Saturday, November 22, 2008

What are we saying?

Being a student of the English language I have always been fascinated by how human development can be seen in the words we use and how we use them. But I am even more fascinated when it can NOT be seen. I’ll give you some great examples: The word “communism” has the same roots as words and phrases like “community”, “cooperate”, “communing with nature” and many others that are positive. Yet if someone calls another person a communist, even if the namecaller or the namecalled doesn’t fully understand the meaning of the word, hasn’t read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and knows little or nothing of the politics associated with the word, you might have a fight on your hands.

Societies have succeeded, even thrived using the principals of communism. The North American Inuit and native peoples depended on communist ideals to survive. And for centuries they did survive despite harsh climate and conditions only to be decimated by the people who are now the greatest proponents of obliterating those ideals. Everything was shared amongst the tribe. When explorers of the north like Martin Frobisher first saw the Inuit people they were amazed at how ownership had no meaning. If a man wanted to hunt he would find a sled and some dogs in the community that were not being used and without asking, take them. The people from whom the sleds and dogs were borrowed would simply assume another person needed them and think nothing of it. Indeed, the people of North America during that time most probably thought that the idea of ownership was against human nature. You can just bet the European explorers took full advantage of this phenomenon! Only the sleds, clothes, tools, carvings, implements, dogs, even people that were “borrowed” from the Inuit communities and brought back to Europe were never returned causing great hardship to the tribes.

Another word that is more recently being demonized by North American speakers of English is the word “socialism.” It’s another word that has its roots in the positive interaction of people. It is good to be a “social” person and bad to be antisocial. Why then is it bad to be a socialist? Well you can’t talk about communism and socialism without bringing up their ugly brother, capitalism. Without question the roots of this word ARE the most negative of the three. If communism and socialism are Adam and Eve, capitalism is the snake. Capital means money, therefore capitalism is “moneyism.” Whereas socialism purports the love of society and communism is based on loving the community, capitalism is the veritable root of all evil: the love of money. It is this brother’s need to exist independent of his siblings, and our inexplicable love affair with this brother in North America that has changed the connotations of the aforementioned words.

If this is the first time you have ever read capitalism being talked about in such a negative way, isn’t that fascinating? I find it fascinating that the word “moneyism” is underlined by a red squiggly line on my computer but if I type “commie”, no squiggly line. But perhaps when one looks at the history of Microsoft, the makers of the program I am using to type this, one shouldn’t be so surprised.

Getting back to the early North Americans, what was it that made it seem necessary for these people, living in harmony with nature and each other, to be so violently taken out? I don’t think it was just their ideas of sharing things. In fact I believe those ideas would have been espoused by European settlers and become a more prevalent part of modern North American life had they NOT excluded the ownership of one thing: people. This is what I believe caused our forefathers to believe native North Americans were primitive, even savage. What an abomination! They did not OWN other human beings. For this they had to be slaughtered.

Don’t think me harsh. The idea of owning people was nowhere near as ugly to Europeans back in the time of Frobisher and other explorers like him. In fact it was an aspect in societies that was thought of as integral to proper order in a country. They didn’t so much as say they owned other people but to a nobleperson a serf was a belonging. Position in life was absolute and it dictated who belonged to whom. Another great example of a word that has changed from negative to positive over the years is the word, “ambitious.” A person who sought to rise above his position was seen to be a challenge to the Lord’s purpose for him to be a servant to, (belonging of), those above him. Read any of the Shakespearian histories. The ambitious are the villainous. But read any resume nowadays and you will find “ambitious” or something like it. Use it when describing a man to a woman and he’ll score points. And this brings me full circle to what I believe the whole matter is about. I don’t believe servitude or slavery was the main bone of contention between Europeans and native North Americans, I think it was more about men and women. Sex. Marriage. Husbands and wives.

Back to Frobisher and the boys. One of the “belongings” that the Inuit people did not jealously guard, but shared amongst the community were women. They weren’t really wives.That implies ownership. They were women. Frobisher and his crew didn’t take the Concorde to Canada. They sailed. The voyage didn’t take hours or even weeks. It took over 2 months to get from England to Baffin Island. The married crewmembers missed their wives. The single crewmembers missed their girlfriends. Although the Inuit women may have been too stout and brown for their taste, hey, any port in a storm… It is well documented in the historical writings of the Hudson Bay Company of Canada that this was another aspect of Inuit culture of which Frobisher and his boys took full advantage! And I don’t blame them in the least because I don’t care how many horn rimmed sea turtles or reticulated garden slugs you can show me who mate for life, let’s wake up and smell the bacon: PEOPLE DON’T! I think the Inuit had it right. And you can bet Frobisher’s boys did too. Until they got back to their wives and girlfriends. THEN the Inuit were uncouth savages!

I’ve sat in a brand new car with less than ten kilometers on the speedometer. I smelled the sweet, new car smell and appreciated the fact that I might have been the first person to ever touch my ass to the velvety smooth seat, handle the instruments, caress the Corinthian leather upholstery, start it up, rev the engine and jolt off the line in an explosion of smoke. I know if I had bought that car, the thrill of sole ownership would have lasted. Maybe a year. Then I would have seen a newer, flashier model and I would look at my car with papers and crumpled coffee cups in the back seat, a dent in the rear left quarter panel, a few scratches and even signs of rust in the wheelwells and I would entertain the idea of trading up. Then after two years I would look at other cars that might not even be as nice as mine. Just different. I’d wonder if I shouldn’t have bought a truck. Or maybe a convertible. I’d wonder what it would be like to drive my neighbour’s car. This is the way we are. And in a capitalist society we are allowed, nay, encouraged to indulge this desire to diversify in every area of life except one: our mates. The very qualities that make a person successful in a capitalist society will make a marriage fail. Yet the institute remains virtually unassailable. This I find absolutely fascinating!

I sometimes listen a bit too closely to love songs just to get a chill at how psychotically acquisitive the lyrics are. Another example of how the development of our culture has changed the things we say and we don’t really notice. The most “romantic” songs of our time say things like “you belong to me and I belong to you” and “every move you make I’ll be watching you.” This sounds more to me like a life sentence than a loving relationship. But it’s ROMANTIC ownership! Oh, well then that makes it okay.

So the next time you watch a news report about the 70 billion dollar American bank bail-out and how “socialist” it was, or hear a feminist talking about her husband or the next time you listen to a song on the radio think about how the words reflect the development of our society. And if you’re really daring, think about whether that is the reflection you’d like it to be.

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