Gods, Ghosts, And Superstitions

by Phil Rockstroh

September 22, 2003


We have the temerity to claim we speak for the dead. We have the hubris to claim we speak for God.

We claim the dead want vengeance. If they do -- it is, perhaps, against those who claim to know what their wishes might be.

"We are God's 'chosen' people," claim some (and these claimants proclaim that this status has conferred upon them the right to claim the real-estate of their neighbors). This causes others to claim that they have been chosen by God to kill those infidels who make the aforementioned claim -- and still others to make the claim that they have been chosen by God to kill those who kill in God's name, because they are certain that they are the sole beneficiaries of his private confidences.

All of which might led one to conclude that God is a homicidal maniac with a possible secondary diagnosis of multiple personality disorder.

At this point, reading the admission chart of the case history of that murderous, collective delusion called History, one might aver to diagnose the obvious: There is only one thing we can be certain of: And that is: All those who are certain they speak for God's wants, whims, and desires are certainly insane themselves.

And the same might be said for those who claim to speak for the dead.

If the innocent dead of the eleventh of September, 2001 were to rise from lower Manhattan, as well as from the irradiated ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from the death camps of mid-century Europe, from the all killing fields from Cambodia to Wounded Knee, from occupied Palestine, Iraq and Tibet, rising with the victims of the slave trade, of the homicidal madness of Maoism and Stalinism (even of its most recent, mutant strain, dubbed neo-conservatism) -- joining with the risen ranks of coal miners (who were as good as murdered by having their bodies broken by inhuman labor and suffocated by lungs atrophied by black coal dust) -- to all lives cut short by de facto slave labor practices from "Gilded Age" capitalism to the global "free market" dominance of post-liberalism -- they would need to speak nary a word to us.... Their sheer numbers would stagger us with shame and would finally silence the obscenity of our attributions as what their desires might be.

The dead would have no need to ask us why -- because we already know. The dead are most eloquent in their silence -- because we are so clumsy in our casuistry. Wordlessly, they would call in doubt everything we believe ourselves to be. Most of us have committed a million murders by habitually turning our addled attentions elsewhere. We know it too. The knowledge of our complicity in the unspeakable is hidden in those myriad moments when we have the feeling that... "something is missing" in our lives... What is missing is the exclusion of the full-spectrum of knowledge of what is like to be human, a systemic suppression (both personal and collective) of the knowledge of the vast cosmos of cruelty that resides, in equal measure, athwart our capacity for expansive compassion within us all.

Dante said Limbo (that quiet suburban community ringing Hell) was a place reserved for those who would choose neither good nor evil. But I don't suspect Dante was speaking in the simplistic terms appropriated by the likes of George W. Bush; Dante was in need of the services of that unrepentant pagan Virgil as a navigator and guide through darker regions of human existence; I don't believe anywhere in his epic narrative, Dante proclaimed to Virgil, "You're either for us or against us."

All human beings have a talent for the denial of the more unpalatable aspects of ourselves, but we Americans have turned it into a form of collective genius. One has to stand in awe at the death of and perpetual resurrection of our self-anointed innocence.... From the black smoke and charred corpses of Pearl Harbor, Tokyo, and Dresden, to the pink mist of John Kennedy's blasted brain matter in Dallas, to the jungle mist and mud of Vietnam, to the gray clouds of political corruption, dark as the five o'clock shadow, shading Nixon's jowls, that descended on Washington DC in the early nineteen seventies, then to the occluding cloud of sudden death that returned in the choking black smoke and charred corpses in Oklahoma city, Lower Manhattan, and Baghdad -- we Americans are always proclaiming ourselves mystified by the loss of our "innocence." We believe we stand blameless upon sacred soil, soil composted with corpses of slaughtered Indians and watered with the sweat and tears of African slaves. Upon this soil, we offer a collective prayer -- that being, of course, a ritualistic salesmen's tap dance.... and behold... arose fertile farmland, thriving towns, bustling cities, productive factories, teeming shopping malls -- as well as the concomitant arrival of a surpassing sense of entitlement to prosperity for us Americans in perpetuity. We see ourselves as Lambs of God, shepherded by the golden hand of Horatio Alger when in actuality, given the bloody ground we stand upon and our talents for self-invention and relentless salesmanship, the quintessential American is closer to Mary Kay, accessorized with a Gatlin gun.

