Friday, December 12, 2014

When does it stop?

There's a common horror plot where bad things happen in buildings built on a cemetery.  I'm beginning to think that building is the United States and the cemetery is or patch of North America and large slices of the rest of the world.  The story we are told of the US is one of settlement, civilization, extraction and industry.  Which it was, but that same settlement and civilization meant displacing and killing Native Americans and importing enslaved labor to do much of the heavy lifting.  The US has become the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world because it has spent centuries not paying for the labor and resources used to build it.  We continue to underpay wherever we can get away with it.

That doesn't make it uniquely evil. It's just regular garden variety.  Every empire does this. The skylines of Moscow, Paris, Rome, New York and Beijing are graced with architecture paid for by the wealth of empires. The British Museum did not get filled with the priceless art and cultural heritage of a hundred civilizations by paying cash for those exhibits. Neither did the Louvre, or the Hermitage, or the Smithsonian. Of course in the last half century or so, the museums of the world have learned to accept only donations with a provenance, to prove that if they were stolen, it was from long enough ago that there won't be any lawsuits.

It's impossible to rank the empires of history on wickedness.  How does one compare Rome's destruction of Carthage and salting the earth with the inquisition of the Spanish Empire?  Vast gulfs of time, learning or understanding, of capability and worldview separate us.  We can say that empires oppress and subjugate and conquer and loot, and that often the most successful empires have founded their empire on their proficiency at and enthusiasm for those activities.

Which is not to say progress isn't being made.  Nominally at least, the countries of the world are opposed to slavery, even the ones which practice versions of it with prison labor or guest workers.  Nominally, the countries of the world are opposed to war, until they think they can get something out of it.  Nominally the US has repudiated the concept of an aristocracy, even as we destroy the inheritance taxes critical to preventing an aristocracy from arising. Fewer and fewer countries have the death penalty. Nominally we have equal rights, even though study after study shows wildly unequal treatment of women in the workplace, of African Americans in courts and in prison, and LGBTQ individuals in all walks of life.

The disconnect between our society's ideals and its treatment of people at home and countries abroad is heartbreaking.  And I wouldn't be surprised if this realization has caused people to embrace hypocrisy and indulge in the same high minded rhetoric as our founding fathers used when they set up a new nation of liberty and equality for everyone, except men who didn't own land, women, slaves and Native Americans.

And it's hard to retain my optimism that Americans will continue to maintain and expand the protection of the law to those from whom it has historically been withheld, when the news show so many people gleefully cheering on the deaths of young African American men by police, or at the hands of armed civilians.  It's hard to accept that the revelations in the Senate report are not some horrible aberration, but rather than a return to form by a military which was all too willing to torture and massacre in, for example, Viet Nam, and the Philippines and incarcerate entire populations of Asian American citizens during WWII. And I'm having a rough week because of this shit and I can't think of an up note to wrap up with.

Anyway, if I don't write another entry before the holidays, merry solstice, merry Christmas, happy new year, happy Hanukkah, happy Saturnalia, and joyous Kwanzaa to everyone, especially those who could use some good news.