cross posted at the demise

Portrait of Columbus

A recent holiday lets one reflect on occupation and power.

Columbus Day can be a warm day or a cold day (and this year was spectacular autumn falling through cool sunshine) but it always provides an opportunity to reflect on the day as a holiday representing as it does a kind of anachronistic celebration of manifest destiny – and we know that we have grown beyond all that…shameful as it is as a part of our history.

It had to be someone, and it was Columbus who ‘discovered America’ and, among other accomplishments, initiated the Euro-American human trafficking biz. We are reminded of both the inhuman brutality and stark commercial natures of this from Columbus’ own diaries where he comments off handedly that due to the free market demands of Euro customers, “dealers” are always looking for young girls and “those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

A few days ago I saw an investigative journalism piece by Raveena Aulakh who writes for the Toronto Star called, “I got hired at a Bangladesh sweatshop. Meet my 9-year-old boss”. In the article, Aulakh describes the harrowing lives of child garment factory workers in Bangladesh where she took a job for a week posing as a willing sweatshop worker. Her nine year old boss, Meem, works making linen shirts for shirt wearing customers somewhere beyond the streets of Dhaka in 12 hour shifts 7 days a week with half days on Friday making $32 dollars Canadian monthly (10 cents an hour). Meem’s dream: to advance from being a sewing helper to become a sewing operator. Aulakh writes that in Bangladesh, “Factory managers prefer younger sewing helpers…Their eyesight is better, their little fingers nimbly trim threads and they don’t fuss about backaches and neck pain.”

Ahh…commerce – always able to find value to be tapped to meet the market’s needs. Why, one may ask, are the market’s needs so important that Meem has to set her tiny feet on the rat race conveyer belt? Why is it so difficult for us to compute the true cost of global commerce as it is paid out in jobs lost at home and slave work created in ‘opened markets’? What makes us deserve to be decked out in daywear assembled out of the attenuated aspirations of the world’s children? Today I am wearing clothing made in Guatemala, Viet Nam and China.

We here in the US recently had a socialist finger wagged in our collective face when Vladimir Putin scolded, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” The chastising came after President Obama described his military’s delivery of cruise missiles that will (as we all know, like we know where our linen comes from) level homes and schools killing innocent humans (which we call ‘collateral damage’ so as to not think too hard about the practicalities of the dynamic– in much the same way we call Meem an ‘employee’ so as to not think too hard about the practicalities of the dynamic) thusly:

“I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

On this Columbus Day we are all happy to have grown beyond referring to the extermination of the proud Native American nations by European business magnates as “manifest destiny”, but we often hear elected American citizens of both parties characterize our invasion of sovereign states as actions “spreading democracy and freedom” that we must engage in for all of humanity due to the existence of something referred to as “American Exceptionalism”.

The history that shows the capacity for humans’ avaricious evil also reveals the capacity for humankind’s beautiful, delicate and warming ability to be humane. In the same diaries where Columbus refers to his part in the worldwide slavery free market he also describes in detail the Arawak peoples who he subjugated into forced labor and stole children from.

Columbus says that the Arawaks had no weapons, had no criminals, and no prisons. Gentle and helpful, compassionate and honest – when Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria smashed on the rocks off Hispanola’s coast, the Arawaks marshaled energies and resources to save the ship’s crew, salvage the ship’s cargo and, when the cargo had been safely transported to shore by the Arawaks, Columbus writes that not a single possession of the invaders had gone missing.

Columbus’ reaction to this unadulterated selfless helpful humanity was (of course – market demands, don’t you know) to enslave the Arawaks, brutalizing and maiming them, even feeding their attack dogs infant Arawak children, and within in 2 years, half of the Arawaks were dead. Eventually, Arawaks had to be replaced by African slaves brought to the new world by the invaders to carry on the European’s forced labor.

It is not how our elected representatives choose to define the civilians we bomb or the slaves we employ, it is not how members of the military, war-mongering-think-tanks and weapons manufactures choose to justify their bloody business, it is not how money-making-morally-depraved business men characterize the slave wages they pay in the workercamp outposts of this modern world, it is only how you today think of our brothers and sisters – how you can know these people only by referencing your own strengths and frailties and capacities for love and greed that brings understanding. Thomas Merton said;

“The whole idea of compassion is based upon the awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings…Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

America will be exceptional when we decide to stand with our fellow humans, instead of over them.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.