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Obama to Give Manhattan Back to the Indians: Development of a Bizarre Right-wing Meme

December 29th, 2010

When I saw this first, I thought it was out of The Onion. Then I figured, OK, it’s true, but it’s just some unknown blogger or wild-eyed rant rag publishing some looney conspiracy theory that even they didn’t take too seriously. It was a report that right-wing sites are clamoring that Obama is planning to give America, or parts of it, especially Manhattan, back to the Indians. OK, I thought. A left-wing site has taken some random post by a nutball wingnut blogger and had fun with it. The sad fact is… not really.

It regards something called the “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” a document intended to symbolically recognize the suffering and mistreatment of the 370 million indigenous people around the world. It recognizes their equal rights and generally how they have been shafted throughout history. Naturally, this has aroused the ire or many who exist among the “shafting” peoples, worried that they might be called to actually do something about it, or worse, in the areas of the world where people are still being displaced because they live in areas others want to use, development of these new resources might be inconvenienced.

But in the U.S., this is a sore point primarily because of the fact that it points out rather unfortunate aspects of our own history. In short, we’ve done some pretty nasty stuff–stealing what they had, violating our agreements, and generally treating them like crap. Just recognizing this fact chafes the right wing, which prefers to whitewash history so that we never did anything wrong (or you are an America-hater who apologizes to people, as if America ever needed to do something so shameful and self-vilifying) or at least had really good reasons for doing things that kinda looked bad, but it wasn’t as bad as those left-wing traitors are trying to make you believe.

This, and their relentless quest to find anything to smear Obama with and make the American people fear and loathe him, have led right-wingers to find news in the fact that Obama has reversed Bush’s policy and now backs the UN declaration. They are making the claim that this will lead to court cases which will return U.S. property to Native American tribes. Well, at least that’s the tamed down version of the claim.

Keep in mind that the declaration is wholly non-binding, and has no real legal relevance.

Conservative coverage of the otherwise tame story started in the right-wing Washington Times, which dredged up concerns that Obama’s support for the declaration would lead to legal restitution battles:

Objections to the declaration include its potential to conflict with U.S. law, its failure to define exactly who indigenous peoples are, and its support for tribes seeking claims on lands occupied hundreds of years ago. Article 26 of the declaration states that “indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” …

Article 28 states that indigenous peoples “have the right to redress,” which can include “restitution” or “just, fair and equitable compensation” for lands and resources they have traditionally owned or occupied, but which have been “confiscated, taken, occupied” without their consent.

The article, printed on December 16, fell short of saying we were giving America back to the natives, but definitely raised concerns about reparations.

On the blogger level, this started generating concern, with the article reprinted on a number of right-wing sites.

Then, a few days later, right-wing news sites started reworking the story to a gradually more alarmist tone:

(CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama, addressing a tribal nations conference at the White House last week, announded that the U.S. government is now supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which includes a sweeping declaration that “indigenous peoples” have a right to lands and resources they traditionally occupied or “otherwise used.”

“Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired,” says the U.N. resolution.

The story goes on to emphasize several points in the U.N. declaration which give the impression–especially to those steeped in right-wing mythology–that America will soon be awash with apologies to others, reparations, liberal-media-driven national self-recriminations, and so forth. Weight is given to the declaration as a driving legal force:

Brent Schaefer, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, told CNSNews.com that although the U.N. declaration now supported by the Obama administration is non-binding, it represents a “significant policy shift” from the Bush administration.

Schaefer also said that before crafting legally binding international treaties, the U.N. usually starts the process with a non-binding resolution — a fact that will put the U.S. in a more difficult position if it objects to similar language in a formal treaty.

“It puts our negotiators in a weaker position going forward,” Schaefer said.

Introduced into the story at this point is a minor Obama PR event where, like pretty much every president before him, he welcomes members of a Native American tribe and accepts an symbolic offer to become a tribe member–in Obama’s case, the Crow tribe. Emphasis is put on the Crow name he is given: “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”

This again stirs a number of right-wing blogs into spreading the meme. Other sites jump forward to more alarmist language, but we’ll get back to that a bit later.

A few days after the CNS account, the story swings back to the Washington Times, which attempts to fan the flames with an editorial:

Some of UNDRIP’s articles are so vague that they promise virtually unlimited government largesse, such as Article 21: “States shall take effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of [indigenous peoples’] economic and social conditions.” Those concerned that UNDRIP is a devious means to justify some form of reparations to American Indians for the sins Mr. Obama has declared the United States guilty of need look no further than Article 11. This proposition explicitly states that the government “shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”

Articles 26 through 28 are even more alarming. They deal in detail with the issue of the “lands, territories and resources which [indigenous peoples] have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” UNDRIP compels governments to “establish and implement, in conjunction with [the] indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process” for addressing historic land claims and asserts the “right to redress” for “confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged” lands. Compensation is to take the form of “lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.”

It would be easy to dismiss UNDRIP recognition as the type of symbolic gesture the embattled president has to make to placate his left-wing base. The declaration is not yet legally binding, but it lays the groundwork for the next stage in the process of codifying its mandates as international rights in an international convention or covenant. And even though UNDRIP is not binding, it plays to Mr. Obama’s personal sentiments and post-colonial worldview, and his administration is certain to formulate policies that treat the declaration’s mandates as compulsory even if they aren’t. UNDRIP is the ultimate “evil white man” guilt trip. For those who would wipe clean the past 400 years of “European colonization of North America,” this is the next best thing.

