Skip to main content

Right-wing hysteria debases the public discourse


Indian country is showing some financial and political clout, and look who's all bent out of shape about it. The likes of Rush Limbaugh, Bill "Shut-up" O'Reilly and now even Rich Lowry, the young editor of the provocative magazine of the far right, The National Review.

Lowry recently put out a piece of pure diatribe, stimulated no doubt by the fact that well-positioned and pugnacious California Indian tribes now have some financial ability to support their preferred politicians and these are not at this time politicians of the right-wing Republican persuasion. The tribal donations and political support that dismays the Republicans this time has been for kindred candidates and they appear to have been strategically on target, judging by the growing bigoted rhetoric of these ideological talking-heads.

Lowry's piece, entitled, "Indian Scam: Harrah's and dirty politics," (Aug. 25, 2003) deserved to be answered, for its sheer banality. Lowry starts by assuring his reader that Indians are not, after all, "noble people at one with a pristine North American continent..."

This is noble savage bit. It's the oldest argument about Indians, akin to "some of my best friends are blacks." Or Chicanos, etc. First, hey, they really are not "noble savages." Then: "They are mostly just savages."

Lowry would thus "upgrade the image" for us. "Forget buffalo, eagle feathers, and tribal dances," he tells us. "Think slots, Harrah's and dirty politics."

This assumes the new casino enterprises are replacing cultural norms among Indian tribes. This is not at all the way it happens among Indian peoples. In fact, the old ways continue as new ways are incorporated, or not. Dirty politics? An exaggeration at best. Political advocacy. Most certainly. But buffalo, eagle feathers and tribal dances forgotten? Not at all, they are very much visible. Across the spectrum of Indian tribal life these ancient manifestations are very much alive and forthcoming with renewed passion in the younger generations. The National Review is way off the reality of how things work here in Indian country. As usual, it is virulent in its one-dimensional view of life, and particularly Indian life.

Lowry claims that "Indian tribes have, lucratively, sold their souls to gambling and can buy off or defeat anyone who might want to stand in their way."

This argument is very simplistic, paints all with a one-brush type of bigotry. Tribes are handling their new revenue streams in a variety of ways. Gaming, as Bustamante says, is a tremendous boon for long impoverished communities, who do predate the antecedents of American law. Use of Indian gaming revenues must meet five important criteria, and per capita payments come after all the others. Indian tribes run governments that must provide many services and structures within tribal lands. Indian self-government is crucial to much needed Indian development - following centuries of being forced off and cheated out of their assets. Lowry would also destroy American Indian self-government. A tribal economic growth is fueling regional economies across the United States; it is also helping to create an Indian culture away from wrenching poverty. New avenues of sharing, such as tribal foundations and major donations, as well as joint investments and joint ventures are beginning to emerge in Indian country. Inter-tribal trading and economic ventures are compiling and growing rapidly.

Lowry complains, as if this was in itself bad, that "California tribes make some $5 billion a year in gambling revenue, and have poured more than $120 million into state political campaigns since 1998. But, why is this bad? Is this not what financially capable sectors do across America, support politics toward their basic objectives? Of course Indian involvement in the political process hardly matches the Administration's recent tax cut to America's wealthiest of the wealthy, those least in need within society, and the very same who are gratuitously returning the favor in the form of political donations.

From here on Lowry goes for the jugular and into insult mode. It's time, he says to ditch the fiction of tribal sovereignty, and to recognize the tribes for what they are: good, old-fashioned, all-American sleaze merchants and scam artists. Sleaze merchants and scam artists?

Wow. Who is this kid talking to, or about? What's acceptable about this kind of insult toward a whole people, about this self-righteous need to attack and insult a whole race? For some of these right-wing hysteria columnists, the more insult the better the argument. For the many of us though, who actually have some roots and range of reporting among Indian peoples, this is not necessarily the image one holds. One might think instead of the elders and the children and the many young professionals, recently graduated from training and college centers, moving home to shoulder the economic and social reconstruction of their communities. But this is not the type of Indian people guys like National Review editor Lowry know or can even think about. He calls for his public to think of Indians as being like, "used-car salesmen, Hollywood, and telephone marketers." This is a stunning debasement of the public discourse.

Finally, Lowry's grand argument: The Indians are objectionable because behind a 1987 Supreme Court decision followed by Congressional regulatory legislation "gambling must be allowed on reservations, and states [must] reach 'compacts' with tribes over the details." Lowry makes it sound that this pursuit of rights and advantages is somehow "un-American."

But what could be more American than a win at the Supreme Court, affirming certain basic positions, no doubt deeply studied by the best legal minds in the country. Then, to see Congress step in to facilitate the states interests and to assist in the regulation of the new tribal opportunities, in the best and most fair manner democracy can fashion? It is not a perfect system, but it is the one Indians and all within the U.S. are compelled to live by.

Lowry should be happy, but no. Lowry next faults Indians for using their finances to, heaven forbid, actually participate in the political process. Lowry: "so they took matters into their own hands" by donating to political candidates in California. Again, what could be more American than that?

Lowry goes on to paint the tribes in the worst of lights, harking back to the TIME Magazine attack cover story about low-population tribes, outside investors and the two or three other incidental reasons for why "Indian gambling is an ill-disguised scam." Charging that the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation "invented itself," Lowry berates it for doing business with a "Malaysian billionaire," then complains that the Oneida Nation has "basically taken over the surrounding area" with its successful enterprises.

Lowry's profound ignorance of Indian tribal sovereignty, its foundations within its own history and its basis in American constitutional and case law, is not surprising. He defines "sovereignty" in a convoluted context rather than as an inherent one that now also resides between and among federal and state sovereignties.

If Indians would only end tribal sovereignty and give up the myth of self-government, Lowry finally laments, "our image of Indians can again become something more noble."

How arrogant! How ignorant!