We are members of the most destructive culture ever to exist. Our assault on the natural world, on indigenous and other cultures, on women, on children, on all of us through the possibility of nuclear suicide and other means--all these are unprecedented in their magnitude and ferocity.
Listening to the Land
A very poor kid came up to me after a talk and said 'I want to go blow up a factory.' I asked how old he was and he said 17. I said 'have you ever had sex?' He said 'no.' I said 'just remember if you get caught you aren't going to have sex for twenty years at least.' That's not saying that one person having sex is worth the salmon. I'm not saying it's a reason not to act, I'm saying don't be stupid.
Interview with The A Word Magazine, March/April 2005.
I've never written this before in public, but my first thought on September 11 when I heard someone was attacking the World Trade Center is, 'Ah, so now it begins. Someone is finally fighting back. Given the terror that the United States routinely inflicts on people (including nonhumans, of course) the world over (and of course now a couple of years later the United States calls these programs of systematic terror 'Shock and Awe'), I'm surprised it didn't happen long ago. The poor have been very patient and long suffering, more patient and long suffering than anyone could ever expect.' That is what I thought.
Interview with Counterpunch, February 2, 2005.
I want to bring down civilization. It's really clear that civilization is killing the planet. I’m interested in living in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before. A world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before. A world that has less dioxins and flame retardants in mothers' breast milk. A world not being destroyed. A world where krill populations aren’t collapsing. A world where there are not dead zones in the oceans. A world not being systematically dismantled. I want to live in a world that is not being killed. I will do whatever it takes to get there.
Jeanette [Armstrong, "a traditional Okanagan Indian"] said, 'Attitudes about the species communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor.' She paused, then continued emphatically, 'It's not a metaphor. It's how the world is.'
I sat at the computer at work, debugging. I was bored. It was afternoon. I was twenty-two. It was June. Along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, thunderheads move in almost every afternoon between May and early July. They materialize, darken the day, spit a few drops, open the sky with lightning, then disappear like so many dreams.
Turning away from the computer I saw through my own narrow window (at least it opened) the green, the blue, the flashes. I looked to the clock, the screen, the window. An hour passed, then two. I looked again at the clock and saw it had been only twenty minutes. I willed the second-hand, the minute-hand, the hour-hand to move faster, to deliver me to five o'clock when I would be released as from my prison term. Then suddenly I stopped, struck by the absurdity of wishing away the only thing I've got. Eight hours, eighty years, it was all too similar. Would I wish away the years until the day of my retirement, until my time was once again my own? At work I tried to keep busy to make the hours pass quickly. It was no different when watching television, socializing, moving frenetically--there are so many ways to kill time.
I remember staring at the computer screen--light green letters on dark--then at the clock, and finally at my outstretched fingers held a foot in front of my face. And then it dawned on me: selling the hours of my life was no different from selling my fingers one by one. We've only so many hours, so many fingers; when they're gone, they're gone for good.
I quit work two weeks later--having sold another eighty of my hours--and knew I could never again work a regular job.
I could not have learned to listen to coyotes without having first learned to listen to my unwillingness to sell my hours, then to listen to the signals of my body, then to listen to the disease that has made my insides my home, and thus become a part of me. And I could not have learned to listen to coyotes without having talked to other people courageous enough to validate my perception of an animate world. I talked to the writer Christoper Manes, who said, 'For most cultures through history--including our own in preliterate times--the entire world used to speak. Anthropologists call this animism, the most pervasive worldview in human history. Animistic cultures listen to the natural world. For them, birds have something to say. So do worms, wolves, and waterfalls.' Later the philosopher Thomas Berry told me, 'The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees--all these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related.'
In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable. The lies act as barriers to truth. These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities.
There can be no real peace when living with someone who has already declared war, no peace but capitulation. And even that, as we see around us, doesn't lead to further peace but to further degradation and exploitation. We're responsible for not only what we do but for what is in our power to stop. Before we can speak of peace, we have to speak honestly of stopping, by any and all means possible, those who have declared war on the world and on us. Those who destroy wont stop because we ask nicely. There is only one language that they understand, and everyone here knows what it is. Yet we don't speak of it openly.
If we wish to stop the atrocities, we will need to understand and change the social and economic conditions that cause them.
If your community is founded on an injustice, that injustice cannot be questioned.
How, precisely, do you define a police state? Is it the number of police per capita? How about the number of prisons? Police use of machine guns or armored personnel carriers? The use of the police or the military to put down strikes, or to otherwise "keep the trains running on time," as was Mussolini's specialty? Perhaps it's the use of the police or the military to halt civil unrest. Or maybe the widespread use of curfews. Arbitrary confiscation of private property. How about this: could a police state be defined, as in Nazi Germany, by the use of force to segregate members of a specific race into concentration camps or prisons?
Perception creates behavior. Perception encourages behavior. And because this institution--this artifice--continues to socially reinforce patterns of perception and behavior, if this behavior is destructive, it may not be a bad idea to eliminate or curtail the institution.
