Extolling China, demonising Chinese

March 15, 2018

Extolling China, demonising Chinese

by  Ambassador (rtd) Dennis Ignatius

Extolling China, demonising Chinese

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Last week, the Interdisciplinary Research and International Strategy Institute launched its latest publication, Pen’China’an Malaysia: Tergadaikah Tanah Kedaulatan Bangsa? [The Sinicisation of Malaysia: Is Malay sovereignty being mortgaged?, according to one translation].

It turned out to be yet another Malay supremacist gathering masquerading as an academic event.

Bogeymen and brothers

Interestingly, the book itself opens with a chapter on the influence of the Jewish diaspora, a hint perhaps that there is a parallel between the Jewish diaspora and the Chinese diaspora. Linking two of the Malay world’s favourite bogeymen – Jews and Chinese – strengthens, I suppose, the siege mentality necessary for bigotry to thrive.

Going by press reports, the panelists who were assembled to discuss the book used the opportunity to censure Malaysian Chinese, with speaker after speaker questioning their loyalty and commitment.

PERKASA’s Deputy President, for example, warned that the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia posed a threat to the Malays. Noting that “we have seven million Chinese here, four million in Singapore, six to seven million in Thailand,” he went on to argue, rather absurdly, that “the thinking of the Chinese is stereotyped…the Chinese in China and those here all think the same.”

The implications were clear enough: the Chinese diaspora are potential fifth columnists for a resurgent China.

Other speakers seemed to readily agree. “All the Chinese in the world are brothers…so they will fall along with Beijing,” a lecturer from the Islamic Science University was quoted as saying.

ISMA’s Deputy President also questioned the allegiance of Malaysian Chinese while suggesting that their contributions during the Emergency were exaggerated.

Bigotry and Ignorance 

The fabricated and racist narrative that Malaysian Chinese cannot be trusted, that they are ungrateful, that they remain an existential threat to the nation, that their contributions to national development are overblown, is now so ingrained among certain segments of our society that it has become an article of faith.

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It does not help, of course, that UMNO itself regularly reinforces this narrative as it did recently with its outrageous attacks against Robert Kuok.

I suppose there is some truth to the dictum of Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s propaganda minister) that, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it and you will even come to believe it yourself.”

As might be expected, the panelists offered no real evidence to back up their arguments, including the contention that “all Chinese think the same;” they, however, offered plenty of evidence that all bigots are cut from the same cloth.

In the end, one is left with the unmistakable conclusion that all this palaver is simply about Malay supremacy; the Chinese are mere convenient scapegoats.

China and Chinese

To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about the growing influence of China in the wake of burgeoning bilateral political, economic and military ties.

Clearly, there is a pressing need for a rational debate about our relations with China to ensure that it serves our national interests above all else and that it is driven by national priorities rather than political expediency or the interests of a few well-connected Malay cronies.

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Now we know why: UMNO is a Malay supremacist political party

Like it or not, China is a neighbour, a global power and a major trading partner. Good relations are not an option but a necessity. Building a national consensus on the issue is, therefore, essential if we are to develop stable and mutually-beneficial relations with China.

And integral to this effort is the need for a clear distinction between China and Malaysian Chinese. China is a foreign country, we may agree or disagree with its policies; Malaysian Chinese are fellow “sons and daughters of Malaysia” (to quote from  Prime Minister Najib’s Lunar New Year message) and should never be treated with suspicion or contempt simply by virtue of their ethnicity.

Hounds and hares


In any case, it is ironic that a Malay supremacist political party (UMNO) spearheads the push for closer strategic ties with China and the loyalty of Malaysian Chinese are questioned. Well-connected cronies get the contracts and local Chinese get the blame.

UMNO and its fellow travelers are clearly running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, extolling the benefits of good relations with China (and profiting from it) while exploiting the insecurity it generates among unthinking followers.

Our nation might be better served if all those who are zealous for its honour look a little closer to home – at the theft of public funds, the abuse of power, the betrayal of trust, the violation of our constitution – instead of focusing on superficial and self-serving definitions of loyalty that divide and diminish our nation and unjustifiably alienate so much of our citizenry.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 14th March 2018

America–A Divided Gun Nation

March 10, 2018

America–A Divided Gun Nation

by Ian Buruma


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Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.

