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Coming to Terms with Genocide

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Last week I set the context for why America needs to delve deeper into our history to clear patterns that are contributing to our current self-centeredness. Many of these patterns have historical roots in the misuse of power, which leads towards inflationary compensation. Our founding philosophy aspires towards universal rights, which are linked to a deep respect for the potential in each of us. However, the way in which we have wielded power often does not reflect that deep respect. To understand this gap between our ideals and our embodiment of those ideals, we need to start very early in our history.

The first historical fact that has never been adequately faced, understood, and integrated is the fact that we are a country founded on genocide. We celebrate the history of our founding fathers and their noble strivings and forget that we are living on land taken from decimated peoples. The continent Europeans "discovered" had a long history of settlement, with a great diversity of societies. In1492, there were at least 10-25 million indigenous people north of Mexico (some estimates run much higher). Many of these peoples had sophisticated civilizations, mature philosophies, and advanced systems of government. Some met the European invaders with generosity, which was typically then exploited. Others fought back, which often merely hastened their demise. Within a few hundred years of conquest and disease, less than 1 million Native Americans remained.

We need to let that fact sink in: America was founded on a Native American genocide more extensive than that of Hitler's genocide of the Jews (6 million killed). This historical fact, when soberly faced, explains a great deal about why our country's heart is not truly open, why we are prone to compensatory arrogance, and why we struggle to live in harmonious ways. It is a massive wound that has never truly been healed. We have not confessed the damage, humbly worked towards reconciliation, and learned the deeper lessons about power this experience could teach us. The avoidance of that process keeps us in a rosy, idealized vision of ourselves that perpetuates naivete and gives license to arrogance.

Mature use of power requires an ability to see oneself clearly as both a potential perpetrator and a potential victim and then to transcend that dichotomy by consecrating power to the service of the whole. Power wielded for the sake of the few reinforces a separative psychology that is ultimately rooted in scarcity, fear, and greed. Such a psychology cannot lead to a peaceful and prosperous society.

To wield power in a healthy way, we need to go beyond the psychology of perpetrators and victims, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed. The key to transcending that dichotomy is that we need to come to terms with BOTH the oppressors and oppressed in us. We need to see the power-mad Hitler in us as well as the Jew being sent to the gas chamber. If we cannot see ourselves in both, our identity becomes lopsided and thus potentially dangerous, especially as we wield increasing power.

Americans tend to sculpt a view of our history that concentrates on our liberation of the oppressed, such as liberation from England ("no taxation without representation"), liberation from Europe's religious strictures, and liberation from state-controlled economies through capitalism. We see ourselves as the redeemer of the victim and the liberator of the downtrodden. We love underdogs that triumph. Our great rallying call of Freedom similarly speaks to the triumph of the oppressed. And it is undeniably true about America that in many cases we have acted as a great liberator.

Identifying ourselves primarily with this positive side, however, means that we have a much more challenging time seeing ourselves as oppressors. We have an almost allergic reaction to evidence that we are in the wrong. We are healers, innovators, and liberators not selfish rulers, exploiters, and neo-colonialists, right? The truth is that we are both.

I return to our Native American genocide. It is significant for the psychology of the entire country because it was our first and perhaps most egregious example of being the oppressors - the exterminators of a people through aggression. In refusing to really experience the horror of what our ancestors perpetrated on the native people's of this land, we become blind to seeing ourselves as oppressors.

Facing America's original genocide and doing the work of reconciliation is one of the important keys to opening the door to a mature relationship with power. First, doing so can lead us to recognize that we are also aggressors, an essential precondition to being able to wield power with wisdom as well as be truthful about current instances in which we are acting as oppressors. Second, it opens us to a deeper connection to the land on which we live. So long as we ignore the festering wound in our relationship with this land, we tend to live in unsustainable, ungrounded, and disrespectful ways. Third, the work of healing our original genocide can reconnect our culture as a whole with Native lineages, which offer essential wisdom for our present time and could have a much more prominent role in our country's conscious sense of lineage.

All of these three things would help to curb our current arrogance. Arrogance is the ego's way to compensate for a feeling of inadequacy through inflation. America's arrogance reflects our intuition of a powerful destiny, followed by an attempt to inflate into that role before we've matured into it more organically. To wield power in a sacred way requires humility, which in turn requires facing all the ways we have misused power.

Facing genocide requires a humbling of the national ego, which is actually a very good thing. Germany, for instance, is now becoming a mature country in many ways - productive, democratic, socially conscious, and green. It has helped to advance a larger political alliance in Europe though it once sparked the bloodiest wars. It has matured by facing the shadow side of its impulse towards "greatness" - which manifested in the urge to dominate the world and create a master race, exterminating those who didn't make the cut. Its initiation into adulthood as a country came through the devastation on all levels that resulted from WWII. They were rubbled, humbled, and humiliated as a country, which allowed something nobler, more mature, and more generous to emerge.

I hope that America does not need a dramatic humbling to overcome our arrogance and self-indulgence. I hope that we can face our collective shadows with an open heart, do what it takes to heal the past and establish right relationship with the peoples we have harmed. Then we can earn our greatness through humility rather than assuming it through domination.

Sacred America Series #9
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Stephen Dinan is the author of Radical Spirit and the founder of the Radical Spirit community, as well as the Director of Membership and Marketing for the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in human (more...)

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