For several weeks the media were full of reports and images of demonstrations by thousands of American Indians (now usually called Native Americans) and their sympathizers in and around Standing Rock, North Dakota. The aim was to stop the construction of the last unfinished portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is to transport huge quantities of oil from their source in the Dakotas to a terminal in Illinois, from which it could be further shipped to the rest of the country and beyond. The opposition to the pipeline is based on several grievances—that it is a violation of a treaty made many years ago between the Sioux Nation and the U.S. government, that the pipeline would endanger the water supply of a nearby Sioux reservation, and that it would desecrate ancient Indian burial grounds in the area. The cause brought together a broad coalition, not only of Sioux and other tribes, but also of environmental activists and of well-known victimological professionals led by Jesse Jackson. The demonstrators had settled down into a number of large encampments that were evidently getting to be uncomfortable as the weather turned colder—a sort of Woodstock in the snow. There were clashes between the demonstrators and the police. The rhetoric became very heated, as the consortium in charge of the pipeline claimed that the project was a case of overreach by the Obama Administration (which had expressed sympathy with the demonstrators). In its turn the opposition identified the pipeline as yet another phase in the long series of efforts by white America, including the U.S. government, to destroy Native Americans culturally if not physically—the term “genocide” was freely used and included in an appeal by the Sioux Nation to a UN body concerned with the rights of so-called indigenous peoples. On November 28, 2016, CNN broadcast a dramatic account of the confrontation, which showed freezing demonstrators, in traditional clothing (feathers and all) and to the accompaniment of rolling drums, bravely defying white police in battle gear—a re-enactment of a historic conflict, in which it is difficult not to empathize with the Indian side.
On December 4, 2016, that side won an at least temporary victory: The Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of environmental impact statements, agreed that a new statement was needed (because the final construction would involve digging below the Missouri River). The decision was jubilantly hailed in the protest encampments. It was greeted with rage by the pipeline consortium: It had already poured billions of dollars into the project, and the new impact study could take month. The whole project was supposed to be completed by January 1, 2017, and further delay would expose the consortium to costly lawsuits by subcontractors waiting to be paid.
Three very different issues are involved in this dispute—the legal issue of “sovereign” Sioux rights under an old treaty with the United States, the environmental impact of the pipeline, and the religious rights attached to the sacred burial grounds. I am totally incompetent to have an intelligent opinion about the first two issues, though I don’t understand why the Sioux Nation in 2017 can be considered “sovereign” comparable with, say, France or Germany. And I’m skeptical about any claims made by the environmentalist movement—a sociologist of religion can smell orthodoxies from a mile away, and that movement has spouted a body of coercive dogma (from lethal tobacco to global warming) worthy of the Spanish Inquisition. The third issue, that of the First Amendment rights of traditional Native American religion, is also one about which I know little. For reasons brilliantly stated in the Declaration on Religious Freedom by the Second Vatican Council, I agree that it is profoundly rooted in the recognition of human dignity, which in most cases should be more binding than any other right. I do know that there has been a revival of traditional religious beliefs and practices since the 1890s (when the ancient peyote cult led to the founding of the Native American Church). In 1978 the American Indian Religious Freedom Act recognized the legitimacy of the revival, though much of it took place within rather than outside conventional Protestant and Catholic churches. Is this “genuine” religion? Or is it just a fringe phenomenon of the counter-culture—sweat lodges, nature worship, Mother Gaia with feathers on? To quote Pope Francis, “who am I to judge?” Certainly a federal court should not be asked to judge. Unless a movement engages in blatantly immoral practices (say, jihadi murder, or neo-Aztec human sacrifice), it is entitled to First Amendment protection).
But something else jumped at me as I was surfing the Internet for relevant information: Perhaps I missed something, but apparently neither the Sioux nor anyone else seemed to know just where the sacred burial grounds are actually located! I don’t think that they had any evidence—land deeds, archaeological findings, family documents—that an agency of the U.S. government—the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, or a federal court—could use to determine eligibility for First Amendment protection. The only usable evidence would have to be secular, not based on a pre-modern, supernatural view of a link between the living and the dead. I recall reading a few years ago about a case in which an individual sued another individual for damages caused by a curse. The suit was dismissed because the plaintiff could not show that the curse resulted in “real” harm, physical or even psychological: In other words, U.S. tort law cannot do curses! Just as First Amendment law cannot base a decision on some mystical “knowledge” about dead ancestors possessed by living Sioux. (Put differently: The burial grounds are where we members of the tribe say they are.) And then, by my usual penchant for free association, a completely different matter popped into my mind: The current debate whether transgender persons have the right to insist on using the toilet or locker room of their chosen gender, regardless of what it says on their birth certificate. In other words, only I can decide what I am in terms of my physical body—and you must recognize my choice! Put more broadly in the language of postmodern theory: There are no facts, only “narratives,” with no available objective means to decide which are true and which false. This is not the place to discuss the nihilistic implications of this theory, cognitively as well as morally.
In current discussion of this matter the term “post-factual” has been used to describe the political rhetoric of Donald Trump. To be sure, in one day of letting loose on Twitter, on television, and in person, Trump tells more falsehoods than a lesser person would need a month to utter. Facts seem to matter little, as does logical coherence. I’m not suggesting that Trump bases his rhetoric on French philosophy. Rather, to paraphrase what was said about another American political figure: “He lies not because it is in his interest, but because it is in his nature.” This is a view of politicians that, long ago, led Mark Twain to suggest, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them,” This (at least much of the time) is not my view of American politics. But I want to emphasize that this devotion to counter-factual definitions of reality is not limited to the Right (if that is where one wants to locate Trump). As to the latter, there are two interpretations: That he is an immoral Machiavellian in using falsehood. Or that he himself cannot distinguish facts and his own fantasies. The second interpretation is greatly more troubling.
Recently both political camps have been lustily promoting fantasies. Hillary Clinton has blamed the FBI for causing her defeat in the election by issuing conflicting statements on its investigation of her emails. Not so long ago Hillary blamed “a vast right-wing conspiracy” for reports on her husband’s sexual adventurism. (He of course said without blushing “I did not have sex with that woman.”) In this connection one may also mention another prominent Democrat, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who keeps insisting that she did nothing untruthful in allowing Harvard University to list her as a “racial minority,” on the ground of her undocumented claim of Cherokee ancestry. On the Right, there has been the recent denial of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election by hacking and distributing the records of the Democratic National Committee, and over a longer period by claiming that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and was ineligible to be president because of having been born outside the United States. On the Left there has been the persistent denial of the failure of many women to pass physical tests for inclusion in combat duties, and of discrimination against white men in the pursuit of affirmative action favoring racial minorities. I could go on and on.
Religion has remained an important factor in American politics. Eighty-one percent of Evangelicals have voted for Donald Trump, on the (possibly illusionary) assumption that he will appoint enough Supreme Court judges to make abortion virtually impossible in Texas, while large numbers of progressive Protestants have gone into paroxysms of grief because Hillary Clinton will now no longer be able to apply the power and bully pulpit of the presidency behind extreme projects of political correctness (such as banning laws that would ban abortions up to and including the moment of birth). It is plausible to think that most Americans of all faiths are in the middle of these polarized positions. Precisely because religion remains important in American politics (much more than in Europe), religious institutions could play a mediating role between the two poles.