When we come face to face with the inadequacies of HERE and NOW, we tend to yearn for other times and places. For some, the yearning amounts to nostalgia for eras that may not have even existed, the so-called “good old days”. For others, in an attempt to find some escape from the problems of their own city, state, or country, the yearning is for some other country that “gets it right”. For still others, it’s not so much a spatial or temporal pursuit, but instead one of adopting the right thoughts or behaviors in the hope of salvation. But this yearning is, in the case of the spatial and temporal, farcical, because absent from it is a realistic understanding of the problems that the people of these other times and places confronted. In the case of the behavioral and attitudinal, it is merely inadequate.

Leaving a place and coming back is always fraught. Even if the place has been held in perfect stasis, the leaver and the returner are different people, and the magic that the place held is attenuated. Time, of course, is not something we can revisit, and our attempts to cobble the bones of the past onto the present are a misguided inversion. The past is the accreted structure on which the present rests, and either ignoring the past entirely or knocking down the superficial accretions to root around in the bones means that we can never draw actual lessons from the past. Some part of me is absolutely convinced that humans lack the capacity to learn from the past anyway.

All this would be a trite retelling of existing cliches, though, if I were to stick only to the common reading of the idea. I think we can extend the metaphor to encompass a more universal condemnation of our efforts at “progress”, this myth that somehow, if we perform the right series of actions, uncover the right knowledge, and adopt the right attitudes, that we can achieve some lasting, objective moral good in the world. If we are truly capable of this, we have yet to demonstrate it, not only because there is no external arbiter of moral good, but also because we are good at segmenting ourselves from the evils of our ancestors even while we dress their reincarnations in science and practice them anyway.

Let’s put it this way. Every empire is built from the bones and blood of those it conquered, plus the bones and blood of those pressed into service to expand and maintain it. Every beneficiary of that empire is implicated in the actions the empire took to achieve whatever it achieved and to maintain itself. It hardly matters whether a particular citizen stood on a battlefield or personally tore down the home or business of one of the empire’s enemies. Those activities are the grinding gear teeth of the great imperial machine, but the body politic is the mass of the wheels and cogs that turn those teeth.

“My empire is bad,” you (not metaphorically) might say to yourself. “I’ll vote with my feet and leave.” In the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty paradigm, this is the Exit. If you have the resources to flee (and most of us don’t), you may find a place that welcomes you. But fleeing in this way almost guarantees you’ll never be able to return. In this sense I don’t even mean that the place will have changed. Abdication of one’s contingent birthright is a betrayal of the bestower, even if it’s fundamentally absurd to parcel the world into neat borders when no such demarcations exist between neighboring peoples. If you don’t find a place that accepts you, then you may face one of two cruelties: the first is being stateless in a stateful world; and the second is being deported to a country you’ve repudiated by your Exit. When people flee political violence or the fear of it, to deport them back to the place that would enact that violence after their Exit has demonstrated to the State that, in the State’s view, they deserve it is a monstrous cruelty.

In addition to the risk of landing on unwelcoming shores, you risk trading one empire of bone and blood for another. Only this new devil is one you can’t recognize as easily, because it is disguised by language and cultural differences and a history you probably don’t know. This is perhaps the biggest mistake anyone makes in coming to America as an immigrant or simply to work for a time in a diplomatic or international capacity. Nobody can fault them for lacking a grasp of American history, because the history we teach in our own schools has been a fiction since it was written. But where we fail to understand our actual history, we nevertheless live out its implications and can, with some earnest inquiry, learn to see past the spectacle of our schoolhouse propaganda. To become an American is to wear the mantle of guilt that plagues the American experiment and its bipartite sins: slavery and genocide.

Voice is probably the only option left to most of us, and as I suggested above, it is merely inadequate. You can exercise what freedoms are permitted under the system in which you live. Most are a matter of style, not of substance. And if you live anywhere in the West, the majority of it has been packaged and sold to you via the religion of Capitalism. In fact, so insidious is Capitalism that it implicates even the saints and contaminates their virtues.

What is a saint, anyway? For purposes of this argument, I’ll define a saint as someone whose actions can be held to an identifiable virtue, where a virtue is some idea that purports to be an improvement in the material or moral conditions of humans, the world, etc. Saints, in other words, live and act according to what they consider higher standards than others and do so out of a sense that their standards have a measurably positive impact on the world. It hardly matters what particular human activities are virtuous and which practitioners of humanity are saints by this definition. What matters is that their acts of saintliness, no matter how purely motivated, are tainted by their association with the society around them. Since ours is thoroughly infected by Capitalism, theirs are as well.

There is no more poignant example of “you can’t go home/anywhere” than when applied to saints. Saints who arrive at their saintliness via rejection of prevalent attitudes will be rejected in turn if they try to return home, and the taint of Capitalism ensures they can’t go anywhere else either. They are implicated no matter how virtuous.

As an example, let’s take the ideal of veganism. It seems simple enough to parse, right? Don’t consume products that derive from animals. But by consume, do we mean eat? Buy? Use? And what does it mean to derive from animals? Do we mean made of one or more animal parts? Does it matter if they aren’t killed? Do we mean made with the labor of animals? What if animals are incidentally involved? Or used for testing? And does it matter if we couldn’t possibly know? Also, what is a product? Do we count second-hand items, or only newly produced? And what about items that are made from animal parts but are secondary uses or byproducts of the primary uses? Or items derived from animals that are so integral to, say, medicine, that we would die without them? Are there any ethical uses? And where are the lines? Does the intent matter at all?

Many other such virtues are less complex than this, but I picked veganism because it offers a wealth of avenues by which to interrogate our theme. Let’s say you start from a couple of positions that lead down the road to veganism. You might say you want to reduce suffering in the world, and one obvious way to do that is to refrain from killing animals to sustain you. So you remove meat from your diet and eat plants and use plant-based products. But guess what system ruthlessly exploits animals while simultaneously bringing you enough plants to eat? You rely on Capitalism to deliver oranges in the winter, but doing so requires that you rely on it to overcrowd miserable cows, pigs, and chickens while they’re fattened for slaughter. At best you can buy a version of this that provides better living conditions for the condemned animals, but nothing outside of science fiction will deliver them from the fear of the slaughter. Can you accept the stain?

Let’s iterate a bit. You refrain from eating meat, don’t buy leather, and you’ve found a pretty comprehensive set of plant-based replacements for your other daily products. But wait a minute. Do you know how much modern medicine depends on the exploitation of animals? Injectable drugs rely on the antibacterial properties of hemocyanin, sourced by capturing and methodically bleeding horsehoe crabs. And now we have begun to genetically engineer pigs from which we can harvest organs to save human lives. If you ever need injectable drugs or aren’t choosy enough when it comes to an organ transplant, is that okay? Can you accept that stain too?

One more. Many durable substances derive from animals, and we have synthetic variants of most of them. In most cases, those synthetic variants derive from petroleum, the use of which is part of a real, existential threat to humanity, as well as to many other living things. Do we do better to avoid the use of animals here by risking their and our extinction through the use of fossil fuels? Can you accept that stain too?

There is nowhere to go, at least nowhere a human can conceive of and still be human. And by the time you realize it, there won’t be a place to come back to either.