Wednesday, November 25, 2015


I’ve written about the myths and ‘real truths’ of Thanksgiving before (Nov. 27, 2009). But today, as I was rereading some of the more contemporary truths about the subsequent butchery of Native Americans that took place, I couldn’t help thinking about how this story of our American origins leads to uncomfortable parallels with the more modern butchery we like to deplore in the Middle East. We love to call the terrorists of ISIS, for example, ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages.’ And in truth, reading a piece today by David Remnick in the New Yorker (“Telling the Truth About ISIS and Raqqa”, reprinted on Reader Supported News), in which he interviews some exiled residents of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa about the horrors that descended upon that previously civilized city when ISIS took over, those same adjectives flashed into my mind: bastards, savages, barbarians. But the truth is that they are not savages or barbarians. If there is any name that fits the fanatics of ISIS, it would have to be ‘fundamentalists.’ For they are, as countless histories have now detailed, adherents to the type of Islamic fundamentalism native to Saudi Arabia (one of their supporters), the branch called Wahhabism. When the ISIS leaders—both remnants of Al Quaeda in Iraq and many of the former Sunni leaders of Iraq including army officers quite skilled in combat—took over Raqqa, they immediately named it the center of the caliphate that Wahhabism calls for: a place where the most radically fundamentalist ideals of Islam can be implemented and spread throughout the world, including the public execution of infidels.
As the former residents of Raqqa describe it, the savagery instituted by the fanatics of ISIS horrified everyone:

 The first crucifixion came early that spring—a horrific event to recall even now. Everyone at the table remembered the shock of it. Then came more: two people, shot in the head by ISIS executioners, crucified, and left for days for all to witness in the city’s main traffic roundabout.

According to the testimony, this was a kind of violence never seen before: crucifixions, cutting off heads, brutally-enforced edicts against forbidden pleasures. The repression and violence against women was especially vicious:

      There were edicts against drinking and smoking. Enforced by an all-female morality police called the Khansaa Brigade, women were made to wear the veil and, eventually, black shoes only. They are beaten if their niqab is somehow too revealing, a veil too flimsy, or if they are caught walking on the street alone.

Children, too, are targeted. Regular schools are closed in favor of ISIS religious institutions teaching them “the most fanatical form of the faith.” Then, many are lured or kidnapped and sent to military camps to learn how to fight and kill, “how to make and carry bombs. At their graduation, they have orders to execute someone––sometimes a beheading, sometimes they just cut off the head of a sheep.” As to the journalists of the publicity groups being interviewed by Remnick, the R.B.S.S. or Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, they are hounded and tracked via the internet where they post much of their work. One has already been captured, caught at a checkpoint and executed three weeks later in Raqqa’s public square.
      Of course, it goes without saying that ISIS has already proven that when attacking ‘infidels,’ which is to say, the rest of the world, they are as ruthless and callous about killing innocents as any group in history. The attacks on Paris, the bombing of the Russian airliner with 224 people aboard, the suicide attacks in Lebanon and Iraq and Mali, and the public beheadings posted on the internet, are all grim proof of that. But what strikes me today is that the comparison to other fundamentalist groups comes right back to America, to our founding myths and those who are celebrated in them.
      The Pilgrims, for example, are the historical heroes of the alleged First Thanksgiving. It has become part of the legend that the Pilgrims—those few who survived the first winter in their new-found paradise near Plymouth—held a thanksgiving feast to celebrate the corn harvest that had kept them alive, and invited the local Indians to share it with them. But it is important to know that these Pilgrims were themselves an extreme branch of the Puritan sect that had waged revolutionary war against the Crown in their native England (the Puritans triumphed for a short time in 1653), and had fled to the New World for safety and to erect a new government based on their rigidly fundamentalist beliefs (including a coming Armageddon). Chuck Larsen, basing much of his summary on the work of Francis Jennings in The Invasion of America, has written about their fanaticism as follows:

They strove to "purify" first themselves and then everyone else of everything they did not accept in their own interpretation of scripture. Later New England Puritans used any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war, and genocide to achieve that end.(4) They saw themselves as fighting a holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed with them was the enemy. This rigid fundamentalism was transmitted to America by the Plymouth colonists, and it sheds a very different light on the "Pilgrim" image we have of them. This is best illustrated in the written text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by "Mather the Elder." In it, Mather the Elder gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth.” (Chuck Larsen, “Introduction for Teachers,”

Furthermore, the Indian hero, Squanto, supposedly one of those who helped arrange the feast, managed to be there because he was one of the few Indians who had survived both slavery in England and the above-mentioned smallpox epidemic that decimated the natives after an initial contact with English explorers in 1614. And subsequent “Thanksgivings” celebrated by the now-dominant Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony rather stain the myth of generous settlers sharing a meal with happy natives. In 1637, for example, near Groton, CT, “nearly 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival”—the actual precursor of Thanksgiving. What happened next was a horror:

                           In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside.  Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared "A Day Of Thanksgiving" because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered. (Susan Bates, “The Real Story of Thanksgiving,”
This massacre-cum-Thanksgiving was followed by others, like a similar massacre of Pequots near Stamford CT where severed heads were kicked around like soccer balls, and the similarly savage King Philip’s War, which essentially ended the presence of Native Americans in New England. Any who were left either fled to Canada, or were rounded up and sold into slavery in the Carolinas (thus providing the inspiration for the Bostonians to troll in Africa for other slaves to fatten their purses and curse the new nation for generations to come).