As a country of immigrants, the United States is held together more by shared laws than shared culture. But when it comes to gun rights, laws must compete with myths, none more powerful than that of the rugged gunslinger, the freedom-loving rambler whose way of life is threatened by government control.

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NEW YORK – Defending the right of United States citizens to buy semi-automatic rifles or carry concealed weapons is akin to denying any human responsibility for climate change. Rational arguments are not the point. No matter how many schoolchildren are gunned down or what the scientific evidence may be for the effects of carbon dioxide emissions, people will not change beliefs that define their identity.

It follows, then, that the more liberals from New York or San Francisco, or indeed Houston, agitate for ways to control the sale of guns to civilians, the harder proponents of the right to own lethal weapons will fight back. They will often do so with the zeal of religious believers who feel that their God has been offended.

Collective identities have a history, of course. The US Constitution’s Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, was adopted in 1791, when citizens who had rebelled against the British monarchy thought they needed to protect themselves, if called upon, against an oppressive state. Interpretation of this amendment has been contested terrain, but the original idea was that citizen militias should be armed.

It follows, then, that the more liberals from New York or San Francisco, or indeed Houston, agitate for ways to control the sale of guns to civilians, the harder proponents of the right to own lethal weapons will fight back. They will often do so with the zeal of religious believers who feel that their God has been offended.

Collective identities have a history, of course. The US Constitution’s Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, was adopted in 1791, when citizens who had rebelled against the British monarchy thought they needed to protect themselves, if called upon, against an oppressive state. Interpretation of this amendment has been contested terrain, but the original idea was that citizen militias should be armed.

For many Americans, especially in rural areas and in the southern states, this collective entitlement became akin to a God-given individual right. Demagogues have had great success pitting such people against coastal and urban elites who supposedly want to strip them of this right. The fear that demagogues exploit is rooted in more than a shared taste for hunting, or a notion of self-defense. It is about who people think they are. Take away their gun rights, and they would feel culturally and socially annihilated.

But if this is the core of many Americans’ identity, it points to an odd contradiction in their national self-image. The Second Amendment is of course a legal concept. In a way, that is true of the US itself. As a country of immigrants, the US is not based on shared ancestry or culture. It is based on laws – the only way a people from so many different cultural backgrounds could be bound together in a common enterprise.

No wonder, then, that there are so many lawyers in the US, and why Americans are more litigious than, say, the Japanese, who rely more on customs and traditions. If the US can be said to have a civic religion, the Constitution is its holy writ. And that is precisely how conservatives treat the foundational laws, including the Second Amendment.

At the same time, however, many Americans cherish national myths, no less foundational in their way, which are in direct opposition to the idea of a nation of laws. In classical Westerns, the true American hero is the rugged gunslinger, the outlaw who knows right from wrong in his gut, the freedom-loving rambler who rides into the sunset on his trusted horse, a rifle slung across his shoulders. John Wayne arrives to save the citizens from the bad guys in black suits whose nefarious deeds undermine the liberty of the American frontier.

But who are those villains dressed in black? They are bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and railroad builders, often representing the interests of powerful figures in the big cities on the East Coast. They employ fighting men of their own, to be sure, but the black-suited men come from a world of contracts, treaties, and big government.

The story of most Westerns is of a wide-open rural idyll, where man has found perfect autonomy, threatened by a state ruled by man-made laws. The only laws the Western hero respects are those laid down by God and his own conscience. And he badly needs his gun to defend them.

The problem with the American myth is that this rural idyll of perfect individual liberty, this state of nature, as it were, cannot possibly be maintained in a highly organized state of banks, courts, business corporations, and legislatures. The Second Amendment is a sop to the myth, disguised by the fact that it is also encoded as law.

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Trump is a New York hustler who can tap into the fears of Bible Belt gun-lovers. If the US is riven by an escalating culture war over its national identity, Trump has the uncanny ability of personifying the worst aspects of both sides of the divide: the lawlessness of the gunslinger and the rapaciousness of the city slicker.–Ian Buruma

Ronald Reagan understood the mythical yearning of many Americans better than most presidents, perhaps because he had acted in a number of Westerns himself. When he famously proclaimed that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is our problem,” he was talking like a gunslinger, even though he was officially speaking as the newly installed US President.

