“In Defense of [Our] Dignity,” a Search for Imagination

“Because the people never revolt just because they have to carry a load, or
because of exploitation. They don’t know life without exploitation, they
don’t even know that such a life exists. How can they desire what they
cannot imagine?”

–M., from The Emperor, by
Ryszard Kapuscinski


M.’s name is not provided in Kapuscinski’s investigation into the life of
Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie–King of Kings, Lion of Judah. It is
withheld to protect him from any harm that may come as a result of talking
with Poland’s most revered foreign correspondent. Kapuscinski interviewed
those that worked inside the palace to gain an understanding of an emperor’s
life vis a vis his people’s life. Stories of lavish dinners, Rolls Royces,
Mercedes, and other luxuries are set against the social backdrop and the
political fervor developing in the empty stomachs of the ruled-over.

Imagination. Imagining a life without exploitation, is something that some
cannot do. On the contrary, I wonder if the non-exploited are capable of
imagining a life of exploitation. Is this the reason exploitation exists in
our world? Lack of imagination. Are we able to imagine a farmer being
exploited on the fields of Ethiopia by his farming of a cash crop to be sold
on a market that is not free and does not reach his plowshare? Is his
intellect being exploited when we call his homeland “backward” and when we
do not credit his inner-most thoughts and concerns about feeding his family?
Is this the mask of poverty? Is being poor or impoverished not about the
unsettling feeling of hunger in the belly or lack of electricity in the
village, but more about the thoughts weighing heavily as the head hits the
earth at night? Is it about not acknowledging those thoughts? Not being
able to quantify those thoughts into an “economy of scale?”


“The people will revolt only when, in a single movement, someone tries to
throw a second burden, a second heavy bag, onto their backs. The peasant
will face down into the mud–and then spring up and grab an ax. He’ll grab
an ax, my gracious sir, not because he simply can’t sustain this new
burden–he could carry it–he will rise because he feels that, in throwing the
second burden onto his back suddenly and stealthily, you have tried to cheat
him, you have treated him like an unthinking animal, you have trampled what
remains of his already strangled dignity, taken him for an idiot who doesn’t
see, feel, or understand.”



What burdens are we throwing onto the backs of the world’s poor? An
economic structure that desires large capital? How many coffee beans does
it take to equal a barrel of oil in that structure?

How are we cheating our brothers and sisters? Is it when we say “what can I
do about it” followed by a turning of the channel?

Dignity. Do we know what that means? Are having a toilet and a private
shower a means to giving someone their dignity? Are affordable medicines
for her children a means for a mother to gain her dignity? Imagine.
Imagine a world where dignity is calculated in the trade deals, the stock
markets, the policies, the guns of war.


“A man doesn’t seize an ax in defense of his wallet, but in defense of his



But this thing called dignity can have many definitions, can’t it? Or is it
universal, understood by all of us? Is our dignity defended when one of us
reaches an end that spills the blood of our collective humanity? What about
those that do lift “axes in defense of [their] wallet[s]”? Have they lost
their own dignity? Is there imagination found dead in their billfold?


I sit saddened in the knowledge that my world is unjust, unfair…that human
beings are expensed by the few and powerful of our brethren. I wish I was
romantic enough to believe that the life of the poor, their traditional
forms of planting and harvesting, their life without refrigeration and
vaccinations, their life of arranged “love” and traditional gendered roles,
their life of fetching water in the river…that all of this is OK, that all
of this is better than five-hundred channels and Krispy Kremes.

Instead, I see it as made possible in some way or another by a few of us
that operate devoid of imagination and dignity.

How else could we throw money in the charity bucket after spending another
human’s yearly income in one afternoon to celebrate the coming of “the

(written 14 August 2005)

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