If confronted by the shades of a million dead Indians and African slaves, how would we explain ourselves to them? "Don't you see that you had to die to make us prosperous in order that we could become a bright and steady beacon of freedom for the entire world?"

In all our shining innocence, we are the only nation ever to have used weapons of mass destruction. If confronted with the ghosts of the dead civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how would we explain ourselves to them? "Sorry, but a powerful point had to made. You see... we had to show that rapacious Russian bear that she best stay in the woods, because now we are in possession of a really, really big gun... Or: Would we might just say, "oops, these things happen -- I'm sure you understand."

And what about the innocent dead of Afghanistan and Iraq, those who were killed by imprecise human beings welding "precision" weapons. One is tempted to rage -- that only stupid people can believe in the existence of smart bombs.

And as long as we are hoisting our high-flown banners of slaughtered innocence avenged: What exactly were the civilians of Afghanistan and Iraq guilty of? Are we ignorant or insane enough to believe a bomb (even a so-called "smart" one) can distinguish innocence from guilt?

A bomb does kill innocently. A truly smart bomb would be able to distinguish the innocent from the guilty.... The problem with this being -- it would be a Frankenstein Bomb.... To exterminate the truly guilty it would first have to blow to bits its creators.... Then it would go after the soulless bastards who order its use.... Smart bombs would be flying into Paul Wolfowitz's and Donald Rumsfeld's front doors as thick and fast as the moths towards a burning porch light on a warm summer night.

What we need are less smart bombs and a more intelligent citizenry. Recent public opinion surveys have shown that close to seventy percent of the population of the United States does not believe in the theory of evolution (curiously about the same percentage who believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the September Eleven terrorist attacks) -- but believes that the so-called "virgin birth" was a literal event and believes, as well, in the literal existence of the Devil -- if not Hobbits and Dwarves, and, most likely, the Jolly Green Giant, the Wicked Witch of the West and Frosty the Snow Man.

How did this happen? What could have caused this abandonment of reason and the wholesale adoption of ignorant superstition? How did we leave the Twentieth Century and blunder back to the Fourteenth? Is this type of hocus-pocus, hoodoo, and religious legerdemain necessary to keep an increasingly harried, stressed-out, over-worked populace from rising from their cubicles and demanding a system which offers more depth, meaning and resonance than Corporate Hegemony can provide?

Is this how we became so passive and benumbed -- because the life we are offered and have accepted within the consumer paradigm is so limiting in its possibilities, it being a system that occludes and eventually destroys the natural world (both external and internal)? Is this the reason we seem so dim -- because our imaginations have been so suppressed that it now rises as a living nightmare of literalization? Perhaps, Americans don't believe in evolution -- due to the fact we no longer believe that meaningful change can occur. And, perhaps, we believe in the literal existence of a soul-collecting devil -- because we know that we have lost our essential selves to a mysterious force that seems beyond our control... Having been seduced by the illusions of Corporate Capitalism (a false mythos that tantalizes us with promises of freedom but instead shackles us in exploitive labor and mind-numbing consumerism) we know we have made an ill-advised bargain with some dark force that has robbed us of our humanity. We know (maybe ineffably) what we have lost -- an essential, life-enhancing element in ourselves that lives vividly in the present while it pays homage to the dead by dreaming of and striving for a better world for their descendants to dwell in. We believe our souls are imperiled by the devil, because, on some level of awareness, we realize we have forsaken our ability to experience a life imbued by meaning, depth and resonance due to our systematic suppression of those vital parts of ourselves that might work towards creating a future that would contain greater possibilities than the diminished and shriveled pickings of the present. We fear the licking flames of hell, I suspect, because we realize we have sold our souls at fire sale prices.

The dead are eloquent in their silence. It is up to us to speak up for the powerless, to strive to deny the soul-robbers their quarry, to block the path of the world-destroyers, to confront the respectable murders who promise us safety and security -- but will deliver us to slaughter.

The dead can only say to us: "Don't add unnecessarily to our ranks -- you will all be joining us sooner or later."

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America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Phil Rockstroh on Swans (with bio).

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Published September 22, 2003
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