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Wake up, America

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Image of American Bison is in the public domain Image of American Bison is in the public domain

Ten years later, the view from the Scenic Route is less than promising

September 11, 2011. Ten years after, we’ve become entangled in—yet not won—two wars; gutted our economy, as well as that of much of the rest of the world; and called off the race for space.

We are addicted to oil. We will pay anything for it, including the blood of our young men and women. We are addicted to money and what we think it will buy. In a process that began long before the planes crashed into the towers in New York, we squandered the future of our children and our children’s children; indebting ourselves in a quest for whatever concoction Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Hollywood tells us that we need to be happy.

As a culture, we have stopped thinking, but that may be a latter-day announcement, as it appears that we have never been too prone to thinking. As the reasoning animal, we can be downright unreasonable.

Four-hundred-eighty-nine years ago, right around 1620, there landed on the eastern edge of this continent a new order. In five centuries, that order has plundered Eden and killed its native cultures, destroyed a million years of evolution by eradicating every species profitable to sell or standing in the way of “progress,” and remodeled the continent to serve its personal wants. Hundreds of aquatic species died as our rivers were turned from incredible fisheries and sources of annual renewal into commercial highways and sewers. Four million indigenous humans died of European diseases, starvation, exposure and ethnic warfare. A hundred million bison died to make way for plow and cattle. A billion beavers died to make hats for aristocracy. A trillion prairie dogs were poisoned in the name of better grazing.

At the death of each of these, we lost something irretrievable, entire ecologies and natural communities that sustained and maintained this continent in happy stasis for at least 12,000 years. We took no time to learn how it worked, except in retrospective attempts to figure out why it’s not working. We just took. And took. And took.

I don’t like writing things like this. Part of those reading (if anyone reads this) will be put off by such a downer, stop reading, go on about their consumptive ways, buy another toy for themselves and think about remodeling the kitchen. Another part, hunkered into a right-makes-might mentality, will label me as unpatriotic and un-American, send invectives my way and label me as fag or communist.

This might be a downer, but I’m neither unpatriotic nor un-American. I love this country and the people who live here—or most of them—or I wouldn’t bother writing stuff like this. What I don’t like is how gullible we are. When it comes to our self-image, sense of well-being and view to the future, we act like impressionable, clueless, frightened children, letting others tell us how to act, what to look like, what to think and where to spend our money. The marketers of stuff and “lifestyle” love our impressionability.

Wake up America.

Many of us blame the troubles of our country on a man who has been in office for less than three years and inherited the most daunting challenges ever faced by an American president. He is hindered by a bickering Congress, the main objective of which seems to be to take care of the personal fortunes of its members and those of a few friends, and two wars his predecessor started and did not have the guts to finish by full engagement, much less enough foresight and courage to stay out of in the first place. If President Obama is paralyzed, it is by inaction, factionalism and petty interests of the government he inherited. That, added to the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that always surrounds a powerful “man of color,” assures that he is getting nothing done.

If you can get outside of your own self-interest, prejudices, preconceptions, jingoism and short-sightedness and take a look at the real, live, honest-to-God history of this country, you will be able to see clearly that we are in a bit of trouble here. We have turned our back on both our environment and our charter. We have betrayed the wondrous gift this continent was, acting like a bunch of greedy three-year-olds alone with a birthday cake, and the richness of it has made us ill. In the wake of the attacks of ten years ago, and the continued and much publicized threat of global terrorism (God bless the sensationalist media), we are ignoring our charter in the name of national security. We have become a Chicken Little society, crying “The sky is falling,” while greedy, powerful factions sell us on the idea that this or that will keep us safe and that or this will make us happy.

You might think by our actions since September of 2001 that the terrorists are winning.

We’ve come to the place where, as a good essayist, I’m supposed to offer the solution to this mess we are in. I can’t see one easy enough to outline in the extra space Ms. Gannon has allowed me this month. But, I do see an analogous situation we can learn from: the four stages of grief—anger, denial, acceptance and recovery. As a nation, and a planetary population, we have a deal of grief work to do.

What shall we grieve? Here is a very short list.

The bison. The beaver. The Nez Perce. The dodo. The carrier pigeon. The people who died at Ground Zero. The right whale. The Ogalala. The people of Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Sudan, Afghanistan and every other place where the global armaments industry has made—and continues to make—life miserable for the masses. The free-born salmon. The indigenous peoples of Siberia, where Big Oil is working unchecked to supply our addiction to gasoline. Our youth as a nation. The Cherokee. Our own foolishness. Our own greed. The Apache. Our rivers, fisheries and aquifers, which are dying from our attention. Tibet. Our chance to go to space, killed by our horrid, self-made economy and shortsighted, selfish legislatures.

We must grieve our collective innocence.

We are stuck in the anger and denial stages, trying to reclaim the irredeemable, but our world will never be the same as it was before September 11, 2001, or before 1620, for that matter. The root of our problems lies much deeper in our past than that day ten years ago. Ground Zero is merely the exclamation point on the end of a long sentence of personal and corporate greed that began long before Western European man fell into this continent.

Our anger and denial are manifest in the finger-pointing and blaming so common in our popular media today, a completely unproductive and destructive indulgence of our culture that masks the root causes of our situation. If any one of us is to blame for our losses, it is all of us. We are in this mess together and have been since it began centuries ago. We have continuously chosen shortsighted solutions designed to increase the wellbeing of the current generation, with no thought to what our grandchildren and their grandchildren will inherit.

In acceptance, we must let sink in the reality of our world and what has been done to it in the name of personal gain and acknowledge that much of what we once had is gone—if not forever, then for a long, long time. To recover, we must figure out how to get out of the mess we are in. Acceptance means taking an appropriate amount of blame for our own situation. Recovery means taking responsibility for cleaning up the mess.

And, there’s a lot to do—hundreds of years of work, generations of work.

Where from here? Perhaps we should pray our national prayer. “God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above.”

It is a dark night we are stumbling through, here in the post-9-11 world. If we say that prayer and it is answered, it will be because each of us helps to illuminate the way. The last step, recovery, is up to all of us. It is only by working together that we are going to get out of this mess alive—as a country, as a planet, as a species. As Americans, we have to stop running scared. We have to start thinking for ourselves, and tell the blamers and finger-pointers to shut up and sit down. We have to quit buying stuff that we don’t need and take our life decisions out of the hands of Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Hollywood. We have to turn off the television, quit acting like lemmings and choose leadership that takes us in good directions instead of on to the edge of the cliff.

The American Dream is not about stuff. It isn’t about national security. It’s not about personal gain. It’s about living in freedom, which we cannot do if we are enslaved to anything, whether it is fear, our addictions to oil and money, our own greed—corporate and individual—or a faulty perception of our current situation.

The “light from above,” enhanced by our own higher thoughts, will illuminate things we may not wish to look at—our murky past and what it has done to us as individuals, as a culture and as a planetary environment—but it is imperative that we do so, or we will be “as grass thrown into the furnace,” a flash and a bit of heat that briefly lit and warmed the human race. 

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

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Homepage, Headlines, 9-11, grief, greed, The American Dream

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