            In sum, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to distinguish our ‘noble’ ancestral founders from the fanatic fundamentalists now ravaging Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East—nor, for that matter, the crazy fundamentalists now running for president on the Republican ticket. All are certain of their possession of the truth. All are convinced that the only way to rid the world of ‘infidels’ or ‘unbelievers’ or ‘sinners’ against their ‘god-given’ law is to either convert them or kill them. And the sad thing is that everywhere one finds these purists, these soldiers in the war to institute their precious god’s kingdom on earth, killing seems to be the preferred option.
Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Differential Responses to Terror

Like almost everyone else, my mind is swamped with images and thoughts about the vicious attacks in Paris on Friday night. With Parisians out for a night on the town, including thousands attending a soccer match, the eight or more terrorists picked so-called ‘soft’ targets in a relatively small, hip area and attacked restaurants, a concert, and parts of the above-mentioned soccer match. Scenes routinely described as ‘scenes of horror’ ensued, with the concert venue the most revolting: terrorists armed with AK-47s fired randomly and coldly at hundreds of concertgoers below them, and then, when about to be eliminated by the police, blew themselves up with suicide vests. The only comparison that comes to mind is the similar scene in a movie theater in Aurora, CO, when the American James Holmes randomly shot and killed twelve theatergoers at a showing of a Batman movie (sadly, no one vowed war on the NRA as a response). But of course, we have a rich field from which to choose for horror in our time: the Russian plane that exploded over the Sinai, killing all 224 passengers aboard; the suicide attack in a Beirut suburb where nearly 40 people were killed; countless suicide bombings and shootings in Afghanistan and Iraq, both still reeling and broken after the U.S. shock-and-awed them in the wake of 9/11; the recent U.S. attack in Kunduz province in Afghanistan, an attack this time on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. There seems to be no inhibition whatever, in our time, that prevents the murder of innocents in any place and at any time.
            What interests me here is the way we, especially we in the western world, respond to these horrors. Our response is, of course, a major part of the calculus of the terrorists who perpetrate such attacks. They know that though death hardly registers in our consciousness when it is ‘other’ innocents who are slaughtered—as, for example, when over 2,000 Gazans, mostly helpless civilians, were killed by the Israeli military in its most recent onslaught on that tiny strip of misery—the death of our people, of white Europeans or Americans in our ‘homeland’, is greeted with terror, with horror, with outrage, with cries that such barbarity must be avenged, must be repaid tenfold. These are exactly the sentiments coming out of France at the moment. France’s president, Francois Hollande, has declared that ‘this is war.’ And realistically, who could blame him? After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, after 1200 or more French citizens have joined the Islamic State in Syria, and now, after this attack, the French are legitimately feeling that they have been specially targeted by the ruthless fanatics who run ISIS. Though the said fanatics would no doubt prefer to attack New York or Los Angeles, they apparently have concluded that Paris is a more reachable, ‘softer’ target. They seem to think that this will discourage Europeans, and somehow persuade them to pull back from their participation in American-led attacks against them in Syria. That this is delusional, that their entire fundamentalist, apocalyptic mode of thinking is insane, does not seem to matter. Or rather, in a certain sense it matters most of all: such people, convinced that the world is ending anyway, seem to figure that dying a little sooner than the rest of us confers glory on them, not least because it will help bring on the apocalypse they yearn for.
            But I digress. What I really mean to focus on is how our responses to death, to the sudden death of innocents brought on by the terror of modern weaponry, differ, depending on who does the killing and who does the dying. Consider the response to the recent downing of the Russian passenger liner over the Sinai desert. It was loaded with 224 tanned vacationers returning from some time in the sun at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Initially, and still to this day, Egyptian officials have refused to even call it a terror attack, Ayman El-Muqadem insisting that an explosion could have occurred in several other ways, including “lithium batteries in the luggage of one of the passengers, an explosion in the fuel tank, fatigue in the body of the aircraft, or the explosion of something.” (Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 8, 2015). Increasingly, however, most countries are subscribing to the terrorist theory: that a bomb was smuggled onto the plane and its explosion brought the plane down. Whatever the cause turns out to be, the interesting thing is that almost no western journalists have rushed to Moscow or the Sinai to record tearful reactions from Russians who lost more loved ones than the French (as countless journalists like Katie Couric are doing in Paris). The airliner attack is either treated routinely, as ‘just one of those things,’ or even as something deserved. Russia, after all, remains our chief rival and increasingly our renewed enemy, with its leader, Vladimir Putin, characterized more and more as, if not quite a Hitler, then close.  He keeps interfering in our global plans and machinations, such as the coup in Ukraine (right on Russia’s border, it should be noted, and hence well within what we like to call a ‘sphere of influence’ when it’s in our hemisphere), and now in Syria (also very much closer and threatening to Russia than to the United States).  So when the Islamic State recently claimed responsibility for bringing down the Russian passenger liner, attributing it to Russia’s recent bombing campaign against them in Syria (and in support of Assad), one could almost hear the ‘served-them-right’ murmurs in the western camp.
