by John Steppling
"And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, 'Boil there, you offspring of the devil!' Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby. They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim's neck, saying, 'Go now, carry the message,' meaning, take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains. They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them..."
—Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1542
(Swans - October 24, 2005) I start with this paragraph from the journals of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the 16th century defender of Indian rights in the New World, and a witness to the devastation of the Island of Hispanola (now Cuba). I start with this because the topic phrase "What Have We Become" suggests perhaps we were once something better. Clearly, this is not so. Are we speaking of just the U.S.? Then we can reference slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. The dropping of the A-Bomb and the fire-bombing of Dresden. We can point today to the Texas death house, where only a short month or so ago a possibly innocent woman was executed. If we speak of mankind in general, then we find even more atrocities to point toward: Torquemada, Hitler, and Attila the Hun; the British suppression of the Mau Maus and King Leopold in the Belgium Congo. These are obvious points, perhaps, but the essential truth here is that we have NOT become better. We are still brutish, sadistic, pathological, and collectively ill. So, what have we become? Answer: Not Better.
So, is there nothing to say, then? No, I think what is different today is the rise of the mass man. What I find today is a more rationalized form of sadism. The system of domination is better oiled and runs more smoothly and is more effective. The populace is more asleep -- and on some counts this is good, but on most it is simply another contributing factor in the growing collective suicide of Homo sapiens.
The advances in technology have not brought sanity, but instead have brought more oppression. Yes, there are medical achievements we can applaud, for those who can afford them. Still, the overriding sense one feels today is that of mediation at the hands of an authority structure that is running in hyperspeed. Even the advances we applaud have a shadow beside them; for while they bring prosperity or good health to many, they also grind many more, further into the mud and muck. The system is adept at keeping invisible those victimized by its machinery. People of the advanced West are so asleep and so narcotized and fat and toxic that they simply no longer see what is in front of them.
Societies need secrecy and stealth in order to oppress and cheat. They must slink along like vipers at midnight and carry off and feed on the most unprotected and defenseless. The armies of the world are robotic and insane, mostly, and increasingly seem to embody a very tangible form of the death wish. Hurricane Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Camp Gitmo, plans for mini-nukes and Creationism in schools -- this is not a happy society.
Our fall from grace -- our separation from the mother -- our lifelong yearning for a return to completion -- our fundamental sublimating selves have never managed to rise above the predatory and venal. Societies and politics only reflect this. What have we become? We have not become other than what we always were, and that is the tragedy. The U.S. is now a template for the madness that promises to engulf the planet. A culture of cyborgs, of zombies, who compulsively and with growing intensity stagger toward mental paralysis. Is it an unconscious self loathing that is reflected in backing a Hillary Clinton? A George Bush? A John Kerry? I suspect so. Our society has less and less "time" for its populace to spend on idle activities or reflection. Longer hours and less pay, more stress and the need for more justification. "We" are the best, "We" are the richest, etc., etc., etc. At what point is such talk meaningless? (It long ago became demonstrably incorrect.) Ortega y Gasset once wrote how animals respond more directly to the exterior, that they respond to stimuli around them, and when the stimulation stops, they simply go to sleep. Man once slept better, as life was simpler. Today we live in a terminal state of anxiety and suffer near total insomnia. We seem unable to step back and look inward, even for a minute. In the U.S., as of 2003, one in eight lived beneath the poverty line. That's roughly double the numbers for Western Europe. The U.S. leads the world in per capita prison population and we have the highest murder rate. We also, as a nation, kill the most people in other countries. We do this in the name of progress and out of a nerve-bending white-hot brain-melting fear. We fear everything.
So, what have we become? We have become zombies. That is the best single image I can come up with. We are programmed by marketing and a religion of profit. Distraction from ourselves is such an acute need that without it we go berserk. The numbers of those "going postal" increases each day, and the cracks in the patina of sanity grow wider. The Western turn toward "reason" has become a principle of domination and control. The inequality all around us is simply not seen by most Americans. If someone points out that Cheney is living off blood money, hundreds of millions made off the suffering of others, most Americans respond by wishing THEY were Cheney -- NOT by asking for a stop to the suffering and exploitation.
Night of the Living Dead! It is now Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead and everything in between. Zombies. Blind, thoughtless, and narcotized. Is there hope? I don't know. For America, I doubt it. For the planet, maybe. The beginning of that hope is a stark and total refusal to accept any (ANY) of the madness of this system. Don't look for compromise. Don't expect change from those guys in expensive suits. Don't tolerate an ideology of exploitation and inequality.
How to do that?
I don't know. I would think it starts with just turning away from the spectacle. Turn away. Turn away and start walking, fast.