Meditation on Sylvester Park

Olympia, Washington proclaims itself an “All-American City” of 40,000. This capitol city is home to an immediately familiar square-block size park –Sylvester Park. It is a remarkable bit of open space where people mingle free of charge.

Here, a lush green lawn defies all seasons, and knotty old hardwoods beg to be climbed. A white-painted gazebo is in the middle, and a statue of a man stands across from it. Simple as it is, it serves its function. Throughout the year, and at different times of day, Sylvester Park hosts a variety of guests: employees on breaks quickly ingesting coffee or nicotine, downtown shoppers resting sore feet on benches, capitol tourists, jugglers and kids at play, homeless people –crowds of youths with mean-looking purple Mohawks alternating with Vietnam Vets, various public rallies, peace vigils, and the weekly “Food-Not-Bombs” free warm meal to the hungry people of our state’s capitol.

By all accounts, the park is a splendid little space that unconditionally accepts the multitude of diversity entering, passing thru, and sometimes sleeping in it. This park should be familiar to all, even though you probably haven’t visited it –only the name and location changes.

But as parks go, each is unique. What sets Sylvester Park apart from all the others is a hardly-noticeable chunk of granite the size of a large pumpkin in one corner of the park. On this rock is a plaque demarcating the end of the Oregon Trail. Yes, this is where the now infamous Lewis & Clark expedition arrived in 1844, before turning back to report their findings, catalyzing the Western expansion of the United States across an entire continent and all that stood in its way.

It is this unremarkable stone marker that causes me to pause and think about American history –past, present, and future.

By 2003, we’ve had ample time to see the results of the ideology of Manifest Destiny —the notion that it is the white man’s God-given right and obligation to conquer nature and all its wild creatures from sea to shining sea, was a nightmare for anyone and anything that got in the way. This idea turned national obsession justified so much terror and destruction that we cannot ignore the lesson. However, that seems to be what we are doing.

Manifest Destiny was more than a national motto; it was a crucial element of the building of the American economy. Capitalism requires continuous economic growth –that means expanding the control of resources –human, natural or otherwise. And in that sense, today’s imperial aggression by the United States in the Middle East is a predictable consequence of our economic system. Indeed, the inflation of Manifest Destiny to the control of the entire planet’s resources is where we stand today by choice.

I turn to the formation of this country to examine the effects of Manifest Destiny and the mythological “white knight” that still rides around trying to justify his right to manage the world’s resources, because Father knows best.

America’s history with regard to Native American nations is smeared with bloody massacres, lies, broken treaties, racism, biological warfare, and blatant genocide. Historian Howard Zinn notes that over 9 of 10 million Native Americans were wiped off this Earth, never to return. The remaining survivors and their kin faced other forms of oppression aimed at erasing their identities and cultures.

Today the Bill of Rights appears teetering on decay, but were our cherished Civil Rights ever there?

The United States, for all practical purposes, outlawed the religions, languages and cultures of the remaining Native Americans. Cultural destruction was a part of warfare. Children were kidnapped only to be indoctrinated in residential Christian schools as recently as the 1950s. The reservation system is akin to the detention camps of Japanese Americans during WWII and the isolation of Palestinians in refugee camps by the US-sanctioned and funded Israeli government. On the reservations we find rampant alcoholism, high unemployment, lack of basic services, and near-total social and cultural disintegration, completing the intentional process of slow genocide.

Of course, along with the violation of millions of people, came the destruction of a vast and rich continent. Killing of the buffalo, raping of the forests, poisoning of the water, damning of the living rivers, pollution of the air, and overuse of the Midwest prairies which continues on today, would not have been possible without our drive for more territory. And that’s just some of the effects of US imperialism at home. Abroad, the story isn’t any better.

Given the facts of history, we have to ask this question: Will the treatment of the people and territory of Iraq be much different? There is no evidence pointing toward a brighter future ? so long as the history of US-Middle East relations, if you can call it that, continues on the same historical path.

