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Redskins, rednecks, and ragheads: Thoughts on apophenia and inevitability

by Wylie Harris

(Friday, July 30, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- It seems useful to remind ourselves from time to time of the similarities between what's happening around us now, and the historical patterns of which we may be less than proud or which we like to think we've transcended. A large part of human intelligence is based on pattern recognition. When that ability goes into overdrive, the result goes by the five-dollar handle of apophenia: the perception of pattern where none exists. It seems there ought to be a compensating term for the flip side: anti-apophenia, a breakdown of human cognition due to the inability or refusal to perceive pattern where in fact it exists all too plainly.

In a recent article on the Great Plains, National Geographic made the upbeat observation that populations of both bison and the Native Americans who once hunted them are growing for the first time in recent memory. In some sense, things have come full circle: the same government that once enacted policies with the explicit aim of eradicating both native peoples and buffalo from the Plains has now adopted a set that indirectly facilitates their return. On the topic of Indian policy, says geographer Robert Meinig, "American leaders were confronted with a deep dilemma: how to have expansion with honor; that is, how to dispossess the Indians of their lands with a clear conscience; how to get such people out of the way without affronting the moral opinion of mankind." Meinig points out that "the idea of Indians as a vanishing race, their tribal extinction as a lamentable necessity of 'progress,'" was largely a spin campaign cooked up as a crooked path between the horns of that dilemma.

No less noted contemporary agrarians than Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have perceived similar patterns at work more recently in another group of people the rural communities of the modern Plains. They note that the young republic of the United States quite successfully voided its interior of "surplus people" in the person of "redskins," and then filled it right back up with more easily assimilated immigrants from Europe. With their homesteads, those newcomers took up variations on the theme of a $14 bet against the government that they couldn't stay for five years without starving to death. Those who won the gamble rapidly turned the nation's vast land resource into an engine of agricultural productivity that drove the nation right past the point of food self-sufficiency and into global marketing. A rough century later, with the even greater productivity of mechanized, capital-intensive industrial agriculture all too plain, those once-praised homesteaders became redskins in their own right, surplus people in the way of more efficient production. Now "hicks" or "rednecks," they received a none-too-gentle nudge toward urban bliss from the same government that had opened their predecessors' route to the farm. Industrialization in agriculture, they were told along with the rest of the nation, was simply part of historical progress. Thoroughly internalized, that propaganda continues right down through the present, appearing whenever some group of people impedes mainstream society's access to a desired resource. The National Geographic article that celebrates the resurgence of native Plains tribes paints the unraveling fabric of rural cultures in the same shades of tragic inevitability that were slapped onto the tribes in their time.

When my United States representative wrote to me not long before he voted to authorize this country's invasion of Iraq in 2002, he used much the same language, saying that he believed the war was inevitable. Belief in the inevitability of anything, if the historical pattern holds, is a sure-fire way of getting that very thing to happen. It worked for taking the farmland from the redskins, it worked for taking the rednecks from the farmland, and now it's working after a fashion to take the oil from the ragheads.

I didn't, and don't, believe that the current war was inevitable just well-spun. What was inevitable, once it started, was a violent degradation of land and people on all sides of an unnecessary conflict. That degradation has made itself felt in the rural heartlands of both Iraq and the United States. It is present when the U.S. bulldozes orchards around Iraqi farm villages where resistance fighters were thought, possibly, to have lived, even as it employs lethal force against any threat to the pipelines through which the fuel of its own agriculture flows. It is present in the perverse trade of that oil for the food it produces as a buffer against the starvation caused in Iraq by the 13 years of economic sanctions prior to the war. And it is present in the fact that troops from rural areas make up a third of U.S. casualties in the war, though their rural homes account for only one fifth of the country's population. With an oil-fed global economy having ruined their own communities as thoroughly as those of the Iraqis they fight, few have little alternative than a "volunteer" military.

That ruin will continue, in Iraq and in the United States, for as long as this country can butcher its way to control of the oil that fuels it. Its damage to people, land, and conscience is a pattern as old as empire, but no more inevitable than our choice to ignore it.

About the Author - Wylie Harris ranches with his family on their fifth generation cow-calf operation in Texas. At Texas A &M, he is working on range ecology. He is also a member of the 2003-2005 class of Food and Society Policy Fellows, a national program funded in part by the Kellogg Foundation, administered by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute and the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.