Of Bishops and Redskins

March 1, 1991 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: PostmodernismSociology

Of Bishops and Redskins

Mini Teaser: Is the United States of America a nation?  By chance, I went to see the new Kevin Costner film, Dances With Wolves, on the same day as the American Catholic bishops were resolving to instruct President Bush in his conduct of U.

by Author(s): James Bowman

Is the United States of America a nation?  By chance, I went to see the new Kevin Costner film, Dances With Wolves, on the same day as the American Catholic bishops were resolving to instruct President Bush in his conduct of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, and it struck me that there is a connection between these two manifestations of moralizing.  Neither addresses directly the question of American nationhood, but both adopt a point of view which is at once typically American and in opposition to any specifically American approach to the world.  And there is some truth in the idea that, if we are a nation, we are a nation of non-nationalists.

Both the bishops and Mr. Costner start from the assumption that neither the moralist nor those whom he addresses is himself encumbered by any national, local, or cultural identity not of his own choosing.  Kevin Costner plays a Civil War soldier who goes off to the frontier and decides that, rather than fight the Indians, he would prefer to be one; the American Catholic bishops solemnly warn their president that America's enemies are entitled to every consideration due an errant brother.  Like the "voice without a face" in W.H. Auden's antiwar poem, "Shield of Achilles," our leaders must "prove by statistics that some cause is just."

Let me be clear about this.  I do not mean for a moment to suggest that either American Indians or Iraqis are not deserving of every human consideration.  Auden's poem is about the horror of war without respect to its politics, and woe to the army or nation which forgets that horror.  But, unless we are pacifists, neither can we forget that wars are also political, and that the first rule of politics is to know what side you are on.

Kevin Costner, as Lieutenant John Dunbar, does not know.  He becomes a hero of the Civil War not by his enthusiasm for his cause or his eagerness to take the fight to the enemy but, apparently, through a failed suicide attempt.  When, as a reward for his valor, he is permitted to choose his own posting, he asks to go to the frontier "before it's gone."  Already (and rather incongruously for the time) he puts a higher value on the wild things of nature than on the civilization of which he is a part, and the rest of the film consists of a kind of cultural suicide--a deliberate choice of exclusion from the people to whom, by birth and breeding, he belongs.

Of course, the film takes care to make us believe in that choice: the lonely frontier is beautiful and beautifully photographed; the Indians are all warm, funny, gentle, noble, and handsome people while the only representatives of civilization, the white soldiers, are sneaky, vicious, homicidal, ugly, and anti-intellectual.  But Americans are predisposed to believe this.  Not only is eighteenth-century romanticism about the noble savage still plausible to us, but as a nation our most devoutly held article of faith is that it is possible for us to remake our lives in any way we choose.  That is part of what the frontier is about: making a new start, assuming a new identity.

The right to "the pursuit of happiness" upon which the republic was founded has as its practical corollary a kind of absolute individualism which has the power to annihilate more traditional group loyalties.  That view of the world as a loose aggregation of social atoms rather than a complex of permanent racial or tribal, religious or economic relationships was both cause and consequence of the influx to America of vast numbers of immigrants from all over the world.  They all came looking for that same new start; they were all furiously pursuing that same individual vision of happiness.

Paradoxically, it often proves to be the case that the more individual our aspirations, the more they tend to focus on the attractions of belonging somewhere, preferably among those with a strongly pronounced group identity.  Thus Lieutenant Dunbar's transformation into a Sioux warrior called Dances With Wolves is led along by the feelings of communality that life among the Indians gives rise to: "the only words that came to mind were 'family' or 'harmony,' " he tells us.

This transformation is the result of a personal choice of what we in the late twentieth century have streamlined into the single word "lifestyle."  But the very idea of "lifestyle" is alien to the primitives whose own seems so attractive.  For the Sioux there was only one style of life.  And it is precisely this limitation of choice that makes their nomadic existence preferable to the possibilities, which are also the uncertainties, of civilization.  "As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over," Dunbar tells us in a voice-over, "I knew for the first time who I really was."

Essay Types: Essay