Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Who Are We, Really?

"I Just Bought Guilt & Paid Less Than You Are Going To"

-- Robo-ad at

Time flies, doesn't it?  The release of part of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture in December set off a wave of right-wing tantrums not unlike what we just saw in response to President Obama's sermon at the National Prayer Breakfast.  (We never did anything like that, but we had no choice, and we enjoyed it, so there!)  I started writing a post in December inspired by an interesting article at Salon about the history of torture in the US, by one Charles Davis, which made some good points and still worth reading two whole months later.
In a nation-state founded by settler-colonial Protestants, the argument is familiar – it’s what’s deep down inside that gets one up into heaven, not the good or genocidal nature of what one does down here on Earth – and as with any half-decent lie, it’s relatable: as fallible human beings, we’d all rather like to believe that we’re not as bad as we are but as good as we say we would like to be.

As a rhetorical ploy, it’s understandable: Saying the United States has always been garbage is not going to be terribly popular in a nation that still fondly refers to a group of sadistic slave-owners as its “founding fathers” — so politicians savvy enough to know that openly embracing torture is not a good look for the world’s leading state-sponsor of holier-than-thou rhetoric, appeal to a history and set of values that never was and never were in practice, as a way to give political cover to their middling, public relations-minded critiques of the national-security state’s least defensible excesses. It’s entirely false, this narrative of extreme goodness marked by occasional self-correcting imperfection, but it satisfies our national ego to think the American phoenix rises from a store of ethically traded gold, not a pile of rotting trash.
Good stuff, but something bothered me about it.  I soon realized that Davis was engaged in what I'd call inverted American exceptionalism.  That's not to deny the facts Davis marshals in his indictment, only to say that I had the feeling he was wallowing in them like a Puritan preacher detailing the rot in his congregation's souls and the eternal punishment that awaits them.  Since most Americans prefer to ignore the horrific aspects of our history, this does need to be pointed out, dwelt on, often.  But I kept remembering something I read in a history of the American Indians, a simple statement I haven't been able to find again.  It went something like this: The Indians were not less civilized than the European invaders -- but that's not saying much.

I also thought of this, from Walter Kaufmann's Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden, 1973, p. 49):
In Paul W. Tappan's massive standard text on Crime, Justice and Correction, for example, all ten references to Freud (in seven hundred fifty pages) concern the light he shed on criminals. But Freud ... also turned a searchlight on respectable society, illuminating the unedifying motives that come to the fore in punishment. Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal.
Now, let me repeat: none of this excuses the crimes and atrocities committed by the European invaders of the Americas and their heirs.  Davis is quite correct to rub his readers' noses in the history, to show the yawning gap between the pretensions of Christian civilization and its grubby, shameful reality.  It's not at all unfair to say, as Davis does, that "the United States has always been garbage."  I just want to say, and stress no less firmly, that by Davis's standards so was every non-Christian civilization.  Invasion, massacre, torture, slavery have been business as usual through most of human history, and we must never forget it.

After pondering Davis's article I found my copy of Will Roscoe's The Zuni Man-Woman (New Mexico, 1991), which includes a sobering account of Zuni society at the end of the 19th century.  Roscoe worked closely with Zuni elders and other influential people in his research, and his work is not anti-Indian; indeed, he engages in some of the same sort of apologetics used by champions of white Christian culture.
In 1882, the Zuni delegation touring the East with Cushing made a side trip to Salem, Massachusetts.  Told about the seventeenth-century persecution of witches at Salem, the Zunis became excited.  At a public reception, the bow priest Kiasi “thanked the good people of Salem for the service they had done the world,” and he gave them some advice should witchcraft trouble them again.  “’Be the witches or wizards your dearest relations or friends, consider not your own hearts,’ said he, ‘but remember your duty and spare them not, put them to death!’”  Because the Americans had rid themselves of witches, the Zunis decided, they had become prosperous and strong.  Belief in witchcraft represents a darker side of Zuni life, one that contradicts the stereotype of Pueblo Indians as uniformly even tempered.  While the Zunis had solved various social problems creatively and humanely, theirs was not a perfect society.  Some Zunis, like Nick Dumaka, grew up at odds with themselves, their families, and the community, unable to conform to Zuni ideals and social rules.  As [Ruth] Benedict noted, “Zuñi’s only reaction to such personalities is to brand them as witches.”

