It is imperative that we learn to care and share again, which was our original way, because the only thing that is going to matter is how we relate to each other, and nobody is going to be able to fake it anymore. We’ll have to look around at each other and ask who is sister and who is brother? Who is for real?
There were nine previous empires before this one, and where are they now? Gone, that’s where.
—Elder Art Solomon
First, I acknowledge the suffering of so many in America today. To be told that your life doesn’t matter and to be made unsafe is already to suffer unbearably.
The nature of America’s commitment to violence may still be unclear, but the fact of it is now open and the entire world is witness.
This is an unspeakable loss also for those who truly believed in a version of the American story. Freedom, by any liberal account, hangs in tatters and the barren standard of white nationalism ripples powerfully across the land.
Rage, fear, sorrow, terror.
The Problem of Uncare
I’m among the millions reading analyses of what happened. In an op-ed for the Guardian, Naomi Klein helpfully summarizes the multitude of reasons analysts are giving: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/rise-of-the-davos-class-sealed-americas-fate. She suggests that while these answers may all be correct, in addition to them a critical factor is a middle class revolt against the powerlessness and hopelessness resulting from neoliberalism–for which the Clintons are an international symbol.
I would suggest that even if she’s right, anti-neoliberalism (as she suggests, in many cases outrage, but in many others perhaps more likely ennui) only points towards a deeper, structural problem in America and indeed throughout liberal political communities: indifference to difference, or “uncare”.
First, Trump hasn’t caused this violence. Trump is a match disclosing the violence which always already was, hiding under cover of darkness. He flickers to flies, “come out now”. But though they hadn’t gathered and declared themselves upon the night, the flies were already there. Any they already wanted blood.
The real question isn’t how Trump, but rather what makes flies of citizens.
I suggest a politics of uncare is inherently vulnerable to violence and that given sufficient distance between the expectation and the reality of the material conditions of a critical mass of citizens (regardless of whether those conditions constitute actual suffering), a shift from social contract to bald nationalism as the device locating the unity-division boundary is the very thing that should be predicted. I’m suggesting there’s a fatal and necessary internal failure inherent in political liberalism, always waiting to be triggered. In America–the most ardently, indeed religiously, political liberal society on the planet–it just was.
While I’m proud to know so many folks who care passionately for others radically dissimilar from themselves, huge numbers of citizens in liberal societies like Canada and the US just don’t care about those they see as different. First, they don’t understand that the other is part of who they are too. They really believe in a radical disconnect between self and other; I explain why this may be so below. Second, for some, only those identified as self have ever mattered, and for many, under sufficiently powerful conditions of dissatisfaction, only those identified as self continue to matter. The other is readily identified as part of the problem of self’s suffering, and is thus excluded from the ambit of its concern. When uncare proceeds far enough along, for enough community members, for a long enough time, the contract fails and the exclusionary violence of nationalism, always barely (and only ever formally) contained, arises from below it.
The critical defect of liberal societies consists in their praxis of citizenship, in liberalism’s form of belonging. Recall the foundational belief of all liberal societies, across their considerable diversity, that individual autonomy is paramount: that persons are free only when they choose their own purposes (liberals offer widely varying accounts of what specifically this requires). On this understanding of the nature of individuals and thus of what freedom means, community is simply the formal agreement (an expression of individuals’ autonomy) of persons to live together for the purpose of securing, protecting, and to the extent possible, ensuring the natural autonomy of each from violation by any other. This “social contract” is thus the device which limits the field of possible action of citizens (expressed most recognizably and formally as law) with respect to one another.
But the contract doesn’t just provisionally remove the violence liberals imagine is inherent to difference. It also removes from belonging the expectation, and more darkly, the possibility, of any genuine connection between community members as community members. This ensures a permanent risk of violence always waiting just beneath. Citizens are of course free to create a genuine connection with select community members of their choosing in their private lives (and do so regularly via faith communities, neighbourhood centres, etc.), but not within the public sphere of the political community itself. That connection is purely formal and must remain so, less someone complain that the contract has been broken (I offer an indigenous account of why this presumption is false, below).
Liberal citizenship thus manifests a profound imbalance in the life of the community: liberal constitutional orders grant community members radical belonging without asking anything of them, except for the minimal negative requirement that citizens disallow themselves from violating the autonomy of others. In other words, citizens get all of the benefit of community and bear no responsibility for it.
This makes monsters. Not for all of course, but for many.
Since community members are given the world for free, they stand with respect to it in expectation. The culture of entitlement leaves citizens wanting everything and worse, believing they’re owed it. They can hold this expectation, standing as takers, caring nothing for no one, and the community says only “if that’s what you choose, so be it; nothing in your belonging turns on how you orient yourself towards us.” Citizenship is coldly about the inviolability of the dignity of the self, not its good heart. Gordon Waindubence, Grand Council Elder to the Anishinabek Nation, recalls one of his mentors saying to him “the Red Road you seek runs between the mind and the heart. It’s a very short distance, but it might take you a lifetime to see where you belong in the circle of life.” In public life, liberals never make the journey. Contract is bloodless.
