ROOM FOR ONE MORE
The Last of Deuteronomy
But you did not encroach upon the land of the Ammonites, all along the wadi Jabbok and the towns of the hill country, just as the Lord our God had commanded. Deuteronomy 2:37
Some of you will stop reading after the next sentence.
The only thing that continues to astonish me about Donald Trump is that there are still things left that astonish me about Donald Trump.
On the eve of the Fourth of July, he did the most touristy thing a person can do – he took a photo in front of Mount Rushmore that made it look like his face was among the presidents carved into that mountain. As the old saying goes among those who study the presidency, every one of them secretly thinks there is room for one more.
The expected thing to say at this moment is that two of those presidents were enslavers and that all of them were privileged in multiple ways. Also, the sculpture is an accomplishment that was achieved at the expense of the people native to that land who have, understandably, little affection for most, if not all of the four, and even less for the sculptor who defaced their mountain. Maybe I will debate another time what mitigation that should have on their accomplishments. But the point is, they had accomplishments. Washington established us as a nation. Jefferson crafted our vision. Lincoln prevented us from crumbling. Roosevelt elevated our obligation to preserve the natural world.
There are probably other presidents whose likenesses might have been a part of that frieze. I don’t think anyone would nominate Franklin Pierce or Andrew Johnson, but others of our flawed leaders contributed to the advancement of the nation in its imperfect quest for liberty and justice for all.
The Black Hills of South Dakota have been the uninterrupted home to native tribes and nations since long before the United States was a glint of an idea. Rushmore itself was known as the hill of the six grandfathers, a natural formation more obvious (in photos, at least) than the characters of the constellations. As magnificent as the artistic accomplishment is, as principled as the statement is meant to be, it is an encroachment on the land of the Lakota Sioux.
But before that? And before that? Declaring squatters’ rights on (presumed) unoccupied land seems to be a decidedly random standard that rewards longevity and inhibits free migration. There is no argument that can be made about inherent rights to land that does not appeal to a higher authority. For the Israelites, it was God. For the Sioux, it is the Great Spirit. For the United States, it is the law.
When there are competing higher authorities, the result is most often war. Most wars are fought with heavy arms and loss of life. Sometimes, wars are fought with ideas. And while it is not the case that mightier ideas are better ideas, when there is a victor, the test of that victory is the integrity of those ideas and whether they accommodate the losers.
For reasons we cannot know, the Israelites were instructed by their higher authority to respect the territorial integrity of Ammon (the capital city of which is today Amman, Jordan). It was not out of affection or alliance, and it was distinct from the confrontations with Ammon’s neighbors. The Ammonites themselves were both conquerors and vanquished among the regional tribes that claimed the land, and the instruction to avoid “encroachment” may have been out of respect or caution. But what is important is that the Israelites did not put their personal passions above their collective values.
The tribe of Ammon is long gone. Were they to show up today, I doubt that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan would cede their land back to them. But they would be justified in expecting to be accommodated, not dismissed or disparaged, and certainly not mocked.
There is no more room on Rushmore. But if there were, it would not be set aside for a man with no discernible accomplishments who cannot accommodate his opponents, dismisses the higher authority of the law and mocks those who preceded him.
Maybe I shouldn’t be astonished. But I am.