In a far coarser and more belligerent way, Donald Trump has followed Reagan’s example. In fact, he really is a kind of outlaw, with no use for norms of civility in government. In many ways, Trump has managed to combine the habits of a desperado with the interests of the men dressed in black suits, the corporate leaders, the bankers, and their political representatives in Washington.

Trump is a New York hustler who can tap into the fears of Bible Belt gun-lovers. If the US is riven by an escalating culture war over its national identity, Trump has the uncanny ability of personifying the worst aspects of both sides of the divide: the lawlessness of the gunslinger and the rapaciousness of the city slicker.

To overcome the dangerous fissures that are tearing its society apart, the US must find a president who can bridge the cultural divide. Alas, it could not have chosen a man less suited to the task.

Message to Minister Nazri Aziz: Don’t Talk Crude

February 27, 2018

Message to Minister Nazri Aziz: Don’t Talk Crude

Pondan? Ayam? What has become of this country?

The Closing of the Malay Mind

January 30, 2018

The Closing of the Malay Mind

by Dennis Ignatius

The closing of the Malay mind

Image result for Najib and Rani Kulup

Role Models for The Malays: Between Najib Razak and Rani Kulup: Who is more stupid?

In his 1987 book, ‘The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students’, Allan Bloom, an American political philosopher, argued that the social/political crisis of 20th-century America was really an intellectual crisis resulting from an education system that rendered students incapable of critical thinking.

Given the statements emanating from the recent ‘Rise of the Ummah Convention’, one has to wonder if something similar might be going on here as well.

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Have decades of politico-religious indoctrination led to the closing of the Malay-Muslim mind, diminishing their self-confidence and making it difficult for them to arrive at a realistic appreciation of the world they inhabit?

Are we, in fact, witnessing an intellectual and emotional retreat into a dark world of self-created fantasies and fears straight out of some ‘wayang kulit’ show?

The dominant narrative

Listening in on the very public discourse within significant segments of the Malay community, it appears that racial and religious issues have overtaken everything else to become the dominant narrative. Their whole world seems to have been reduced to something of an existential racial and religious struggle for survival against a plethora of enemies of their own making.

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Western-educated Malays–Khairy Jamaluddin and Hishamuddin Hussein Onn–turned racists

This shift in mindset is finding expression in a number of different ways. For one thing, we are seeing a rising tide of segregationist ideas including Muslims-only laundrettes, barbershops and photo-studios. As well, there is growing acceptance of the idea that it is haram to wish others for Christmas, Diwali or Chinese New Year, attend functions in non-Malay/non-Muslim homes or even to vote for non-Muslims.

The underlying presumption, though unspoken, is that non-Muslims and non-Malays are somehow unclean, that their very presence is defiling and challenging to the Malay-Muslim sense of identity and that good Malays/Muslims ought to have as little to do with non-Malays as possible.

The animus towards non-Malays has reached such intensity that even the pathetically few senior positions held by non-Malays in public service attracts controversy. Have we gone from aspiring for a public service reflective of our diversity to one where even the few non-Malays in high office are a few too many?

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India’s Islamic Extremist Zakir Naik and PAS’s Hadi Awang

And, by insisting that Islam does not permit non-Malays to hold senior positions in a Muslim-majority polity, PAS President Hadi Awang has conveniently provided a theological justification for institutionalizing discrimination against non-Muslims.

At the same time, we have government-affiliated think tanks and educational institutions regularly obsessing about cataclysmic threats to Islam from imaginary groups. Christians, in particular, are vilified and even their prayers for a better nation are considered subversive and disrespectful. The crusades ended in 1291 but apparently some have not yet received the memo.

The underlying sense of insecurity also extends to culture. Traditional Malay culture, with its rich infusion of Asian influences, for example, is now considered something of an embarrassment and is downplayed or denied while Arab culture is considered superior and extolled. In the process, key elements of Malay culture – dress, dance, art and custom – are being jettisoned in favour of the desert culture of Bedouins.

