Another Tale of Two Cities

This does not pertain to geography, religion, nationality, etc.  It is a classic trope of sorts which is used to distinguish two very different realities. What I am referring to, then, is a kind of metaphorical “two cities,” two different visions, ways of life, two different states of heart.  It will be a bit of a potpourri but with an underlying common theme.  So let us begin.

  1. Decades ago Marlon Brando won an Oscar for some movie part.  He did not show up for the presentation but sent a Native American woman who read his short speech for him and took the award. This was the speech:

“For 200 years we have said to the Indian people who are fighting for their land, their life, their families and their right to be free: ”Lay down your arms, my friends, and then we will remain together. Only if you lay down your arms, my friends, can we then talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.”

When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.

But there is one thing which is beyond the reach of this perversity and that is the tremendous verdict of history. And history will surely judge us. But do we care? What kind of moral schizophrenia is it that allows us to shout at the top of our national voice for all the world to hear that we live up to our commitment when every page of history and when all the thirsty, starving, humiliating days and nights of the last 100 years in the lives of the American Indian contradict that voice?”   It would seem that the respect for 

principle and the love of one’s neighbor have become dysfunctional in this country of ours, and that all we have done, all that we have succeeded in accomplishing with our power is simply annihilating the hopes of the newborn countries in this world, as well as friends and enemies alike, that we’re not humane, and that we do not live up to our agreements.

Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don’t concern us, and that we don’t care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.

I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.”

There was quite an uproar after this incident.  The pop media and the general populace were outraged that their “pop narcotic” of pop culture was blown up right in front of them.  Not that it really changed anything; though some of us paid some attention to this call to wakefulness about our condition and our history.  I was reminded once more of this incident when I saw this new book, a history of California at that: 

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873

It is a harrowing account of what happened to the original inhabitants of what is now the State of California.  I think every decent person would be shocked to read this well-documented report by an academic historian.  Both Church and State are complicit in what happened to all those people.  It appears that no religious institutions, no religious values seem to have played any role in bringing an end to this tragedy.  It simply ran out of steam when the land was “cleansed” of its indigenous inhabitants and white Europeans could take it all.  Those of us who have benefited from partaking of the many bounties of this beautiful land need to realize we are standing on blood-stained ground.

  • When I was in my teens I saw on TV, on one of the early productions of the PBS, a program that had been taped in San Francisco and then later shown on my PBS station in Chicago in the early ‘60s.  It was a series of lectures by Alan Watts presenting an introduction and an overview of Asian thought and Asian religiosity.  It was quite an eye-opener for me.  It was then that I bought my first book on Zen and another book on Chinese poetry, though I had already read Ezra Pound’s translations of some Chinese poems and had found them quite engaging.  Then I began reading D.T. Suzuiki and as a youngster I was filled with anxiety about how all this was fitting in with my Christianity which I also took very seriously.  I was the only kid on my block and in my Catholic high school who was into THAT stuff! Anxiety was only relieved when I discovered a few years later that Merton was into similar stuff!  In any case, I was recently reminded of that first startling lecture by Watts.

Watts began by showing a Chinese scroll painting called “Mountain after Rain.”  He indicated that so many of these Chinese and Japanese renditions had this feeling for the world of nature, but that they were not like Western landscape art.    This painting was iconic.  It was an expression of religious feeling and knowledge, but not in terms of human figures like in Western (and Eastern Christian) religious art.  Yes, human beings do appear at times in this Asian art, but they are a tiny part, usually you have to look carefully to see some lone figure in one part of the painting, just a small part of it.  In this sensibility a human being does not stand “outside” the natural world in some supernatural realm which is totally apart from it.  Rather there is a harmony of the human being and the natural world. Watts pointed out that our Western ideology, even as it carries the mark of religion, is more about dominating nature. Needless to say the Asian has screwed up here just as much as the Westerner, but what we are talking about are values, ideals, vision, guiding principles.   And here we in the West practically boast about our “conquest of nature,” “conquest of space,” etc. Europeans came to the New World and Asia and Africa and saw it as an opportunity for “conquest.”  Christianity with its deluded and dysfunctional theology was obsessed with the “saving of pagan souls,” and so it became an arm of this conquest more often than not—remarkable exceptions like Bartolemeo de las Casas only prove the point.  Anyway,  it’s in our language as common discourse; we speak of the conquest of mountains, “the conquest of Everest,” e.g.  We stand as “outsiders,” and we beat our surroundings into submission, as the pioneers who built this country were called to do seemingly as a divine mission.  What then happened to the Native Americans is perhaps much more tied to this distortion than I first realized.

  • This year is the 400thanniversary of the beginnings of the slave trade in North America.  It was there right from the beginnings of the European arrival.  Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have been running articles reflecting on this bit of our history.  Interesting that a number of Catholic institutions and groups not only tolerated but benefited from the slave trade.  What can you say?  Today the inheritors of those entities who have benefited from this historical tragedy are trying in some way to make up for that past.  That’s good, but what surprises me in all these accounts very little reflection is spent on how and why basically religious people could tolerate such a state of affairs.  What was the nature of that blindness?  Probably a complex answer, but at least one factor stands out—the institution became the central reality and its well-being the end-all and be-all of everything they did.  The idolatry of “the Church.”  In addition you had this abstract theology and spirituality that was immune from criticism and totally separated from people’s actual lives.  

In any case, there is also a new book out that explains how slavery infected our whole social and economic culture as well:  The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

  • And now as Monty Python would put it, “And now for something completely different.” Recently there was a report on CNN. The title of the story: “Meet the smoking-free, carbon-negative country that passes no law unless it improves citizens’ well-being.”  That country is Bhutan, and this too is quite an eye-opener.  It is quite an unusual place, and in the family of nations most, most unusual.  Here is a brief quote from the story:

“Fiercely proud and protective of its traditions, Bhutan has been closed to outside influences for centuries. The nation only opened its doors to tourism in the 1970s and has decided to take a unique approach to westernization, creating a concept known as the “Gross National Happiness Index.”

Don’t be fooled by the name. This is not just a measure of how much people smile and laugh. It’s a holistic approach to sustainable development that gives as much weight to human flourishing as it does wealth.

“We in Bhutan are very unique; our democracy is very, very unique … in the sense we all are grounded very strongly by our national values,” said Bhutan Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering, who took office in November 2018. “We do not put personal interest ahead of national interest.  When we say Gross National Happiness, it is not the celebrative ‘Ha ha — Ho ho’ kind of happiness that we look for in life,” Lotay explained. “It only means contentment, control of your mind, control of wants in your life. Don’t be jealous with others, be happy with what you have, be compassionate, be a society where you can be more than happy to share.

“Our king rightly calls Gross National Happiness as development with values,” Lotay continues. “If the policy does not have a good amount of happiness index, if the policy is not every environment friendly, if the policy will not be able to ensure that it will result in the well-being of Bhutanese, that policy will never be approved in the country.”

So this is an example of a very different vision of human existence. Here is the article for a fuller perusal:

Needless to say the country has a lot of things it is working on to improve, but what is important are the key principles, the essential vision guiding its development.  These they seem to have gotten right.