One of my seminars this semester is called “The Formation of the Americas” and in it we are looking at theatre and performance in Central and South America from pre-Hispanic times to conquest and then colonization. Of concern to many of us in the class is how we can even begin to imagine what the world was like for people 400 years ago and from a culture so different from our own.
We read about different notions of time and the universe. Of sacrifice and cannibalism. Then we read about the actions of the Spanish and the violence they delivered upon the native bodies in those times and places and we temper our horror with a notion of cultural relativism (neither of which are entirely wrong, neither of which are entirely right).
Are we so different?
We do not sacrifice men and women on an alter by cutting out their hearts.
We do not order the rape and slaughter of thousands of indigenous people.
We go about in a world so seemingly different than the “New World” of 400 years ago that one instinct is to make of that time, that place, an alien world.
But who makes our clothes? Who assembles our precious electronics? How many children are killed in our name in far off lands when entire villages are destroyed in firefights and missiles? How many people died for that diamond ring encircling a loved one’s finger?
When Guantanamo Bay holds people that are known to be innocent of terrorism but still detained because . . . well, just because, how is that not sacrificing the bodies of the innocent upon an alter of power?
One might say that the population at the time, in that place, didn’t see those acts of sacrifice and power as wrong in any way and I wonder, do we? Do we really see the acts perpetrated in the name of national security as wrong? Do we see those sacrificed on the altar of unbridled capitalism as wronged or simply unfortunate? Might we not be as culpable in the destruction of lives as any of the Mexica Priests or the Conquistadors. Our technology is built upon the destruction of resources and, quite often, the health and lives of millions. Our economy is predicated upon the necessity for poverty. The comfort and relative luxury of our lives (even those of us who are grad students) is built upon the blood and sweat and, yes, lives of others less fortunate than us.
Are we so very different or do we just hold the priestly knives and the conquering swords at a distance? Or do we simply (there is no simply about it) allow ourselves the illusion that we are not like the past, that we are not like them, or that they are not like us. Because if they are like us, if we are like them, what responsibilities would such a recognition unleash?
Let me be quite specific here and stop talking about some general and unnamed plurality:
Do I really have less blood on my hands than those in the past when I make no effort to stop the injustices committed and the blood that flows in my name for my material wealth, for my technological fetishes, or for my luxuries that stem directly from the inequalities and violences that the American Empire has meted out on many parts of the world? Is that blood any less attributable to issues of power and wealth and ideology now than 400 years ago?