The More Things Change…
by Randall Amster
I recently found some old writings of mine from the 1990s. When I began to look through them, I had a sudden sense of foreshadowing — or, perhaps more to the point — postshadowing. While my capacity to express certain ideas has (hopefully) evolved in the ensuing years, I was struck by how similar today’s issues remain to those uppermost in my mind in those halcyon days before 9/11, perpetual war, climatic catastrophes, economic meltdown, and the rest of the “new normal” that has taken hold in the past decade.
To illustrate, I’d like to share one of these prior pieces, this one from 1999. I’ve resisted the temptation to clean up the writing or reword things to sound more sophisticated or up-to-date, instead leaving the text as it was produced a dozen years ago.
The primary point I hope to demonstrate here is how little things change in many ways, despite a sense of rampant transformation perpetually unfolding in our midst. To be sure, the details and the challenges evolve, but the baseline issues continue in force across the decades. In this, perhaps we can actually find a strange optimism in the assurance that social and ecological justice are transcendent and timeless aims…
We live in remarkable and terrifying times. Having reached the cusp of global dominion, the living history that we are enacting — the unfolding story of mythology, culture, and ideology — stands poised on the brink of an alarming threshold in the race to conquer time, space, and even Nature herself. The coming millennium portends revolutions in genetics, biomechanics, quantum physics, the manipulation of matter, the very fabric of creation — not to mention in the mundane social control devices of the compu/phone/vision and McPharma-caffeinated varieties.
Consider the rate of change in the last 50 years, since the end of WWII, then consider the rate in just the last five, and buckle up for an exponential ride into the next eon. It’s not that we won’t care if the rainforests hold the cures for our viral plagues, or if the Zapatistas are winning the war for freedom — it’s just that it might not matter at all. The question, as they say, will be moot — mooted by distraction, medication, disinformation, surveillance, nostalgia, and perhaps even extinction. The ethical dilemmas of the next age loom as behemoths too mighty for philosophy, letters, the arts. This is a job for spirituality, karma, and divine grace — if there be such forces. Time might tell.
But for now, in the meantime, in this mean-place, we have the mighty pen, er, keyboard, ready to take aim once again in the never ending battle against futility and lassitude. Having ceased to be interested in both revolution and assimilation as worthy ends, we find ourselves at something of a loss as to the burning question: What is to be done? The metaphor of “Life Strategies on a Sinking Ship” recently came to mind; it suggests that one might: (a) join the party (that is, give in to the temptations of hedonism and denial); (b) opt out early (“man overboard!”); (c) try to right (or even write) the ship, courting martyrdom and ultimate futility; or (d) sit quietly and hope for the strength to take a leap of faith.
In more post-postmodern terms, the metaphor is “Life Strategies on the H.M.S. Domination and Globalism,” and the salient life strategies become: (a) grab a chunk of power and persona while it’s hot! (b) join a religious cult, live alone in a cabin in Montana, or buy a loaf of bread, olives, and a newspaper and blow your brains out in the bathtub on a quiet Thursday afternoon; (c) try to right (or even write) the ship, courting martyrdom, posthumous misappropriation, and ultimate futility (again); or (d) live simply and in small ways and hope for a paradigm shift in consciousness. Of course, one could also get surreal and (e) deny the existence of the ship altogether. This option offers at least some inspiration, to wit: flout the beast through feigned ignorance and righteous denial, visualize a few melting clocks, court notoriety, and die notoriously martyred, registering a minor karmic ripple. This may be as hopeful as it gets.
