Forbidden Thoughts and Sacred Obligations
January 12, 2015 § 31 Comments
When I was a younger man, I very much wanted to be taken seriously. To be taken seriously was to be asked your opinion. It was to be allowed a seat at the grown-up’s table in politics, economy, and all other matters that intelligent individuals busied themselves with. I wanted to be considered smart by other people who were considered smart. This meant that I had to be skeptical of any claims not supported by the dominant culture, shucking anything deemed mystical or superstitious. To be considered smart meant carrying an attitude of superiority, even open hostility towards anyone who claimed any truth not stamped with approval by the science of the dominant culture. Now I talk to trees.
My younger self would ridicule my present self, haughtily proclaiming the superiority of his well founded, reasonable ideologies. My present self would pity my younger self, and exit the conversation, too tired to expend what little communicative energy I have on someone so seemingly bereft of the ability to even momentarily entertain an idea that ran contrary to their set of inherited cultural dogma.
It is easy now to see that I was in a trap back then. As most young people are, I was attempting to make my way in a culture of accumulation, and thus I had to look and sound the part if I wanted to be accepted into the fold of “productive society.” Since abandoning any ambitions for career I have taken on various forms of employment to get by, and this has meant a lot of work in bars and restaurants. Briefly, I worked in a breakfast cafe in a college town that was home to a popular business school. Working there I would see students, mostly young white men, sitting at tables wearing ties and speaking in the language they were being conditioned to speak. It was strange to witness. I would wonder exactly where the break happened when these young men decided that they wanted to be just like their fathers. They probably wanted to be called “successful” by other people. They probably wanted to be considered smart. This would mean dressing, speaking, acting, thinking and even at their very core believing as their predecessors had initiated them to. They wanted to be taken seriously.
The year two thousand and fourteen was the hottest year ever recorded on planet Earth. Over the course of the year we were bombarded with statistics highlighting the peril of our time: Fifty percent of animal life has been killed over the last forty years, the Antarctic ice sheet melt has passed the point of no return, and coal use is still on the rise globally. Even the timid, watered down, almost entirely feckless mainstream US environmental movement is starting to make a tiny bit of sense, in noting that capitalism has got to go if we are to survive. Of course, much of what these liberal environmentalists are seeking is capitalist reform, but I digress.
The truth of the matter is that of course capitalism has to go in order to preserve the habitability of the planet. That’s just the beginning. All of industrial civilization must go, but because this is a forbidden concept amongst the serious folk who attend conferences, do media junkets, or – I don’t know – hold a senate seat, it will never even reach the table to be laughed at. The maintenance of the dominant culture requires that certain ideas are forbidden. Such restriction of thought is achieved in a myriad of ways, including by what Noam Chomsky termed, the “manufacturing of consent.” By and large, forbidden ideas are boxed out of public discourse by professionals who frame debate very narrowly, permitting only officially acceptable viewpoints, which then filter down to the masses.
We saw this recently with the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. The people of that city fought the police, and many of them had no problem declaring complete and utter disdain for the police as an institution. Despite the nearly five hundred Americans killed by police every year, and the untold number of assaults, robberies, frame ups, false arrests, and rapes committed by uniformed police officers, the dialog of so-called serious people is forbidden to ever move to a discussion of self defense against these villains, let alone abolishing them from civic life. Peter Gelderloos mentions this in his quinessential three part essay, Learning from Ferguson.
To allow people to fight back against the police, or to allow discussion of eliminating the police is forbidden because the police are a necessary component of a society of haves and have nots. In fact, I would be willing to bet there is a strong correlation between people who adamantly and unquestioningly support the police, and personal wealth, for the obvious reason that the more you have the more you have to lose. That means being happy that the taxpayers subsidize the jackboots who prevent even a public forum that might hint at discussing a redistribution of wealth.
