That The Sun has the chutzpah to publish Derrick Jensen’s enlightening interviews gives me tremendous hope that we may wake up in time to save our planet and ourselves. His latest, with David Edwards [“Nothing to Lose but Our Illusions,” June 2000], is one I needed to read.
A point that Edwards touched on but didn’t fully explore is how the wealthy and powerful define respectability. Since they own the media, it’s easy for them to make the WTO protestors, for example, look disreputable. One reason we don’t talk about the genocide of the Iraqi children is that questioning state- and corporate-sponsored crime is not quite respectable. “A culture that systematically wrecks the environment and tortures and kills people in the Third World needs a smiley face to hide behind,” Edwards says. And that smiley face is respectability. The wealthy and powerful own respectability, just like they own patented seeds and privatized water.
But the battle, as Edwards so poignantly pointed out, is not only with those whose “highest priority must at all times be the defense of profits,” but with ourselves. Thomas Jefferson said that “a society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will deserve neither and lose both.” Are we trading our freedom for the illusion of order? I certainly hope not.
David Edwards is insightful and painfully honest in his assessment of our society’s dilemma, but the real illusion is that preaching to the choir of the Zen Left is going to reverse our destructive momentum. Like many modern Buddhist thinkers, Edwards plays down the necessity for concerted, dynamic, mass action and bathes the reader in the benign rhetoric of the politics of attitude.
If the planet is truly “being demolished before our eyes” (and only a fool would deny this), then we had better act to save it. People have been buzzing about this for thirty years, yet the deterioration of our environment is moving along at a staggering pace. Why? Because too many intelligent folk like Edwards are spending their time writing long-winded articles that demand nothing of anyone except to be ambiguously good and gentle people. He cites the great dissidents of our time, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, as examples of compassionate activists. A lot of good their empathic activism has done. They’ve created a cottage industry of criticism, but look at the score: we’re still losing, big time.
How can Edwards take “a very strong stand against anger” while discussing the fact that “the planet is dying”? Why not get a little pissed off about the fact that our once wondrous home is being plundered to death by stupidity and greed?
The time has come to table the anemic psycho-babble and put an end to the wanton environmental destruction that Edwards and his scholarly cohorts describe so eloquently. The WTO protests were encouraging, but if we’re going to restore the ecological and social balances of this world, we’re going to have to come up with more than a litany of grievances and an occasional demonstration that involves but a fraction of the population.
With all due respect, the truth is that we are going to have to force the issue of dramatic social and ecological change. We can start with an automobile moratorium, legally closing our streets to private, fossil-fueled vehicles at least once a year, and then maybe once a month, and so on. We can start by using magazines such as The Sun as organizing tools instead of mere journals reflecting on what’s wrong with the world and how to make ourselves feel better about it all. We can start by actually doing something that will seriously challenge not only the corporate power structure but our own inertia and complacency.
Street closures, in the name of environmental and social sanity, would be a major step beyond the same old tired poses and postures of “enlightenment.”
I do not argue with David Edwards that the value of human life and the natural environment is being diminished by systemic corporate interests. I would add, however, that the problem is not driven solely by capitalist greed. Another cause has been the sheer will to power of nation states, whether democratic or autocratic in structure.
In Iraq, for example, economic interest is not advanced by boycotts that injure children. The same is true with Cuba. These are exercises of power for its own sake. And during the Spanish American War, business interests were the last to come on board in support of the fighting. If war were solely a matter of profits, corporate America would have been leading the charge. Rather, that conflict was about a nascent world power flexing its muscle.
I agree that the global economy makes nation states less important than they once were, but the exercise of power for its own sake, regardless of economic gain, remains one cause of the destruction of life and environment.
David Edwards responds:
I share Marcus O’Realius’s frustration. Protests, demonstrations, and other forms of activism are important. In my experience, though, the problem is not that people don’t know how to organize; it’s that they don’t know why to organize. Even if they do manage to learn some of the truth from our hopelessly compromised media, why should they care that their government is killing Iraqi children? What is it to them? Many people respond this way in part because big business has led a concerted campaign to persuade the public that greed is good, narcissism is natural, and caring for others is weird or sentimental. This point of view immunizes people against O’Realius’s insistence that they should act immediately to change society; they find the notion incomprehensible, frightening, or absurd.
