governments within a federal system that was left undefined in the Constitution because we were outside both the process and the authority? Understanding that the outcome will be hotly contested and therefore uncertain? And understanding that lots of people might get put in jail before it’s over?

American Indian political science, the art and praxis of governing ourselves, has been stunted by decades of dependence. The good ideas are bleeding along with the bad ideas. It’s up to us which ones survive.

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.