In “Doctor Brodie’s Report,” a 1970 short story by Borges, there’s an Amazon tribe with no notion of cause and effect and no sense of the past. N. T. di Giovanni translates, “Since they lack the capacity to fashion the simplest object, the Yahoos regard such ornaments [produced elsewhere] as natural. To the tribe my hut was a tree, despite the fact that many of them saw me construct it and even lent me their aid. Among a number of other items, I had in my possession a watch, a cork helmet, a mariner’s compass, and a Bible. The Yahoos stared at them, weighed them in their hands, and wanted to know where I had found them.” And, “The words ‘Our Father,’ owning to the fact that they have no notion of fatherhood, left them puzzled. They cannot, it seems, accept a cause so remote and so unlikely, and are therefore uncomprehending that an act carried out several months before may bear relation to the birth of a child.”

The Yahoos’ numerical system stops at four. “On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb.” Yet even more stingy and sublime are the real life Warlpiris, Australian aborigines whose language only allows for one, two, then many. Eternity snaps into being with one’s middle finger. There’s also the Pirahas. Numbering less than 350 souls, this Amazon tribe has no creation myths, no fairy tales, no arts, not even tattooing, no words for colors and no numbers except hói, which means either “one,” “few” or “small.” Compared to the 112 phonemes of Taa (spoken in Botswana and Namibia), 40 of English, 30 of Italian, the Piraha language only has ten. They also have no concept of the past. According to linguist Daniel Everett, the Pirahas believe that “everything is the same, things always are,” and nothing matters but the present.

Everett tried to teach the Pirahas to count from 1 to 10 in Portuguese, 1 + 1 = 2, with zero success. Hostile to numbers, they trade little with adjacent tribes. Like their ancestors, of which they have no memories–most can’t even name all four of their grandparents–the Pirahas hunt, fish, gather, grind some manioc flour, their only concession to farming and “culture,” but can’t be bothered to smoke or salt meats. They don’t mind going long stretches with minimal food, since it makes them stronger, they believe. Needless to say, an all-you-can-eat corn syrup, trans fat and Monsanto Frankenstein buffet would not do a brisk business in a Piraha village, and no Piraha has ever been seen trading on Wall Street or at a board meeting of Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, Bank of America, Wachovia, Merryl Lynch or Lehman Brothers. Compound interest, naked short selling, credit default swaps and the Yen carry trade just don’t interest these Pirahas.

The original Yahoos were those described by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, of course, “Their Heads and Breasts were covered with a thick Hair, some frizzled and others lank; they had Beards like Goats, and a long Ridge of Hair down their Backs, and the fore Parts of their Legs and Feet; but the rest of their Bodies were bare, so that I might see their Skins, which were of a brown Buff Colour. They had no Tails, nor any Hair at all on their Buttocks, except about the Anus; which, I presume Nature had placed there to defend them as they sat on the Ground […] The Hair of both Sexes was of several Colours, brown, red, black and yellow. Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my Travels so disagreeable an Animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy.”

Today, Yahoo! is the homepage of many Americans. Since we spend so much time on the internet, it can be said that we live as much on Yahoo! as in a real America, that we are, in essence, a Yahoo Nation. Unlike these other savages, however, we do know our history. Many of us are aware that O.J. Simpson’s glove didn’t fit, that Marilyn Monroe slept with two Kennedy brothers–John and Ted?–and that Britney Spears once shaved her head.

Compared with the Pirahas and Borges’ Yahoos, how are the math skills of Americans? In 2003, our 15-year-olds ranked 25th out of 41 countries, so we’re mediocre, not quite a .500 team, in other word. The top five were Hong Kong, Finland, South Korea, Netherlands and Lichtenstein. Unlike the Pirahas, however, Americans have no aversion to numbers. Quite the opposite, in fact, we’re obsessed with numbers, especially those that don’t mean anything. Take our sport scores, which are labyrinths of statistics sure to astound any foreigner. Everything done by anyone on the field is exactly tallied, from tackles, assists, sacks, yards gained, yards lost, passes deflected, interceptions, fumbles caused to fumbles recovered, etc. The average American knows not only many of the players’ jersey numbers, but their height, weight, years active and age. Multiplied by the four major sports, and that’s a lot of pointless and ungainful memorizing. In soccer, the world’s most popular sport, the only statistic reported in foreign newspapers is goals scored, not shots, assists, saves or corner kicks. Game over, non-Americans just can’t be bothered with such trivia, but not us.

No other people are so distracted by sports as American. Each of our professional baseball team plays 162 regular season games a year; each basketball team, 82; each football team, 16. With the preseasons, playoffs and college sports, Americans are bombarded by a daily dose of juvenile excitement hyped by grown men in suits. Every game is exhaustively discussed, and every millionaire athlete endlessly interviewed, with the unintended consequence that even a benchwarming, foreign-born pinch hitter can become as facile with words as our best politicians. It is worth noting that television cameras are never aimed at our deflated intellectuals, the writers and scholars whose lifework demands subtle, careful thinking and exact articulation.

As meaningless numbers slosh around in our minds, crippling our ability to think, our infinitely corrupt and ruthless ruling class swindles, legislates and no-bid contracts away trillions of our dollars. Whatever money they don’t steal outright, they’ll depreciate through inflation. Unlike the Pirahas, we won’t even have a chunk of land to stand on after they’re done fleecing. Thomas Jefferson has warned, “If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them, will deprive the people of their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”

The Yahoos attacked Gulliver by climbing on a tree and crapping on his head, but we don’t have such a raw and robust option against our executive muggers, since they are always out of sight, in the highest towers, behind gates or dark windows or, as this financial, social and political disaster they’re orchestrating become ever more devastating, in another country altogether. In 2006, Prensa Latina reported that George W. Bush bought a 98,842-acre farm in northern Paraguay. That’s 154 square miles, larger than the entire city of Philadelphia. What do you think he’s doing, investing in real estate?

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He's tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America. Read other articles by Linh.

2 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. David said on October 9th, 2008 at 11:07am #

    Nice piece, Linh.

    Northern Paraguay, huh?

    That’s just a short ride for a cruise missile. Typical Bush planning. Perhaps he bought it for the readily available cocaine.

  2. Linh Dinh said on October 9th, 2008 at 12:53pm #

    Hi David,

    Bush’s land sits on the Guarani Aquifer, the LARGEST on earth. One of his neighbors is Reverend Moon. Facts are indeed weirder than fiction. If a few dozens desperate Americans showed up on Bush’s land, would he let them squat on some inconspicuous patch? Throw them a few cans of SPAM? “But I voted for you, Big Daddy, fought in your wars on terrorism!”