            The same holds for the recent suicide bombing in the Hezbollah-dominated suburb outside Beirut. We saw evidence of the explosion, we heard a few screams, but underlying all the coverage was, again, a certain suppressed gloating. Hezbollah, after all, has been supporting the evil Bashar al-Assad, our latest candidate for Hitler’s mantle. Those who support Assad, such as Hezbollah and Iran and Russia, become, ipso facto, our enemies. So if even ISIS, supposedly the most mortal of our mortal enemies, suicide-bombs civilians targets allegedly controlled by Hezbollah, then that is a plus in our ledger. Any deaths that come as a result are to be lamented on the surface, perhaps, but secretly cheered.
            One could cite countless other terror attacks and a similarly muted response to them on our part. But consider what might be called terrorism but usually isn’t: the bombing of innocent civilians by the so-called “good guys.” The bombing of Gaza by the U.S.-supplied Israeli military comes immediately to mind. What else but terror can one call the relentless campaign of aerial and rocket bombing against a population imprisoned in the most densely populated piece of real estate in the world? What else but terror is the targeting of schools, of apartment complexes, of hospitals? But we don’t call it that, because the victims themselves are alleged to be terrorists or harboring terrorists, and the perpetrators are our close allies and hence experimenters with our own advanced weaponry to carry out what we call “retaliation.” Sadly, the same rationale is used to describe our recent ‘mistaken’ bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. How could this happen? As with the Israelis in Gaza, we knew or should have known the well-publicized global coordinates of this hospital. And yet, our planes bombed the hospital anyway, and even worse, allegedly attacked wounded patients trying to flee. Doctors Without Borders and several other groups have insisted that this was a war crime: hospitals are supposed to be protected, immune from attack even in war zones. But the main response from U.S. officials has been expressions of ‘regret’ over the ‘mistake.’ And from the U.S. public? Well, it was, after all, ‘those people’ in a war zone, some of whom may have been terrorists themselves. No need to concern ourselves, except a little that our shiny reputation might be tarnished.
            So this is what we have. Death is regrettable, and awful, and tragic, and sometimes outrageous, but it usually depends on whose death is at issue. If it’s a relative or close friend or one of our in-group, it hits us very hard, especially if it seems it could or should have been prevented. If death happens to one of ours as part of organized warfare, then it’s also ‘tragic’ but expected, and can be dressed up, in the end, as part of a necessary and noble sacrifice. And if the dead are ‘theirs,’ even if they are civilians and hence ‘innocent,’ we find ways to tolerate the deaths we’ve caused, rationalize them as ‘collateral damage,’ part of the messy business of defeating an evil enemy.  But..if death comes as part of an attack on us or our friends, in a manner that we label ‘terrorist’ (notwithstanding the legitimacy of the attackers’ grievances and their relative powerlessness to express those grievances in conventional ways), then it becomes an outrage. Then the killing becomes ‘barbaric’, regardless of the proportion of the lives ‘they’ have ruined relative to those we have ruined. And there seem to be endless ways in which we parse out their barbarity, and our outrage, respecting those deaths. In other words, there are ‘rules’ to which we insist all combatants in a conflict must comply, our clearly-defined rules of war; our clearly-defined rules for the taking of prisoners; our rules respecting which areas or institutions are legitimate targets. That the rules (like the rules regarding money, interest, and bankruptcy) are usually made to favor the more powerful party is mostly ignored or suppressed. Rules are rules, after all. And what terror does to outrage and terrify us is violate the most fundamental of those rules, our rules. Terrorists do not fight fair. Terrorists pick victims at random with no concern for their guilt or innocence, and snuff them out for no legitimate reason. And when the victims are “our” people, then the randomness, the unfairness, the barbarity—regardless of the relative numbers involved—are all considered more extreme, more unfair, more beyond the pale of what we have decreed to be legitimate, than anything we do or could even conceive of doing.
