Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Words of wisdom

Found this over at Liberal Street Fighter, in reference to the book 1491 by Charles Mann:
Much of what was here before Columbus was decimated by terrible pandemics, brought here by explorers and settlers who’s bodies had generations to develop resistances to diseases that wiped out entire peoples. Fire, steel and religious dogma helped finish the job, but so much was lost that could have been learned if only people LISTENED. If we were willing and able to subsume our cultural prejudices in order to find common ground, to see how much coexistence could enrich our lives. Despite the destruction wrought, despite the unknowable losses, the peoples of the Americas introduced great change to the wider world, if one only counts foodstuffs alone. That fact is too often forgotten.

How many conflicts take place because of exactly this sort of cultural arrogance? Look at the decimation of the legacy of the Iraqi people, wrought in the aftermath of our criminal invasion, an invasion ordered by oil men who saw fit to secure only the Oil Ministry from the ensuing chaos. How many treasures were lost when the museums were looted, treasures that had been recovered only recently by the dedicated work of archeologists and an Iraqi people seeking to reconstruct their history after centuries of invasion, war and tyranny. How much can we learn from the past of other people? Why do we so blithely turn away, especially at the urging of militarist looters acting with the power of the state?

Even now, the Bush Administration and Israel refuse to deal honestly with a people under their thumbs, willing to slowly crush a unique culture in the name of greed and prejudice, blaming their victims for the impass, as the Pope and King blamed their victims for genocide. There are so many books in the human library, so many insights and instructions, so much beauty and understanding, if only we’d be willing to take the time to translate for one another. The Aztecs actually had a similar dispair at the fragility of mortal life that the Christians had, finding solace in an afterlife:

Like a painting, we will be erased.
Like a flower, we will dry up here on earth.
Like plumed vestments of the precious bird,
That precious bird with the agile neck,
We will come to an end. - ibid: 135

Could shared comfort had been found each in the thoughts and art of the other?

My emphasis added. The initial hook for me was the reference to the Library of Alexandria, and its demise. Carl Sagan referred to its ultimate fate (which resulted in the loss of much of the Mediterranean world's written literature, science, philosophy, etc.) as akin to the region undergoing a self-induced lobotomy. What becomes clear is just how willingly, in the name of greed and power and driven by ignorance our European ancestors continued to follow suit once they set their sights on the Americas. Equally clear is how our present generation repeats the pattern today in the name of padding oil companies' profit margins in the Middle East.

I have lived largely under the impression that the Roman elites were not an especially curious lot. Yeah, the empire had its share of scientists, philosophers, and other scholars - many of whom conducted their work at the Library of Alexandria. For the most part, though, among the empire's movers and shakers, there wasn't a great deal of emphasis on knowledge for its own sake. Our current empire seems to parallel the Roman empire in that regard, hell-bent on ruling the world but having no clue regarding the languages and cultures of those upon whom the empire wishes to impose itself. In the process, the US empire appears on the road to making very similar mistakes.

Assuming that historians, archeologists, and other social scientists are around in some guise a thousand or so years hence, it will be interesting to see how they view these first years of the current millennium. Will, as if often the temptation, the history of the decline and fall of the US be one spun as a sprawling giant beset by "savages" or various stripes, or will it be noted that one of the huge failures of the empire was one of actually bothering to listen, to learn from the civilizations around it rather than merely relying on brute conquest.

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