Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation
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Shortly before he died, Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow Nation, told his story―up to a certain point. “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” he said, “and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” It is precisely this point―that of a people faced with the end of their way of life―that prompts the philosophical and ethical inquiry pursued in Radical Hope. In Jonathan Lear’s view, Plenty Coups’s story raises a profound ethical question that transcends his time and challenges us all: how should one face the possibility that one’s culture might collapse? This is a vulnerability that affects us all―insofar as we are all inhabitants of a civilization, and civilizations are themselves vulnerable to historical forces. How should we live with this vulnerability? Can we make any sense of facing up to such a challenge courageously? Using the available anthropology and history of the Indian tribes during their confinement to reservations, and drawing on philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, Lear explores the story of the Crow Nation at an impasse as it bears upon these questions―and these questions as they bear upon our own place in the world. His book is a deeply revealing, and deeply moving, philosophical inquiry into a peculiar vulnerability that goes to the heart of the human condition.
one can see that it has distinctive challenges. In a robust culture a courageous person will take risks, but he will have an established framework for understanding what those risks are. And it is in terms of that framework that he will develop an excellent capacity for risk-assessment and the ability to act well in the light of those risks. But at a time of cultural collapse, the courageous person has, as it were, to take a risk on the framework itself. Plenty Coups had to risk inadvertently
able to sell it—until that extended period was up.44 Today members of the tribe express pride that the Crow were able to keep their mountains; and there is at least discussion of how the tribe might over time be able to buy back lands that members have sold to white farmers. There is also discussion about how the tribe might discourage future such sales. There is another historical accomplishment that is harder to measure. Plenty Coups laid down an enduring collective ideal for the tribe as it
preserving traditional Indian culture—and no doubt it does in various ways; but it is also true that the idea of a pan-Indian church would have been alien to the tribes before they encountered white culture. I have heard young members of the Crow tribe ex- R A D I C A L H O P E 152 press skepticism about the pan-Indian movement. They take it as a symptom of the defeat that was inﬂicted on the other tribes. The Crow, in their opinion, were able to retain their distinctively Crow
was a loss of the will to live. Joseph Medicine Crow, From the Heart of Crow Country (1992; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), pp. 106–107. From this oppression there arose a mordant humor. The author tells us that a new Indian agent arrived on the nearby Cheyenne reservation and announced he was going to get them back on their feet. “The agent did not speak with a forked tongue . . . Within a short time, all the Cheyenne horses were killed off and the Cheyenne were set on
punishment for misbehavior. When Pretty Shield found out about it she not only consoled her grandchild; she went to the school with a hatchet and chased a terriﬁed and hollering principal around his desk (p. 98). 12. I have not spent time discussing how practical reason can be deployed in the service of sustaining a pleasure, because even with the transition to reservation life there were still pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex to be had—and prolonged. But it is worth pointing out a