            This is, of course, natural to most humans. Those in our group, those on our side (including God), are always considered to be more deserving, more valuable, more innocent than those on the side of the ‘other.’ To paraphrase Orwell, ‘all lives are valuable, but some lives are more valuable than others.’ Thus some deaths deserve to be lamented more than others. Some deserve to be grieved more than others. The useless waste of some lives deserves more attention than the useless waste of others. There may be no way to resolve this dilemma short term. But noticing it—especially before we rush off to scream for overwhelming and merciless retaliation—reflecting upon it, and eventually perhaps coming to see that the loss and waste of every life on every side is painful and deserving of our attention and our empathy, would certainly be worthwhile.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Moral Nature

Many people, even today, like to see humans as something apart from the rest of the world—the special species that either has so far outdistanced our nearest relatives that comparisons are no longer useful or even possible; or the special species created by God in his own image and likeness, and therefore not even related to the rest of brute creation. Either view massages the human sense of ourselves as elevated, different, and with ultimate dominion over all our planetary co-habitants. Made by God or Nature to rule, we can do whatever we wish to not just the domestic animals we raise and manipulate for food, but to all wild animals as well. And what particularly gives us this sense of ourselves as unique and uniquely in charge is our morality. Though our bodies may run on the same kinds of energy and operate with the same kinds of cells and bodily structures and even brains common to most life forms, and though some primates may be able to communicate using signs we’ve taught them, no other animal has an even remotely comparable sense of fairness, of compassion, of justice. And all those abstract qualities depend chiefly on our highly developed sense of reason—on our brain-centered rationality. We alone can look at a problem, figure out its origins and causes, and come up with a rational solution.
            Now anyone who has been paying attention to science in recent years knows that such views have been getting a terrible buffeting since the days of Charles Darwin. Far from being separate, Darwin showed what subsequent scientists have filled out and firmed up: we descend directly from the rest of creation, and our distance from our nearest relatives, the great apes, seems ever more narrow. We share at least 98.7% of our DNA with bonobos and chimpanzees. Which, again, might be acceptable and leave us some “special” room if only we could still claim some distinction like morality. Alas, according to Frans deWaal, a researcher at Emory University’s renowned primate lab and author of The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (Norton: 2013), this small comfort can no longer be maintained. According to deWaal, and several others he cites, recent research using neuroscience demonstrates that most of our vaunted moral and social distinctions can be found in similar form among bonobos or chimps, or both. Their roots can even be found among just about all mammals as well. What this means is that far from being a gift from the God we’ve been worshipping for several thousands of years in a variety of religions (that great theologian Ronald Reagan in 1984 said: “as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related…”), morality is actually built into our brains, especially our emotional brains.
            This seems to me to be good news. It explains that unlike many conservatives and religionists, who see humans as basically ‘bad’ and therefore in need of harsh rules and punitive controls to ‘civilize’ us, we humans, with our basic equipment deriving from apes, are programmed not only to be good but also to do good. deWaal quotes his colleague at Emory, James Rilling, to the effect that we have “emotional biases toward cooperation that can only be overcome with effortful cognitive control” (49). As deWaal explains it, this means “that our first impulse is to trust and assist; only secondarily do we weigh the option of not doing so, for which we need reasons.” Using brain-monitoring techniques, Rilling showed that when normal people aid others, “brain areas associated with reward are activated.” As deWaal succinctly puts it: Doing good feels good. To be sure, there are psychopaths in any population whose brains, for whatever reasons, lack these emotional rewards. But in a later section, deWaal follows Chris Boehm in surmising that evolution has probably worked to marginalize these outliers: the penalty, in social groups, for not cooperating can be harsh, ranging from ostracism to complete elimination—thus minimizing the propagation of those with such genes.
            What deWaal does in the rest of his book is to show that far from being imposed from above by a law-giving God, or from reasoning by deep-thinking philosophers, the moral law in fact “arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time” (228). This is especially true among animals who live and hunt cooperatively, like dogs, chimpanzees and bonobos:

The most fundamental one [i.e. value] derives from the survival value of group life. The desire to belong, to get along, to love and be loved, prompts us to do everything in our power to stay on good terms with those on whom we depend. Other social primates share this value and rely on the same filter between emotion and action [i.e. on inhibitions] to reach a mutually agreeable modus vivendi. (228).

It also applies to our Neanderthal relatives, who, recent fossil evidence shows, took care of the infirm (individuals afflicted with dwarfism, paralysis, or the inability to chew survived into adulthood) in the same way early humans did. Since Neanderthals lived hundreds of millennia before civilization and its gods, this means, again, that morality and its basis in empathy existed well before civilization itself. Further, since the evidence of empathy among primates is by now well-established (mirror neurons, the brain cells that mediate empathy and allow us to feel what another is going through, were first discovered in macaque monkeys), it seems quite clear that humans easily adopted the moral laws promoted by religions (like the ten commandments) primarily because they were already inclined to be moral. To cooperate. To help others in order that more of the group might survive. And, from the negative side, to avoid hurting others by inhibiting the impulse to do them damage. As deWaal sums it up, “a social hierarchy is a giant system of inhibitions, which is no doubt what paved the way for human morality, which is also such a system” (150).
            This latter point has great relevance for our time, it seems to me. For we are even now engaged in a great debate about what economic system best fits our human nature. Up till very recently, we have been told that capitalism is “natural,” that competition is “natural,” that the war of every individual against every other individual to monopolize resources is “natural.” But if our primate inheritance prizes cooperation, prizes helping others, inhibits us from hurting others, puts the welfare of the group or community above the individual impulse to harm or to hog everything to oneself, then this attribution of “natural” would seem to have serious shortcomings. Consider what deWaal writes about the ideas of fairness and justice, both fundamental components of any moral law. He first cites the “egalitarianism” of hunter-gatherer groups, where “hunters aren’t even allowed to carve up their own kill, in order to prevent them from favoring family and friends” (231). In other words, the inhibition against taking all for oneself or one’s family is a primary form of fairness—and ultimately, of course, a way to ensure not only that all members of the group get a share in any one individual’s luck, but also that reciprocity will dictate that the same fair division will happen when another individual brings home a kill. Many experiments have shown how ingrained this preference or insistence on an even split is, not only among humans, but also among our primate relatives. In one experiment, capuchin monkeys were playing a game, the reward for which was cucumber slices. All the monkeys were ok with this, and played the game. But when the experimenters started to reward some of the monkeys with grapes (a preferred food), the ones still given cucumbers vehemently protested, and indeed, refused to accept the cucumbers at all. They actually tried to destroy the whole game. Economists would call this refusal of perfectly good food “irrational;” but, as deWaal points out, “it is an irrationality that transcends species.” It is a deeply emotional fairness response that all primates exhibit, and that even dogs (also group hunters) exhibit as well. deWaal cites a finding by Friederike Range at the University of Vienna where “dogs refuse to lift their paw for a ‘shake’ with a human if they get nothing for it while a companion dog is rewarded” (234). deWaal summarizes these findings about fairness and justice as “ancient capacities,” which “derive from the need to preserve harmony in the face of resource competition” (234).
            Preserving harmony. The primacy of group welfare. Cooperation. Anger and refusal in the face of inequity. Suddenly it seems that much of the discontent coursing through modern societies is not derived from some outlandish and artificial notion of social justice and fair play. Suddenly it seems that humans, like all other primates, are primed to react emotionally—however irrational it may seem to some—to perceived unfairness and the unequal distribution of goods. When Occupy Wall Street protesters shout and protest about the 1 percent taking all the wealth, leaving the 99 percent with crumbs; when Bernie Sanders, running for president, rages about the obscenely unequal distribution of wealth in the United States; when fast-food workers demand a living wage in spite of their low-skilled jobs; when Greeks demand that their government refuse to pay off loans to predatory banks while cutting pensions and health care; when we all react with nausea when we read of corporate heads paying less in taxes than their secretaries; we should begin to see this not as illogical or irrational but as an upwelling from an ancient part of the primate brain that is built in to what it means to be human. And the constant harping on individuality and “looking out for number one”? That we should see as a regrettable leftover from outlier impulses that should have been, and should still be relegated to the genetic waste bin. Morals and the moral code itself derive from our deep inheritance as cooperating animals whose primary impulse is to get along in order to survive; to inhibit self-centered accumulation as destructive of group harmony; and to help others because helping others feels good.
            Only then, after we have caught up with our primate kin, might we be ready to fulfill our role as fully-human human beings. Which is to say, going even beyond the primate need for in-group survival and realizing, as only humans can, that we must share our empathy and our protection to all life forms that share this planet with us, that literally make it possible for us to even be here.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, October 12, 2015

Immigrant in Paradise: Columbus and ‘Making’ America

 Begin by imagining a scene—of Christopher Columbus on his third voyage. The year is 1498. It is six years since The Admiral of the Ocean Sea ran into the islands of the Caribbean, returned in triumph to dazzle Spain and Europe with tales of his “Indies,” and attempted a second voyage to colonize them, with disastrous results for both himself and the indigenous peoples. He has neither found the gold he was sure he would find there, nor have his Indios turned out as he first thought these “natural Christians” would: they have proved quite willing to defend themselves, and quite unwilling to be enslaved, or even work. Since the Spaniards who have shipped out to settle Española (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) have refused to work either, and show nothing but contempt and loathing for the place, Columbus and his brother Bartolomeo have resorted to draconian measures to try to pacify the island (with all the horror and murder that entailed) and obtain the payoff the Admiral has continually promised, but not found.
            Now this, the third voyage, is designed to take the search farther south—to find the passage to India Columbus is sure exists, and to find the wealth he is even surer dwells in the South: the land and/or islands of the antipodes where everything runs counter to the quotidian world of Europe, where headless men walk upside down, and Amazons rule, and gold is not scarce but plentiful as grass. His hope is that this will be a third voyage in every sense of that magical, trinitarian number.
            Imagine him where he is, then: having successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the third time, he has sighted Trinidad, the island off the coast of Venezuela, and named it after the holy Trinity. He has navigated the strait between Trinidad and what he takes to be yet another large island but is really the huge South American continent, to enter what appears to be more ocean but is really an enclosed gulf, the Gulf of Paria, formed by Trinidad and the continent. He has sailed north in this Gulf forty miles or so to another narrow exit from this strange sea, a sea where salty ocean water mixes with what seems a miraculous quantity of fresh water. He doesn’t attempt to brave this exit yet, though. He decides to go south, coasting southwest in this tropical, balmy wonderland, as gorgeous a place as he has ever seen or even dreamed of, with palm trees and exotic fruit and natives dressed strangely, and strangely light-skinned—lighter-skinned are these southern Indios, he says, than those in Española; lighter-skinned, too, than the natives of Africa who live at the same parallel, where the searing African heat contrasts remarkably with the balmy climate here. He heads southwest to search out a western exit, the strait that he is sure will take him around what must be a southern island off Asia, and to fabulous India and the lands to its south where he is sure there exists, again parallel with Africa, wealth undreamed of.
