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Standing Rock and the Ideology of Oppressors: Conversations with a Morton County Commissioner

Photo by Patricia Hammel Isthmus | CC BY -NC-SA 3.0 US

Photo by Patricia Hammel Isthmus | CC BY -NC-SA 3.0 US


Outraged over the November 20th assault on water protectors at Standing Rock, in which water cannons were sprayed in freezing temperatures and in which one woman nearly lost her arm from a concussion grenade fired by Morton County Sheriffs (or any one of the other 76 law-enforcement agencies), I decided to spend my morning calling the White House, the Morton County Sheriff’s office, Governor Jack Dalrymple’s office, and anyone else I could find. Someone on my Facebook feed had shared the phone number for the Morton County Commissioner because he had claimed in an email that a gas-canister bomb deployed by some of the protectors caused the horrible incident, which had injured the female water protector. I added his phone number to the list and called his office, intending to leave a message about the ludicrous nature of his claims.

But, unlike my previous calls to the White House or Governor Dalrymple’s office, someone answered the phone. “Hello” said a quiet, tired male voice with a tinge of a Western accent. I was so shocked I had to collect myself for a second. I’d made dozens of calls and nobody had ever answered. “Bruce?” I asked, “I’m calling about the situation at Standing Rock.”

Slovenian philosophy Slavoj Žižek describes the concept of ideology as process of cognitive dissonance whereby we negotiate contradictory positions. Unlike Karl Marx’s notion of ideology—a kind of false consciousness in which people don’t actually know what they are doing, but they are still doing it—Žižek adapts German political theorist Peter Sloterdijk to make the case the contemporary ideology is different. Now, people know very well what they are doing, but they are doing it anyway. With our incredible access to information, we know that many of our daily behaviors have global consequences, yet we continue to live as if they did not. Indeed, as Žižek points out, we find ways to mitigate the dissonance caused by such contradictory positions by making small, easy choices, which assuage our feelings of guilt about the barbaric nature of capitalist society. This is why I buy my coffee at Starbucks. They acknowledge this contradiction and donate some money to coffee farmer while charging me more for the feeling of mitigating my global impact on subsistence farmers in the global south. We are aware of our ideological mystifications but act as though we weren’t. In essence, we practice double-think, consciously opposing ecological destruction while allowing the free market to profit on it and purchasing the products built on such destruction. Recycling isn’t going to prevent the Dakota Access pipeline, and stopping the pipeline isn’t going to change the fact that massive oil companies lobby Congress to keep profiting from oil production in states like North Dakota.

I couldn’t help but think of Žižek’s discussions of ideology as I talked with Morton County’s Commissioner. He disarmed me by immediately expressing his deep concern for the young woman whose arm was almost literally ripped from her body, for the woman who lost her eyesight, for the use of water cannons on unarmed protectors. He told me he felt sick about the whole thing, that he felt there had been serious mistakes made in the handling of the protectors. I asked him about the use of dogs and truncheons, horrible reminders of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. He assured me that the government of North Dakota had not authorized those security people, and that he hadn’t even known Dakota Access had hired them. I found myself conversing rather than shouting, listening to a seemingly reasonable man who found himself in an awkward political situation.

But then I asked him about prosecuting the private security company that used attack dogs from Frost kennels in Ohio, the incident covered by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!. He began to equivocate on his earlier statements of empathy. Where he had been admitting that Dakota Access and North Dakota’s government were losing the social media battle because of mishandling the situation, he now began to criticize President Obama for failing to step in and prevent the situation. It was almost as though he were saying that North Dakota needed someone to pull them back from the brink of abusing human rights. It’s true that a large portion of the blame falls on Obama and other establishment Democrats who have remained silent about Standing Rock—with the notable exceptions of Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard—but I pressed him regarding the use of militarized police against unarmed indigenous people, appealing to his sense of history. He doubled down, saying that he would have used the water cannon too (including an especially bizarre justification that it was really a fire truck).

“They know very well what they are doing, but still they are doing it.” If I learned anything from a 30-minute phone call one morning in November, it’s that Morton County and Governor Jack Dalrymple know that what they are doing is wrong. They know that Standing Rock looks too much like a horrible recreation of the historical abuses of indigenous people, that much of the public at large thinks they are monsters intent on destroying sacred native sites and polluting the earth in the name of short-term profits, that everything they do appears on social media and is shared by thousands of angry Americans. They know all of this, and they may even be able to say human-sounding things about how upsetting it all is. But, as Žižek reminds us, the most insidious ideology is that people should be judged by who they are, deep in some essential inner core, rather than by what they do. The Nazis were good people too deep down, who loved great art, music, and literature.

I’m not comparing Morton County to the Nazis here, but I’m arguing that we remember them by what they do. I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised by the humanity of the County Commissioner that morning, until I remembered the horrors from the bridge, the videos of people frozen in their clothes, the pictures of the gruesome wounds inflicted on water protectors. I decided to donate some money for medical supplies in honor of our conversation. They know what they are doing. As a side-note, the story of the protectors planting a gas-can bomb, which prompted my call, was never even mentioned.

More articles by:

Matthew Hannah is a postdoctoral fellow at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century literature, digital technology, and media. His opinions are his own.

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