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The Genius of America, Or How the Ghosts of Colonialism Live in Me

I have been thinking a lot about collective addiction. The pervasiveness of society level intoxicants and delusions. How so much of modern life under globalization runs counter to the Buddhist precepts.

This seems particularly true regarding the fifth precept of not taking intoxicants.  So many of us drunk on the belief that we are separate and above the rest of the natural world. So many of us drunk on the power of being able to manipulate our environment, to take from the land, water, and air whatever it is we think we need for how long it is we think we need it. without consequence. Or with consequences we somehow rationalize – from that deluded state of power – as being “manageable.”

The collective delusion of separation from the planet only heightens the mistaken view that “I” am totally independent from everyone, and everything, else around me.  It’s just that much easier to keep believing in delusions about the self, when nearly your entire society believes, and acts, as if it is superior and/or unrelated to the plants, animals, soil, rocks, and bones. So, too, is it easier for majority groups to maintain beliefs in the power-over narratives of racism, sexism, classism, and the rest, when nearly the entire way in which you fuel your societies is based upon a power-over narrative towards the Earth.

Much of the modern world has become essentially a haunted house. A body/mind that endlessly seeks to satiate cravings that are impossible to satiate. A body/mind that is a powerhouse when it comes to producing suffering. Those of the Buddha’s day never had to consider things like nuclear implosion, drone warfare, 24/7 media propaganda, or globalized environmental destruction.

In a handful of centuries, colonialism in it’s various forms has brought hungry ghosts realms to an entirely unprecedented level. Entire nations are fueled, literally and metaphorically, by efforts to satiate cravings. In the name of “progress” and “economic growth,” humans manipulate the gene patterns of our food supply, and poison entire ecosystems for some oil or natural gas. In the name of “security,” we efficiently kill those we perceive as “immediate threats,” incarcerate large portions of populations deemed “dangerous”, and oppress the rest that aren’t behind actual bars.

For over a decade, I have been trying to write something about how all of this knowledge lives in me. How I, personally, feel haunted, and also the related dreams I sometimes have. Prose doesn’t seem to cut it. It feels too rational, rule bound, almost haunted itself by a desire for more words. An impossible number of words.

And so, I offer you this poem instead. May it offer something to the conversation above, and may it stand on its own as well.

 

The Genius of America

“Those new regions which we found and explored with the fleet …
may we rightly call them a New World.”

Amerigo Vespucci, early 1500s

1.

It begins with the name. America. Gift
of a German cartographer to an Italian merchant
following a voyage that never occurred.

Back in elementary school, we were taught
how to worship the lies that followed.

Take our color crayons and markers,
claim the United States blue,
Russia red,
China yellow,
and everywhere else,
well whatever suited us
was just fine.

2.

The murdered.
Whispering, waking the living,
again and again,
asking for directions home.

Unable to sleep,
I run to the field with my hoe,
try to turn away
the hard, cracked soil
under a bright, bright moon,
only to find it here too:
the sound of one hand,
a clapping of grief
shaking every last
tree leaf.

3.

Whose spirit is this? Whose voice? Whose words
in my ear,

Tell me. Tell me the story
of the boy and girl who were taken away
from home and given,
for all their losses,
a beating
a new set of clothing,
and a language
not their own.

Surely, she knows the way, she knows the way

Home,

Surely, he knows the way, he knows the way

Back home,

Home. I long for a drink of home.

What is home?
What can be home in this world that we have built?

I will listen. I will close my eyes
on the world and just listen.

4.

The men the sea swallowed sing
another song. They, who sailed
across the Atlantic in search of riches
and discovered instead, its bottom,
rise with the moon,
moan throughout the long, long night,

Together, they chant
Who are we?
Who are we?
Who are we?

5.

“The New Englanders are A People of God settled in those which
were once the Devil’s Territories.”

Cotton Mather, 1702

They say capitalism is godless,
given to worshipping paper
and all that it can bring.

How quickly some of us wish
to till the soil of history into tidy gardens,
free of thistles, nettles,
and heavenly thorns.

6.

Like a body whose outline
has had to be penciled in,
America floats along on an image
part god, part genius
of deliberate forgetfulness.

Given Nature, America shook it, took it,
and then purged us of it.

Those who didn’t go along were drugged,
maimed, annihilated, or placed
in prisons of various kinds.