            The Admiral is not without anxiety about all this. He is carrying three shiploads of supplies for his brother, desperate for them on Española. He is worried about this strange fresh-water sea he’s in—a sea he has now christened the Golfo de la Ballena—the gulf of the whale. And the name, as Columbus’s names always are, is prophetic, mythic. He is Jonah in the belly of the whale, Columbus is now, and he knows it. He has entered it via a dangerous strait—he names it the Boca de la Sierpe, the mouth of the serpent—which, shortly after it is entered, has struck him with a tidal wave so violent and terrifying that years later he could still, he wrote, “feel that fear in my body lest the ship be swamped when she came beneath it.” And while he has found a northern exit, it too smells dangerous because it marks a meeting of two conflicting waters—the ocean trying to enter and the fresh water trying to exit—and so he again mythically names this one the Boca del Dragon: the mouth of the Dragon.
            So imagine him now, a European breasting an unknown continent in a puzzling fresh-water sea, caught between the mouths of, on one hand, a serpent and on the other, a dragon, with a seafloor he can see is constantly shoaling—forming dangerous sandbars that can trap him, run him aground, maroon him forever in the belly of the whale. In truth, it is hard for us to imagine now, what it must feel like to be under sail in sight of land whose location and extent and nature one has not the slightest notion of. No charts. No familiar landmarks at all. Nothing. The sense must be one of total disorientation; dread.
            For Columbus, the moment is even more dizzying, for he had the habit, when at sea in a new place, of staying awake almost constantly, for weeks at a time. On this voyage, his absolute fascination with the North Star has kept him even more wide-eyed and wild-eyed than usual. By sighting on Polaris at nightfall, at midnight, and at dawn, a 15th century mariner could derive some sense of his latitude. Longitude was a matter for instinct alone, but latitude Columbus could determine by the reading at nightfall. It was in this way that he had concluded he was at about the latitude of Sierra Leone in Africa, near the equator. The trouble was, he was also finding a huge disparity between the reading of his star at nightfall and at dawn—some ten degrees—which meant to him something very strange indeed. It meant he had entered a new zone. A special zone, a literally higher zone, though he wouldn’t make sense of it until later. What rolled over him now was that everything was strange: he was in a temperate place—like Andalusia in May—when he should’ve been burning up at the equator. He had seen people who were lighter-skinned rather than darker than those natives he’d seen twice before on Hispaniola. And all was surpassingly beautiful. And puzzling. Enchanting, and dangerous.
            Then he got the news from a ship he had sent to reconnoiter: the exit at the bottom of the gulf (the South American continent itself), which he was sure was the strait to India, turned out to be, appeared to be—a river! Several river mouths. Huge. Unprecedented in their hugeness. A monstrous flow of fresh water was entering the Whale Gulf, so it had to be a river (it was in fact the Orinoco, part of the Amazon). But at first the Admiral refused to believe it. So much water was unheard of, not even the Nile or the Ganges produced such volume. And Columbus was insightful enough as a geographer to realize what it meant: such a huge river would require not a mere island, but the drainage from a huge land mass, a whole continent. Or a miracle.
            Confusion. It was all so confusing and he was so exhausted and pressed for time. And then there were the natives. His men had gone ashore. The natives welcomed them in their ‘naturally Christian’, beautiful way. Fed them, feasted them, made love with them, gave them chicha—the maize liquor of the Indians; in short, treated them like gods and begged them to stay. Promised that there was much gold over the hills (though frustratingly, the metal they actually possessed was a mixture of gold and copper—guanin they called it—and useless from Columbus’s point of view.) Showed them pearls, enormous quantities of pearls which, the natives indicated, could be had by the bushel on the ocean side.
            Pearls. The pearl of great price. He had found it, had Columbus. It was not exactly what he had been hoping for, praying for. It was not the strait or the gold (though in fact there would later turn out to be Andean gold and silver in quantities that even Columbus would have found miraculous). But it was something. And that something, all these various somethings breaking over him like that monstrous tidal wave, breaks him.
            Or rather, something in Columbus breaks here. Something breaks. The tension of not knowing, of not finding what the monarchs have been pressuring him so hard to find, and of now being lost, trapped in dangerous shoaling waters that make no sense, land that makes no sense, climate that makes no sense, his hopes once again dashed, his beliefs once again hard up against intractable, damnable facts—something breaks. He cannot muscle the new world here as he has elsewhere, as he had on the second voyage when he had forced his crew to swear that Cuba was not an island as everything indicated, but a mainland. No, he cannot. And so the new world breaks in upon him, and he knows, though he will to the end of his days deny it, that this new world is, in fact, a new world. Another orb entirely, an otro mundo, he calls it in his letter to the Spanish monarchs, and it is paradisal. In fact, this is as close as Columbus ever gets to a real, an authentic paradise, which in some part of himself he knows. Knows he has come to the end, has completed his quest, completed himself, and should simply stay. He should stay here in paradise. Be in paradise. Give in to the immobility, which to him is paralysis, of Paradise.