Because the Zunis did not make the distinction, typical of European law, between behavior and intent, the wish to do harm was as bad as doing harm, psychic violence the same as physical violence.  [Well, we’re catching up with them these days.]  Murder, assault, theft, arson, and other crimes were all tried as forms of witchcraft.  However, because the Zunis considered anger, resentment, bitterness, and envy as precursors of witchcraft, sanctions were often applied before overt acts of aggression occurred.  Suspected witches were subject to avoidance and criticism [isn’t that also a sign of anger, resentment, bitterness and envy in the accusers?], and their actions were closely watched.  This is why Zuni appears to have had so little crime.  [Because criminal impulses could be acted out by accusing others of witchcraft!] ...
Prosecution of witches was the responsibility of the bow priests. who tried “to bring them to wisdom.” They seized the suspect at night and took him or her to their chambers.  Witnesses both for and against the suspect, and the suspect himself, could speak.  If the suspect did not confess, however, he was painfully suspended by his thumbs or with his arms tied behind his back.  Hanging, with occasional respite, continued for a day.  Suspects might also be hung in the large plaza, from a beam protruding from the old mission.  If the suspect still remained silent after this, he was taken to the bow priests’ chamber once again, “whence he never comes forth alive.” Witches were not always executed, however.  If the witch confessed, especially with an elaborate story of occult powers, he or she might be released, usually to live in exile [101-103].
Because we have very little reliable information about pre-contact American Indian culture, we can't say whether Zunis dealt with witchcraft in this way before the White Man came.  The method of torture used, for example, is familiar from European practice, and indeed was used to interrogate suspected witches in Salem, Massachusetts.  It's not rocket science, though, and was probably reinvented by various cultures bent on inflicting pain for its own sake.

Torture was used by other Indian societies, and it won't do to engage in apologetics like "The Christians in Europe tortured to belittle and to demean and to punish. The Huron and the Iroquois tortured each other to honour and possess the power of the enemy."  Let me reiterate that I don't bring this up to justify the European invasion of this hemisphere and its dispossession and slaughter of the Americas' original inhabitants.  If the Islamic State is a "death cult," as President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast, so is the United State of America.  But to return to Charles Davis, if the US is a "nation of torturers," so were the nations it replaced.  If the US has always been garbage, so were the First Nations.

Before Columbus, there was horrific violence in countries all over the world, too much to list here; I'd like to think that most of us have heard of it, even if we don't think of it much and tend to forget it when possible.  Off the top of my head, I think of the Roman practice of crucifixion, which they picked up from other sources.  Think of roads lined with crosses by the hundreds or thousands, each one with a human body on it, with carrion birds pecking at its tenant's eyes.  It's perfectly correct to denounce Christian violence against "pagans," but not if we forget the violence that "pagans" perpetrated against each other.  Much of human history is written in human blood, human cries of agony, in human bodies stretched out in torment. 

It's difficult to find a balance for denunciation of such horrors.  I follow Martin Luther King Jr. and Noam Chomsky, among others, in believing that people should first condemn the crimes of their own country before engaging in facile condemnation of the crimes of others.  I know I'm not alone in saying that I don't want to see America conquered:
-- not that America is in any danger of being conquered: the US has not fought a war of self-defense in my lifetime. But I don’t want to see any country conquered. People like [Joanne] Barkan get so furious at any mention of American malfeasance because they’ll gladly sic the dogs of war on any other country that behaved as the US has behaved, that killed a tenth as many people as the US has killed, that supported a tenth as many dictators as the US has supported, that harbors the kinds of terrorists the US harbors – so it is they who want to see the US attacked and humbled, if they had any consistency of principle. Those of us who can recognize the faults of our country, by contrast, simply want it to stop hurting people so wantonly.
But where do we go from that point?  What does Davis think is the proper way to deal with human "garbage"?  He concludes:
Torture and total war are not the work of a few bad people, but the product of a system that from its inception treated human beings as property and the right to property as more important than the rights of women and men – it’s who we are, and if we want the violence wrought by our system to end, we must honestly address the systemic cause. 
It is "who we are," but it's also who "they" are.  Davis's use of the singular ("a system") is misleading: there are multiple systems that have perpetrated violence and oppression, and the US is only one of those systems' heirs.  If we're all "garbage," as Davis's logic would require us to conclude, then what?  I think that recognition is a good starting point.  American exceptionalism, whether as the shining city on a hill or as an enormous, stinking mountain of garbage, is not going to get us anywhere.