Even the barest history of US intervention in the Middle East shows our true intentions, and the likely outcomes of another US invasion of Iraq on what Noam Chomsky terms ‘unimportant people’ who happen to be living there.

In 1933 US-based oil companies swindled Saudi Arabia out of its enormous oil wealth, by giving them $775,000 for a 60-year concession to exploit its oil reserves. We continue to maintain close relations with this clearly unjust dictatorship. Saudi Arabia is also a bastion of terrorism, home of Osama bin Laden, and the majority of the September 11 hijackers.

Throughout the 1980’s we supported and provided arms to Iraq, under the same evil Saddam Hussein, while simultaneously equipping Iran with arms in hopes of eliminating two countries full of ‘unimportant people’ with one stone. When Hussein used chemical weapons on his own population and on Iranian soldiers, we turned a blind eye, seeing as those chemicals were provided to Iraq by the US.

In 1990 Iraq stopped cooperating with US interests when soldiers invaded Kuwait, threatening our access to affordable and plentiful oil fields. The Persian Gulf War sought to protect our energy needs, and succeeded by encouraging Hussein to turn his aggression on Iraqi citizens who were deceivingly encouraged by the US to rise up and overthrow him, only to be crushed when coalition forces retreated. To keep our friendly dictator in line, the United States imposes economic sanctions on the country, sanctions which cost more than 500,000 lives by 1997, and probably as many more since then, according the United Nations.

Since peace negotiation began between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the United States has worked to prevent successful negotiations, rhetoric aside. We’ve succeeded. Hence, the Palestinians feel the pain of US-Israeli terrorism on a daily basis, while their Middle East neighbors watch helplessly.

These tidbits of US history in the Middle East are enough to expose US intentions for what they are –a desperate grab for the Middle East-s fossil fuel resources –at any cost. This is not so much for maintaining our own fossil fuel economy, but rather to control the growth of foreign economies and to siphon potential oil revenues to Western corporations. With Iraq controlling 10% of known reserves, and with Hussein no longer in our pocket, its no wonder why the second Bush Administration, consisting largely of oil company executives, turned on its former ally.

Its true, Saddam Hussein is a dictator and a criminal. He should be charged with crimes against humanity and tried in the International Criminal Court. Perhaps this will happen after the United States seizes control of Iraq. Of course we are not above assassinating him, either.

But Saddam Hussein is one man. What about everyone else?

Millions of Iraqi civilians will remain alive, if US bombs haven’t hit them, and a distant dictator named G.W. Bush will rule them. While the ruling class in Iraq will likely maintain their privileges after a US invasion, the majority of the populace will need to be kept in its place. A population of 23 million people is too many people to carry out a genocidal campaign without international intervention, but we can certainly indoctrinate and acculturate them into Western capitalist society. Then they will join their working American counterparts who can’t meet basic needs. The only difference will be the name: Democracy. The only problem with democracy is that you must choose capitalism or else the American fist of capitalism will shoot you down. Make no mistake, democracy isn’t what’s on the table here. That’s just the codeword for capitalism. True democracy is irrelevant.

Back in Sylvester Park, I envision America standing on this mini-precipice of history. From here we see the horrific results of our conquest of nature and humans ? surrounded by buildings, streets, and gas-guzzling SUVs. Underneath our feet, if we choose to peak, we will find Earth buried in a concrete grave, and the token remnants of native culture refusing to die even as we attempt to crush what is left.

Behind us the trail is forever forged. Many are still waiting for us to make amends. Our one saving grace: the future direction is yet to be chosen. Let us learn from history and choose wisely, taking whatever risks are necessary to ensure the survival of us All.

If you believe there is no choice, or that its already been made, then you shall fulfill your own horrific prophecy. And that’s what the ruling elite want you to believe. Don’t. Make a choice and stand for peace!

KRYSTAL KYER, veteran, member of United For Peace –Thurston County. She can be reached at: kyer@counterpunch.org.


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