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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Misdirected Rage (p. 504)

From chapter "Expanding the Frontier"

But there is a deeper point to be made, as well, about the framing conditions in our culture that not only make this rage inevitable, but make inevitable, too, the turning of this rage onto inappropriate targets. We have discussed already how rage and hatred are two of the inescapable outcomes of basing one’s culture so thoroughly on competition. We have discussed also the absurd lengths to which we will go to not perceive those things that threaten our worldview, that threaten the bases of our society. We have not yet, however, put them fully together.

The militias of the 1990s up to the present in rural America have long encouraged, frustrated, and confused me. The encouragement has come because they give voice to the rage, sorrow, and terror that so many of us feel: As John Keeble said of the Ku Klux Klan (“Hate groups state openly that they’re racist and afraid. We’re all racist, and we’re all afraid. It’s just that most of us are afraid to admit it”) so too we’re all outraged (or should be), yet most of us simply put down our heads and get through the day. And these groups have frustrated me because—like the Irish in America—so often they turn the rage to the wrong sources. I talked once with a family farmer who said, “Cargill [a huge agricorporation] gives me two choices: Either I can cut my own throat or they’ll do it for me.” Although this particular farmer was very clearly out for revolution against the corporate theocracy, so often the rage gets expressed not toward these hungry ghosts and those who run them but toward, for example, an alleged International Zionist Conspiracy, or a cabal of Jewish bankers (never mind that the Morgans, who actually did control a good portion of the global economy, were bigoted against Jews, with Jack Morgan stating approvingly of Hitler, “Except for his attitude toward the Jews, which I consider wholesome, the new Dictator of Germany seems to me very much like the old Kaiser”), or environmentalists, Indians, or Mexicans. Any group but the real one. Just two days ago, I was supposed to catch a flight out of Crescent City (the airport, interestingly enough, is named McNamara Field) to do that commencement I mentioned, but heavy fog caused the flight to be canceled. The airline paid for four of us to share a taxi to catch a flight out of McKinleyville, some hour and a half south. The ride was interesting. My companions were an elderly woman and three elderly men, including the driver. As you might guess, given the mix, there were a lot more answers in the air than questions. I paid close attention, and with the exception of myself and the woman, no one asked a single question about anything. But here’s the point. All four of us males—myself definitely included—expressed anger at “the way things are.” For example, we all—including even the woman—had a good time complaining about the shenanigans by California’s electrical suppliers. We all agreed that these huge corporations have created all sorts of dummy companies to which they sell electricity back and forth, before finally selling that electricity at grossly inflated prices to consumers. We also agreed that these same corporations have artificially created shortages in order to demand additional taxpayer subsidies or to get out of contracts they now deem unfavorable. And we all knew, too, that Pacific Gas and Electric, one of the biggest suppliers, had shuttled billions of dollars to a parent company in some other state, then declared bankruptcy (leaving, among others, many of the families supposedly represented in the Oscar-winning movie Erin Brockovichin the lurch: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, and Steven Soderbergh may have gotten their payoffs, but many of the families with leukemia, cancer, and Crohn’s disease are simply SOL). And we knew also that the day before declaring bankruptcy, PG&E had given its executives tens of millions in bonuses, with tens of millions more pouring in during the weeks after. One person in the taxi said, “If you or I transferred funds to a relative, then declared bankruptcy, we’d both be in prison.” We all agreed. Then another said, “You know what the problem is?” Even though a question mark comes at the end of that sentence, it didn’t count properly as a question, since he fully expected no one to answer, and made sure to answer his own question before anyone had the chance, anyway. His response, and this is the point of the story, was, “Government interference.” The other two men agreed. The woman looked out the window at the redwoods slipping by. I’m reasonably certain that by government interferencethe three men didn’t mean government interference with citizen outrage, either by legislators, administrators, and judges providing legal screens for these activities, or by the use of police to keep us from simply stringing up these corporate executives. (How many lynchings have you heard of, by the way, where the victim was a wealthy white male, head of a corporation?) That they meant none of this was verified by the next thing one of them said: “And it’s those damn environmental regulations.” In the soliloquy that followed he also somehow inculpated Indians in the energy crisis, but the drive didn’t last long enough for him to get around to Mexicans, blacks, or Jews.