Much was made by abolitionists that the King James version of the Bible didn't use the word slaves, but, instead, servants. This meant, in their minds, that God didn't really approve of slavery. But that argument was linguistic at best. Slavery was codified and even sanctified in the tenth commandment, throwing slaves (and wives) in with other property belonging to one's neighbor that one must not covet. The Bible even regulated--as opposed to banning outright--the killing of slaves, stating that if a slave were beaten to death, the slave owner should be punished (though not killed himself, as would be his fate were he to kill a freeman), but if the slave didn't die until a day or two after the beating, the slave owner "shall not be punished, for he [the slave] is his money."
To believe Christianity stands in opposition to slavery is at best to think anachronistically and at worst to not understand Christianity.
If any thing can be predicated as universally true of uncultivated man, it is that he will not labour beyond what is absolutely necessary to maintain his existence.
Slavery was a central concern of governance form the time of the first nation-state. The Code of Hammurabi, the earliest know set of laws for governing an empire, prescribed death for anyone who harbored a fugitive or otherwise helped a slave to escape. The relationship between the law and bondage goes back even farther: Indeed, the oldest extant legal documents don't concern the sale of land, houses, or even animals, but slaves.
In order for a slave--or, for that matter, a slaveholder--to become free, a series of successive perceptions must be realized. First, the person must perceive that the owners (and slaves) are merely human, that is, putting all rhetoric aside, that there exists a dichotomy of privilege and exploitation, and that the privilege is a result of exploitation. … The second realization is, once again, that the owners and slaves are merely human, meaning this time that the exploitation and consequent privilege are not inevitable, but the result of social arrangements and force (as well as a huge dollop of bad luck on the part of those enslaved). … The third realization is yet again that the owners are merely human, by which I now mean they are vulnerable. Wealth does not protect them.
I am in this same river. I can't much help it. I admit it: I'm racist. The other night I saw a group (or maybe a pack?) or white teenagers standing in a vacant lot, clustered around a 4x4, and I crossed the street to avoid them; had they been black, I probably would have taken another street entirely. And I'm misogynistic. I admit that, too. I'm a shitty cook, and a worse house cleaner, probably in great measure because I've internalized the notion that these are woman's work. Of course, I never admit that's why I don't do them: I always say I just don't much enjoy those activities (which is true enough; and it's true enough also that many women don't enjoy them either), and in any case, I've got better things to do, like write books and teach classes where I feel morally superior to pimps. And naturally I value money over life. Why else would I own a computer with a hard drive put together in Thailand by women dying of job-induced cancer? Why else would I own shirts made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh, and shoes put together in Mexico? The truth is that, although many of my best friends are people of color (as the cliche goes), and other of my best friends are women, I am part of this river: I benefit from the exploitation of others, and I do not much want to sacrifice this privilege. I am, after all, civilized, and have gained a taste for "comforts and elegancies" which can be gained only through the coercion of slavery. The truth is that like most others who benefit from this deep and broad river, I would probably rather die (and maybe even kill, or better, have someone kill for me) than trade places with the men, women, and children who made my computer, my shirt, my shoes.
Property has always been the central consideration of the United States government, but it has become even more so over time. Between the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to provide just one obvious, and in some ways, silly, example (silly because all of the terms are seemingly obvious, yet in fact nearly impossible to adequately define) and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, the inalienable right with which men [sic] are self-evidently endowed by their Creator, and which may not be abridged by the State, changed from "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," to life, liberty, and property. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed during the KKK's maiden reign of terror, ostensibly to protect the rights of blacks from racist state governments, has been used far more often to protect the rights to property: Of the Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, only nineteen dealt with the rights of blacks, while two hundred and eighty-eight dealt with the rights of corporations.
I thought that, given the system of rewards central to our economic system, in which profit maximization is valued above all else and specifically above life, it is probably just as irresistible to the owners of capital (human or otherwise) to exploit workers (and the land): "Nothing personal," they say as they load their property onto the ship bound for the Middle Passage, "but a man's gotta turn a dime."
It seems to me that entitlement is the key to nearly all atrocities, and that any threat to perceived entitlement will provoke hatred. The man who flayed the cat presumably felt that his employers were entitled to the cat's skin. Europeans felt that they were (and are) entitled to the land of North and South America. Slave owners clearly felt they were entitled to the labor (and the lives) of their slaves, not only in partial payment for protecting slaves from their own idleness, but also simply as a return on their capital investment. Owners of nonhuman capital today feel they, too, are entitled to the "surplus return on labor," as economists put it, as part of their reward for furnishing jobs, and to provide a return on their investment in capital. Rapists act on the belief that they are entitled to their victims' bodies, and entitled to inflict cruelty upon them. Americans act as though we are entitled to consume the majority of the world's resources, and the change the world's climate. All industrialized humans act like they're entitled to anything they want on this planet.
From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with--and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with--the perceived entitlement.
Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, "normal," chronic state--where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised--to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized. Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remain underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.