And now let us pause, briefly, and remember a time before Homeland Security, a time before this was the homeland, before this land was the center of our empire, a stronghold from which our empire could invade other countries, kill the people there and get away with it by calling them “savage,” or some new, more modern word for savage, like “terrorist,” and then profit from the resources in those other countries. A time before interstate highways, before Wal-Marts, Duane Reades, Starbucks, before malls, before split levels and raised ranches, before suburbs and exburbs, before McDonalds and McMansions, before baseball, before bombs, before the Superbowl, before Britney, before Chevy, before Mormons, before strippers and strip malls, before Microsoft and Viagra and frequent flier miles and cubicles and holiday weekends and health care plans and retirement plans, before reality television and internet porn and a widespread panic brought on by carbohydrates that greatly surpasses that brought on by terrorism, before celebrity journalism and demographics, before obesity epidemics and portion control and supersizing and downsizing and of course, SUVs, a time before anyone enjoyed all the gifts America has given the world, democracy sadly not among them.

In that time, all this, all this, these rivers we traverse daily, because our city was built on a series of islands, the mainland of this nation of red states and blue states and swing states full of people who can’t make up their minds who to cast their uncounted votes for in three weeks time, the parts of this country I’ve never seen but heard are unbearably, heartbreakingly flat and truly, truly full of corn, so much corn, endless corn, the parts of this country bursting with enormous nature, nature on steroids, trees so big you can walk through them and mountains so big they are always capped with snow, and cliffs so high you can’t hear the ocean crashing into them, all this, all this, all this, was someone else’s home once.

Until a man with three ships came looking for something he could get for cheap and sell back home for more. Until a man came looking to turn a profit. No wonder we made it into a beautiful story–it’s the only beautiful story we seem to understand.

Maybe we are not wrong to stop and observe, if we are truly willing to observe, the day he was born. He was very important; he was the first of what we all are. Maybe it is not that simple–maybe there is a difference between a colonist and and immigrant, between a merchant and a laborer, between commanding a fleet and riding in steerage, between coming with swords and guns and coming to escape them. There are many ways to make ourselves less uncomfortable about inhabiting a place first emptied by genocide.

If we are a young empire looking for an auspicious beginning, a man with three ships is not a bad place to begin the myth. If we call him an explorer, if we call his invasion a discovery, then our military can be peacekeepers, then we can spread democracy, we can make the world safer, we can open new markets. Then every time somoeone gets to work or bleed or die for someone else’s profit they are participating in something old and great.

It would be much more difficult to begin with who came before the ships, because then we will have to explain what became of them. So we begin with the ships.

But if we observe, truly observe, the circumstances of the ships’ arrival, we see encoded there like DNA all that has happened since, because it is simply still happening. Ships sail for distant lands every day, empty and hopeful. And they come back full of something rare and valued in our land, something that can be sold for much more than it was bought for, and the collateral damage of this profit margin is vast and human.

These transactions don’t trace one simple route around the globe, no silk route or spice route or misbegotten westward ho. But they are following the same route, in more ways than one, through all the places it leads.

Spice. Silk. Smallpox.

Oil. Yellowcake. AIDS.

Yes, the beginning of the beginning of this is well worth observing. Today, and maybe tomorrow, too, let us observe it.

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