This happens all the time. Too many gang kids kill too many gang kids in the ghetto, shooting down mirror images of themselves. Too many small family farmers hate too many environmentalists, and too many environmentalists hate too many small family farmers. (This is not to say we shouldn’t be particular: I work with many family farmers, but I won’t work with McNamara). Cops shoot anti-globalization protesters with whom they ultimately have more in common than they do with the institutions they are protecting. And they do the same with poor black males.

Why? The answer, I think, has to do with Noah, Luborsky, and Laing.

Our culture’s deep foundation of competition creates waves of rage and hatred. Not only does this anger get misdirected because it’s easier to express it against the powerless, and not only because we are routinely pitted against others of the powerless, but, most especially, because, if we were to focus on the real sources of that rage and hatred, we would soon find ourselves questioning our very identities. Because so many of us have identified ourselves so deeply as civilized, as producers, consumers, workers, engineers, bakers, writers, soldiers, policemen, teachers, we have forgotten that first we are human beings. And what is that? We have no idea. To identify so deeply with the system of production that permeates the deepest recesses of our bodies, just like dioxin from manufacturing, like radiation from fallout, like heavy metals from mining, is to identify with the founding processes of civilization: conquest and repression. To recognize that our lives are based on these processes would—if we reject instead of embrace them—set us adrift in unknown territory. Who would I be and how would I live if I were not a part of this system?

If we were to truly turn our rage and hatred—not envy, where we wish to take the place of those in power, but rage and hatred, where we wish to destroy their base of power—toward the right targets, we would find ourselves questioning the basis upon which anyone holds power over anyone else. We would find ourselves questioning the basis for our own privilege. We would find ourselves suddenly no longer on the inside, no longer White, but now—light-skinned or dark, deepest ebony, to subtlest russet, to the most translucent pink- hated by those who were still White, and, far more importantly, searching for a new worldview to replace that into which we were formerly indoctrinated. Our identity would be shaken, then shattered. That’s all scary as hell. Which is why we don’t do it. Which is why, just as those who find nudity objectionable could not see the breast in the photograph, we, too, cannot even see that which is threatening to us. Truly, if we identify with the culture, to hate the thing causing us pain—the culture—would be to hate ourselves. This is too much.

This is why Sitting Bull could make the speech he did at the Golden Spike ceremony for Northern Pacific: “I hate you. I hate you. I hate all the white people. You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts, so I hate you.” Because Sitting Bull’s identity was not based on being White—civilized—he could, with no major psychological distress, recognize the real source of his misery: whites, or, rather, Whites. To do so did not alter his perception of who and what he was in relationship to his family, his community, the larger social nexus of which he was a part, and, ultimately, the land. It was a simple statement of fact. Because he did not identify himself as White, he did not have to notsee the source of his misery.

Conversely, this is why the soldier could not translate Sitting Bull’s speech accurately, but, instead, had to scuttle backward to cover up his father’s nakedness. Of course. To do otherwise would be to question his identity, and, in the end, to blow apart his world.

The story of Sitting Bull happens also inside of each of us every day, or, at least, inside those of us who feel rage and hate, which I’d wager is most of us, in that we all feel the loss—at some level even more deeply than our identification with the system of production, even more deeply than the dioxin, radiation, heavy metals, as deep inside of us as it is possible to be—of having had our humanity sacrificed on the altar of production, of having been forced into competition with all others with whom we should be cooperating, of having been coerced into believing that coercion is natural or inevitable, of having signed a Faustian contract—theFaustian contract—giving up happiness and connection for power. Inside of us—once again, deep, deep inside of us—we daily give Sitting Bull’s speech, hating the system, hating what it does to others, hating what it does to ourselves. And then, somewhere on the way to the surface, the speech gets translated from our native tongue into English, into the “friendly, courteous speech” that has been prepared for us, and that we now prepare for ourselves. And so we give that courteous speech, and we laugh, and we smile, never perhaps noticing how closely a smile sometimes resembles a grimace. And what about the rage? It gets shunted, turned anywhere but at the source. And when it emerges, we smile. We smile as we lynch the black men, and we smile as we shoot them down. We smile as we shoot the photographs of women legs spread, and we smile as we look at them on our computers. We smile as we deforest the land and vacuum the oceans. We smile, we smile, we smile, never able to see the source of our hatred, never seeing even that the hate exists.