Friday, March 05, 2010

Fingers of smooth mastery

Snow-covered oaks. No, there's not still snow. Did I mention that my camera ate my best pictures?

Yesterday I feel like maybe I wasn't clear enough, at least when I spoke about dominant western culture. I was trying to explore the complex concept of collective guilt. I don't own slaves, I've never owned slaves, but I still believe my race bears responsibility in the larger context of history.

I feel the same way as an American. I don't agree with Osama bin Laden, but I see his point. I always have. If he believes that our empire is not just corrupt, but truly evil, then his war against us is just. We are all equally culpable. There are no innocent bystanders. As the Apostle Paul said, "There is no one righteous. No, not one."

The United States still uses 25% of the world's fossil fuels, for 5% of the world's population. How is that right by anyone's standards? And why? Why is it like that? I don't see how even the most ardent of American capitalist libertarians can justify it. They can say, "life isn't fair," which while true, doesn't answer the larger question. The reason why is because of generation upon generation of injustice. We may be all born equal, but we are not all born with equal opportunities.

Which brings up one of the many things I don't get about the whole health-care debate. What the Republicans are saying is that people who are born into poverty don't deserve the same treatment options as people who are born into wealth. If that's what they really believe, then fine. I just wish they would say it out loud.

And I understand the rage that people of the underclasses feel at that kind of injustice. I can't understand it really, not how it feels from inside, but I've seen horrible, horrible things in the cities of Manila, Calcutta, Bangkok, Dhaka, and in the outlying provinces of their countries. I feel occasional despair at the lack of options for someone of my nationality, education, social class, and with my career goals. I can only imagine how it must feel for someone without my advantages, but with a wife and hungry children.

I can understand how that rage can manifest itself as theft, violence, and even rape. Especially if we accept that rape is an act of violence, an act of war, as it’s being used in Congo, and not a sexual act at all. At a certain point, if people feel powerless enough, they will find any way they can to take violent action against the people they believe are perpetrators. My point being that crime, especially in developing countries, often isn't aimed at the victims of the crime. It's aimed at us, white Americans, imperialists and post-imperialists, colonialists and post-colonialists. It's impotent rage aimed at the climate that continues to shift in such a way as to imperil even further the livelihood of the poorest countries. All while it enriches the richest countries, making their land and crops more fertile as they warm.

I felt it in the Bahamas. Bahamians make their living from tourism, and especially in the islands closer to Florida, I could feel anger simmering under the surface. Americans come over and spend their money, fill their million-dollar boats with hundreds of gallons of gas, stock their freezers with conch and lobster and fifty-year-old grouper. We heard stories of the harbors that had been completely emptied by scuba-tank-wearing American divers, harbors that before had kept their population-bearing stock because of the natural limitations of unassisted diving. That’s just a quick snapshot of our attitude towards one neighboring country, but that's what we're systematically doing worldwide. As Bono said, "See the tuna fleets clearing the seas out..."

I'm not saying violence is a valid, or even an effective, response. Reading my book about the French Revolution certainly proved that point. Almost every step of the French Revolution was initiated by poor women who couldn't afford bread for their children, and were furious about the ridiculous wealth flaunted in their faces. But what happened every step of the way? A new group of rich people took power, and the poor continued to starve.

We're the aristocrats now, with our SUVs and our 2000-square-foot houses, and our continued cycle of consumption and waste. We've just distanced ourselves from our underclass, so they can't rise up among us and cut off our heads. We still keep slaves--they're just on the other side of the world. In some ways, our current economic crisis is just an indicator of the larger global problem of inequity. What have we been living on all these years? Other people’s money.

If our underclass united against us, if they channeled their rage into something other than random violence, they'd be able to bring down our tottering empire, no problem. Things could get a lot more apocalyptic than they are already.

No comments: