Call Me When You Find America

Discovering America, part 1

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? These three questions, which together comprise the title of a painting by Paul Gaugin, express the quest to discover ourselves. For those of us who spent most of our lives on this continent, the quest to discover self has seemed interwoven with the quest to discover America.

If you’re my age, and were raised in this country, then you grew up revering Christopher Columbus for discovering America, and in more recent years have learned to ridicule the idea that Europeans could “discover” what was already populated throughout. As one speaker I heard very cleverly make the point:
“I’d like you all to put your car keys and cell phones on the table in front of you. I’m going to come by and ‘discover’ them.”
It’s a fair point. Yet America is still being discovered – or at least searched for. Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 song “America” starts out
“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate – here, in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And walked off to look for America.”
I used to be a big fan of the comic strip Doonesbury. In the early 70s, a series of strips ran about Mark and Mike going on a cross-country motorcycle trip to search for America. Zonker is unsure about the idea.
Zonker (to Mike and Mark): I tell you, I don’t like this business of you guys biking off into strange and unknown parts.
Mike: Zonker, we’ll only be gone a few months.
Zonker: Man, it’s dangerous out there! Who do you think you are, Peter Fonda?
Mike: Zonker, it’s something we have to do. Both of us want to search for America.
Zonker: (Heavy sigh.) Look, will you call me as soon as you get there?
Mike: I promise.
There’s something of a tradition of people going on similar trips to “find themselves.” Finding ourselves and finding America have seemed to go hand-in-hand – for, indeed, knowing our selves and knowing our place, the land we are embedded in, do go together. As Wendell Berry said,
“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
So let’s go on a voyage, to look for ourselves and for America – to discover what we can discover about discovery itself. On this trip, we’ll journey through space and time, and we’ll be looking at the darker and tragic side of the idea of discovery: the doctrine of discovery, which, even if you never heard of it, is a key underlying foundation of the American experience. Our first stop:

Chicago, Carl Sandburg's residence, 1936.
We peer over the poet’s shoulder as he’s writing the book-length poem “The People, Yes.” Before he’s done, it will be 300 pages, packed with Americana, poetically expressed. We notice on the page before him, the bit of imaginary dialog he has just composed:
"Get off this estate."
"What for?"
"Because it's mine."
"Where did you get it?"
"From my father."
"Where did he get it?"
"From his father."
"And where did he get it?"
"He fought for it."
"Well, I'll fight you for it."
Sandburg put his finger on the basic problem of conquest and legitimacy.

Earth, 10,000 years ago to 500 years ago
As we zoom now back over the last 10,000 years, circling the globe, we notice that there's not one square-inch of land in between the arctic and antarctic circles that has not at numerous times in its history been militarily conquered. Where humans live as hunter-gatherers -- Africa, North America, the islands of Oceania -- the skirmishes are small, and tend to involve a few acres at a time shifting hands between tribes. But where the agricultural revolution has come -- Europe, the Middle East and Arabia, East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and the Central and South American empires of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca -- large standing armies can be supported, and we see vast empires and dynasties. It seems who we are and where we come from is slaughter and conquest. No wonder Jared Diamond called the agricultural revolution the worst mistake in human history.

We notice that for thousands of years, conquest comes with slaughter, rape, and enslavement. Our word slave is related to the word slav, because so many Slavic people had been sold into slavery by their conquerors. The conundrum that Carl Sandburg would express in 1936 was a familiar one to millennia of conquering powers: how to create legitimacy of ownership, how to justify their possession -- create the illusion, at least, that their new lands were theirs by right and not just by force.

Americas, 1492-1776
When we zoom in on the 16th and 17th centuries, we see the Europeans conquering the New World. It’s a continuation of a thousand years of conquering and being conquered by each other. It’s what they do. It’s what we've seen humans everywhere doing.

These Europeans though, have not only the food surpluses made possible by the agricultural revolution – surpluses that support large standing armies and now overseas voyages of conquest. They have swords of steel. They have guns. And they have immunities developed from thousands of years of plagues and diseases fostered by close living quarters with each other and their domesticated animals. With their swords and their guns and their germs, we see these Europeans conquer more land in less time than the world had ever seen before.

China, 1400s
Checking in on East Asia, we see China in the 15th century starting up what looks like its own age of exploration – armadas sailing west, making their way around India and on to east Africa. But then the voyages abruptly stop. For one thing, they weren’t really explorers – China already knew about India and East Africa. For a second thing, invasions from Mongols and other Central Asian people diverted the Chinese leaders away from continuing those expensive naval excursions.

Third, they weren’t much interested in developing trade routes. (A.) The world coveted Chinese silk and porcelain, so China’s customers came to them. And (B.) In Confucian thought, merchants and traders were seen as the lowliest form of humanity -- parasites skimming off of the labor of those who actually produced the goods.

Back to Americas, 1492-1776
Zipping back to the Europeans invading the Americas and Africa, slaughtering and enslaving, we notice that in addition to steel and guns, in addition to bodily germs and viruses, they have something else "viral": Christianity – or a particular interpretation of it. Their Christianity tells them to “make disciples of all Nations.” It gives them the double reassurance that, on the one hand, the pathetic pagans bereft of God are not fully human so the slaughter and theft is acceptable, and on the other hand, conquering them and forcibly converting them to Christianity is doing them a favor.

See these European conquerors and colonialists sleeping soundly at night resting in the conviction of the noble good work they are doing to make the world better.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Discovering America"
See next: Part 2: The Power of Principle -- For Good and Bad
Part 3: We Missed Our Exit

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