            And yet. He does not. That also breaks. He does not stay because he cannot; he has to get moving again, he knows, or die, the whole Indies project will die. So he orders his men to return to the ship, leave the women (save for four Indians he orders seized as “specimens”), leave the chicha, leave the heavenly feel of being treated as gods, and be ready to sail at midnight. And he does. He sails north to the Boca del Dragon, stalls terrified by the clash of waters and winds unable to go back or forward or move at all—until somehow, at the most perilous, paralyzed moment, when all three ships are about to be cast upon the rocks by the currents, feels himself miraculously popped out of the strait, out of the belly of the whale through the mouth of the dragon he is popped like a baby birthed from the womb, “without a scratch.”
            For when God wishes that one or many should live, Las Casas later paraphrases the Admiral, water becomes their medicine [instead of their poison.]
            Thus reborn, the Admiral exults in the movement of sail and wind, of being on the move, always happier Columbus was to be on the ocean and so in motion right past the pearls he directs all three ships as if afraid to stop, hoping he can retrieve them on another trip but never doing so at all. Others harvested his precious pearls, and the non-sailor Vespucci, the very next year, embarked on the voyage that had his name affixed to the entire landmass Columbus had found. But nevermind, without a pause, he heads securely north in what will become his greatest feat of dead reckoning ever, hitting from a strange longitude the island of Española within a few miles of where he has aimed himself.
            Which wasn’t even the most important thing. More important is what happens on the way.  Moving, he is at last moving. And looking back to where he has been. And looking back, he is writing about it in his journal, and meditating on the strangeness he has just witnessed—the North Star variations, and the temperate climate, and the paradisal place its people called ‘Paria,’ ‘Paria’—Paraiso—that’s it! Where he has just been is, it must have been: Paradise. The Earthly Paradise. For do not all the holy books say the Earthly Paradise stands at the farthest point in the East, that it is temperate, that there is a huge outpouring of waters which makes it the source of all the great rivers? They do. Which must be where that huge volume of fresh water was coming from, the heights of Paradise, and that’s where I was, writes Columbus looking backwards. I have been near Paradise. The more I reason on the subject, the more satisfied I become that the terrestrial paradise is situated on the spot I have described.
            Now. Most commentators have found this material embarrassing. Columbus really lost it here, they say. These mad ravings after losing all that sleep must be an aberration in an otherwise great mind, a prototype Renaissance mind that at this moment reverted to naïve medievalism. But in a real sense, a mythopoetic sense, they are wrong. This is the essential Columbus. The rational, that is, rationalizing Columbus. Who cannot simply be, but must think, must do, must make something. For the point is this. Columbus was, in fact, in a kind of paradise. The most paradisal place he had ever been, or ever would be. Or perhaps anyone ever will be: in a world fresh, new, unfettered, unfiltered, unspoiled. He was there. He was invited to stay. He wanted to stay (and his men certainly did). But he did not stay. He could not. Could not just be. Which is what one does in Paradise. Be in and of one’s place.
            Rather, Columbus had to get moving. He had to move and do something. Make something. He had to make Paradise in his mind. He had to look back, mentally, and decide, ‘that’s what it was, I have been in Paradise.’ Unable to simply be where he was, he had to get away, and then look back and mentally create it, recreate it, write about it. Make an artifact of it. And, in fact, his artifact endures because his evocation of the new world as paradise, as the site of the Earthly Paradise, is the first move in the long western myth we are all still living—that Paradise is in fact possible here on earth. Do-able. Utopia, all our modern utopias stem from Columbus. And the attempt to make utopias on earth, including socialism, communism, and the American experiment itself (including all its various utopias, like Brook Farm) all stem from this moment. Which is how all the centennials have presented Columbus: as engenderer of the American myth, the paradise-on-earth-can-be-made-by-man myth—to be created first with mental, imaginative moves, then with politico-cultural moves, and more recently with the scientific, technological moves that define our present.
            Which is also to say that, Vespucci notwithstanding, it is Columbus who ‘makes’ America, Columbus who, thereby, creates every Italian immigrant. Consider: In the Italian villages from which most migrants came, a person, no matter how poor or disenfranchised he might be—and most were dirt poor and totally disenfranchised—still had a place. A place to be. As a human, as a Christian, everyone had a being, an identity in place and of place that went back centuries. Of the soil of which they were made. Of the local stone of which their homes were made. Of the village of which their families were made. And knowing this in their bones allowed them to have an identity, a being, regardless of what they did or did not do. Regardless of earthly achievement or possessions, in other words.
