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Excerpt from Dreams

If Members of This Culture Are Right (p. 21)

From chapter "Slavery"

If the indigenous had (or have) access to these other sides, and to those who might be allies on these other sides, why has the dominant culture consistently been able to dispossess and destroy the indigenous? (And why limit it to humans asking for help? Why have these potential allies not helped passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, Falkland Islands wolves? Why have all of these wild humans and nonhumans not been able to call on unseen allies to help, as Tecumseh and so many others have so desperately desired, to push the civilized back wherever they came from?) And a related question: if the earth really is intelligent—which I fully believe it is—why hasn’t it killed us off?

Perhaps the answer is that the scientists—and more broadly, the members of this culture—are right, and essentially every other human culture that has ever existed is wrong. There is no plan. Everything is random. The existence of life on earth is random. Natural selection consists of random genetic mutations that either take hold or do not. As Richard Dawkins, the extraordinarily influential and popular scientific philosopher—he’s got more Google hits than Mick Jagger, for crying out loud, even though he’s a freakin’ scientific philosopher—put it, we exist in “a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication. Humans are the only meaningful intelligence on earth, and possibly in the universe. The world consists of objects to be exploited, not other beings to enter into relationships with. There is no magic. No meaning inheres in the world; the only meaning is what we project. Says Dawkins again, “You won’t find any rhyme or reason in it [the universe], nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” The only mysteries are those we’ve not yet cracked. Because nonhumans have no meaningful intelligence, they have nothing to say, to each other or to us. Thus interspecies communication is bunk, no matter who the nonhumans are: animals, plants, rivers, rocks, stars, muses, allies on the other side, and so on. Anyone who thinks otherwise is superstitious, that is, delusional, maybe primitive, maybe crazy, maybe childish, maybe just plain stupid. If this culture is right and every other culture is wrong, then there are no muses, no fates. There are no messages from stars. Astrology is crap. Prayer is crap. Lucky socks are crap. Premonitions are crap, and intuition is either just unconsciously paying really close attention to something, or it’s crap. Nothing more. Heaven is crap. Hell is crap (or maybe just being forced to read Richard Dawkins). All notions of reincarnation or an afterlife are crap. Spirituality is crap. Dreams are purely psychological. Love is nothing but a series of chemical reactions in the brain. The same is true for awe. The same is true for loneliness (calling loneliness a purely chemical response certainly lets this alienating culture off the hook, and makes us all just feel worse; first you tell us no one else exists and no meaning exists, and then when we feel lonely you tell us it’s just chemicals in our brains. Maybe now you can slide us some soma, and the chemicals in our brains will cause us to think we’re not so lonely, which in this rubric means we won’t be quite so lonely). The same is true, embarrassingly enough, for thought. Further, if this scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is right and every other culture is wrong, then the universe is a gigantic clock—a machine; a very predictable and therefore controllable machine—and God (insofar as we can use God as a metaphor, since neither God nor gods exist) is nothing but a blind watchmaker, or more accurately to this perspective, God is Himself a giant clock.

Power in this case, then, is like meaning; there is no inherent power in the world (or outside of it)—just as no power inheres in a toaster or automobile until you put it to use—and the only power that exists is that which you project onto and over others (or that which others project onto and over you). Power exists only in how you use raw materials.

And science is a potent tool for that. That’s the point of science. Dawkins—and remember that he is a preeminent contemporary scientific philosopher, with more Google hits than Mick Fucking Jagger—writes, “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.” If you use raw materials more effectively than anyone else, well, then, more power to you. This means, of course, that might makes right—or rather, right, too, is like meaning and doesn’t inhere anyway. If nonhumans are not in any real sense beings and are here for us to use (and not here for their own sakes, with lives as meaningful to them as yours is to you or mine is to me), then using (or destroying) them raises no significant moral questions. Right is what you decide it is, or more accurately, it’s irrelevant (except insofar as you can use the concept of right as an opiate to allow you to live with yourself and/or keep those you exploit from killing you). Right is whatever you want it to be, which means it’s really nothing at all. This malleable notion of right means that you can fairly easily talk yourself into feeling good about exploiting the shit out of everyone and everything else.

If all of this sounds sociopathological, that’s because it is. Let me put this another way. Last night I was at my mom’s house, watching a documentary on David Parker Ray, a serial killer from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, who is suspected of killing up to sixty women. He kidnapped women—with the help of his daughter and her friend, and then later with the help of his girlfriend—and held them as sex slaves, or more accurately rape slaves. He turned an entire tractor-trailer into a well-stocked torture chamber, where he videotaped what he did to them. One of the main characters of the documentary was an FBI profiler. She compared Ray’s attitudes toward his victims to those most people have toward tissue paper: once you use it, are you concerned about what happens to it? Of course not, she said. And that was how Ray perceived—or rather didn’t perceive—his victims: simply something to use and throw away.

When the profiler said this, my first thought was passenger pigeons. Then chinook salmon. Then oceans. Then cows in factory farms. How deeply do members of this culture mourn passenger pigeons? Salmon? Oceans? How much do they consider the suffering of victims of factory farming? How about the victims of vivisection? Three days ago the California legislature passed a law (as an Urgency Measure) that codifies animal testing as a human right. This culture as a whole, and most of its members, considers the victims of this way of life no more than David Ray Parker considered his victims. And if the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is right, this is only natural. As Dawkins says, “Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection.”