After the Vietnam War, the propaganda ministers in the state realized that showing dead bodies on TV and in magazines had a demoralizing effect on the general public. Apparently the American population had some level of functioning empathy for other human beings, so broadcasting the corpses of dead US servicemen and even half burnt Vietnamese children soured their taste for carnage. Since realizing this, the US has locked out media that isn’t “embedded” from war zones, and despite the over a million dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, ten years of war haven’t found themselves plastered on the nightly news in any unbecoming fashion, despite the plentiful material. The children born deformed due to depleted uranium poisoning caused by US munitions should have been enough to wrench even the blood thirstiest of hawk bellies in the US, but their visages were never given a chance.
Forbidding an image and forbidding an idea are both attempted for the same reason; control. If you control what people think, you can control how they act. Even the most ardent critics of US policy will proclaim up and down their patriotism, lest they be banished from serious forums. Sit and think for a few moments and I imagine you could come up with your own short list of forbidden ideas, never to be discussed, not by serious people. Civilization and its dominant culture have been practicing this tactic of control since inception, and there is an idea that has been so terrifying to the rulers of the civilized world that stamping it out has been an ongoing and bloody task for over ten thousand years. The most forbidden of ideas, is that the Earth is alive.
Serious people are concerned with objectivity. They perceive the universe to be a clockwork machine governed by laws and made of various inert bric-a-brac that can be manipulated to serve their purposes. Whether this manifests as a logging company cutting down a forest for timber, a meat packing concern quickening the rate at which they slaughter cows, or bulldozers scraping away layers of Earth in order to access the bitumen deposits beneath, the source of the thinking is the same. The land is dead. It is raw material waiting to be put to purpose by human hands. Further, knowledge and understanding of the universe and its lifeless bodies is to be achieved only through the application of western scientific principles. Anything that cannot be observed and quantified with the five human senses does not exist.
Even things that are alive, like trees and animals can be reduced with a trick of thinking into nothing but their component pieces. Trees don’t have brains, so they cannot think or feel or experience, so they are worthless except as corpses. Animals may have brains, but those brains lack significant cortex or numbers of neurons, and so they cannot think or feel or experience, so they are worthless except as corpses. Throughout the history of civilization this rationale has been applied to humans as well. Whenever anyone is in the way of some expectation of power or wealth, they are reduced to nothingness, just a fleshy sum of their cells with a measly few watts of current surging through them. Not sophisticated, not refined; much like animals really, and animals are worthless except as corpses, so let the homicide begin. This mental twisting is the death rite of civilization. It is the lullaby people in business suits sing so they can stay focused on the cash while they order another chimpanzee vivisected, purchase a new gas lease, or sign off on limited airstrikes over a civilian population.
In my life I have walked through forests clear cut for oil pipelines. I have driven through the shale plays of West Texas. I have seen copper mines, and coal mines, and all sorts of other massive holes blasted and scraped into the face of the planet. Many people have seen these things. Of course, many people work in these places and on these projects. The difference is that upon the witnessing I feel something very somber that nags at me from the inside. It is the feeling that gripped you as a child when you saw someone joyfully inflict pain upon someone helpless or weak while you were powerless to interfere. Because of this feeling I could never participate in ecologically destructive activities. It would feel wrong, like treachery, like stabbing my mother in the gut for a paycheck.
And I think this feeling matters. This feeling is part of the foundation of my personal ethos from which my principles blossom. In short, my feelings of connectivity with the living world create in me a sense of responsibility to protect her, and a refusal to accept harming her for personal gain. Often I wonder why so few people feel this particular empathy, but then I know the answer. People have been trained by the dominant culture to think of all of these environmentally degrading activities as harmless. They have been raised since childhood by people themselves raised since childhood to believe that the Earth is dead. They have been told by respectable people to believe that forests are not alive and that plants do not feel and that at the end of the day, everything is arbitrary and meaningless. There is an undercoat of nihilism which makes progress possible.
