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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Black Admiral (p. 243)

From chapter "The Other Side of Darkness"

For me, the tattered fragments of naïve hope that the movement of our culture as a whole—of our civilization, which originated in conquest abroad and repression at home—could be different than it has been from the beginning, could be toward something other than comforts and elegancies for the few, based on the sweat and blood of all others, could be reasonable, that our culture could respond to reason, could undergo the transition to a sane and humane way of living for which most of my friends devote most of their efforts, were finally stripped away by a story. I will tell you this story, but the story is not the point. The final trigger is never the point, because no naïve hope this strong, this large, this foundational, can ever be stolen away by a single incident, no matter how compelling the incident itself. Instead, this naïve hope is worn down, like a stone pillar in a desert sandstorm, by repeated betrayals read about or experienced, betrayals that characterize the progress of our culture. I read the words of Justice Marshall—“discovery gave title . . . which title might be consummated by possession”—and a portion of the pillar crumbled away. More of the pillar tumbled as I read the orders from Lord Amherst to Colonel Bouquet. “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Poxamong those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.” Even more of the pillar sloughed away as I read Bouquet’s response, that he preferred “the Spanish method,” a combination of hunting dogs, rangers, and light horsemen, to “effectively extirpate or remove that vermin.” For years I filed timber sale appeals that stopped illegal federal timber sales on public lands. My friends shut down illegal logging on several national forests. The government response to our efforts across the country was to pass a law essentially exempting federal timber sales from environmental regulations. What happened to that pillar of naïve hope as every one of the upward of ten thousand acres I personally helped save in several years of activism was clear-cut over the next fifteen months? How much fell away with the felling of every ancient tree? What does it do to our naïve hope that even those who believe our political system has shreds of legitimacy take it for granted that those who run the country routinely lie to us? What happens when you take in the implications of the conceptualization and fabrication of neutron bombs, designed to kill humans (and all other living beings) yet leave edifices—nothing but concrete and glass and steel—standing?

Here was, for me, the final piece. I was reading Eduardo Galeano’s Century of the Wind, from his Memory of Fireseries, a stunning history of the Americas. I came across his story of the Black Admiral, of whom I had never heard. In 1910, Brazilian sailors mutinied against the practice of flogging, having one too many times watched one of their own whipped by an officer: “the last of the lashes,” Galeano writes, “two hundred and forty-eight, two hundred and forty-nine, two hundred and fifty—fall upon a flayed body, bathed in blood, unconscious or dead.” An ordinary seaman, João Cándido, the Black Admiral, assumed command and sailed the ship into the harbor at Rio de Janeiro. The demand of the sailors was simple, and not unreasonable: Eliminate flogging and declare an amnesty for the mutineers, or they would blast the city into rubble. The government agreed immediately, and the sailors in good faith surrendered their swords. I’m sure you can see what’s coming, as easily as you did with the murdered bear. Mutiny safely over and the previous order restored, the legislators condemned “with all severity the violence and barbarity” of the mutiny—which took the lives of precisely three officers—and stated that while they may personally have been opposed to flogging, the demand for its end could no longer be honored, because it had not been made, according to one of the legislators, “by constitutional means, using the proper channels within the framework of prevailing juridicial norms.” The ink was still fresh, Galeano comments, on the law to end flogging, when the practice resumed, and the navy began killing the mutineers. The lucky among them were shot on the open ocean, while the less fortunate were buried alive in the catacombs of Cobra Island, also called the Isle of Despair, where they were thrown quick-limed water when they complained of thirst. As for the Black Admiral himself, he ended his days in a lunatic asylum.

A reasonable request met with betrayal: the story of resistance to civilization. Insane logic leading to inhumanity. That final piece could just as easily have been something else. It could have been President Thomas Jefferson—friend of the Indians—instructing his secretary of war that Indians who resist the theft of their land must be met with the hatchet, and furthermore, “if we are ever constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi.” He continued, in what is certainly the central theme of civilization, “in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” His words are reminiscent, if you recall, of those used by lawyer Stephen Worth of the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, in his statement after the killing of Amadou Diallo by four police officers: “The idea is for them to use all the firepower available until the threat is removed.” Perhaps Worth had been consciously mimicking the words of Jefferson. I doubt it, though. It’s far more likely that this way of thinking, this way of entering into and confronting the world, has been inculcated into us deeply enough and for long enough that it has become a reflex. The final piece could have been President Andrew Jackson, who thankfully at least did not pretend to be anything other than what he was, boasting that “I have on all occasions preserved the sculps [sic] of my killed,” and who personally supervised the mutilation of the bodies of about eight hundred Creek Indians—men, women, and children—that he and his men had massacred, cutting off their noses to preserve a record of their kills, and slicing off long strips of flesh to tan and turn into bridal reins. It could have been the phony treaties Jackson rammed down the throats of the Cherokees by imprisoning tribal leaders, shutting down their printing press, then, presaging a move oft-repeated since, negotiating with “cooperative” Indians to produce a treaty so ludicrous that even the military officer assigned to register the tribe’s members to remove them in accordance with the treaty said, “that paper. . . called a treaty, is no treaty at all, because not sanctioned by the great body of the Cherokee and made without their participation or assent. I solemnly declare to you that upon its reference to the Cherokee people it would be instantly rejected by nine-tenths of them, and I believe by nineteen-twentieths of them . . . . The delegation taken to Washington . . . had no more authority to make a treaty than any other dozen Cherokee accidentally picked up for that purpose. . . . The Cherokee are a peacable, harmless people, but you may drive them to desperation, and this treaty can not be carried into effect except by the strong arm of force.” It could have been the death march that was the implementation of this treaty, the Trail of Tears that killed eight thousand Cherokee men, women, and children, about half of what remained of that nation (and roughly equal, by the way, to the death rate of Jews in Germany, Hungary, and Rumania between 1939 and 1945). It could more recently have been the elevation to secretary of state by a unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate someone who had previously been found guilty by an international tribunal of war crimes and crimes against humanity—I’m talking about Colin Powell here—and someone who, when officially asked to investigate allegations of routine atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam, including the rape, torture, and massacre of civilians at My Lai and elsewhere, concluded, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” It could have been the simple existence of ships like the Atlantic Dawn, a trawler capable of “handling” three hundred and forty-four tons of fish per day, spreading its nets more than a mile long, scraping the sea floor, destroying all life—fish, birds, other animals—in its path, and tossing much of it—called by-catch—back overboard, dead. It could have been the existence of Trident submarines, first-strike weapons capable of launching twenty-four missiles simultaneously, each missile containing up to seventeen independently targeted nuclear warheads, each warhead ten times more powerful than the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki, each warhead capable of traveling seven thousand miles, meaning that just one of these subs—and the United States has twenty-two—could effectively eliminate 408 cities across an entire hemisphere. It could have been, as was true for Karen, the ubiquity and stupidity of pesticides. Or it could have been, as happened recently, a straightforward conversation at a restaurant. I asked the server if she knew who won the Super Bowl. She looked at me as though I were a fool, and told me the answer. I then asked her, just out of curiosity, if she knew that wild salmon are on the verge of extinction through much of the Northwest. She said she wasn’t aware of that. She was a senior in college, I soon learned, majoring in environmental studies.

