Archive for category Genocide
We talk about human rights as being extremely important. People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights. Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties. We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.
But what are human rights? How are they determined? Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc. In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live. They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter. Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.
Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics. Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human. To be human, one must be alive. To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself. That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live. This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.
That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property. Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property. As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get. Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition. So clearly there is no objective need for private property.
More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature. In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions. Nothing more. Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights. But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected. We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”
Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions. Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights. The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context. This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)
If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian. This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear. We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.
So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms. However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society. And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.
So maybe the key is to look into our hearts. What makes us cringe? What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive? What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives? Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions. This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment. Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.
The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable. That’s a start. As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.
The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor. We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights. From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.
The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining. To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast. However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS. Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.
When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world. President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy. So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.
Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path. President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012. President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.
When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely. It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control. The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government. Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning. Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force. Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.
Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad. But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.
The US cannot defeat ISIS alone. The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power. But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem. The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.
The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court. The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.
NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around. Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki. Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.
The rest of the world needs to step up too. Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS. This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe. Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense. This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.
With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization. Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism. ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.
So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West. That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered. But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.
Paul Kagame thinks so – or at least he made a case for it Monday as Rwanda marked twenty years since the outbreak of perhaps the most horrific genocide of history.
Within 100 days over 800,000 were killed, nearly three quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in Rwanda.
Rwanda had been colonized the Belgians who took a minor social distinction – whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi – and turned it into a way to privilege some over others. Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried and got along peacefully for centuries. Now the Belgians claimed the Tutsis were “more evolved” and thus were entrusted with positions of privilege and power. They helped run the colony for the Belgians, and soon looked down at the “lower” Hutus.
It wasn’t just Belgian racism, but also a rather smart way to keep a colony under control. The Tutsis were the minority, and thus had to rely on the Belgians for protection and support. Alas, once democracy and independence came, the Hutu majority quickly grabbed all power and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of mistreatment. This led to protected conflict for over three decades before Hutu extremists decided the final solution would be to simply eliminate all Tutsis from Rwanda.
They did not fear western intervention. After all, a year earlier the US left Somalia after 18 army Rangers were killed when their black-hawk helicopter went done. As their bodies were dragged through the streets Americans were furious that US military personnel were even over there. In any event, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the time, and it could gauge whether or not the UN had the stomach to intervene.
It almost worked. The UN had 3500 troops there to implement the Arusha accords designed to create a power sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis, but when the genocide began all but about 400 of those troops were pulled out. The US and UK wanted a complete withdrawal – UN blue helmet forces are not supposed to remain if there is no more peace to keep – but the UN mission commander General Romeo Dallaire refused to leave, since that would mean certain death to over 30,000 people under UN protection.
The story line usually goes like this: Dallaire begged for UN intervention to save Rwanda, the UN refused, and thus his small force with virtually no supplies could only protect a small portion of Tutsis. Salvation came when General Paul Kagame’s RPF – Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis who had fled Rwanda after independence – invaded from Uganda and defeated the Rwandan military – the RPG. This shameful acceptance of the fastest genocide in history – one undertaken with guns and machetes at close range by large groups of Hutus, especially teens – was justified by saying the Rwandan government had no control and the Interhamwe militia was doing the damage. In reality, the military and Interhamwe worked together. France in fact supported and even supplied the Rwandan military during the three month genocide.
But here’s what Kagame said in his speech:
Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state. Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up. We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate, with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood. We could have allowed the country to be physically divided, with groups deemed incompatible assigned to different corners. We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated. But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.
It appears that Kagame is saying that if the UN had intervened, it could now be a failed state – that it would have been impossible to create the kind of future Rwandans now consider possible – one where ethnicity no longer is supposed to matter, and the Rwandans are one people.
To be sure, Kagame’s government talks a better game than it walks. Ethnic Tutsis dominate, there are human rights abuses, corruption, and no viable opposition. Some consider Kagame a dictator, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Yet given the conditions Rwanda found itself in twenty years ago, on going Hutu extremism based in the Congo, and the need to create a foundation for a long term peace, it would be wrong to judge too harshly. After all, too quick a move to total democracy can be a disaster if a country is not ready.