            When they arrived in America, all that changed, and identity was lost. For them, as for all Europeans, America was the place of no place; the place not of being, but of doing. You are what you do, what you accomplish. It was not enough to simply be a human living, being in place. One had to “make America.” This is the expression the Italian immigrants coined, fare l’America, and it is a beautiful and multi-leveled expression. It means to “make it” economically, yes, to make money, which is the sign in America always that one has ‘done something.’ But it also means to make America itself, remake it, make its roads, yes, which is to make its culture, its society, its government, its way of being a paradise. Remake it, retake it out of the wilderness to remake it on the ideal model. Flatten it. Make roads as grids that cut straight through the natural landscape, not circling villages on hilltops according to the natural terrain, as in their native Italy, but flattening the whole thing, including its native people. And in the process, making, remaking oneself, flattening oneself and one’s gestural, expressional self as well as remaking oneself as a flat-out and flattened-out mover, maker, do-er, shaker.
            And for all this, the pattern laid down by Columbus was the ur-process. Columbus in Paria could not simply be; could not simply be in Paradise, be in his place. He had to flee, move on, and then make paradise, think it, construct it as a mental artifact that would have great resonance in the world he was desperate to move up in, the world of great accomplishments by great men whose names, like those of the great Romans even then being resuscitated by the Italian Renaissance, were remembered. And that is precisely what he did. Once out of Paria and away, he looked back on the information he had, and made sense of it by consulting his books and ‘realizing’ that the place he had been, higher than normal as the North Star proved, was close to heaven because the earth must have a bulge right there, and the bulge, the pear shape, the nipple on the breast of the globe (all his images of mothers are significant), was the site of the Earthly Paradise and he, Columbus, had been approaching it by a gradual ascent. Had found it. And written about it. He wrote about it in his letter to the Spanish Queen:
..but this western half of the world, I maintain, is like the half of a very round pear, having a raised projection for the stalk, as I have already described, or like a woman’s nipple on a round ball…I do not suppose that the earthly paradise is in the form of a rugged mountain, as the descriptions of it have made it appear, but that it is on the summit of the spot, which I have described as being in the form of the stalk of a pear; the approach to it from a distance must be by a constant and gradual ascent… (Four Voyages to the New World: pp. 131, 137)
And writing about it, in his view, made it so.
            He could not, in sum, be at home in Paria, in Paradise. He could be only the idea of it, the conjuring it and writing about it looking back.
            This is the tragedy of us all, particularly us Americans. We cannot simply be. Cannot simply be in place, because the paradise which is being-in-place is not available in America—the place of no place, as the name itself suggests. Named for Amerigo Vespucci, the word “america,” as analyzed by Djelal Kadir in Columbus and the Ends of the Earth, parses into several roots from Greek—the negative “a,” plus the root, “meri”, plus the genitive ending for earth, “ge” (from Amerigo)—all of which scans as “no-place-earth.” America: no-place land. And if we look closely at America and the settlement of the North American landscape by European immigrants, we see that, in fact, America has always been interpreted by Europeans, acted upon by Europeans as empty, as lacking, as a land of no-place. As U-topia, which itself scans as no-place. And what this suggests is that Americans from the beginning have never been interested in the place as place. As land. As land having meaning and history and depth, as it did to its indigenous peoples. No, the land and its peoples have interested Americans mainly as obstructions blocking movement across and through it to take from it and them whatever could be taken as fast as it could be taken and sold. Land and people as commodities.
            In this, as in all things, Columbus in Paria is the progenitor. For if he had indeed found Paradise, if he had been, if not there, at least within striking distance, why did he not stay? Why could he not stay? Peter Mason, in Deconstructing America, offers a clue: “the siren-like hold which the natural world of America exerts on Columbus can be shaken off only by the process of disenchantment, by which Columbus transforms the wealth of natural beauty into a commodity” (p. 170). The enchantment of Paradise requires a disenchantment. Otherwise, we fear, we fall back or regress into paralysis, into nothingness, into the annihilation of all boundaries, all oppositions. And one way to disenchant ourselves from all this is to ‘transform the wealth of natural beauty into a commodity.’ We destroy the natural topography to mine the earth, we flatten the natural topography to grid it and industrialize it for agriculture, we poison the soil and its variety with a pervasive monoculture, and then we destroy once-bountiful agricultural land to fashion endless, invariant, vacant suburbs.
            Making America, in this sense, is making America empty; void of all that makes for place, makes for a place worth living in, makes it a Geography of Nowhere, as James Kunstler puts it. So while Columbus’ journey is, indeed, our enduring myth—that is, that Paradise is actually an achievable thing, here on earth—the irony is that that achievement ultimately, and disastrously becomes the achievement of no-place. Or perhaps this is not ironic at all; perhaps it was implicit in the journey, in the language of that journey from the beginning. Paradise, unlike Utopia, is not something we do or make. It is not no-place. Paradise is precisely place, originally a garden. A place that makes us, keeps us in place, provides us with who we are, maintains us as we are. And it is Columbus who shows us just how perilous-seeming the reality of that can be, and how urgent appears the need to flee from it.
 Lawrence DiStasi