We are here! post-Thanksgiving musings on minority conflicts and political participation

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just like last year, I spent the previous week celebrating Thanksgiving with relatives in northern Virginia and, just like last year, the curious nature of the holiday got me thinking about all the people that used to live there and may now find themselves west of the Mississippi in the best case. This year I found some inspiration in both the Economist I brought on the plane and the Dr. Seuss book I read my daughter. You, gentle reader, can be the judge of whether it all adds up or I just put a little too much gravy on the stuffing.

The Economist got me thinking with an apparently unconscious pairing of articles on natural resource conflicts in the Americas  (hurry up if you are interested, both are sliding fast toward the paywall). The first focuses on Peru, where newly anointed President Ollanta Humala has found his newly minted ministry of ‘development and social inclusion’ outflanked by a brushfire of protest movements against large-scale gold mining concerns in the highlands.

The article implies that by passing new legislation requiring consultation with local indigenous peoples on extractive projects, Mr. Humala has opened a floodgate of dissent stifled under previous, more business-friendly regimes. However, as in nearby Bolivia, the real political and economic power that flows from meaningful  consultation also appears to have highlighted unresolved tensions between indigenous peoples that may range from identity politics to competing political and economic agendas:

The native-consultation law could … prove perilous for Mr Humala. By January the government must decide which groups should be consulted, and how recommendations will be made. Formally, the process only applies to indigenous groups, prompting squabbling over who can use that label. “The situation in Cajamarca is heating up and could boil over if people feel excluded,” says (Cajamarca president Gregorio) Santos.

The second article focuses on Canada, where the socio-economic status of the  country’s ‘First Nations’ remains far below the national average and natural resources exploitation represent a grave threat to traditional ways of life. Recently, First Nations have apparently responded by resisting the historic pattern of woefully low representation in the national government bodies that are dominated by the majority but take many of the important decisions regarding the fate of minorities:

“Aboriginal peoples realise that decisions regarding their future, their territories, their resources are being made in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, and perhaps in Shanghai and New York,” says (Cree First Nation parliamentarian Romeo) Saganash. “So they understand they have to participate in the democratic institutions of this country.”

Without either minimizing or exaggerating the undoubted historical, socio-economic and cultural differences that complicate any attempt to compare Peru and Canada, I found the second article encouraging. ‘Consult’ and ‘participate’ are both transitive verbs but in the former case (consultation), indigenous peoples are the object, the recipient. Participation, on the other hand, is something that peoples – and people – do as active subjects. As with Mr. Saganash, who aspires to be Canada’s first aboriginal prime minister, you take it to the majority on the ‘best defense is a good offense’ theory.

So where does Theodor Geisel come into the picture? Well, my thinking on the above, such as it is, crystallized the night I read Dr. Seuss’ classic ‘Horton Hears a Who‘ to my six year old daughter. For the uninitiated, Horton is an acoustically acute elephant who hears the pleas for help of an invisibly tiny society of ‘Whos’ on a passing dust mote. He goes to great lengths to protect the Whos from a skeptical and murderously pedantic kangaroo and other jungle denizens, who eventually catch Horton and threaten to dunk the Whos “in a hot steaming kettle of Beezle-Nut Oil”. In desperation, Horton exhorts the Whos to save themselves:

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all.
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!”

The Mayor of Whoville then makes a strikingly ethno-nationalist appeal to his compatriots:

“This”, cried the Mayor, “is your town’s darkest hour!
The time for all Whos who have blood that is red
To come to the aid of their country!”, he said.
“We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts!
So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!”

And the Whos collectively shout “We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!” until even the acoustically challenged Kangaroo can no longer deny their existence and becomes instead sworn to protect them. In reading Horton, the parallels with minority rights and political participation seemed overwhelming. What is colonial history, after all, if not the story of tone-deaf pedants who roamed the globe, denying the existence of all inconvenient (and small) others until their voices were belatedly heard. The colonial doctrine of terra nullius, for example, involved declaring settled land available based on an assessment that the local population were not sufficiently civilized to count as people. Sound dated? Australia only got around to abolishing it in 1992.

Moreover, Horton’s refrain of “a person’s a person, no matter how small” resonates strikingly with some of the key language in Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 ‘Fourteen Points’ speech, which marked the beginning of a long and incomplete era of decolonisation and self-determination. Take, for example the assertion that a future League of Nations should guarantee the independence and territorial integrity of “great and small states alike” or the proposed equality of “all peoples and nationalities…whether they be strong or weak.” So was Dr. Seuss implying that “a people is a people, no matter how small” but that they would have to shout to prove it?

According to Wikipedia, Horton represented a conscious attempt by Dr. Seuss to move past his own post-World War II antipathy to the Japanese, and the themes of the book reflect the American occupation of Japan, if not colonialism per se. The Seuss family later threatened legal action against American pro-lifers that coopted “a person’s a person” in favor of unborn fetuses. However, a google search using ‘Horton’ and ‘minority rights’ only turned up the ugly and unlamented Willie Horton case. If Dr. Seuss was carrying a torch for the First Nations, he kept it to himself.

That said, I did manage to turn up a moving echo of my read of Seuss, in the form of a speech by the late human rights advocate Peter Cicchino (reprinted here in Human Rights Brief). His conclusion – that recognition is worth struggling for, because it constitutes protection – could apply equally well to ‘peoples’ as it does to people:

I start with that children’s story, not to be funny or sentimental, but because I think it powerfully conveys, in a simple and beautiful way … the idea of human rights. That is to say, the unique, the profound, the unavoidable moral and political consequences that flow from the recognition that the other whose presence we share is a person, a human being.

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5 responses to “We are here! post-Thanksgiving musings on minority conflicts and political participation

  1. Readers might be interested in very recent developments with respect to aboriginal property in Canada – in the wake of stories revealing the depth of the housing crisis on one of Canada’s reserves, calls for the widespread use of private land ownership of native lands: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/idea-of-private-land-ownership-on-reserves-gets-mixed-reviews/article2273199/

  2. Pingback: Proposals to allow private ownership of First Nations’ land spur debate in Canada | TerraNullius

  3. By way of update, Anneke’s comment above has been expanded into a separate (and excellent) guest-posting:

    https://terra0nullius.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/proposals-to-allow-private-ownership-of-first-nations-land-spur-debate-in-canada/

    Meanwhile, in the course of rereading the 1992 UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, I came across yet more Horton-esque/Wilsonian language in the preamble. Specifically, the Declaration reaffirms “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”:

    http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/47/a47r135.htm

  4. Pingback: TN turns two! | TerraNullius

  5. Hat tip to Gerald Knaus who came up with amazing archive of Seuss’ WWII era political cartoons, mostly brave and a few odious: http://www.paperlessarchives.com/wwii_dr_seuss_cartoons.html
    All in relation to ESI’s new series on textbooks and nationalism:
    http://www.esiweb.org/index.php?lang=en&id=156&document_ID=167

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