More intriguing is the possibility that while the motives were wrong, UN inaction actually was better for Rwanda. A quick brutal climax to a century of ethnic hostility and violence might be what Rwanda needed to create conditions where they could move beyond the damage done by the European colonizers. Yes 800,000 died, but if the UN had stopped the genocide early, how many would be continually dying in on going ethnic strife?
I don’t know. To me Rwanda has always been a classic case proving that sometimes military intervention is justifiable – that humanity must agree to say “never again” to genocide, and act forcefully to stop it. I still believe that – but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures, creating conflicts where none had existed. It’s worth thinking about.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
– Yoda, Jedi Knight
Being asked to participate in a panel discussion about 9-11 Monday has caused me to reflect on what that event means ten years on. There are many directions I could take in analyzing the impact of 9-11. What does security mean in an age where technology allows a small group armed with only box cutters to alter the course of the world’s greatest power? Did Bin Laden succeed in causing us to react in ways that harmed our country and the world economy? Is there such a thing as a ‘war on terror,’ and if so, is anyone winning?
But as I reflect, it strikes me that the real lesson is more basic, it’s in the emotions that the events of 9-11 evoked in the public. The strongest were love and fear. I have a theory that most people’s personalities can be explained by the way they handle love and fear. Those with the most fear are distrustful of others, angry at life, and often feel that they are victims of some kind of conspiracy. Those with the most love are helpful, giving and open. Too much love without fear opens one up to being abused and taken advantage of; too much fear and one lives a life of depression and bitterness.
By love I don’t mean romantic love, or even the love one has for family and friends. Love at its purest is the sense that links us as humans. It is what caused New Yorkers to help each other out and comfort each other on that horrific day. It is the connection two people felt on that day when their eyes met and they realized they were sharing the same shock and grief. It is what brought the country together to celebrate American values, it is what caused us to cry at the stories of tragedy and heroism, and feel for those who lost loved ones. That sense of love also created a hole in our hearts as we looked at Manhattan burning. Even if we had never been there, we connected. Similar emotions were felt around the globe as they always are in times of tragedy — love is the core instinct that brings us to want to help and identify with others in times of trouble. It is real and the most pure of human emotions. It cuts through the fog of diverse perspectives, ideologies, politics and religion — it is the recognition that as humans we are linked.
Fear emerges when one believes that the very things that bring stability and order to life are under threat. Fear is important to survival. Our cat has a fear of brooms. Get a broom out and he goes into hiding. No matter what treats are offered or if the broom gets put away, that fear lingers for awhile, until he’s convinced things are safe. For humans fear is similar but due to our complex societies the base reaction to a sense of danger (such as an attack by a sabre tooth tiger) gets applied to social conditions that are more abstract and symbolic.
Shortly after the attacks I heard of how Arabs, Sri Lankans, and people from India were being beat up or intimidated by Americans who thought them a threat. At that point I realized that fear was unleashing the worst of what we are capable of doing. When President Bush called Islam a “religion of peace,” I was shocked to hear countless pundits attack the President and defame a great world religion, trying to associate its one billion adherents to that small pocket of radical extremists represented by Bin Laden. Fear causes one to imagine dangers far greater than they are, and abstract them to whole groups of people, nations, ideologies or religions. Fear allows bizarre rationalizations of what otherwise would be unthinkable. Genocide, war crimes and cruelty are driven by fear.
9-11-01 brought out fear as well as love. Suddenly people felt vulnerable, the images were intense, the perpetrators both strange and yet inconspicuous. Would they strike again? Where and how? We didn’t know. Anthrax, small pox, poisoning of water supplies and chemical warfare dominated discussion. Fear reigns in conditions of uncertainty and ignorance.
Shortly after 9-11 students contacted me saying that they were impressing family and friends with their knowledge of Bin Laden, chemical and biological weapons and Islamic extremism — all from my World Politics class, where these themes were touched on years before 9-11-01. The fact I’d been worried about these issues, and on visiting cities like New York and Washington always thought about the possibility of terrorism just as one thinks of earth quakes in California, made 9-11 less of a shock. For people who thought all was secure and safe, the shock evoked a stronger sense of danger. What other unexpected threats are out there?