Here’s the critical bit that so many of us didn’t see coming in the American election: when the radical entitlement that liberal belonging taught citizens comes up short, it’s the entitlement which stays, the contract which goes. Severe dissatisfaction, in the context of radical entitlement, sets the flies aflutter. In the US today, it’s white nationalism. This is the critical failure by which liberalism unwills itself.
I think most of settler society grows despondent at the prospect of liberalism’s failure, because their view of possible alternatives is constrained, unbeknownst to them, by their linear worldview. Many indigenous peoples, despite the crushing weight of ongoing colonialism, continue to constitute what I call “rooted” political communities on Turtle Island. You may not be able to see them because they happen inside and across constitutional spaces liberal polities claim to exhaust, because they don’t easily align with the boundaries of First Nations, and because they exist informally.
Rooted constitutionalism moves in a circle. Instead of progress and permanence, it’s orientation is to growth and renewal. In rooted political communities, persons are always-already connected to one another and thus experience freedom only ever with and through one another. And self-other is indeed a widely cast notion: human communities are part-of, not other-than the total set of relations constitutive of earth community: trees, animals, mountains, rivers, spirits.
The world is a unity of gifts. None enters creation with all it needs to be free; each needs the gifts of others. It is this, the humility of our own imperfection manifest as need, which connects us all. We are all related, communities of communities supporting one another under one creation. We have a genuine and imminent connection through creation. This is what it means when we say we are the land.
We are all sacred persons–and must each be taken account of in politics and in law for this reason–not because of some abstract notion of dignity that sets us uniquely apart from the rest of creation, but because by virtue of our gifts, each is a co-creator with all. This is what we were given: to receive what we need with humility and to share our gifts with others. To know and to care about their needs, as best we can, as well as our own.
Being a co-creator is an immense responsibility. This world is not free and it is not guaranteed; it ended once before, which the aadizookaan of the flood reveals: takers not welcome. Creation needs our gifts to continue. As a vital part of creation, so it is, too, for our own human communities. If you want belonging–the relationships which allow you to benefit from the gifts of others–you’ll need to offer up your gifts to them. You’re belonging isn’t assured for all of time and all up front simply because you’re human and were born in the community. Those are certainly relevant facts about you, but no one is especially fussed about your humanity. Ote, we care about your heart. We care about the gift that you are to us. You’re always, always, responsible to others. And because of how freedom works, their sufferings and triumphs live in you, too.
We expect nothing from the world, but stand with respect to it arms out, in offering. Grateful for the gifts it brings us. Grateful for the continuity of good life. Grateful to matter enough to be responsible to creation.
Folks wanting to better understand what I’m talking about may be interested in this beautiful teaching from elder Dave Courchene. I’ve used the word he teaches in this video as the title for this section, to help me frame what I wish to share: http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2682653573.
In direct conflict with the mandatory, callous indifference of contract, rooted political communities have open-heartedness as belonging’s condition of possibility. As an individual in a rooted community, you must be free, as elder Courchene says in the teaching above, “to be able to live, and act, and express yourself from the heart”. This doesn’t mean, as liberals and postmoderns fear, that we all think or want the same thing; that we eliminate internal difference. It means only that no matter the scope of our considerable internal differentiation, we recognize each other as co-creators, we recognize that we are related. We recognize that despite our genuine difference, we cannot eliminate the other from within ourselves.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the tremendous fortune now and then of learning a little from an amazing group of elders expert on what their indigenous systems of law teach from and of the earth, throughout Manitoba. In the course of their work together, they’ve gifted something amazing to the rest of us. In their respective Anishinaabe, Nehetho, and Dakota languages, they call it “The Great Binding Law”: http://www.turtlelodge.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ScrollBanner_TheGreatBindingLaw_24x36-PROOFv03.pdf. My hope is that this resource might be helpful to those wanting to learn to push beyond the boundaries of linear thought, to take radical interdependence (i.e. not interdependence as gloss or qualification of autonomy)–that is, the earthway–seriously as a starting point for politics, and in the case of my own work, even of constitutionalism.
A Rooted Praxis for Those Who Want to Centre Care in Politics
Living and acting in the rooted mode isn’t just for indigenous peoples. Anyone can do this. I think the theory of it requires one to centre the earthway in how he or she understands his or her relationship to creation, constitutionalism, legal tradition and ultimately law; those wanting to know more about this can explore a paper I have forthcoming in the McGill Law Journal in about three weeks. But I think any practice of this will be an improvement over what we have today. Thus I want instead to focus on immediate practices, even though for most readers, their performance probably won’t generate consistently (or at all) from the earth.
