Saturday, July 22, 2006

Lumbee Rising

Negative rumors, ignorant piety, insulting and degrading slurs, and political intrigue have a long history in Native American affairs in the United States. The first instance of germ warfare in the history of the world involved Puritan settlers "charitably" giving blankets to "the savages" to help them stay warm for the winter. Of course, the blankets had been used by smallpox patients - a disease far more deadly to the natives, whose immune systems had never encountered it - a fact that the settlers (who usually burned such blankets) neglected to tell them. A journal entry from the time recounts a prominent figure in (white) American history gleefully noting that a smallpox scourge had "conveniently" decimated the native village, leaving plenty of good, already tilled farmland and nice household goods for the settlers to appropriate (read - steal).

I know. This is all in the past. We've given the natives recognition as inheritors of the land. Of course, this is after we have already robbed them of their culture, language, and freedom to roam. Native Americans are still troubled by some of the highest rates of alcoholism, high-school dropouts, and preventable diseases in the nation. To alleviate their guilt, the government of the United States allows Native American nations to erect casinos and receive education and health benefits. At last, justice... as long as a tribe can gain recognition. You see, tribes still must be recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress to receive these rights (really, a pittance to this government, which historically gained much more by its actions than it pays out in penance).

After centuries of racism and oppression at the hands of the white man, you'd think that there might be some solidarity amongst the tribes; however, the ongoing fight of the Lumbee Indians to receive recognition provides ample proof that this is not so. You've probably never heard of the Lumbee. Not many people outside of North Carolina have. You've heard of the Cherokee, the Sioux, the Algonquin, the Apache, the Seminole, the Cree, the Delaware, the Navajo, and a few others; however, you have never heard of the Lumbee, whose tribal rolls, numbering over 50,000, make them the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River.

The Lumbee, located primarily in the sun-baked southeastern region of North Carolina - or "Downeast" as Tarheel natives call it - are concentrated in Robeson County along the Lumber River, so named by the first English settlers in the United States (who named it so because they misunderstood the name of the tribe). They were among the first - and least hostile - tribes encountered by the English - remember, most of the east coast was named "Virginia" at the time. Many believe that the Lumbee were the subject of the drawings in DeVry's 1580 book about the "Virginia" colony, most of which were done on the Outer Banks and just inland, in what is now southeastern NC.

The Lumbee were friendly and accommodating. Most worked in the white man's villages and towns, partially assimilating long before we white folks gained such a stellar reputation for human rights appreciation. Because of this, and also because those who settled southeastern NC weren't land-obsessed (nobody in his right mind would fight over baked clay, swamps, and mudpits that regularly reach temperatures of over 100 between mid-May and early October, with humidity so high that you feel as though you've stepped into an armpit), the Lumbee escaped much of the indignity and cruelty suffered by tribes in other areas.

They didn't have to fight until the late nineteenth century, when people discovered that hog-farming and peach orchards did extremely well in that area. Their fight was also much shorter (but no less brutal) than other tribes, because by 1880, there were far too many white men for them to withstand, and they couldn't retreat to the west, because they were surrounded on all sides. Because of these factors, by the time the Lumbee were purged, they had already lost many of their customs and most of their language, and history has left them behind for more colorful tales involving the plains tribes and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

For the better part of a century, the Lumbee have struggled to receive recognition from the federal government. This recognition would - as I noted above - bring millions of dollars in benefits for housing, education, and health, as well as open the door to casinos and gaming facilities to help provide for the tribe (southeastern NC, remember, is poor, poor, poor). This time, it isn't the white man who stands in the way of Lumbee prosperity. It is the Cherokee nation, who has suffered enough at the hands of the whites that one might think they would embrace their native cousins instead of opposing their recognition. US Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, notes that their situation isn't likely to change soon: "You have numerous tribes around the country, some with ties to the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, [opposing] this federal recognition." [story]

Why would the Cherokee block this? They claim that it is because the Lumbee have lost their heritage, because they don't have historical documentation proving their rights to the land - fairly convenient since the Lumbee, who were never targeted until they had lost much of their cultural heritage, didn't have to sign a treaty (which would have been broken anyway), as I noted in the brief history above - and that because of this, argues Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, recognition would damage the "integrity" of all indian tribes.