After 9-11-01 I started studying Islamic religion and history, since it was clear that many were defining the attack as the opening act of a war between Islam and the West. The more I learned about Islam, the clearer it became that like almost all religions it was focused on good, but had portions that could be used to arose anger and violence. It is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism, and certainly Islamic culture can’t be seen as more violent than that of the West — a culture that has given us colonialism, nuclear weapons and world wars. Over time as a society we went from knee jerk fear to perspectives tempered with more knowledge and understanding.
Consider: Since 3000 people were killed on 9-11, only 33 people have been killed in the US by Islamic extremists. During that same time there were 150,000 murders and 350,000 traffic fatalities. By any rational measure one should fear their car more than Islam! But uncertainty still intervenes — there are Islamic extremists out there, and they can strike again.
So ten years after I’d say that the biggest lesson from that horrific attack is the power of love to unify us, and the danger of fear to get us to act against our values. We showed both. In the time just after the attack I think at times fear trumped love — the treatment of the Dixie Chicks, the journalist Chris Hedges being booed off the stage when he gave a commencement address critical of US policy in Iraq, and admonishings to “watch what you say.” That’s declined as we’ve learned more and worked through the wars and controversies of the last ten years.
But the love that brought us together has also declined. The politics have become more petty and personal, with emotion and demonization replacing a sense of trying to come together to solve problems.
Societies may be like individuals. Too much fear and they become aggressive, afraid of self-criticism, arrogant and unable to cooperate with others. Learning from the strengths and weaknesses learned from 9-11 and its aftermath will help us keep a proper balance as we face future crises and threats. The best way to limit fear to its rational and protective functions is to avoid ignorance and try to limit uncertainty. Fearmongers probably driven by their internal demons, feed on ignorance, emotion and uncertainty to try to push people to embrace hatred and violence.
Clearly there are threats. There are evil doers like Bin Laden, so blinded by fear and hate that they can rationalize mass destruction. The power of love — us recognizing our common humanity and coming together to be more than what we could be separately is the best protection against folk like that. Fear tempered by knowledge and understanding will help us measure how to respond to threats.
Last night we watched the film Gandhi, the 1982 classic starring Ben Kingsley. I haven’t seen the film since it came out almost thirty years ago, but shortly into it I recall how inspiring the person and message of Gandhi was to me when I first saw it, and then subsequently read more about the great spiritual teacher.
His message was clear: love is truth, and truth ultimately is more powerful than hate, fear and anger, which are untruths. When confronted with “untruth” it is best to respond with truth. That is not passive resistance but active non-violent resistance. Violence and anger only increases the scope and depth of the violence, and ultimately reinforces the problems one is trying to confront.
Gandhi also had real respect for all faiths. He was close friends with Muslims, Christians and of course fellow Hindus. He saw truth in the core teachings of each, even if the humans professing those faiths often veered from them. He was fond of quoting the New Testament and when asked about Christianity at one point he said he only wished Christians were more like their Christ.
I’ve always believed that life is at base spiritual. What matters is the spirit, the flesh is simply a vehicle which we are using in this limited existence to learn lessons and have some fun. All of that requires cooperation — we learn with help from others, we help others learn. We enjoy life and have fun with others. That is a view that helps me stay grounded, especially if material and daily concerns get intense. Ultimately the “stuff” of the world doesn’t matter, the spirit does. I’ve internalized that view and believe that right or wrong it helps me live with a bit less stress, an easier time forgiving others (and myself) and perspective about the world in which I find myself.
Which brings me to Libya. I’ve always found Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance to be powerful, and his argument that violence begets violence persuasive. I’ve not supported US foreign policy, especially military actions, for as long as I can remember. Whether Clinton in Bosnia or Kosovo or Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed to me that violence did more harm than good.
I don’t believe in coincidence (that comes from my spiritual world view). The fact that I’ve generally supported intervening in Libya coincides with the unexpected arrival of Gandhi from netflix. That leads me to rethink my view on the conflict.
Ambiguity about the use of military action for humanitarian purposes has been something I’ve always grappled with. As former German foreign minister Joshka Fischer said, “no more war, but no more Auschwitz.” President Obama cited Bosnia, but to me Rwanda is the strongest case for intervention. Ever since teaching about the details of that genocide, with students reading Romeo Dallaire’s book and myself obsessed for awhile with gathering the details and arguments around that event, it seemed to me that the international community simply let the Hutus slaughter 800,000 Tutsis when a well equipped international force could have ended the violence.
