These three words etched on a single poster hanging in the car as I ride the New York subway R train uptown from a brief shopping tour of SoHo. (That’s right, I have a wife and child, both expecting gifts from America.) The next poster on the car wall reads – Luxury Is A Way Of Life; then follows the final invocation – Live In The Moment. So goes the new marketing campaign of Caesars’ Casino and Resort Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, loudly proclaiming the philosophy of our self-indulgent and aggressive Western hegemony as it spreads its greedy tentacles across the globe. Imagine, a casino enjoining us to a mission of conquest with the reminder that whatever money can buy is our proper goal; and finally, exhorting us to this life of luxury is the promoter’s idea of being in the moment. How ironic, no?
Yet, this call to conquest has been with us well before casino capitalism, even before the original Caesars ruled over the Roman Imperium in fact – escalating exponentially ever since. With respect to the Americas, the insatiable need for conquest began as a natural extension of the Enlightenment and the European power drive. As Howard Zinn has well documented in his work, A People’s History of the United States:
…the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money… marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christorpher Columbus. Columbus wrote: ‘As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.’ (1-2)
Of course, the Italian-born sailor was looking for gold and rare spices to satisfy his hungry sponsors and paymasters back in Spain. As Zinn concludes:
Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas… [characterized by] conquest, slavery and death. (7)
I imagine that many of us have by now been stripped of our illusions concerning the fair-mindedness of political systems here as elsewhere in the “civilized” West. We have labored under the comforting, but mistaken impression that States can be democratic, and that democracy works – that voting means something, and that presidents, unlike princes, monarchs, kings, or popes, are driven by a selfless desire to maximize individual freedom and listen to the voice of the body politic. All of this has become so much hollow chatter now, echoed relentlessly by countless believers as well as the high priests of our diverse institutional hierarchies.
We, the people, are worn-out. Like that proverbial “old grey mare,” we’ve been rode hard and put away wet. (God, that week in Montana certainly has affected me!) “Hope” has become just another four-letter word hidden in the folds of the saddlebags of those rustlers looking to separate us from that which we hold dearest – our soul, our feral core. Branded as citizens of the State, we have been well trained in the domesticating arenas of our corporate and authoritarian sponsors. We have learned to respond to their commands without flinching or even thinking. We are well domesticated, like our horses, cattle, and dogs.
What statement remains for us to make, politically? What new avenues for rectification are available? Or, are such statements any longer relevant? Are the proposed roads out of here simply more evidence of magical thinking? These questions haunt us as we, here in the States, observe the latest spectacle – like Festus v. Little Joe – unfolding before a vacant electorate. We have heard fellow travelers here in America suggest that the vote means nothing, given that the two parties are really both beholden to one and the same oligarchic authorities. So, why vote? I assume many of you no longer support the likes of Monsanto or Big Pharma, for example. Perhaps you are even living partially off-grid, no longer contributing to the utility companies profits. Then why cast a vote and support the sham that this electoral process represents? Why not sit it out; take your horse and go for a ride up canyon. Take your boots off and rest a spell under a nice shade tree. What if three-quarters of the enfranchised populace of this country decided to do just that? What statement would it make? Perhaps, our handlers (those fine folks from Homeland Security) would feel compelled to compel us to go to the polls, round us up with the help of the armed forces, and attempt to force some semblance of legitimacy onto the charade.
As the artfully constructed foundation of our apparent social contract continues to erode and deteriorate before our eyes, on a globe that continues to burn itself out nation-by-nation, state-by-state, and city-by-city, we grasp hopelessly for something to ground us. But, all we feel are the flames and the heat of an exhausted planet, witnessing frustrated populations, tired of being ridden, and wildly bucking against the bit in their mouths.
But, wait! Yet again, we hear the song of that mythical bird of hope, Gamajun, beckoning us; now promising us the magic of an unnaturally immaculate technological future – virtual fulfillment, delivering that eschatological promise of the American dream – a dream born of the conquest of the New World. Therein lies our apparent salvation; a vision of the lord – whichever one you subscribe to – riding in on a high-speed Internet connection to deliver us from the evil empire, and save those of us who are strong enough to remain dedicated to the campaign. It is just as religiously driven as was Columbus in his earliest conquests. Again from Zinn:
He [Columbus]was full of religious talk: ‘Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.’ (4)
So, there you have it, salvation through conquest. But our salvation appears to be a virtual future lived in virtual freedom, anonymity, and solipsism. This is what we have been led to crave, and to purchase at a price. We enslave others and ourselves in the conquest. And, we rob the earth and the cultures of the world in the process.
Indeed, as I glance around the subway car I am now riding in, deep under the streets of Manhattan, I understand the nature of this emergent salvific future of our conquest-and-consumer-driven culture. Brightly colored ear-buds and headphones light up the subway car, busily pumping digital music into the brains of those surrounding me. Smart phones, as well, are busied by peoples of all ages, from eight to eighty years, texting messages, viewing photos, reading emails, or just listening to their tunes in solipsistic silence. I am now beginning to understand our modern concept of freedom; it is the freedom of absolute privacy; it is the solipsistic anonymity of the fully individuated, subjective self, set apart from an objectified world within a little compartment of the mind. I text, therefore, I am!