If this scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is correct, if the world (and the universe) is here for you to use, and entering into meaningful relationships with nonhumans and/or the unseen is insane, impossible, “anthropomorphic,” and a waste of time and energy, then you will certainly have a huge competitive advantage over all of these superstitious, childish, primitive, insane peoples who, it ends up, are wasting their time “communicating” and “communing” with dumb animals and with what they believe are spirits or beings from “other sides.” While medicine men or witch doctors speak mumbo jumbo with the “spirits,” and while war chiefs put on special clothing they stupidly believe makes them invulnerable to your bullets, you’re mustering your limitless armies, preparing your even more limitless rifles, and loading grapeshot and canister into your also limitless cannon. Who would you rather put your money (and the survival— and let’s not forget growth!—of your culture) on: army after army of well-trained soldiers equipped with the most modern killing technology; or a bunch of very brave yet pathetically under-equipped American Indians who may, through loss after loss, be starting to lose faith in the spirits who heretofore they believed guided them? Given those choices, give me the big guns. Bullets to the brain somehow always seem to trump spiritual sophistication. Maybe that’s because, if the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is right, spiritual sophistication is just a fancy way of saying delusional and primitive. Maybe, if the dominant culture is right, the American Indians were calling for help from those who simply did not exist.

If the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is right, then the earth hasn’t fought back, and won’t fight back, simply because the earth has no volition and therefore can’t choose to do anything. The earth (and by extension all its inhabitants except humans, by which we really mean civilized humans, by which we really mean rich, white, male civilized humans) is an object. All “beings” are here for us to use, and if we’re going to ask why the earth hasn’t killed us we may as well ask why a tool box doesn’t kill us when we take out tools and use them, or why a woodpile doesn’t kill us when we take out wood to burn, or why a refrigerator doesn’t kill us when we take out food to eat. It’s a silly question. Sure, we might run into problems someday when the refrigerator is empty, but we’re surely smart enough to just find another refrigerator. Like the bumper sticker (invariably on a huge muddy pickup driven by a smug asshole) says: “Earth first. We’ll log the other planets later.”

If the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is right, and all nonhumans on the planet (and the planet itself) are just objects to be used, that means we, just like the indigenous, will never be able to summon help from others, be they Kamchatka brown bears, deadly viruses, oceans, fungi, forests, muses, fates, demons, angels, spirits, or ancestors. None of these exist. We can ask, but no one will hear us, and certainly no one will respond. We are, as this culture tells us in so many ways, all alone.

If we are all alone, and we care about the planet, our actions become clear: we must do everything necessary to decisively and finally bring down civilization before it kills any more of the planet. Because if the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist perspective is true, this culture will continue its routine and necessary destructiveness until it collapses or is stopped. The only real responses the civilized have to this destructiveness are the same ones they always have: primarily to call on everyone to rely on the generosity, graciousness, and skill of the civilized (and to kill or otherwise severely punish those who do not heed this call). The modern name for this generosity, graciousness, and skill regarding the natural world (and the most overtly exploited humans) is “sustainable development.” But of course “sustainable development” will for many reasons fail to materially help the natural world (and the most overtly exploited humans). It is an oxymoron, since “development” is a euphemism in this case for industrialization, which is by definition unsustainable; in fact, industrialization is utterly, irrevocably, and functionally antithetical to sustainability. This absurdly obvious oxymoron remains in common usage primarily for three reasons: (1) pushing this particular lie well serves those in power; (2) a lot of people are too busy, too emotionally drained and defeated, too fearful, too fully metabolized into the system, too incapable of thinking for themselves, too financially well-rewarded by the system, too dishonest, too greedy, too insane, too defensive of and about this culture, and/or too stupid to see the phrase for what it so obviously is (and of course different people can have multiple reasons for their inability to perceive the absurdity of “sustainable development”; George W. Bush, for example, would fall into at least ten of the above categories; and President Barack Obama would fall into at least nine); and (3) “sustainable development” is nothing more nor less than the twenty-first century version of the white man’s burden.

In Rudyard Kipling’s late-nineteenth-century poem “The White Man’s Burden,” he attempted to show just how damn difficult it is to be a white man in a world where you are constantly—and with great reluctance and heavy sighs—having to civilize benighted savages. This is a profound obligation carried by white men. How did these savages somehow survive on their own—lazy and wasteful as they are—for tens of thousands of years? Left unsaid in Kipling’s poem—as is often left unsaid in public discourse about these topics—is any inconvenient discussion of genocide, ecocide, enslavement, or mass organized theft of resources. Left unsaid is that the point of empire is to conquer, subdue, enslave, steal, and murder. Of course.

Fast forward a hundred or so years, and it’s still damn difficult to be a white man in a world where you are now constantly—and with great reluctance and heavy sighs—having to civilize (I mean, develop) benighted savages (I mean, underdeveloped nations). Only now the burden is even heavier, since these white men must now attempt to fulfill their obligations to rule over the entire planet, to “sustainably” manage forests and oceans (how did these forests and oceans ever survive for millions of years without scientific management?), to be “good stewards” of land and air and water that can all evidently fare no better without our assistance than could the savages of a hundred years ago, that need our help just to survive. Now left unsaid in all this talk of “sustainable development”—as is often left unsaid in public discourse about these topics—is any inconvenient discussion of genocide, ecocide, enslavement, or mass organized theft of resources. Left unsaid is that the point of empire—the point of industrial civilization, the point of civilization—is still to conquer, subdue, enslave, steal, and murder. Of course.

If the scientific, materialist, instrumentalist worldview is right, and we really are all alone in a universe bereft of nonhuman intelligences or beings, but if we for some strange reason care about the continuation of life on this planet (if perhaps we are not terminally narcissistic and psychopathic), we’re still where we started. We either need to fight by ourselves or find allies to fight alongside us. But if the allies aren’t there, we better roll up our sleeves and get to fighting.