Surely, if there is a battle worth fighting, it is the battle to preserve Malay culture and its unique contribution to civilization.

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And now we have clerics like Ismail Mina Ahmad attempting to rewrite non-Malays out of the history of our nation while educators like Datuk Raof Husin insist that even the meagre scholarships that non-Malays presently receive should be withdrawn on the spurious grounds that it is unconstitutional. Do they ever listen to themselves? What kind of a nation considers it okay to be so spiteful and discriminatory against its own citizens?

It is, I suppose, the next step in the evolution of the “pendatang” construct with minorities cast as interloping, unpatriotic, scheming idolaters who deserve nothing but contempt for daring to consider themselves Malaysian with equal rights and privileges.

Not by Accident

Of course, all this is not happening by accident; it is, rather, the result of a well-orchestrated though ultimately destructive strategy by UMNO deep-state (with the tacit support of PAS) to reshape and refocus the Malay-Muslim mind. The objective is to ensure the party’s own survival by diverting attention from scandal and failure to imaginary threats that the party itself has invented.

Image result for Malay women in tudungsUMNO Hoods


And they have been so successful at this game that a wide cross-section of Malay-Muslim society has now bought into their narrative, making it the dominant framework through which everything else is viewed. When even university professors start unthinkingly regurgitating this fabricated and bizarre narrative, the stage is set for intellectual, cultural and religious conformity and rigidity – groupthink on a national scale replete with dysfunctional decision-making, the suppression of dissenting views and isolationist tendencies.

As many observers have rightly noted, race and religion have been weaponized and employed to keep Malay-Muslims subservient and non-Malays on the defensive. In the process, UMNO has condemned all Malaysians – Malay and non-Malay, Muslim and non-Muslim – to forever run on the treadmill of an existential struggle for survival against each other while leaving the party to do as it pleases.

Descent into Absurdity

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And so, at a time when our nation is faced with serious and very real problems from corruption and the plunder of national resources, institutional decay and the abuse of power, we have groups worrying about who should cut their hair or wash their clothes or take their photographs.

At a time when the real enemies of our nation are destroying it, we have no shortage of pseudo-nationalists ready to do battle against minorities, deviants, gays, liberals, atheists and, of course, Jews and Christians.

At a time when we are confronted with serious social problems, youth unemployment and falling living standards, we have people arguing about who is best qualified to carry out amputations for theft or proper procedures to ascertain the gender of men or women who might fall short of some airhead’s idea of what they should look like.

At a time when even Saudi Arabia wants to return to moderate Islam, we have zealots blindly pushing the nation towards an extremism that has proven so destructive elsewhere. Such is the extent of the lunacy that has descended upon the nation.

Zenith of Power, abyss of insecurity

Ironically, this shift in mindset is happening at a time when Malay power has reached a zenith unparalleled in history, and Islam itself more firmly entrenched and accepted than at any time since it first came to the country in the 12th century, courtesy of traders from India.

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The Klepto-in-Chief, UMNO President Najib Razak

As well, one would have thought that some 60 years after independence, after more than 40 years of Bumiputraism, after securing near total dominance of the nation’s political and economic structures, the armed forces, the civil service and academia, and with the steadily declining non-Malay demographic, Malays would at least feel more confident and secure.

Instead, thanks to UMNO, a siege mentality has descended over a large segment of the Malay community making them fearful and resentful, bigoted and unsure of themselves. As well, it is obliging them to retreat behind self-defeating walls that will render them less able to compete and hold their own in a rapidly changing world. If they cannot be secure and confident within the narrow confines of a small multi-ethnic polity, how will they compete in a borderless world that respects neither race nor religion? It is, in many ways, the ultimate betrayal.

Battle for the Malay Mind

To be sure, the struggle for the Malay-Muslim mind is far from over. Alarmed by the emerging ethos, the slow extinction of Malay culture and the rising tide of intolerance, the Malay rulers, the ultimate custodians of Malay religion, culture and identity, are speaking out like never before, and in uncharacteristically strong terms.

