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From: Bruce Johansen <>   Mon Dec 2 11:55:17 1996
To: dave who can do? ratmandu! ratcliffe <dave>
Subject: Borked! Tales From the Ramparts of Multiculturalism

Submitted to: Opinion Section, The Chronicle of Higher Education
                        December, 1996

Submitted by:
Prof. Bruce E. Johansen
Robert T. Reilly Professor of Communication and Native American Studies
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Omaha, NE 68182

Daytime telephone: [402] 554-4851
Fax: [402] 554-3296

        I removed a copy of Robert H. Bork's Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline from our Library's new-books shelf with a sense of impending ironic triumph. Would I be able to add yet another sliming of my life's academic work by a neo-conservative household name who has never heard of me?
        After consulting Bork's index under "Iroquois Confederacy," on pages 306 and 307, I hit pay dirt. I ceased to be a mild-mannered middle-aged professor of principally Norwegian extraction who has spent 15 years at a Midwestern university teaching undergraduates how to write newspaper stories and essays on Black Elk. Suddenly, I saw myself portrayed by Bork as a primary sloucher toward Gomorrah in his pantheon of politically motivated assassins of western civilization's most cherished canons, an advocate of the demon multiculturalism, and a bona fide barbarian at the Gate. This is heady stuff for a professor from Nebraska.
        "We have already seen this in feminist and Afrocentric studies," writes Bork, "but it is everywhere. In New York State it is official educational doctrine that the United States Constitution was heavily influenced by the political arrangements of the Iroquois Confederacy." He writes, with an air of apparent authority: "The official promulgation of this idea was not due to any research that disclosed its truth," but because "the Iroquois had an intensive lobbying campaign."
        There you have it in the Book of Bork -- research cannot possibly exist on such a silly subject as how the Iroquois Confederacy helped shape democracy. This comes from an author who is a lawyer and whom one might suspect knows something about standards of evidence and the dangers of making absolute statements without proof. Bork has been called a legal scholar and has been nominated to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. As humbly as possible in the shadow of such an august intellect, I strenuously beg to differ. My co-author Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and I have written several books and scholarly articles supporting the assertion that American Indian political systems (principally the Iroquois) helped shape the early character of American democracy, particularly through Benjamin Franklin.
        Grinde's first book on the subject, The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation, was published in 1977; my first, Forgotten Founders, in 1982, was based on my dissertation. We co-authored Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, published in 1991. During the past few years, we have taken part in this debate in several academic journals, among them the William & Mary Quarterly and the American Indian Culture & Research Journal. These may be found in most university libraries, although in chain bookstores, which stock stacks of Bork's book, finding our work can be frustrating.
        One learns very quickly that in the marketplace of ideas some people have big bullhorns, and others have small ones. I have learned that my bullhorn as a scholar sometimes carries a very, very small toot. In the meantime, Slouching Toward Gomorrah was pulling its weight as the number eight best-selling non-fiction book in the United States the week I picked it up.
        Bork's argument is hardly novel. During the last few years, with a mixture of consternation and awe, I have watched a number of very well-known conservative authors and pundits attempt to turn the idea I have researched into canon fodder in the so-called culture wars over multicultural education. During the twenty years that Dr. Grinde and I have attended this body of ideas, we have watched reductio ad absurdum tactics used many times. During those twenty years, we have accumulated roughly 680 references to the debate over Native American contributions to democracy; a summary of about 450 of them is now in print from Greenwood Press.
        Our research subject has been called all sorts of nasty names by fellows with really big bullhorns, such as "fiction" by George Will and "idiocy" (Patrick Buchanan), spread by "Visigoths in tweed" (Dinesh D'Souza). Assertions of Iroquois influence on later political developments have been characterized as a political-correctness horror story which is sometimes held responsible for just about every uncivilized evil to befall Europe and America since the barbarians took down the Roman Empire. D'Souza, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that "a new barbarism -- dogmatic, intolerant, and oppressive" that has "descended on America's institutions of higher learning...a neo-Marxist ideology promoted in the name of multiculturalism." An example of such thinking, wrote D'Souza, is the idea "that the Iroquois Indians in America had a representative democracy which served as a model for the American system."
        Speaking of big bullhorns, Rush Limbaugh sounded off on the Iroquois influence issue in The Way Things Ought To Be (1992). To Limbaugh, multiculturalism's two main pillars of sin are that "Kids are being taught that ideas of the Constitution were borrowed from the Iroquois Indians and that Africans discovered America." Such things are, he writes: "worse than historical revisionism. It's more than the distortion of facts. It's the elimination of facts."
        Bork ends his diatribe by claiming to speak for the 38,000 Iroquois in New York State, "most of whom probably have no interest in the myth of the Iroquois and the Constitution." In one paragraph, Bork indicts the Iroquois for muscling the idea into the New York State educational system, and in another he says they really don't care. He supplies no Iroquois support for this assertion. I hear differently in Iroquois country. According to Mohawk artist and teacher John Kahionhes Fadden, "Since I have been a child, I have known three things: that the sun rose in the east, set in the west, and that the Iroquois had a role in the creation of North American democracy."
        Bork's is merely one of the most hysterical recent reactions to a valid effort to broaden the ambit of our political history. Despite its caricature as a horror story of political correctness and the jarring nature of some of the debate over the issue, the idea that Native American confederacies are an important early form of democracy has become established in general discourse. History is made in many ways, by many people; the spread of the idea that Native American confederacies helped shape the intellectual development of democracy in the United States and Europe is only one example of ways in which our notions of history have been made more honest and complete with the infusion of multicultural voices. It has been fascinating to watch the debate unfold in all its cacophonous variety. Every decent debate has its skeptics, including those with big bullhorns, little knowledge of history, and less appreciation for the true beauty of multicultural education.

Bruce E. Johansen is Robert T. Reilly Professor of Communication and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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