I’ve been following the Standing Rock case for several weeks because issues of infrastructure, sovereignty and localism interest me. And I’ve been seeing the innumerable check-ins to Standing Rock, North Dakota, clutter up my Facebook newsfeed, and I have a few things to say to everyone doing that.
First off, you may have been bamboozled into a hashtivism hoax regarding the check-ins. According to the Los Angeles Times, the police out there aren’t actually checking the Facebook check-in application to disrupt protestors. (How would that even work, anyway?)
Second, you’ve definitely been bamboozled into a Kony 2012-like clickbait hoax. As CNN reported, it’s not as though the entirety of the tribe or even its representative leadership is out on the fields tussling with the police and guardsmen deployed out there. There would appear to be considerable disagreements within the Standing Rock Sioux nation over whether or not the pipeline ought to cross over their lands, and they are certainly not putting up a united front.
Rather, as the CNN article reports, a large number of the protesters appear to actually hail from out of the state and out of the country (and, presumably, not all of them have Native American blood.) Inspired by the likes of Bill McKibben and other editorialists, plenty of environmentalists have entered the scene to fight for a cause they believe in: opposition to fossil fuel energy expansion. It’s not so much an issue of tribal sovereignty now — though I don’t doubt that that was once part of the debate — as it is an anti-corporate, anti-oil crusade that uses the pretext of Native American opposition to spur wider opposition. (And like all anti-oil “popular” crusades, it’s driven in part by quasi-religious environmentalist sentiment and in part by people with lots and lots of money.)
Third, you are absolutely correct that there are problems with the route and construction plan of the Dakota Access Pipeline relating to safety, public health, traditional tribal grounds and other concerns. But responsible citizens of a democracy don’t go block construction and taunt law enforcement and endanger themselves and the workers on the project — they participate in the meetings and act as responsible stakeholders to make sure those concerns are addressed, which involves a lot of hard, unsexy, non-protest work behind the scenes.
It may be that these and other options were exhausted by concerned members of the tribe and they felt they had no other recourse but to make a public spectacle. If that is the case, what’s happening right now is the result of irresponsibility on the part of the government and the Dakota Access corporation. But if that’s not the case, and the outside protesters came in with no intent of reaching a constructive agreement, and would accept nothing less than the unilateral disarmament of the pro-pipeline forces, then they’re guilty of creating a public showdown where none had existed before.
Fourth, there was absolutely negligence on the part of the energy and construction companies as well as the federal regulatory and permitting agencies in addressing the above-mentioned concerns, and all should be held accountable for it. But that doesn’t mean the project in itself is evil, pernicious and deserving of being halted. After all, look around the West. We do have Boulder, Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams, a continent-spanning spider-web of interstate highways and irrigation projects that water much of the arid side of the continent. When we built these megaprojects between the 1930s and the 1960s, all of the concerns surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and more came up; but responsible stakeholders got around them. And these projects have been broadly beneficial to everybody involved and the nation as a whole.
I’m sure there’s plenty of complicated and misunderstood legal issues surrounding the Fort Laramie Treaty and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ judgment. We can also debate for quite some time as to whether or not new energy infrastructure should be opposed on principle to discipline human beings into energy austerity and eco-friendly consumption habits. And then of course there’s the grand narrative of white supremacy.
But there’s another narrative that fits in very well here — it’s the conflict between the American way of big-government state capitalism and democratic nation-building, best epitomized by President Abraham Lincoln’s legislative program and FDR’s New Deal, versus radical localist anti-government movements across American history, utopian on the left and populist on the right.
Dakota Access and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are merely continuing a grand tradition of public-private partnership for public works in the public interest. Infrastructure, including energy infrastructure, has historically been a big part of that. And the public interest is, more or less, a well-run American nation-state boasting a productive and diverse economy, capable of standing on its own on the world stage, and serving the interests of its free citizenry. In a word, big government for the public good.
This is anathema to the pipeline protesters, who evidently think a social democratic state is compatible with and can be paid for by a non-state-capitalist economy and a low-productivity carbon-free economy.
It’s also anathema to the gun-toting Malheur Bend anti-government militia who occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year. They, as a rule, don’t like big government or big anything. Not suggesting there’s moral similarity, but frankly, the Pipeline protesters and the Bundys are opposed to the same thing — the New Deal state.
Well, I stand firmly behind the New Deal state. And that means I’m not standing in front of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in international relations. His column,“Tory Men,” runs every other Wednesday.