A number of Malay groups and individuals have also risen to challenge the UMNO-inspired narrative. G25, the Patriots Association, PAGE and Islamic Renaissance Front, to name a few, have been outspoken opponents of bigotry and racism while championing an alternative vision of a Malay community at peace with itself, confident of its place in the world, open and tolerant.

They are about the only bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture, and upon their success will rest the future not just of the Malays but of all Malaysians.

Malaysian Governance: It is a Najib-led ”Malaise System”, not the Malays

January 26, 2018

Malaysian Governance: It is a Najib-led ”Malaise System”, not the Malays

by S Thayaparan@www,malaysiakini.com

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.”

― Bertrand Russell

COMMENT | Malaysiakini columnist Thor Kah Hoong’s ‘It’s a malaise of the system, not Malays’, is a snapshot of what is wrong with the discourse in this country. Thor is a friend and this piece is not a rebuttal or anything like that, but I just feel I have to say a few words.

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Saying not all Malays are lazy is just as meaningless as saying all Malays are lazy. Why? Because whether Malays are lazy or not is not the issue when it comes to discussing the system.

Let us say that the system of privileges actually benefited the majority of the Malay community. Let us say that Islam was applied “fairly” to all and we were all under the shadow of syariah law. Would this be an acceptable system? Would race relations in this country be better? Would it still matter if a Malay was lazy or not?

Okay, let us say that not all Malays are lazy. Would it make a difference if those not lazy Malays also supported Malay rights and believed that Islam should be imposed on all Malaysians because they believed that Malaysia was an Islamic state?

Image result for Mahathir the malays are lazyReally? It is time to revisit Dr Syed Hussein Alatas’ The Myth of Lazy Native, which is a serious rebuttal of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma.


Is there really a difference between a “lazy” Malay who supports this system and a “not lazy” Malay who believes that the system serves a purpose? People love to talk about corruption as if, if there was no corruption, the system that enables a whole community to believe that they were the “masters” of this land and Islam defines their identity, would be okay. Get rid of MO1 (Malaysian Official 1), and that is the first step.

The first step to what? I made my case for voting and a two-party system, but the reality is that unless we change the system, unless a majority of Malays truly believes that the system is detrimental to all Malaysians, we will never be able to change anything in a meaningful way.

People blame the indoctrination programmes of the Umno establishment for destroying the Malay mind but seem oblivious that the opposition, in its current incarnation, is doing the same thing.

Image result for Rice farming in KedahRice Farming in Kedah–It is back beaking work–Is she lazy?

Some people like to use the lazy Malay/not lazy Malay argument as a means to introduce “class” into the discourse. In other words, the system disenfranchises a large section of the Malay community.

However, what it boils down to is the efficacy of the system and perhaps even utilitarian arguments, instead of the morality of the system. I am sorry it took so long to get here, but the system and the Malay community are not mutually exclusive.

Partisan politics in this country has reached ridiculous levels. There is a right-wing Malay website, which idolises Donald Trump, believes that Najib Razak should not give in to the “left” and quotes Western news sources about the evils of the left, which it equates with the DAP and Malay activists and politicians who do not subscribe to mainstream Malay dogma.

A cursory reading (and fact checking) of some of these sources the website quotes will reveal anti-Islamic writers who would most definitely laugh themselves into a right-wing hysterical fit, if they knew that a so-called right-wing Malay/Muslim site was agreeing with them.

Demonised as ‘liberals’

Never mind that there has always been agitation in the Malay community. However, mainstream Malay power structures post-1969 have done everything in their power to define the narratives in the Malay community. This is why when Malays who want to radically change the system stick their heads out, they are demonised as “liberals” and anti-Muslim.

They are not supported by mainstream Malay power brokers (establishment and opposition) or the mainstream of the Malay community. They are penalised because they are a constant reminder that the system and the Malay community could be mutually exclusive. They understand that beyond corruption and the Arabisation process, the Malay community is the system and this is deleterious for the country and the community.

I have attempted to make this point before. I get that most people are not interested but it is worth repeating – “I do not think that the problems of the Malays are that they are not unified; I think the problem of the Malays is that they have no real choices when it comes to ‘Malay’ leadership. Race and religion are the basis for all ‘Malay’ political parties and Malay politicians are hampered by these two imperatives – or so they say – which makes it impossible to have a greater Malay polity that is progressive and egalitarian.”