Bullshit. The "integrity" argument is a lie: Walt Wolfram, one of the most distinguished sociolinguistics scholars in the nation, notes that the Lumbee have distinct linguistic patterns and lexical anomalies that occur nowhere else in the nation - that would be a dialect all their own. They have also recovered many of their traditions, mostly due to scholarly work done at UNC Pembroke (a historically Indian college).

The Cherokee oppose this because Lumbee recognition might steal some Cherokee thunder: the Lumbee tribal rolls are the largest in the Eastern US, and federal funding for Indian Affairs is tight (I wonder why?), and the Lumbee, because of their size, would receive a $77 million slice of that pie. It might also cut in on their action. Right now, if the twenty-million residents of the metropolitan areas of Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington, Richmond, or Knoxville want to gamble, they have to take a nice, long drive to the Cherokee casino, tucked away in the recesses of the Appalachian Mountains around Asheville, NC. The Lumbee are located along I-95, the most heavily traveled interstate in the nation, which would make them convenient for anyone travelling along the east coast.

Makes you wonder. Makes me sick.
currently on miPod - The Shins: "Caring is Creepy"

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Election Rhetoric

Thanks to Dr. Ken Zagacki for posing the original question from which this brief entry grew.
From a cultural point of view, the rhetoric of contemporary American presidents is isomorphic. Whether they are liberal, conservative, or middle-of-the-road, their discourse stills bears the same, essential cultural marks. You can't be president of the United States unless you accept - at least on the surface - certain cultural pre-conditions. These preconditions are not political; rather, they are cultural embeddings consistently found in American political rhetoric.

In the tradition of Roger Williams, John Winthrop, William Bradford, and Anne Hutchinson, George Bancroft's History of the United States (10 vols. 1834-1876) documented the American stage of universal history. He described it as an "epic of liberty," which exhorted "The citizens of the United States . . . [to] cherish . . the men who . . . scattered the seminal principles of republican freedom and national independence." America, in this mythical epic of history, was the culmination of historic forces seeking to develop Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" (1630), upon whom the "eyes of all people" lay.

American presidential rhetoric is isomorphic in its expression of such beliefs. American presidents, liberal, conservative, and moderate, all declaim the United States as a nation of "special" destiny, "special" achievements, a frontier for humanity, changer of the world. Such claims evoke cultural myths that are deeply embedded in American interpretations of history and world events. From the beginning, the American myth has involved a cultural conversation (itself uniquely democratic) that combines three aspects of its history: the frontier, equality, and a new beginning for mankind, all of which are combinatory and recursive, each contributing to the others. Consider the following from nomination speeches:

"We meet at a special moment in history, you and I. The Cold War is over. Soviet communism has collapsed and our values - freedom, democracy, individual rights, free enterprise, they have triumphed all around the world . . . now that we've changed the world, it's time to change America" - Bill Clinton - 16 July, 1992

"I believe in the energy and innovative spirit of America's workers, entrepreneurs, farmers, and ranchers . . . Nothing will hold us back. The story of America is the story of expanding liberty [...] Our Nation's founding commitment is still our deepest commitment: in our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom." - G. W. Bush - 9 Sept., 2004

"I see America as the leader - a unique nation with a special role in the world . . . and this has been called the American Century, because in it we were the dominant force for good in the world. We saved Europe, cured polio, we went to the moon, and lit the world with our culture. And now we are on the verge of a new century . . . I say it will be another American Century" - G. H. W. Bush - 18 Aug., 1988

Despite the ideological differences among these candidates, all of them alluded to similar aspects of the American myth: freedom, special history, special destiny, and the power of the unique American frontier spirit. "Our" values are remarkably similar when expressed in the nomination speech. "Our" history is remarkably "special," and "our" character as a people has given us this history as well as the unique ability to leave a mark on the future. No matter the forum, the American presidential person must appeal to certain cultural universals - or myths - with which his constituency will identify. There are multiple reasons: it is an appeal to unity in a markedly divisive political environment: "we" are all Americans, and therefore "we" must all play a role in the national future, which "I," as one of us, will help lead. "We" can continue shaping the world, but to do so, "we" must be united in our unique destiny.
Currently on miPod: "Brain of J" - Pearl Jam (Yield)

Monday, July 17, 2006

All Apologies...

Sorry to all readers. I've been off for about a month for a number of reasons: baby, computer issues, vacation, and a birthday. Next time I'll post a brief warning beforehand, but I am back ... whatever that may mean for all of you.