The question becomes, I think, how do you incorporate—from the Latin in corpor, to take into the body—this understanding in a way that sustains rather than defeats you. I have no answer. I only know what sustained me through that transition.

The main thing that helped was the fact that I had many friends who had already gone over this threshold, and who were continuing to act as effectively as they could. The knowledge that our culture is not redeemable had not paralyzed but energized them. These people were my models, my inspirations. Most of them had not articulated this change in perspective—this stripping away of this particular false hope—but, far more importantly, they were living it, and living it beautifully and happily. They did not take the insanity of the culture personally. Oh, sure, many certainly cried about it, often, but they also recognized that by acting vigorously against the injustices and insanity they saw around them they could remove the shame of their participation in it—their participation by the mere fact of being in its center, in reaping some of its rewards. By an act of emotional and spiritual jiu jitsu, they could change their perception from that of living in the center of civilization—a place of unfair advantage where our way of life is based on the exploitation of all others—into having a different sort of advantage: access to the soft underbelly. Having grown up as the recipient of all of these comforts and elegancies gives us greater responsibility, and ability, to shut down the source of those unfair entitlements, and to fight against the contempt and ultimately the hatred on which they are based. Having been taught to read and write, for example, gives me tools denied to others. I can do more harm to civilization— which means I can do more good for humanity—from where I stand at its center, than someone—a starving child in Indonesia, to choose an obvious example, or the poor father or mother of several children in a Third World city, to choose a slightly less obvious one—who does not have that access. This does not mean I should court my privilege, or follow the slippery slope of increasing compromise to gain increasingly intimate yet ineffective access to the seats of power; it simply means that having been born into circumstances that give me certain privileges—based on my gender, the color of my skin, the country of my birth, my education—it becomes my duty to use those privileges to undermine or eradicate the basis for them.

I learned also at this time that it was not so much my sorrow nor even my pain at seeing the destruction on which our way of life is based that hurt me so much as it was my resistance to acknowledging and feeling it.

Through that time—and this was after I’d been an activist several years, and written my first two books, meaning either that Karen is a much quicker study than I, or the destructiveness of the culture has become that much more obvious in only these few years—I began to break down in sobs three or four times per week. Lynx, salmon, Port Orford cedar—all disappearing. The declarations of Lawrence Summers. The lies of politicians. The teaching of torturers and murderers at taxpayer expense at the School of the Americas (and it’s only right, by the way, that it should be at taxpayer expense, since U.S. citizens benefit economically from the exploitation that necessitates the torture in the first place). Some of my friends, even those who’d already gone through this transition, told me to relax. “Take it easy,” they said. “The problems will still be there when you come back to them.” But I knew I had to keep pushing.

The person I think who helped me most through this transition—without whose help I could not be the activist and writer I am today—was Jeannette Armstrong. She is an Okanagan Indian, a writer and activist herself. I met her when I interviewed her for my first book, Listening to the Land, and we became friends. I called her the day I read the story of the Black Admiral. I said to her, “This culture hates everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Even itself.”

“Unless it’s stopped it will kill everything, won’t it?”

“You know the answer to that one.”

“And the culture’s not going to change, is it?”

She said, invitingly yet firmly, “I’ve been waiting for you to say that.”

That was the best thing she or anyone could have said to me. It helped me to understand that I need not fight despair, that despair is a normal and reasonable response to a desperate situation. It helped me to know that my response—breaking into sobs over the killing of so much beauty—is normal, and expected, and that to not feel these losses manifests another type of loss, that of one’s own humanity, one’s very heart. The moment I realized all of this was the moment, I think, that this culture of hate, the rule of Noah, lost its power over me. That was the moment I passed through, beyond, over to the other side of darkness.