Following the news of the non-violent revolt in Egypt, and then hearing about protests growing in Libya, my reaction to the news that Gaddafi was using mercenaries to brutally terrorize citizens and then taking heavy military equipment to bombard them and promise that his attack on Benghazi would show “no pity and no mercy” was emotional. My anger at a dictator who for over 40 years stole the oil wealth of his country to sponsor terrorism, train mercenaries, engage in foreign policy adventurism in Africa and brutally repress his people turned into contempt. When someone of such obvious evil clings to wealth and power by threatening massive death and destruction, how can the world stand by? When now Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire called for intervention, comparing the case directly to Rwanda, that intensified my emotional desire to see NATO hit back. When the UN Security Council approved military intervention, making it a legal action driven by humanitarian concerns, it seemed to me the right thing to do.
In terms of national interest it also seems to make sense; the region is changing, this will help get the US on the right side of change and undercut the ability of al qaeda or extremists to guide the future of the Arab world. Moreover, it is a true multi-lateral action, while Iraq was clearly a US-UK action with small states going along in exchange for favors. This might put the US on the side of cooperative efforts to secure the peace rather than what appears to be neo-imperial efforts to control world affairs. It takes President Bush’s idealistic but likely accurate belief that democratic change and modernism is needed in that region and supports those in the region who want to make it happen.
Yet, thinking about Gandhi, I realize that as strong as those emotion beliefs are, they carry with them a veil of abstraction. Military action is easy to talk about, but it kills people, including innocents — there has never been a clean intervention. Moreover, if Gaddafi had subdued the rebels, perhaps a lot less life would be lost overall, and the international community could still do things like boycott Libyan oil, freeze assets, and essentially deny the Libyan leader the right to act effectively on the world economic stage, pushing him to choose to leave on his own — he is in his eighties after all.
Though my world view is essentially spiritual, I don’t think the material world is useless. Even Augustine distinguished between what he called the “city of man” and the “city of God,” and the definition of violence is arbitrary. Structural violence is as real in its impact as is actual use of force; to focus on only one as wrong is arbitrary whim. Yet in this case I come to the conclusion that the emotional desire to strike led me to be too willing to rationalize military force, and that it would have been better to let Gaddafi take back the country and then use other means to try to bring about change. The post-Ottoman world is still scared by 600 years of military dictatorship followed by corruption and ruthless leaders. Adding more death and destruction may well do more harm than good.
I grew up in South Dakota. I learned early about Indians, and Indian reservations. Indians were drunks, lazy, not to be trusted, and unmotivated. In history, they were the enemy, the ones who butchered George Custer at the Little Big Horn, and who lived like savages as the civilized white people settled the country. The indians, I learned, were subhuman.
To be sure, it wasn’t put in so many words. That’s the thing about bigotry. Bigots find rationalizations for their beliefs, and will often try to distance themselves from the obvious implications by finding other causes. It’s the reservation system, weakness of local governance, or genetic inabilities to deal with alcohol, stress, and the like. Having driven through both the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota, I recall being shocked by the scenes of abject poverty and apparent isolation.
Pine Ridge is the “poorest county in America,” with some estimates that alcoholism and unemployment are both near 90%. The reservation has high suicide rates, particularly among teens, and when it made alcohol illegal on the reservation, many people took to buying lysol and mixing it with water. A cheap and very dangerous high. Others have compared conditions there with North Korea or other places of utter despair. But most people don’t even know the problem exists. This is America, we can afford to spend $1 trillion to fight to “liberate Iraq,” or to bail out the automobile industries. We can pay cash for clunkers. But we can’t help the Oglala Sioux, part of the Lakota Nation.
One commone excuse is the claim that we simply can’t interfer. There is a certain level of sovereignty maintained by the tribe thanks to treaties with the US government. These treaties are sacred trusts, and they define territory that falls under Sioux jurisdiction. To be sure, these sacred trusts were easily brushed aside a century ago to take the Black Hills back, once gold was discovered there. Yet neglect cannot be blamed solely on treaty obligations. Americans put a lot of time and effort in supporting the Sudanese or Tibetans, but neglect what are arguably human rights violations at home.