Visual Rhetoric & Digital Politics III: Democrats

Visuals of Epic Proportions:
Democratic Heroes and Republican Monsters

The politics of emotion must appear
To be an intellectual structure. The cause
Creates a logic not to be distinguished
From lunacy
-- Esthétique du Mal

Politics is the struggle for existence
- Adagia

These two quotes from Wallace Stevens illustrate our political landscape quite well: the lunacy, the emotion disguised as logic, single-issue voters casting ballots for causes rather than candidates. Because political omnipresence is fast becoming the reality, political parties and action committees engaged in the "struggle for existence" must have a constant media space, a role fulfilled quite well by the World Wide Web.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the World Wide Web is the role played by non-photographic visual elements: banners, buttons, colors, and relational aspects of each. Biases established by print and television have made these blend into the background, just as a network logo and a small ink drawing do in traditional media environments. The power of seemingly minor visuals is subtle; however, the role they play is crucial: these messages pass into the brain unfiltered by the critical eye that looks for text and photographs. Because of this, these visual elements play an increasingly important role in creating the drama portrayed on the contemporary political website. Political entities with a strong web presence, such as the Democratic National Committee, use these visual elements to provide a setting that supports their particular message. Using principles of dramatistic criticism outlined by Roderick Hart (pp. 259-82), we can discover their rhetorical function.

The dramatic picture portrayed by the Democratic Party closely resembles the classical epic. The protagonist is defined by personal characteristics, painting a portrait of an individual embodiment of cultural identity myths. The antagonist is defined by verbals, that is, by actions serving as adjectives: his actions label his presence as monstrous, as the antithesis of the cultural myth. Perception of the cultural myth as "good" or "benevolent" is embodied in the very human actor of the protagonist; likewise, the embodiment of negative social forces must be antithetical to the human, and thus monstrous. The antagonist must be monstrous and powerful, but beatable by the human protagonist. The seemingly minor visual elements that appear throughout the Democratic Party's homepage establish a representative anecdote that identifies the characteristics of the cultural myth embodied by the Democrats. By serving an agonistic role, the visuals transform the Republican Party into the epic antagonist, a monstrous scapegoat embodying corrupted wealth, which is the root of America's contemporary political troubles at home - economic corruption - and abroad - the war in Iraq. Through this lens, the Party sets the stage for its transcendent message: if you vote Democrat, we will put an end to this corruption that is destroying our nation.

The foundation of the site lies in its background elements, the first elements to load: the banner and background colors. These graphical elements used to set the dramatic scene and character identity. The color blue, traditionally associated with the Democratic Party in American politics, is everywhere: blue comprises the background as well as the banner for eighty percent of the page. Photographic elements have a white background in the central information box. The rest of the page is red: an American political website would be remiss if it did not include red, white, and blue, but the red sidebar is cluttered with calls to action, and as a minor player in the page, red - traditionally associated with the Republican party - is clearly overwhelmed by the omnipresent blue. The hierarchical message is plain: the Democrats, even if not presently in power, are somehow stronger and better than the Republicans are.

The presence of American iconography throughout the page, as well as the use of American colors, establishes another portion of the Democratic Party identity: they are Americans, seeking to establish identification with other Americans. The banner is a deep, midnight blue, with a powerful, Romanesque font declaring the identity of the party in steely blue and gray capital letters: "The DEMOCRATIC PARTY." The turbulent blue, enhanced by a rippling flag, sets the stage for a coming storm. With the steely typeface, the banner's message is complete: the Democratic Party is establishing its identity as standing defiant against a coming storm, with the type establishing a classical republican (Roman) identity and setting the battle stage as epic in proportion.

The identity established by the Democratic Party thus sets the scene for its rhetorical message. Continuing the narrative requires developing the preceding hierarchical aspects and fitting them to the scene. The dissociative inverse of the implicit egalitarian values portrayed in the "Neighbor to Neighbor" iconography begins to establish the antagonistic relationship: because we support the everyday American, we are opposed to a social hierarchy that establishes privilege based on wealth. Instead of wearing suits and sitting in a boardroom or at a hundred-dollar-per-plate banquet table, the volunteers in the "Neighbor to Neighbor" picture are wearing blue jeans and sitting in a kind of institutional aluminum chair with which most Americans are instantly familiar: these are chairs we see in church basements, school auditoriums, and community centers nationwide.

Locative circumstances are among the most powerful indicators of importance in website design: the placement of navigation is relegated to the outside areas of the page, while the most important content is found in the center. The Democratic Party's most important associative visual element is a small, map-shaped icon of Iraq found in the exact center of the page. The visual rhetoric of the Iraq icon holds a number of associative and agonistic messages in its color, presentation, and features. First, the social implications of the color red, which in this case hold dual meanings of blood - for war - and politics - the Republican Party, are difficult to ignore. Whereas the map associated with the Democratic Party's "Neighbor to Neighbor" button had no borders and no traditional political parties, which implied unity and equality, the map of Iraq is unmistakably similar to an electoral representation of a "Red" or Republican state in campaign and election maps nationwide, even including a small white star indicative of the capital city. Iraq may not be a part of the United States, as the first scan of this image may imply; however, upon deeper examination, the concept of imperialism, of Republican colonization and politicization of Iraq, begins to coalesce.

With this single, nondescript icon, the Democratic Party is thus able to associate the Republican Party with a bloody, imperialistic war waged for political and financial gain. Imperialism for direct political and financial gain is antithetical to the egalitarian image embodied by the Democratic Party; add war to imperialism, and the life or death struggle necessary for epic drama coalesces. By associating the Republican Party with imperialism and war - and by demonizing the two - the Democratic Party dissociates itself from the corruption of the Republicans and implying a binary message: "The Republicans will send you to die for their gain," it says, "but we will not, because we will protect the everyday American."

Anticipating and counteracting the inevitable retort, that those who would flee this conflict leave the nation vulnerable to attack, the Democrats place the rhetoric of warfare and defensive strength throughout the site. The "Fighting Dems" button links the visitor to a page displaying Democratic veterans who are running for office, men who have defended the country abroad, who now fight for its future at home. More important than the "Fighting Dems" button, however, is another simple graphic that advises visitors to "Rebuild America," below which is a simple bi-color button reading "Democracy" in white on blue atop "Bonds" in white on red, and framed by stars. The explicit association of blue with "Democracy" becomes an agonistic visual praise by virtue of the implicit cultural association of blue with the Democratic Party. The lower half of the image, "Bonds," in white and framed by white stars, on a field of red, continues to cultivate the associational cluster relating the Republican Party to war. First, the colors, white on red, mimic the Iraqi map icon in the center of the page, and serve as a visual Homeric epithet: a repeated phrase used to attach descriptive characteristics within epic poems. Second, it establishes historical congruity with World War II, during which posters and advertisements, which have now achieved the status of cultural myth, advised Americans to "Buy War Bonds."

War bonds, implicitly associated with finances, provide the final step in the recursive series of images linking Republican corruption with the ruin of the United States: "bonds" are easily connected to Wall Street, high finance, and the "bond" market, thus bringing onto the stage the cultural stereotype associating the Republican Party with wealth and privilege, providing an additional agonistic associative tool by which the Democrats can demonize and scapegoat the Republican Party. This association is strengthened by a similar visual epithet found just beneath the "Democracy Bonds" button, a small navigational banner inviting visitors to a page exploring, "Republican Culture of CORRUPTION."

The identity of the heroic Democrats, who faithfully support the everyday American, is established by the setting: a strong, patriotic, populist hero, preparing for battle. The identity of the Republican Grendel is a classical epic antagonist: evil social forces embodied in a single entity without humanizing characteristics. The epic antagonist was defined by verbals, or actions masquerading as adjectives: he or they "did" x, y, or z before any physical description was given. In this case, the Republican verbals are portrayed through a recursive cluster of images that play active roles in defining what Republicans "do," and by implication, what Democrats "do not." Republicans sympathize with the wealthy. Republicans, having been so corrupted by money, in turn corrupt the nation that they lead, sending it to bleed and die for no other purpose than political and imperialistic gain, both of which add to their already great wealth and power, and by extension, their corruption as well.

Visual images on the World Wide Web provide setting and context, which in our media-savvy culture, textual and photographic content cannot: the messages of text and photograph pass through a filter of objectivity and judgment that background imagery bypasses. Their rhetorical value stems from their unobtrusive presence: we see them, but focus on the overt rhetorical messages in the text. The visuals on the Democratic Party website dramatize a transcendent "politics of emotion" in the guise of an "intellectual structure": if we keep Republicans in power, their corruption will only grow. Buy Democracy Bonds, which support the Democratic Party, vote for Democratic candidates, and the corruption that has threatened our existence will plague us no more.