I’m not very prescriptive about this. All I can really say is that the critical change that acting in the rooted mode imports to political practice is that you always bear in mind that even those who are hateful are your relations. Of course, acknowledging that there’s no space beyond relationship doesn’t mean you have to like those who are hateful! White supremacists are white supremacists, even if we’re always-already related to them. While it’s sometimes necessary, it’s never sufficient just to have understood how power shapes your relationship and to speak this truth aloud. If you stop with power (for instance, simply berating a white supremacist, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, settler, islamophobe for being what he is), you’ll be treating he who is harmful, he who acts without care, strictly as the other.
While this may, in some instances, overwhelm his violence by suddenly disclosing it to him, you’ll have done so by reproducing yet another instance of the deep structural problem from which his violence generates: uncare. And beyond his own immediate discursive inadequacy, what will he learn from this? He might appreciate your broader perspective but in the context of correction, in the absence of connection, I suggest he’s unlikely to accept transformation. Education is a necessary, but far from sufficient condition for transformative change. And when our interlocutors believe they’re owed the world and justified in hurting others they believe to have come between them and their entitlement, we’re definitely after transformation. Beyond getting educated about difference, people need to care about the other, and the only way I know to do this is, whenever possible, to care for the ignorant, fearful, and hurtful. Without this, in the context of a contractarian society where citizens have an inalienable vote for which they never need be accountable, I’m not sure there’s hope.
As humans we’re frail and there are moments where its beyond us to be kind. This is only natural. We all have breaking points and open violence is certainly one of them for many of us. But in all moments where for me it is possible, I try to be the change. Where it’s beyond me, I try to acknowledge my shortcomings afterwards. As much as possible, I model the way of being and the specific forms of relationship I wish to see realized in my communities. Without claiming success at it, I exercise leadership from below. I learned this from my grandmother. I try to live in gratitude, not expectation, and to be conscious of my myriad responsibilities. I recognize the sacred in others by gifting them and by accepting their gifts. I try to pull the earth up through me.
Naomi Klein’s suggested focus on redistributive politics might do much that most contemporary liberalisms do not, but in simply reorganizing the social contract, it fails to address the underlying structural problem of uncare. For this reason, it won’t overcome the existing challenges for humans–and even if it did, it wouldn’t work for Earth. We would still be treating the earth instrumentally, as a repository of resources (albeit, a much better managed repository), rather than as the other-in-ourselves. Same goes for the ardent postmoderns who so skilfully, so faithfully, and often so helpfully, attend to power. For you, I suggest a simple thought experiment. I appreciate that there’s no space beyond power, but imagine that, by act of god, the world was suddenly such that all our human relations were organized equitably at personal, institutional, and even national levels. What would come next?
I’ve proposed an approach both to thinking and to action oriented at social change that is relational: in which you speak and act from your position embedded in particular relationships with peoples and places where you live and move. You bring your full self, not just your mind, into dialogue with the other. To think that transformative change can come from disembedded, highly abstract theorizing (my worry with some posthumanism) I think is to take a pass on the journey between heart and mind, and thus, on earth.
Without care, the contract doesn’t work; although I’ve hardly begun to make the case for it here, with care, we don’t need it. Or more particularly, when we live within the earthway we don’t need it.
That said, I want to reiterate once more that I know so many do care! At present, I think much of that care is exercised ineffectively, channeled through frameworks of uncare. I’ve tried to offer a simple sketch here of why that’s a problem, and of how those who want to may be able to manifest their care with more direct impact. I say “direct” quite intentionally, because I can’t say “immediate”. Transformative change of the enduring sort is, like the earth, slow. And it will move in seasons. But I don’t know any other way which doesn’t ultimately pull me into the problem beneath the problems.
To all my indigenous relations, I have a question for us, too, as we do our community work, our anticolonial work, and as we think about how to be good to our relations in white nationalist America. I understand why we use the discourse of autonomy, sovereignty and nationhood to describe ourselves and our political interests. But should we still be doing so? Do we really mean to invoke the hard-edged boundaries of that discourse when we use it? I appreciate the effectiveness of that sort of language as a push-back at ongoing colonialism because of its immediate translatability to liberal power domestically and internationally, but what does it mean for how we think of ourselves? Can it be reconciled with our foundational relationalism? Can it be reconciled with the earth?
There were nine previous empires before this one, and where are they now?
 Art Solomon, “‘We have learned patriarchy so well, and we are all hurting and out of balance because of it.’”, Beedaudjimowin: A Voice for First Nations (1992) 2(2). 21.
 That is, of the political territorial organizations representing 39 First Nations in Ontario and affiliated with the Union of Ontario Indians, not the ‘nation of Anishinaabe peoples’ in the ethno-national sense.
 Margo Little, “Gordon Waindubence (1955—): Giving His Gifts Away” in Portraits of Spirit Island: The Manitoulin School of Art Comes of Age (HighGrader Magazine, 2009). 112, 114.