The Magazine

When Worlds Collide

The American past meets modern museum doctrine.

Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Fortunately, Chief Obama was willing, without diplomatic preconditions, to meet and negotiate with any ancient American leader. Therefore, the "periods of conflict" didn't result in anything like, oh, members of the Iroquois Confederation capturing, torturing, enslaving, and occasionally eating everyone they could get their hands on.

An office cubicle's space is allotted to the Moundbuilders. Who were they? Why did they build the mounds? How did they do it? Was there free parking? Translating, again, from the Academese: "Got me, pal."

Then comes a prolix wall headed "Powerful Leaders."

Why did people give up power to make some of their own decisions? Central decision-makers were often more effective than groups at organizing large amounts of labor, managing resources, and directing wars.

So maybe it was Hillary, not Obama, who got elected.

This brings us to the Maya and their abominable customs, nicely glossed.

.  .  . sacrifice has played a role in the religious beliefs of many people throughout history and in all parts of the world. .  .  . Even today almost all world religions include sacrifice of some kind in their spiritual practices.

Now wait a damn minute, you infidel apes of social science. Shut your brie holes and listen up. God, the God, the God who didn't make me an Eskimo, does not require human sacrifice, he suffers it: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

That is the difference--perhaps the only difference--between civilization and savagery. And it's not just us Christians who say so. From the time of Abraham no monotheist has practiced human sacrifice; no Buddhist ever has, and no Hindu since the days of suttee and the Thugs. No Taoist, no Confucian, no Zoroastrian, Baha'ist, or Sikh includes murder in his "spiritual practices."

The text on the Maya continues:

Some societies in the ancient Americas, like the Maya, practiced bloodletting or human sacrifice as part of their ceremonies or spiritual beliefs. Why? Anthropologists don't fully know.

Let's finish that sentence. "Anthropologists don't fully know the difference between right and wrong."

In a nook around the corner from Mayan Spirituality a computer-animated movie runs on a continuous loop. "Living in a State Society" offers a different definition of civilization. State Societies are, it seems, all societies in which sticks and grass aren't the principal constituents of housing, wardrobe, and diet. The movie explains that, in a State Society, the "Ruling Classes" are supported by the "State Power Triad" consisting of the Economy, the Military, and Religion. "For the first time," the narration drones, "the ruling class had a different standard of living than others. Why would people want to give up their freedom? For most there was no choice."

The message of the movie is, I think, to build a wigwam, wear a hula skirt, and boil some sticks for dinner. Or maybe the message is to pack the car and move to North Korea. Or, possibly, the message is to get over it, accept Big Chief Hillary, and learn to love her tax hikes, Iraq retreat, and pseudo-Methodist spiritual beliefs (including health care bloodletting) because "there was no choice."

After a twist and a turn in the exhibit's vagrant route you are among the Aztec and Inca. The loathsome Aztec devoted most of their energy to human sacrifices, horrifying in extent and gruesome in technique. The Ancient Americas treats this in a moving-right-along manner.

From mild bloodletting to violent death, sacrifice offered thanks to the gods while maintaining the natural order of the world.

The original New World Order, as it were. Inscriptions also give a nod to media hype.

The Spanish often emphasized accounts of bloodthirsty sacrifice to justify conquering the Aztec people.

You're hustled past the Inca's no doubt better-justified conquerings. You enter a hushed and funereal room with tombstone lettering on black walls.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

In 1492, the first European explorers arrived in the Americas, triggering a devastating loss of life almost inconceivable to us today.

Mao Zedong, please go to the white courtesy phone.

The wall inscription proceeds:

Here, we reflect on the magnitude of loss inflicted on America's Indigenous peoples by European invasion.

The European inflictions are grimly illustrated. The first one upon which we are expected to reflect is the only decent thing (not counting the wheel, iron, cigarette papers, etc.) that Europeans brought to America's Indigenous peoples, "Religious Conversion." Second is "Disease," which should stir our sympathy but hardly our guilt. The exhibit points out that disease was the chief cause of suffering after European contact. Therefore, the horrors that beset The Ancient Americas following 1492 would have happened if the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María had been manned by Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, and Bono.

You escape the pity parlor of When Worlds Collide and traverse a space of video screen talking heads and interactive displays with all their buttons being pounded by toddlers. This is "Living Descendants." The ancient Americans' modern relations are regular folks, as well as their ancestors were, and with clothes on, too, the same as you and me. Of course, if they're the same as you and me, why do they need a room in a museum any more than we do? Well, "despite centuries of injustice and oppression, today's "Indigenous peoples strive to sustain their cultural traditions."

You could say the same of the Irish. Being one, I looked for the exit to go find a drink. I wandered into a solemn, quiet, awe‑engendering place. Looking around the large, gloomy hall I saw the full-scale cutaway of winter quarters in MacKenzie Bay. Its labels are curled and yellowing but unchanged: respectful, factual, precise.

The ancient Americans weren't regular folks. They lived strange, spectacular lives on strange, spectacular continents untrod by man and more remote for them than Mars--or the world of museum curation--is for us. The ancient Americans were tough as hell. They did their share of nasty stuff. But even the Aztec don't deserve to be patronized, demeaned, and insulted by what is--or is supposed to be, or once was--one of the white man's great institutions of learning.

Give the "Ancient Americas" exhibit back to the ancient Americans, and the Field Museum along with it. If any of the heirs and assigns of the Aztec, Inca, or Maya feel inclined to practice a little human sacrifice on anthropologists, sociologists, moral relativists, neo-Marxists, and other conquistadors of modern academia, call it "maintaining the natural order of the world."

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.