Ribs and Terrors

16 Apr

Finley J. MacDonald 

The ribs and terrors in the whale,
   Arched over me a dismal gloom,
While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,
   And left me deepening down to doom.

Herman Melville 

In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said demonstrates how subtly and implacably the devil of imperialism hides in the details of culture.  Pinned like camouflage moths to the board of Said’s analysis, the cocoons of imperialism are found infecting culture at the taproots.  Imperialism weaves its hidden, comfortable nests within language, history, philosophy, religion, and science as a consequence of our being “inside a whale.”  There, we partake of the raw swirl of experience, the half-digested glamor magazines and floating billboards, with a soporific sense of acceptance.  Our fetal sleep negates any notion that we ought to gaze out beyond our personal spaces to decipher the larger world.   

Said refers to Salman Rushdie, who objected,

“The truth is that there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places; the missiles have made sure of that. However much we may wish to return to the womb, we cannot be unborn. So we are left with a fairly straightforward choice.  (A first choice is to) agree to delude ourselves, to lose ourselves in the fantasy of the great fish.”

Mass Grave, Wounded Knee

Our whale, mostly, is a sluggish monster cruising in the deep, now and again swiping a fin.  One tends never to be jolted from the cockpit of conformity.  Upon occasion, the whale faces a great squid, and in those instances, the world can dive and tilt.  The squid of slavery, when I encountered it in school, was upsetting, but its tentacles didn’t really extend into my world.  Slavery was a moral failing, informed by the partial arrest that comes out of having lived in the South before the civil war.   

Reading Dee Brown’s Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee was the collision that disturbed my blubber-cushioned slumber.  For the first time–I suppose I was twenty–I experienced a distressing shift in my sense of historical reality.  I had been taught–or had absorbed somehow–that the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave was mostly good.  That the wretched and miserable had spilled across it like ink beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, to the tolling of the Liberty Bell.  (Later I heard the British Empire had arrived, “in a fit of absent-mindedness!”)  Nobody mentioned, as an aside, doubled-dealing, belly-crawling deceptions and skullduggery, fine-sounding lies on worthless paper, the cynical extermination of food sources, the deliberate spreading of disease, the murderous winter campaigns.  Nits make lice, it was said, and north of my boyhood home, Blackfoot women and children were slaughtered in the snows of the Marias River.  At Washita river, where Cheyennes were wiped out and lodges burned, even the horses were killed: 800 of them.

An intellectual earthquake can set one a bit apart.  (Most people in my community believed that Native Americans got free “Indian Money” from the government).  That’s a horse of a different color from comprehending that imperialism is more than just its grossest manifestations. 

The war-ravaged Congo, by way of illustration, is held hostage by vulture capitalists such as Paul Singer, the largest New York donor to the Republican party.  One vulture capitalist, Peter Grossman, picked up his debt, illegally it seems, from the former Yugoslavia, investing 3 million.  He is suing the Congo to the tune of 100 million.  The question as to why few know about this aside, most people may well see this as reprehensible.  Their seeing it so relieves them to a degree of the burden of changing themselves in some way, for imperialism is conducted out there, as slavery beyond the shores of Britain was once.  A modern understanding of the great problems of production and distribution is that, fundamentally, they were solved by history.  Poverty, to the extent that it is not inevitable, might be solved by another step or two along the same path.  Our economic system is thought of as “Keynesian” or “Bretton Woods,” never implicitly as imperialism.  

As John Perkins points out in Confessions of an Economic Hitman,

 “We prefer to believe the myth that thousands of years of social evolution has finally perfected the ideal economic system, rather than to face the fact we have merely bought into a false concept and accepted it as gospel. We have convinced ourselves that all economic growth benefits humankind, and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. Finally, we have persuaded one another that the corollary to this concept is valid and morally just: that people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded . . ..”

Ultimately, rumors and echoes through the belly of  the whale are not sufficient, as Salman Rushdie says so well.  We had better just burst our cages of whale ribs, climb out upon dry land, and become something more that we we were.  This news should not come to us as gloomy tidings, but as the boundlessness and challenge of a new frontier– 

For it is not true that the work of man is finished,
That we have nothing more to do in the world,
That we are just parasites in this world,
That it is enough for us to walk in step with the world,
For the work of man is only just beginning and it remains to conquer all,
The violence entrenched in the recess of his passion,
And no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and,
There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory.

Aime Cesaire


One Response to “Ribs and Terrors”

  1. Carol Carnicom April 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    Very intense! I’m going to ask Diana if she would like to subscribe to your blog. This kind of stuff is more up her alley. She is far more aware than I of the politics and economic lies under which we all live and try to survive.

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