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Fulbright scholar finds parallels in American Indian living and the Occupy Movement

Staff Writer

Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

UPPSALA, Sweden — Each year, the Fulbright Program sends thousands of American and international academics to foreign universities, including one from the U.S. to Uppsala University in Sweden.

Fulbright Professor Susan Hegeman of the University of Florida gave her Fulbright Lecture on Jan. 30, entitled “Casinos, Slow Food, and the Occupy Movement: Indigenous People and the Global Imagination,” at Universitetshuset, the main building of the university.

Her lecture focused on the battle between two psychologies, romanticism and modernity, and how as a society we become entrenched in these historic patterns of thought. As an example, she used portrayals of Native Americans in different settings, including a focus on gambling on reservations, a topic of importance in Connecticut.

In the prevailing Western social and political order, which she calls “neoliberal globalization,” society constantly pushes to become “more efficient at using human and natural resources in an increasingly unified world.” Romanticists criticize what they see as depersonalization, and they use specific tropes and kinds of imagery to illustrate their arguments.

Hegeman showed a picture of a poster from Occupy Wall Street with a picture of a Native American (an Arapahoe Indian) and the message “Decolonize Wall Street!” The poster was an example of what she calls “anarchist romanticism,” a phenomenon that was very much on display at the Occupy campsite.

In a strange historical irony, Occupiers made use of a private-public space to set up their camp much in the same way the Indian reservations use their legal status to run casinos. Since their protected status exempts them from state law, tribes like the Mohegan can develop lucrative complexes centered on gaming.

Another common theme is “revolutionary romanticism,” typified by the famous picture of Geronimo squatting with his rifle after being captured. “People wanted pictures of Indians looking rebellious,” to reinforce the paradigm of civilized versus barbaric, said Hegeman. She cited the Navy SEAL mission “Geronimo” that killed Osama bin Laden as another example.

From a bigger perspective, Hegeman used depictions of Native Americans over the last few centuries to illustrate what she sees as a “problem of imagining new social and political orders.” Since the Enlightenment, she says, thinkers in the West have been battling what is perceived to be a linear development in human civilization. She quoted Margaret Thatcher, who said “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism.

This argument leads to a dichotomous portray of the world: people who make progress and those who impede it. In the 19th century, the question was “If Native Americans will not assimilate into white society, why should we let them stay?” Today, it might be “If Africans will not modernize, why should we give them aid?” Hegeman argued this construction stops us from coming up with more creative solutions.

The lecture’s focus on an American topic is not unusual at Uppsala University, which runs the Swedish Institute for North American Studies. “It is important to see the interest these topics generate, and how much interest there is in the United States,” said Dag Blanck, Director of the institute and a professor in the Department of English. He mentioned a growing “Americanization of Sweden” as American culture and politics become more a part of Swedish society.

 

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