For generations people have been bullied into believing that the nagging in their conscience is an illusion caused by the brain. When a forest makes you feel good, it is you fooling yourself. When you feel deep love for a place or for other living beings, it is an illusion, merely a sudden influx of serotonin in some receptor in your gray matter. And who are you anyway? Just some cells, some neurons, some electricity. What is your love? Your desire? Your fear? They are nothing. Reflexes. Chemicals. The aimless, endless spinning of molecules through space and time. Reduce it all down, break it into pieces. Scatter them until you feel nothing at all. Now go make some money. Be productive. For Christ’s sake, be serious.
My friend is indigenous to the land now called Canada. I ask him what it means to be a warrior, to have as a component of one’s culture a warrior society. He points me to talks given by other first nations people which elucidate that in various indigenous languages the word “warrior” is understood differently than it is in English. It isn’t aggressive, on the offense, macho, seeking to conquer. To be a warrior is to be a shield bearer, a person who takes very seriously their sacred obligation to maintain the health of the land so that it can be passed on for many generations to come. The ethos of such people forms their worldview, and this worldview informs their actions. The end result is a relationship with one’s home that is not about domination and taking, but acting with reciprocity. Such a mindset is a barrier against excess and greed and wanton destruction of the land.
Under the dominant culture, there are no sacred obligations. We are told from birth that work, production, and the pursuit of material wealth is the path taken by serious people. Those who rebuff their instruction to accumulate for the sake of accumulation are losers and bums. If one wants to defend their home, such intuitions are bent to the cause of imperial full spectrum dominance. Home is converted to country, and the battlefield is determined by a board of directors. This is not an ethos with a future. It is a toxic set of ideas and myths that will guide human minds to the edge of the world and then over. This idea is a parasite, and its hosts are pushing the ecosystems of the Earth to the brink.
My friend tells me about the deal the wolf made with mother Earth:
“The wolf signed a contract with Mother Earth. The contract is this. The wolf may compete with all other life for survival. The wolf may not force other life into extinction for the purpose of eliminating competition. The wolf may not damage habitat to eliminate competition. The wolf may not wage war to prevent other life from feeding on the wolf. If the wolf abides by these laws and is able to compete, the wolf will survive in brotherhood with all other life. All life signs this contract, except for a group of humans. Until those people sign on the dotted line they will be doomed. They may already be doomed.”
What strikes me about this is that to make a contract with another is to stand as equals. Speaking of other beings or of the living planet herself as even able to enter into a contract is to grant to them the deference that they exist as you do; alive, dignified, valuable.
The dominant culture never seeks to stand equal with anything. It seeks only to dominate. It never presents obligations to its acolytes to defend other beings or the land. It makes demands of the land. The stark differences between these two perspectives is striking. One asks you to be a warrior and to take up a shield in defense of your mother. The other commands you to take up a sword – or a plow, or an axe, or a bulldozer – and to plunge it into her breast.
I am not in any way suggesting that non-native people need to appropriate native culture. What I am suggesting is that if the ethos of civilization goes unchallenged, then no matter how much awareness is raised and no matter how much people try to convert modern industrial society into a sustainable twin of itself, they will find only failure. After all, as Terrence McKenna said and I have oft quoted, culture is our operating system, and the dominant culture has a starting point where the land is already dead, so how then can it take us anywhere but to a future where this founding principle is materialized? Garbage in, garbage out.
How we go about changing the ethics, myths, and founding truths of people trapped in the cage of industrial civilization is not something I have a prescription for. In “The Road” Cormac McCarthy wrote:
“Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
So I walk my land and I talk to the trees. Maybe they can hear me and maybe they can’t. All of the serious people will laugh at my wasted breath. Smart people will try to convince me that I am only talking to myself. And maybe they are right. Maybe I am a madman babbling over hill and holler. But I can tell you this much for certain; I will never cut these trees down, and neither will my daughter. So in the end, who gives a damn?