Now I know that I am going to get a lot of flak for this but it is true. The ideological and constitutional foundation of mainstream Malay/Malaysian politics is that the system and the Malay community are not mutually exclusive. If you support the opposition or you support the Umno establishment, then you support this narrative. Whether it is true is not the point. The point is that you are voting for political parties that define the system.

This is why a close friend of mine who is a Malay – which is important – told me that despite my exuberance for Harapan – a gross mischaracterisation I would argue – the idea of voting for Harapan is one of diminishing returns. In fact, he always sends me this YouTube video, whenever Harapan plays to script instead of deviating from it.

Now I am not saying that the non-Malays had no part in making this system but as recent events have demonstrated, most of us have very little intention of destroying the current system. Replacing Najib, in case you did not get the memo, is not destroying the system. It merely means we are setting the system back to its default setting.

Maybe this is why so many young people can’t be bothered to vote and many others who do not buy into the apocalyptic fantasies of the opposition can’t wait for this election to be over.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

Listen Up, Mr. Trump–What is America, without the American Indian

January 25, 2018

Listen Up, Mr. Trump–What is America, without the American Indian

by Peter Schjeldahl



Image result for The Great American IndianThe Apache Warrior


I don’t often cotton to museum shows that are educational in character—when I want instruction, I’ll read something—but I love, and I wish everyone would see, “Americans,” at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. It is keyed to the ubiquity of Native Americans in popular culture. Spectacularly installed, in a grand hall, are hundreds of Indian-themed artifacts, from movie posters, toys, and commercial and sports-team logos to weaponry (a Tomahawk missile, on loan from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, intimidates overhead). “Indians Everywhere,” the display is entitled. Other sections unpack the legends of Pocahontas, the first Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn—stories that everybody knows, at least hazily. Apt photographs and entertaining videos abound. So do irresistibly readable texts. There’s no through line. You bounce, pinball fashion, among the show’s parts, seduced into cognizance. Is it worrisome to relish aspects of a harrowing history that commonly stirs feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and fear, perhaps smeared over with sentimental treacle? Yes, and that’s a thought that “Americans” anticipates but leaves hanging—and haunting—to deal with as one can and will.

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“We want viewers to feel smart,” Paul Chaat Smith remarked while I toured the show, which he co-curated with Cécile R. Ganteaume. Smith is Comanche on his mother’s side and a member of the tribe. Born in Texas, he grew up in Oklahoma and Maryland. In 1974, he dropped out of Antioch College to join the American Indian Movement, shortly after that radical group’s seventy-one-day, at times violent standoff with federal and local law-enforcement agents at Wounded Knee—the infamous site of a massacre of Sioux men, women, and children by U.S. Army soldiers in 1890—on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota. (The immediate issue was a rebellion against the reservation’s elected leader, but news of the event stoked Indian militancy nationwide.) Smith is a daring thinker and writer. He co-wrote, with Robert Warrior, a consummate history, “Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee” (1996). A collection of his essays, “Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong” (2009), one of my favorite books of recent years, does indeed make me feel smart, abruptly wised up to ramifications of a modern “embrace of love and hate and narcissism” between post-1492 latecomers to the continent and inhabitants who “only became Indians once the armed struggle was over in 1890. Before then we were Shoshone or Mohawk or Crow.”

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Smith joined the American Indian museum in 2001, three years before its opening, on the Mall, in an exuberantly curvilinear limestone building by the Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal. Smith has concurred in a policy of congeniality to the museum’s overwhelmingly non-Indian, though not wholly white, audience of around a million visitors annually. This puts him at odds with some of his former comrades. In 2004, the American Indian Movement demanded that the museum “forever be named and referred to as the National Holocaust Museum of the American Indian,” detailing the reduction by violence, disease, and displacement of the native population from the millions—estimates vary widely, from a few million to tens of millions—in the fifteenth century to barely a quarter of a million by the end of the nineteenth. (Today, there are about three million people who identify as members of more than five hundred tribes.) Smith hardly dismisses the tragedy, an unhealable wound like that left by slavery, but he cedes protest to such other Indian intellectuals as the Choctaw historian Jacki Thompson Rand, whose eloquent essay “Why I Can’t Visit the National Museum of the American Indian” (2007), in the online journal Common-Place, rejects any notion of compromise with “colonial privilege.” Smith, having chosen to be a diplomat rather than a combatant for the interests of Native Americans, proposes conciliations that needn’t be sought, because they are baked into American memory and hope.