Of course we have to do more than just talk, but actions begin with ideas, values, and words that challenge the pacifying deceptions of corporate culture. We cannot simply wish a world of knowledgeable, compassionate, action-oriented people into being.
I agree with Pam Hanna that there is a close correlation between brutality and the appearance of respectability — uniforms, pageantry, somber tradition. It’s as George Orwell said: the best type of camouflage is one that portrays the exact opposite of reality. If anyone tries to expose the lie, the media can brand the messenger as somehow disreputable and corrupt.
I can’t agree with Robert Stuart that sanctions that kill children don’t serve economic interests. In a recent interview, Denis Halliday, former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, argued that there were hidden economic reasons for the genocidal sanctions against the people of Iraq: to justify massive, lucrative arms sales to the region; to tighten control over oil-rich countries; and to keep oil prices within a range preferred by Western business interests. He added that racism was also a factor: wealthy Western policymakers just do not care what happens to impoverished children in Iraq.
Sybil Smith had me on her side with “On the Suffering of Little Things” [June 2000] — until she began discussing her cat and kittens. She should be aware of the tremendous destruction her cat wreaks in the universe of small things. Smith could spend a lifetime crushing every spider she could hunt down, and it wouldn’t hold a candle to what one cat will instinctively destroy in a month.
Once she revealed herself to be a cat owner, the honesty of Smith’s writing was lost for me. No one who owns an outdoor cat (let alone allows it to breed indiscriminately) can really give a damn about the suffering of small things.
When I got your May 2000 issue, I put off reading Lorenzo W. Milam’s memorial to Mark O’Brien, “Lifestyles of the Blind and Paralyzed,” until the very end. As usual, the essay I put off had the most painful awakening in store.
O’Brien and Milam are right, although neither says it directly, that we shun the handicapped because they force us to face, once again, the futility of all our concerns. I would rather cross the street than encounter a man in a wheelchair because such an encounter calls into question what I have done with my gifts, my opportunities — usually squandered them on a new piece of software or clothing or some other diversion.
I loved how O’Brien tried to help physicist Stephen Hawking face his feelings. We all know it’s OK to feel anger, frustration, and rage, but O’Brien suggested that it’s a necessity. Only by experiencing these feelings can one hope to move to the next step.
Discussing Mark O’Brien’s interview with Stephen Hawking, Lorenzo Milam states, “There is no one in the world . . . who can lose the use of his or her body without having it resonate powerfully in the soul.” This struck me as a bit off kilter. Human beings come in so many varieties, it is shameful to claim that everyone with a disability should respond to it in the same way.
I can think of at least three possibilities. The first is that Hawking is denying his true feelings, as Milam believes. The second is that Hawking is telling the truth. The third is that Hawking might want to keep his feelings private.
If Hawking is in denial, so what? Denial can ease our pain and is a problem only when it harms others or oneself. The real myth is that all denial is unhealthy, that it leads to a shallow soul and a stunted spirit.
I also believe it is possible that some people with a disabling condition do not experience hurt and rage. Such a person would be rare, but Stephen Hawking could be one. For someone who enjoys mental work so much that it supplants physical activity, the loss of mobility might seem less important.
Finally, if Hawking does experience hurt, frustration, and rage, he has a right to evade questions about such a private matter.
I think Milam’s “I know you better than you know yourself” attitude is very ill-mannered. He shouldn’t assume to know Hawking’s inner state, and he definitely shouldn’t judge him by those assumptions.
Shame on editor Sy Safransky for using his position to publish his journal, as if it made interesting reading [“Sy Safransky’s Notebook”]. Our journals may be great places to collect our thoughts, work out our problems, or question the meaning of life, but 99 percent of what we write there isn’t going to have any relevance or importance to anyone else. Safransky is no exception, and I would think someone in his position would know better.