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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Feeling That Dissonance (p. 139)

From chapter "Beginning to See"

It is possible, however, for someone raised in this imagined society where white males—especially rich white males—perceive themselves superior, to begin to feel the first faint stirrings of dissonance, to sense that he may be missing some element of connection, to begin untangling these knotted threads of hate and exploitation. It may be that he is able to think his way through the tautologies and absurdities that mark the logic supporting exploitation, or it may be that he begins to feel in his body some absence, which he may at some point be able to name as the disconnection necessary in order to exploit. Not all are able to begin to bring this dissonance to an articulable level, maybe not many. But it can happen. If it does, then questions may arise: Why do the arguments not hold up? What am I not understanding? What is wrong with me, that I no longer feel secure within the social nexus that spawned me? He may begin to question his perceptions—Did I really see the outline of a breast in that photograph?—or his sanity—What is wrong with me, that I would project a breast into an innocuous picture of a man reading a newspaper? I must be sick.

Something along these lines happened to me during the late 1980s. I thought I was insane. Then, as now, so much of what I saw around me made no sense. Our culture is killing the planet, yet most of us don’t seem to care. Certainly our public (and most of our private) discourse falls short of the magnitude of the damage we are causing. Two days ago I watched wild coho salmon trying to spawn in waters clogged with sediment from the logging operations upstream. The fish—these were two and a half to three and a half feet of muscle, beautiful gray sides and white bellies, fins frayed from their journeys home—survived for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years, swimming out to the ocean, gliding on deep cold currents, smelling the faintest traces of the places where they were born, then following these traces home to spawn and die. They will almost undoubtedly be extinct in the continental United States within the next decade or two. Mine will be the last generation of humans ever to witness them cleaning algae off rocks of their redd—the spawning bed—scooping out spaces for eggs, cleaning away sediment with their powerful tails. And yesterday I learned, through environmentalist channels, that the West African monkey called the Miss Waldron’s red colobus has been declared extinct. This primate, which inhabited the rain forest canopy of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, has been wiped out by logging, road building, and hunting. Rather than this being a “one-off species extinction,” as the communique read, which would be bad enough, this is probably the beginning of an extinction pattern which could claim the lives of most of the other primate species. Jane Goodall, the world’s most well-respected expert on primates, has suggested that all of the great apes could be extinct within twenty years: At the start of the twentieth century, for example, more than two million chimpanzees lived in the forests of Africa; now there are maybe two hundred thousand. The final gasps of the Miss Waldron’s red colobus, with all of its history, its adaptations, its potential, its beingness, did not make the newspapers. I searched in vain. But something so final is not news. Each day the newspaper devotes a dozen uncritical pages to the writhings of the stock market, and a dozen more to the drama of sports teams (as glorious as baseball may be, it’s a game), yet fails to present similarly in-depth coverage of the murder of the planet. What coverage exists is near-uniformly skeptical (contrast the level of proof required in the following three headlines from three consecutive days: “Record temperatures add fuel to global warming debate;” “Tiger Woods’ performance in U.S. Open silences all critics”; and “The jury is in: Americans love reality-based TV.”) As this dawning dissonance began to tear at my insides, again and again I considered that the confusion must come from within, that I must be missing some simple point: No one could be so stupid as to kill their own planet, all the while chatting breezily about golf, “reality-based TV” (whatever that means), bulging stock portfolios, and How ’bout them Cubbies?What seemed profoundly important to me seemed of no importance whatsoever to most people, and what seemed important to so many people seemed trivial to me. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Lawrence Summers promotes the poisoning of poor people, and is elevated to secretary of the treasury. People profess concern over child prostitution as they continue to promulgate the economic and familial conditions that lead to it. The United States bombs Vietnam to save the Vietnamese people, it arms death squads through Latin America to save the people there, it bombs Iraq to save the people there. I kept thinking: Is there something I’m missing?

My fears for my own sanity began to abate when I discovered that there exists a long and powerful (though sometimes hidden) tradition of protest against and resistance to the injustices, illogicalities, and craziness of our culture. This tradition has manifested intellectually and artistically, as through the Cynics, Jesus, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emma Goldman, Petr Kropotkin, Berthold Brecht, Lewis Mumford, Erich Fromm, R. D. Laing, Neil Evernden, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Daniel Quinn, Frances Moore Lappé, Eduardo Galeano, John Zerzan, among many others, and it has manifested through direct physical resistance, as through slave rebellions, Indians fighting for their land, anarchists, Wobblies, resistance movements against the Nazis, resistance movements against the corporate/governmental rulership of the people and the land of the United States. To suddenly discover that there has always been a rich and vibrant community of resistance to the insanity of normalcy was to suddenly be able to breathe: It no longer felt like I stood alone against our culture.

Earlier this year, David Edwards, the author of Burning All Illusions, said to me, “If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic—I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’ So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this external and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”

The primary point is this: I now understand that the dissonance I felt for so long is a natural step in rejecting one’s socialization—a less refined term would be brainwashing. It is not possible—at least in my own case—to move from one way of perceiving the world to another without a transition of confusion, loss, even hopelessness. Had I known this earlier—had I an understanding of how transitions occur—my period of questioning my sanity may have been shorter, my desperation less deep. This may have been a good thing. Or it may not have been a good thing: My search for a community of like hearts and minds (in books and in person) may then have been less intense, less immediate.

I don’t suppose that at this point it much matters. That particular transition is over for me, and so far as the other transitions and transformations that take place now, more or less routinely, I have come to accept dissonance—confusion, contradictory impulses, fear—as something not to be feared in and of itself, but in a sense to be welcomed and entered into as a necessary doorway to new understanding.