Not too much has changed.
Yesterday’s genocide is today’s oil pipeline;
for those who think there’s nothing to lose,
black gold is always everywhere.

7.

If America is good at anything, it’s sustaining
something that’s unsustainable.

8.

“History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.”
Ronald Reagan, mid-1980s

That’s the genius of America.
Creating divisions. Separations.
Wars where none were really there before.
White supremacy. Slavery. Patriarchy.
Anti-gay. Trickle down society.
America yells at others
to tear down their walls
and get along,
but the price of aggression has always been cheap
enough
for America
to keep on building them itself.

9.

Fireworks. Liberation from,
we speak of liberation from
suffering,
England,
the ghosts of colonialism past.
What about now?
How do you bring about
liberation now
when we seem to have so many answers
as to what it is
we’re trying to get liberated from?

10.

Listen! Listen!
Listen to the whispers
that surround us,
no longer soft enough
to be mistaken for
the errant cries of crows.

It begins with a name.
It always begins with a name.
A lexicon
really.

Not the one that was given, no
scratch that, forced upon
so many of us,
but one that is chosen,
realized slowly,
brewed in a collective pot
like the very best green tea.

Let’s sit together in silence,
and tell each other
our most intimate stories.

The nightmare is nearly over,
The nightmare has just begun,
either way
we’ll go out trying
to build what never was
anew.

Comments (7)

  • Bezi

    *sigh*

    yup.

    “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures… There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensible to it.”

    Sigmund Freud really broke the whole thing down about society’s unsustainable madness in Civilization and its Discontents. I can see why his critique didn’t make it into modern discourse as thoroughly as it deserved to. Sure, some of his theories have been disproven and rightfully and helpfully so. But this is painful stuff he’s dispensing – that essentially Western civilization is to an extent cursed and doomed. It’s like: blaow. There it is.

    Steven Dedalus called it, I think. The issue is to awaken from the nightmare of history.

    no small task. Yikes!

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “Steven Dedalus called it, I think. The issue is to awaken from the nightmare of history.” No doubt.

    I’d forgotten how brilliant some of what Freud wrote is. I remember reading some of his essays and thinking “if this guy hadn’t gotten so hung up on sex …,” but he just couldn’t shake the Victorian cloak, sexism and all. He also tried too hard to tie everything up in a neat bow, instead of letting the mess of the modern world be on display for everyone to learn from. But quotes like this one are worth bringing back to light. Thank you.

  • Bezi

    I had too. I read some of Civilization a long time ago and lost interest partway through because I couldn’t see the evidence of what he was saying all around me like I do today. But every time I witness people trying to grapple with what’s going on today, at every imaginable level, seems to me we’re ALL discontent. And then some. There are a lot of distinctions we need to make in our time, it seems to me, in what is relevant in knowledge and wisdom systems from the past… and for what reasons. A lot can be learned from disentangling the more enduring truths from thoughts that are biased by regressive cultural norms prevailing in any given time of soothsaying.

  • nathan

    ” But every time I witness people trying to grapple with what’s going on today, at every imaginable level, seems to me we’re ALL discontent. ”

    Makes me wonder, in light of your recent post, if the discontent of today is merely a different flavor of that from the past. Perhaps it’s more prevalent in each of our lives, or perhaps it’s just that with more of us on the planet, it’s just generally ramped up exponentially.

    “There are a lot of distinctions we need to make in our time, it seems to me, in what is relevant in knowledge and wisdom systems from the past… and for what reasons.” I feel like this is happening. People are doing this. But of course, not the majority. I’ll have to dig out that Freud book again.

  • Bezi

    well you know Nagarjuna gave us, I think, a pretty useful way of understanding this kind of thing with Absolute and Relative truth. If absolute truth is universal and unchanging and relative truth is ephemeral and situational (and these are all just words that are limited in what they express), then I think it’s both. At the relative level of truth (i.e. ‘now’ materially compared to ‘then’), there’s an exponential aspect to discontent, largely conditioned by communications technology that never existed before and which makes the world seem much smaller and more interconnected. Zoom out the lens to the absolute view of things, the bigger picture, and it’s kind of like something Janis Joplin said: “it’s all the same f**** day.” (lol) Time… what is “time”?

  • Bezi

    um. I should probably back this statement up a little:

    http://buddhism.about.com/od/mahayanabuddhism/a/The-Two-Truths.htm

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