Start with “The Invention of Thanksgiving,” a funny and moving four-minute animated video narrated by Smith in a style that he has of deadpan drollery with gravitas at its heart. As generally understood—general understandings, including clichés and stereotypes, being grist for the show’s mill—the holiday commemorates a neighborly feast that was shared by Pilgrims and Indians in 1621: a true event that was little known for two centuries, until mention of it turned up in a footnote to a document from the time. The narration admits that the promise of comity wasn’t kept: America is “a national project that came about at great expense to native people.” The video succinctly acknowledges the national consciousness of Indian suffering, and also of African slavery, with an animated image of a brain on fire. But it proposes that we—all Americans—like the annual observance because it helps us aspire to “our best selves,” even amid the difficult travel, emotional turmoil, and family fights that typically attend it. Stating a premise for the show, the narration avers, “However imperfectly we remember Indians, we’re remembering Indians.” The video ends with a cartoon of Smith, taciturn and sporting a feather, at a middle-class white-family table. “I’m glad to be here,” he says. Pause. “Better than the alternative.” But something in his laconic tone hints that the alternative—upending the table, perhaps—has been well considered and retains an attractive rationale.


Image result for National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C.

The show tells the tale of Pocahontas, who, in 1617, died in England, at the age of twenty-two or so, after having a son with the early Jamestown settler John Rolfe, in terms of her strange posthumous prestige for aristocratic and, of course, slaveholding Virginia families. A bit of Indian blood from her line could be an ornamental exception to pure whiteness. (Thomas Jefferson’s daughter married a direct descendant.) The Trail of Tears—the forced relocation, in the eighteen-thirties, of whole tribes from Eastern states to Western territories—occasions the show’s deepest dive into historical detail, citing characters and quoting testimony in a national debate that raged for years before and after the passage, by a close vote in Congress, of the Indian Removal Act, in 1830. There’s nothing revisionist in the show’s assessment of the Trail, which was atrocious: thousands of Indians perished on the way to mostly barren lands. But the plenitude of contending voices, white and Indian, has a you-are-there effect, demonstrating positions that, with minor editing, could be at one with both the enlightenments and the bigotries of our day. Regarding the 1876 Little Bighorn battle, the show exposes, without quite espousing, a triumphalist Indian point of view. Featured is a wall-filling blowup of a terrific—and terrifying—contemporaneous ledger drawing of the battle, by a Sioux artist. Custer’s men spout blood from well-aimed spears and arrows or, often decapitated and dismembered, litter the ground.


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As an old white man, I can’t propose my pleasure in “Americans” as a model response to it, given the plurality of brains that burn with variants of rage or anguish in this time of identity politics. But I’ll dare to endorse an approach—a specialty of Smith’s—that lets identity and politics float a little free of each other, allowing wisdom to seep in. The show attempts it by parading crudely exaggerated understandings of Native Americans, ossified in kitsch, to awaken reactive senses of complicated, deep, living truths. (Not all the items are crap, by the way. I found it hard to take my eyes off one of the most beautiful machines in existence: a butter-yellow 1948 Indian Motorcycle.) The project gains drama, and a degree of peril, from occurring in the tax-funded Mall museum that is physically the nearest to the Capitol Building. Absent any correct attitude or even argument on offer, viewers will be thrown back on their own assumptions, if they think about them—and I expect that many will. The show’s disarming sweetness and its bracing challenge come down to the same thing: a Whitmanesque idea of what Americanness means not only involving Indians but as a possible solvent of antagonisms past, present, and fated. ♦


This article appears in the print edition of the January 29, 2018, issue, with the headline “All American.”

  • Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic. He is the author of “The Hydrogen Jukebox.”