The United States has a dirty little secret. We have genocide in our past. The US perpetrated a racist holocaust on native peoples that is more profound and damaging to those peoples than anything done by the Nazis or the Hutu Interhamwe in Rwanda. While the evil of slavery has been openly acknowledged, the invasion, conquest and partial extermination of native Indian tribes has been swept under the rug. It is treated romantically, games of “cowboys and indians,” with the demise of the Indian tribes and nations seen as inevitable and ultimately proper result of the “civilization” of the North American continent.
We are not in the wrong because we are the descendants of those who either perpetrated this low tech holocaust, or in the case of my great grandparents, imigrated to the US after the deed was done to settle on conquered land. We are in the wrong when we ignore what happened, pretend like the abuses were “no big deal” and shrug our shoulders at the state of affairs on places like the Pine Ridge Reservation. In fact, the typical view of the modern American Indian is one of people able to get rich off casinos and the “white man’s vices.” That’s certainly not the case in South Dakota.
I remember the day all this coalesced in my mind, just how serious the issue was, and how blind we are to our culture woes: January 17, 1991. The night before I watched in a state of near shock as reports came in from Iraq that the US was bombing massive sites all over the country, killing thousands because of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. That morning I had to go buy a cord for a Sony Discman I had bought in Germany two years earlier. The guy behind the counter said “we’re really kicking Saddam’s ass aren’t we.” I looked at him blankly. “Yeah, I guess,” I said, with my mind noting that Saddam probably wasn’t suffering, but a lot of civilians were. It was all abstracted, Iraq, the US, Saddam…the reality of what was happening in human terms was abstracted away or neglected. To think about what would happen would call into question whether or not we were liberating. Were we, perhaps, commiting mass murder?
That day I went to see a movie, “Dances With Wolves” starring Kevin Costner. The film, shot in South Dakota with considerable invovlement from the Oglala Sioux, shows how the advance of the “civilized” whites looked from the Sioux perspective. The whites were the vile, dirty, disgraceful ones, out of touch with nature, willing to slaughter buffalo for their hides, and contemptuous of the value of life. The movie itself was fictional, and can be criticized for romanticizing the Indians. Yet I walked out of there with my eyes open for the first time of how fundamentally blind we are in the West to the misdeeds — some would say evil — done in our name.
We pollute the planet, consume resources, and exploit cheap labor for our comfort. We tell ourselves we’re civilized, when we immerse ourselves in a materialist lifestyle disconnected from nature and from the spiritual side of life. Even when the science is overwhelming about things like climate change, we develop cottage industries churning out counter arguments designed to prevent anything from being done. When one criticizes our excesses, it’s considered anti-American or some kind of socialism. We create discourses of denial around our misdeeds, pretending we’re the civilized ones, we’re the ones trying to “help” others. Our culture is based on hypocrisy, and a blindness to the consequences of our ignorance of the meaning of what we’re doing. We’re fighting a war on nature and on others to support an unsustainable lifestyle, yet we believe we are reflecting humanity’s highest ideals and a way of living and thinking that all aspire too. We are living the Grand Delusion.
Nowhere is that more evident than when one considers the plight of the Oglala Sioux and other Indian nations still mired in poverty and a loss of their culture. The blindness we show to the problems they suffer, and the loss they continue to endure is both incredible and unforgivable. It is symbolic of an ability to live in a state of denial and rationalization. It’s their fault. They could choose not to drink. They could leave the reservation. A few slogans, and we wash our hands of any responsibility to help those suffering still the impact of the destruction of their culture.
In 1971 the group “Paul Revere and the Raiders” hit the charts with the song “Indian Reservation,” supposedly a lament of a member of the Cherokee nation. Yet the song itself reinforces the biases. “They took away our way of life, the tomahawk and the bow and knife…and though I wear a suit and tie, I’m still a red man deep inside.” That is the problem, we romanticize the loss (‘the tomahawk and the bow and knife’) and pretend that it’s not materially evident today (‘though I wear a suit and tie’). We need to confront the genocide of our past and make the kinds of reparations to the descendents of the conquered people that the Germans willingly made to the Jews after WWII.
More importantly, we need to start looking at our excesses, actions, and beliefs with a critical eye, and overcome the cultural blindness that causes us to make excuses for our misdeeds, and pretend that somehow we are more virtuous and advanced than others. That’s a lie.