We are of course still bandying about the eternal question posed so succinctly by both H.G. Wells and Leo Tolstoy, the question which inevitably follows the knowledge (arduously acquired) that something is amiss in our little late-capitalist utopia, a question that we are loath to ask but desperately need answered: What is to be done? What is to be done? Rainforests, ozone depletion, Chernobyl, Bhopal, acid rain, irradiation, cloning, viruses, cancer and heart disease … it is sometimes said that this generation, X or whatever (perhaps MX is more apt), lacks a unifying cause, a galvanizing Vietnam-esque issue to unite its rebellious energy, a Woodstock sans corporate sponsorship . . . well I have a newsflash for you, my friends, sound-bitten for easy consumption:
Here’s your freakin’ Vietnam! Agent Orange, children dying, the war machine in its glory…. It’s raining chemicals out there folks! The air and water and food — and soon the entire habitat — poisoned, rendered unlivable, felled by the hands of obsessive growth and the quest to dominate nature. Apocalypse when? Could be any day now…
Blame it on whomever you want: Cain, Plato, Christianity, Thomas Hobbes, capitalism, Descartes and Newton, colonialism, industrialization, Henry Ford, Oppenheimer, Exxon — every generation’s got its own disease. Or perhaps, more accurately, every generation’s got a disease which is the logical successor of the cumulative diseases culturally accrued since the time of the first agriculturalists who decided that they were entitled to dominion “over all the earth” (Genesis 1:26) in virtue of their innate superiority as the end product of creation, the ones for whom all the rest had been made. Such dominion even applied to their darker-skinned, nomadic, tribal brothers to the south, the practitioners of the old ways of pastoralism and hunting and gathering, the uncivilized occupants of fertile lands that might otherwise be put under cultivation for the purported benefit of all.
So Cain, the tiller, murders Abel, the shepherd, in a cold-blooded jealous rage and receives from god not punishment but a mark of protection that promises to avenge him sevenfold should anyone harm him — a veritable ‘license to kill’, the father’s approval of the inevitability of Cain’s dominion. Perhaps these are the roots of the crisis, the earliest beginnings of the cultural myth that supports control of nature in the sense of “rule,” that mankind may “subdue it” (again, Genesis; see also Francis Bacon). It’s a not-so-subtle progression from a mindset of dominion, to universalism (crusades, imperialism, GATT), to science and technology (particle physics, molecular biology, the Internet), to today.
The crisis, then, as Fritjof Capra notes, is one of perception — or more precisely, misperception. A mistaken belief in human superiority and dominance, an ideology of power and globalism, the result of arrogantly believing that we know enough to decide which species live and which ones die, the misappropriation of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil despite god’s admonition to Adam (man) that “when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 1:17). Are we poised — here on the cusp of a new millennium rife with apocalyptic visions, messianic mumbo-jumbo, and mother ships on the way — to realize god’s unheeded warning?
We have reached the limit of modern ethical reasoning, and even postmodern “ethics,” having seen the horrors of universalism and the perils of relativism — and being dissatisfied in any event with all such binaries of the individual versus society ilk, including narrowly conceiving our life strategies as confined to assimilation or secession. We need a new moral vision, a certain tribal wisdom, a remnant Paleolithic consciousness that enables us to conceive the whole without losing our unique selves, a simultaneous holism and atomism that sees human existence as an interconnected part of the great cosmic dance, Shiva’s dance, in rhythm with the tides and currents of nature, subject to natural law and not exempt from it, yet still sensate and visceral, aware of our own emotions and longings, each a bearer of a brain filled with unique memories and narrative accounts. Simply put: We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…
What is to be done? If the world needs a new vision, then I say incite to visualize. Guerrilla theater, random acts of kindness, living simply and doing it with style, drumming and dancing, utopian poetics, pamphlets and portable soap boxes, monkeywrenching, Emma Goldman’s “spirit of revolt” — anything to shake the drones out of their cryonically medicated torpor. Spread as much pagan anarchist holistic wiccan magick as you can, then set your mind in quiet moments on healing the universe from within. And hope for the best, in fact, pray for it. Doesn’t matter if anyone’s out there to hear — only that we hear each other. I know I’ll be listening.
It’s funny, sad, and hopeful to recall these plaintive words from a dozen years ago. I have a hard time picturing that pre-millennial world where few people had cell phones and the internet was still confined mostly to the workplace if you had it at all. There was no Bush-Cheney cabal, no hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no SB 1070, no trillion-dollar bailouts, no Hurricane Katrina, no Patriot Act, and of course no 9/11. Still, the sense of looming environmental collapse, brewing geopolitical conflict, and the corporate colonization of our lives was palpable even “back in day” before such notions fully manifested in the undeniable manner that they have today.
One of the more interesting items upon reflection is the hesitatingly spiritual response to these issues that I seemed to be primarily preoccupied with back in 1999. To be sure, the coming millennial shift was rife with, well, millenarian overtones, including a burgeoning new-age spiritualism and a widespread reconsideration of the eschatological qualities of the old faiths as well. Whatever the tendencies, I can relate to that former self struggling to find “secure moorings” in a world of perpetually shifting ground. Change may be the only constant, but there are perhaps deeper lessons to be learned from the things that stay the same.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor for New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).