Again, the writing is distributed around the right-wing blogosphere. A few days after that, Fox News adds its voice–not an editorial, so a bit more tame, but still alarmist, using John Bolton this time:

But John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the “abstract” document — which in several sections discusses the “right to redress” — will probably be used to fuel new legal claims. And he predicted the issue would complicate those cases more than it would help either side actually resolve them.

“It’s a kind of feel-good document that has so many unclear phrases in it that nobody’s really sure what it means when you agree to it,” Bolton told FoxNews.com. “It’s wrong and potentially dangerous to sign onto a document that you don’t fully understand the implications of.”

Get that? It’s “potentially dangerous” with frighteningly vague “implications.” The Fox article does some interesting gymnastics to both mention the non-binding status of the declaration, but alternately to stress that there is something insidiously binding to it, but we can’t really say, it’s just this thing we’re trying to tell you but can’t without being called out on it, wink wink.

Tellingly, the article ends thusly:

Carl Horowitz, a project manager with the National Legal and Policy Center who follows discrimination cases against the federal government, used the r-word — reparations — to describe those implications.

“It reflects a global egalitarianism,” he said. “It’s a shakedown.”

So now, by Christmas, we have the meme pretty fully established. All that is left is for the minions to run with it. By this time, the alarm has already started to spread at the lower levels; even before some of the more alarmist media stories ran, we saw stuff like this, people like Bryan Fisher, writing for a blog hosted by the fundie AFA org, on December 21:

President Obama wants to give the entire land mass of the United States of America back to the Indians. He wants Indian tribes to be our new overlords.

The Bush administration rejected this proposal in 2007, on the common sense grounds that it would give a sub-national group veto power over the laws enacted by a democratic legislature.

I see no reason why the president, after he leaves office, can’t submit himself to the authority of any Indian tribe he wants to. Perhaps he figures that, as an adopted Crow Indian, he will be the new chief over this revived Indian empire.

I’m pretty sure that’s not satire. I tried to check the site but could not find an “About” page, where satire is usually announced, and checked out other portions of the site, which seem to be just as serious, or at least apparently so. The problem is, this is so lunatic in its tone, it comes across as outrageous satire. But I think that, while he may have been using what to his sense was a a bit of sarcastic hyperbole, the article was serious in its intent.

So by Christmas, when the major media outlets have already hyped up the story, the stage is set to take it further at higher levels. WorldNetDaily jumps in with an article titled–not sarcastically or satirically–Obama to give Manhattan back to Native Americans?

President Obama is voicing support for a U.N. resolution that could accomplish something as radical as relinquishing some U.S. sovereignty and opening a path for the return of ancient tribal lands to American Indians, including even parts of Manhattan.

The issue is causing alarm among legal experts.

So now Manhattan, for its symbolic value as the incredibly valuable land we cheated Indians out of for cheap jewelry, is being given away. “Legal experts” are expressing “alarm” now. This shored up with an editorial. Again, with the reprinting and echochamber effect.

As for the Manhattan bit, the WND article buried its justification for that bit at the bottom of the article; apparently, a major source for the story, a college professor who (from what I could tell of web searches) is either an itinerant adjunct or perhaps now has a position at a community college in Arizona, noted that some tribes want to repurchase land in Manhattan. That, apparently, is it–this somehow morphs into “Obama to give Manhattan back to Native Americans.”

This is what passes for “spreading truth” in the right wing. A story which, in any other venue, would be laughed off as a joke, or presented as rank satire, is taken seriously, making the top conservative news outlets, including newspapers and media networks which reach millions of people who take what is printed there as gospel.

I’m still having trouble accepting the fact that this is the level of their “journalism” and that so many on the right actually seem to think there is some real-world relevance to what they’re ranting about. In one sense, it simply is yet another example of the craziness we have been seeing for years; but even after seeing stuff like this again and again, I still cannot fully accept that this crap is actually happening.

  1. Troy
    December 29th, 2010 at 14:12 | #1

    you can fool some of the people all of the time.

  2. Geoff K
    December 30th, 2010 at 10:22 | #2

    This is mostly another one of the UN’s jabs at Israel. Now the “indigenous” “Palestinians” can claim that they deserve to get “their” land back and there’s even a UN resolution to prove it.

    There’s no up side at all to the US signing this. As John Bolton *correctly* says, the only likely result is court cases and wasted time and money for everyone. And if someone actually *wins* one of these cases, than the Conservative concerns will have been proven correct.

    One more example of Obama idiocy and naivety.

  3. Roger
    December 31st, 2010 at 13:08 | #3

    ^and Geoff provides case in point to what Troy said

    also – nice rundown, Luis, of the whole sorted
    evolution of this meme

  4. Troy
    December 31st, 2010 at 17:27 | #4

    GK is like hermetically sealed somewhere in Japan and the only media input he gets is NRO, the WSJ OpEd page, and maybe Reason.

    He’s no fool but clearly his interests are closely aligned with these power centers and the ideological pablum they vend. Odd though that he’s ensconced himself in Japan rather than being one of the winners in USA #1. He got into Japan right after the Republicans took over the House, and managed to miss the entirety of the free enterprise paradise total Republican government created 2001-2006.

    Anyhoo, I’ve decided to start a new tradition by synchronizing my New Year’s hinode viewing by watching the sunrise this morning the 31st. It turns out hinode in the PST timezone correlates with midnight in Japan : )

    Back for the 1994 hinode I drove my Honda CBR 400F out to Hitachi and the coast towards Sendai. Froze my ass off, but it was awesome getting out of Tokyo. The back roads in Ibaraki were fun to ride, and so was having the Joban expressway all to myself for about 20 miles.

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