Ghost Dancing

by Lindy Davies

Lately there has been a sense of ennui in Georgist circles. A sort of a “what’s the point, we’ve tried this, we’ve tried that” attitude, a falling-off of grist in the email mills, a sort of world-weary scatteredness and fatigue. Newcomers find it perplexing. “For crying out loud!” they want to say, “This is huge! This is a program that civilization needs, now! Why the dithering?”

It’s a good question. We have been cautioned, first by Henry George himself, not to expect too much success too soon. I imagine what Chief Seattle might say, upon hearing the Georgist proposal: “You are right, of course. And the conclusions you draw from this insight are very clever. Had you come to my people with this proposal, and acted according to these values, maybe things would have gone very differently, and maybe the curse of my ancestors would not have been laid on you. But you did not — and it has been. I wish you well, but I fear that if you are sincere, the streets of this civilization will come to seem as ghastly to you as they do to those few of my people who remain.”

The Ghost Dance was a poignant, and — in the event — tragic movement among Native Americans in the early 1890s. It began with the teachings of Wovoka, the “Peace Prophet” of the Nevada Paiute in 1889, who taught that peace and harmony could be found in a program of clean living and the practice of a ritual Ghost Dance. The promised harmony quickly became, in effect, the potential to summon spiritual forces powerful enough to drive away the ‘White Man. That desperate hope, it seems, is what accounts for the practice’s rapid spread. Meanwhile, in 1890, representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in South Dakota were tasked with the difficult assignment of training the Lakota Sioux in the white man’s methods of farming — on a small fraction of the land that they had been promised by treaty. The people took to the Ghost Dance, which, mixed with Lakota mythology, acquired the magical promise to wash evil (the white people) from their lands. The millennial intensity of the Ghost Dance freaked the BIA people out. Federal troops were called in, and the Wounded Knee massacre ensued.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that today’s Georgists are about to be massacred. Indeed, we have shown nowhere near the Lakota Ghost Dancers’ level of gumption. Our chief fear, it seems, is that we will slowly and pathetically die off. Yet something akin to a ghost dance has appeared in the Georgist zeitgeist lately, and I find it disturbing.

Georgists of a variety of ages, nationalities and proclivities have recently contended that we have been too “narrow.” We’ve focused only on LVT. We’ve ignored the pivotal issue of “money monopoly” … failed to integrate our views with a nuanced understanding of macroeconomics … been deaf to the triumphal music of the Citizens’ Dividend. We’ve failed to emulate the successful tactics of the churches … the greens … the libertarians … the tea party … the ______?

Now, what I want to say here could easily be seen — and probably will be seen — as narrow-mindedness. So be it: I contend, times and tides notwithstanding, that the private landowner is “the robber that takes all that is left.” That is NOT an insight that other movements are promulgating. It may jibe with the things that some activists already know — and when it does, by all means, let’s take advantage of those connections — but its seminal importance is ours to make clear.

We’re told that we should emulate successful movements. The greens, say. All they had to start with were subtle cues like acid rain destroying forests, smog choking cities, mass extinctions, burning rivers. The women’s movement? Not much to fight there, except human rights denied to more than half of the population. The labor movement! Dawn-to-dusk wage-slaves with no Benefits didn’t need a school to teach them what their problem was. Or, to cite something a bit more modest: MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have built a thriving organization, having started with nothing but an idea — and, it must be said, a highly visible problem. But hey, let’s emulate them! How about DARE — Dads Against Rent Expropriation? Huh? Huh?

It would be wonderful to have a sure-fire strategy that we could unite behind, and march to victory. But if — as I believe — that simply isn’t yet possible, then we must carry on and do our best. This is no time for Ghost Dancing. Our job is too important. Our understanding should not waver or be compromised by the temptation to align ourselves with reformers who’ve set their set their sights on the Lesser Robbers. Those reformers mean well, bless them — and their success will strengthen the landowners.

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