The Ghost of Andrew Jackson
Our current president sometimes likes to compare himself to another American President who holds a prominent place in Choctaw history, Andrew Jackson.
The Choctaw Nation and Colonel Andrew Jackson fought as allies in adjacent theaters of the Red Stick War (part of the broader War of 1812). In 1814, now-General Jackson wrote to the Tribe asking for additional assistance in fighting against Spanish, British and remaining Muscogee forces along the Gulfcoast. The Choctaw Nation responded, contributing materially to American victories at Pensacola and New Orleans. These battles effectively ended the war, insured the survival of the young United States, and eventually propelled Jackson to the presidency. It took Jackson only about a year after becoming president to send agents back to the Choctaw Nation, threatening the Choctaw people with unprovoked destruction at the hands of their American allies, unless the Choctaw leaders gave the last of their homeland to the US. In the resultant Trail of Tears, which removed Choctaw people from Mississippi, disease, government profiteering, and murder, took the lives of thousands.
What would I do if I was living as a White person in 1830 on the opposite side of the Mississippi frontier? I would like to think that rather than quietly going about my business as these events were unfolding, I do what I could within my limited scope to confront the injustice. It is often impossible for people to recognize that we’re living in a momentous time while it is happening, but when injustice is occurring, every day that we are not complacent is significant. We have been taking pains to keep this blog apolitical, but what if today is 1830 Mississippi; will we just go on quietly about our business?
During this pandemic, the simple act of wearing a face covering can save the life of your neighbor or your grandmother. If we accept that there is such a thing as a shared external reality, there really is no debating this fact. A surprising number of everyday Americans feel that this tiny inconvenience is a violation of their rights…even as 1,000 Americans are dying from the virus each day. What kind of society places a higher value on being able to keep your face uncovered than on your own neighbors’ lives? Maybe this is how it’s always been, but this isn’t the America that I once knew.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s, in a mostly Republican family. I was taught that being an American meant you were one of the luckiest people on earth. In 2020, the message I hear coming from that same party is a very different one. Though varied, the strongest unifying theme seems to be that true Americans are victims of the less affluent, less “western”, and darker-skinned people from all around the world and next door. The legacy of this recycled lie has deep roots in the American psyche and institutions. The systematic injustice it condones has inspired the BLM, AIM, and others to respond is ways that have parallels with some of the very things the White founding fathers are celebrated for. Growing up, I was taught that if you are strong it comes with a responsibility to help those around you who are not as strong to stand. I was taught that taking in the downtrodden and empowering them was itself a source of American strength. In 2020, the world is full of people pushed out of their homelands by a deadly mix of political unrest, war, and climate change. The same establishment that once taught me the responsibility of strength now demonizes the entire populations of weakened countries as "terrorists", "gangsters", "rapists", and "deadbeats" - aka "savages". Of this viewpoint was born the "zero tolerance policy" on our southern border. Rather than addressing the issues there, it channeled cruelty to make people think twice about coming to the United States for help or hope. Maybe this is how it’s always been, but this isn’t the America that I once knew.
I think the root of what I am observing is ultimately tied to a shift of integrity. I remember when President Clinton got caught in a lie. As a teenager, I had agreed with the chorus of Republican voices that said a proven liar couldn’t be trusted as president. Our current president has made over 20,000 false or misleading statements to the American people. It's comedic, but sad to watching the same party that impeached Clinton contorting itself to extraordinary lengths to fall in line behind the current president’s newest falsehood or position change. Maybe this is how it’s always been, but this isn’t the America that I once knew.
What has really kept me up at night the past few years is trying to rationally understand how the current political atmosphere makes so many reasonable, moral people, many of them my own friends and mentors, seem to be willing to part ways with reality. Millions of Christians have somehow found a way to convince themselves that a man who has hung out with pedophiles, bragged on tape about committing sexual assault, and paid off sex workers to keep quiet about his extramarital affairs, is a family values president. Many patriots have found a way to convince themselves that a man who used his elite position to get five deferments from service in Vietnam, and has belittled Vietnam POWs from the position of Commander in Chief, somehow cares about American servicemen and women. Two of my uncles gave their lives in Germany to defeat the Nazis in World War II. When a band of neo-Nazis held a hate rally in an American town, killing a woman, and our president called them “fine people” my blood ran hot. A long list of this president’s advisors and associates have received felony convictions related to the work that they have done for his family business, or campaign, or administration. Somehow, that doesn't prevent him from convincing many otherwise rational people that he's a president who supports law and order. More than seventy GOP national security officials, as well as this president’s hand-picked Chief of Staff, Defense Secretary, and National Security Advisor, have all come out independently to alert the American people that he is a credible threat to national security. Rather than heeding the warnings of these security professionals who have been protecting our country for decades, millions choose to accept the word of cable news personalities who say the warnings are just a conspiracy against the president. The current president has undermined environmental policies and the Paris Agreement in ways that go so far against reason it sometimes makes me think his real goal must be to inflict the greatest level of suffering on humanity that he possibly can. We have a president, who on the eve of the virus’s outbreak reduced funding for the team working to identify pandemics in China, then spent months that could have gone into preparing for COVID19 convincing his followers that the virus was a hoax. He made wearing life-saving masks into a political issue. He urged states to reopen their economies before they had met his own government’s guidelines for doing so safely, and publicly advocated for armed takeovers of state governments that did not immediately re-open at his command. Long after it became clear that early opening was causing significant numbers of Americans to die, he continued to try to force schools to reopen regardless of the consequences. Maybe this is how it’s always been, but this isn’t the America that I once knew.
It was inevitable that all of the spin, self-delusion and bold faced lies would eventually come crashing up against reality. Now, we find ourselves facing the biggest internal divisions this country has seen since 1968, the biggest economic collapse we have experienced since the Great Depression, and the worst 4 month death toll the US has ever endured, all at the same time. Instead of deciding maybe this path isn’t such a wise one to tread, a third of the country doubles down in defending the president as he openly uses the powers of his office to tilt our coming election in his favor… Maybe I lived in a bubble of naivety as a kid, but this definitely isn’t the America that I once knew.
In my hometown, a huge bronze statue of President Andrew Jackson, the county’s namesake, sits there on the square to tower above anyone who comes near. A family member and I used to sometimes joke about painting it pink as a remembrance of Andrew Jackson’s betrayal of the Choctaw people. Recently, I was surprised to hear that the City Council is considering removing the unblemished statue to another place. Maybe there is some kind of sign in this. Yet, I fear that simply voting Andrew Jackson’s successor out of office won’t solve the bigger problems that have brought us to where we are. The same cruelty and dishonesty that defined the US relationship with Tribes at the time of Andrew Jackson, seems to have become part of a broader institution in 2020. I know there must be millions of others out there who have observed these same changes. Don't let history judge us with the people who set there quietly as the Trail of Tears unfolded before their very eyes. Vote.
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