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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Frenetic Monotony (p. 42)

From chapter "Cultural Eyeglasses"

No anesthetic was necessary for the people who ordered the killings; they had the misleading language of technocratic bureaucracy to distance them from the killings. Thus “mass murder” becomes “the final solution,” ‘world domination” becomes “defending the free world,” the War Department becomes the Department of Defense, and “ecocide” becomes “developing natural resources.” No one needs to get drunk to do any of this. A good strong ideology and heavy doses of rationalization are all it takes. But it may require little more than a simple unwillingness to step outside the flow of society, to think and act and most importantly experience for ourselves—and to make our own decisions.

Let me put this another way. Had Descartes been in the hold of a ship tossing violently in a storm, the contents of his stomach lurching toward his throat with every swell, his famous dictum may not have come out the same. By the same token, had he shared his room not with a stove but a beloved, he may not in that moment have believed that thoughts alone verified his existence, nor that “body, figure, extension, movement and place were but the fictions” of his mind.

The point is that physical reality does exist, and it’s up to us to detect its patterns. And it is our job to determine whether the patterns we perceive are really there, or whether they’re the result of some combination of projection and chance. It’s also up to us to determine for ourselves how closely the patterns we’ve been handed by our culture fit our experience of the world.

* * *

A frenetic monotony describes our culture’s eradication of every indigenous culture it encounters, and an even more frenetic monotony cloaks our inability to recognize this. Throw a dart at a map of the world, and no matter the territory it strikes, you will find the story of cruelty and genocide perpetrated by our culture.

I throw a dart. It lands low and to the right. Tasmania. A little research reveals that our culture arrived in 1803, and the massacres began soon after. In early 1804, weaponless Tasmanians, waving green boughs in a gesture of peace, approached a regiment of British soldiers at Oyster Bay. As the commanding officer later stated, the Tasmanians would be of no use to the British. The soldiers opened fire, killing fifty, including women and children. British encroachment on the island continued through the decades, leading to the Black War, which lasted from 1824 to 1831. One of the many weapons used to civilize these savages was the penis. Rape of Aboriginal women was widespread among settlers and soldiers. There was not a single instance of rape committed by an Aborigine against a white woman. When war had not eliminated the Tasmanians, a bounty was placed on their heads. A settler reported, “It was a favorite amusement to hunt the Aborigines; that a day would be selected and the neighbouring settlers invited, with their families, to a picnic. . . . After dinner all would be gaiety and merriment, whilst the gentlemen of the party would take their guns and dogs, and accompanied by two or three convict servants, wander through the bush in search of blackfellows. Sometimes they would return without sport; at others they would succeed in killing a woman, or, if lucky, a man or two.” Bounty and sport still not sufficing to exterminate the natives, Governor George Arthur mobilized all available settlers and convicts to form what became known as “The Black Line” stretching from one side of the island to the other. The settlers systematically beat their way across the territory, trying to drive the Aborigines before them. Although the last full-blooded Tasmanian male died in 1870, neither the Tasmanian race nor culture have been entirely eradicated. Nine Tasmanian women were abducted and raped by seal hunters, and two more went voluntarily. All Tasmanian Aboriginals are related to them.

Had the dart landed a little higher, we would have been in Australia, where between 1790 and 1920 the population of Aborigines fell from 750,000 at the first arrival of Europeans to 70,000 some hundred and thirty years later. We would read in scientific journals the reason for this decline: “the races who rest content in placid sensuality and unprogressive decrepitude, can hardly hope to contend permanently in the great struggle for existence with the noblest division of the human species. . . . The survival of the finest means that might—wisely used—is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfill the inexorable law of natural selection when exterminating the inferior Australian.” We would read reports of settlers burying live Aboriginal infants up to their necks, then forcing parents to watch as contests were held to see who could kick an infant’s head the farthest.

And then we would pass on, back to our lives, back to watching our televisions, back to listening to our music, back to this book, and we would say, “I did not do this. This was not my doing.”

I throw the dart again, again, again. Each time a thousand horrors. Each time enslavement, rape, murder, genocide. The dart strikes Africa, where somewhere between thirty and sixty million people (who, according to those responsible were “bestial and sordid,” and “the very reverse of human kind,” and who would each have otherwise “idly spent the years of a useless, restive life”) died after having been captured for the slave trade. Another twelve to fifteen million survived to spend the rest of their lives working the plantations and mines of the New World. The dart strikes New Zealand, where “taking all things into consideration, the disappearance of the race is scarcely subject for much regret. They are dying out in a quick, easy way, and are being supplanted by a superior race.” The dart strikes Hawai’i, where a missionary stated that a ninety percent reduction in the population was like “the amputation of diseased members of the body.”

The dart strikes my home. I live about a mile from Hangman Valley, near Spokane, Washington, and thrice that far from Fort George Wright Drive, one of the city’s arteries. Prior to Colonel Wright’s tenure in this city, Hangman Valley and the creek that runs through it were known as Latah, which means in the native tongue stream where little fish are caught. At the time, 1858, whites had not been able to bring all of the region’s Indians to terms. Then Wright had an idea. Under a flag of truce he called the Yakama warrior Qualchan and his wife to Wright’s residence, telling them he was going to proffer a peace treaty. Having already put Qualchan’s father in chains, Wright arrested Qualchan, led him directly to a tree and with Qualchan’s wife as witness hanged him. As Wright noted in his report to headquarters: “Qualchew came to me at 9 o’clock this morning, and at 9 1/4 a.m. he was hung.” The next day Wright similarly hanged six Palouse Indians. He was a hero.

Four years ago a group of students tried to change the name of Fort George Wright Drive to Qualchan. The citizens of Spokane, those who cared at all, were outraged, and a political cartoonist—my next-door neighbor—drew a cartoon with two frames. On the right, a bunch of hippies with cigarettes and beads, captioned “Wrong.” On the left, a drawing of the Colonel, captioned “Wright.” The road, which I drive often, remains named in his honor.