The Ghost Dance War was an armed conflict in the United States between the Lakota Sioux and the United States government from 1890 until 1891. It involved the Wounded Knee Massacre wherein the 7th Cavalry massacred around 300 Lakota Sioux, including women, children, and other noncombatants, at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. The Ghost Dance War ended when Sioux leader Kicking Bear surrendered on January 15, 1891. — Wikipedia

Americans made actual war on Native Americans, who were trying to make spiritual war on Americans by using ghosts summoned by the ritual of the ghost dance. We did not make war by unleashing the power of our own ghosts (and if we did, the procedure is lost). We did it by deeming the dance illegal and killing the dancers.

A number of libertarian lessons, aside from our daily-beat-the-drum argument that forcing people to do things is almost the definition of government, can be had from this cruel foolishness. Forcing people to do things is virtually the only tool of government. It’s a hammer, making all problems look like nails, from coping with illegal drug use to threats from the incorporeal.

The initiators of the Ghost Dance War, of course, had a calculus. It is too easy to write this off as a passing brutal frenzy. Not the least reason is the fact that this pattern repeats historically over and over again, if you watch for it. The notion of “mindless violence” is, in this case, like almost all others, a comforting myth. Comforting, because it’s too depressing to think of the other campaigns of violence that are quite mindful that achieve their rational aims, that go on to this day: why don’t we hear any more appeals for Darfur? The Darfuris are pretty much dead, the goals of the genocidaires met.

The most obvious lesson in the Ghost Dance War barely needs mentioning: we (American settlers) had a desire to displace the Natives from their lands, loosely defined by Natives as they were. We were spoiling for a fight, the fuel was there, the pretext of the resistance expressed through the ghost dance was the match that touched off the blaze. The argument is also not being made that that the war was not part of a reciprocal cycle; the Sioux were legendary for their prowess with violence. The Ghost Dance was just the key that opened the lock of that particular war outbreak. The lack of the tinder of race-hate, covetousness and “otherizing” explains why war was never made on people during the seance craze only a few years before. People fear ghosts, but the fear is not a principle. The Ghost Dance War shoe-horned coping with the phantasmagoric into a worldly objective. This goes to the libertarian argument that conflicts should only be made over actual principles; it’s too easy to politically graft an acquisition onto an abstraction.

The dismissing of this episode as macabre one-off foolishness is also given lie by the fact that this “problem” of conjuring the abstract into a politically actionable solid has killed more people in this century than formal wars have. The argument here is that communism, under its own rules, requires an unverifiable transformation of consciousness into the “New Man,” the success or failure of which could never be objectively measured. How might a Kulak prove he is a good communist? How might a professor prove to a Khmer that he is acceptable, just not as fanatical? We could go on and on with examples, from the red guard in China, to the “say Shibboleth” story in the Bible.

Since it’s impossible to penetrate the inner consciousness of a native in the expression of his dance; rebellious, spiritual or just plain funky (ironically, some say there were Christian dancers), outward symbols must take on outsized significance. This is how we can know that all of the wars of the beards and hairstyles and clothes, happening now, and before, are not about beards, hair or clothes. They are about making external clues translate into conclusions about inner consciousness, since the inner consciousness is so hard to know. A biological metaphor would be: Beards, hair and clothes are proteins for how the cell of the individual fits into the cell receptor sites that is a culture, which might be trying to, for example, reject modernity. Obviously, the white blood cells that are the state’s representatives for the policing of this abstraction cannot just approach that protein (person) and demand “Do you reject modernity?” But let the person/protein fly a kite, and the immunity system will attack. Now we can see how wars against kite flyers are as not mindless as the wars against the ghost dancers.

Another lesson is that for government, “do something-ism,” where the problem is not a nail, but a sense of urgently-needed action (those ghosts can arrive any day now), is rarely a sober study using objective criteria or scientific rigor. On the cell receptor sites of a body-politic, certain molecules of political expression have advantages in affinity. “Othering” out-groups and their vague threats would then seem like carbon monoxide to the body politic.

Solutions that feed the body politic are very much part of the keys that fit into the locks of the solutions the government wants anyway, and who the solutions feed or starve is a feature, not a bug: drug addicts are not constituents that need feeding, the same way natives weren’t.

Consider how many laws in America now require speculative probes into inner consciousness, and not coincidentally, how far the American legal system has strayed from its roots in requiring mens rea (a guilty mind) for incarceration. Consider how far this new thinking has penetrated into civil law. Consider how little of this now involves concerning ourselves with, much less proving, whether the person in question means any harm. “Shortcuts” had to be found, seeing as how hard it is to penetrate the inner consciousness of a person for their guilty mind. We could never afford such a legal system (we [can’t afford][18 the one we have now]), had we not suspended mens rea, and depended on more, shall we say, efficient clues into the person’s intent.

We see this issue today in the political movement to destroy the abstract idea of racism, with the simultaneous avoidance of defining its meaning. Race-utterances are thought to be windows into states of mind, and the details of the offense are actually oppositional to the grand conclusion, because the point is for a rapid and efficient methods for measuring the person’s inner mind for thought-offenses against the abstract ideal. Nobody requires a DNA test for African-Americanness in order to gain license for the use of the “N-word”, though its use is both fighting-words-taboo and completely permeates our popular culture. This is because it’s not about knowing motives, it’s about drawing efficient conclusions on motives. We know the utterance of the “N-word” does not count as a clue of being outside the pale because an “inner” doesn’t need to prove anything. The “out” people will always have a devil of a time explaining themselves under these rules of engagement, just like one can never “disprove” one is a disbeliever, a Kulak or a believer in Western modernity (or if one is a witch, for that matter). For more than two decades now, careers have been lost, and monies on Human Resources defenses spent, in managing the abstraction.

President Trump marshals his cellular defenses against foreign proteins the same way the Byzantines knew your faction from your favorite chariot racing team, with no requirement that he prove the invasions of foreigners is a problem (it isn’t) or is worse than the normal status quo (again,it isn’t).

What is not abstract, what can be known for sure, is that the conflicts over abstractions can be very real, with real casualties.

Then there is this: if one honestly tries to find out things about a person’s consciousness individually, fairly, to any detail, to the detail necessary to condemn them, will almost invariably result in empathy and tolerance. Can’t have that if you want to organize people politically, considering how even today, how much politics is the organization of hate.

The last lesson is in the law of unintended consequences. Did killing the dancers destroy the ghost dance? Of course not. They do it to this day, to the fascination of us non-native Americans, and to the profit of the native-dancers from the tourist interest in the richness of their culture. True knowledge brings empathy and tolerance, and a classic demonstration of how an idea cannot ever be killed by a bullet.

It is a simple thing to say: “it’s impossible to penetrate the inner consciousness of a person,” and “trying, to a fair level of knowledge, will typically bring empathy.” Yet this is not the history of the twentieth century any more than it was of the nineteenth, with governments killing huge numbers trying to do just that, frequently. It should be an equally simple thing to say “rash deeds are often done pursing abstractions that should require proof.” Extraordinary proof should be required for extraordinary action.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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