From chapter "Their Insanity Was Permanent"
Now, were Columbus and his fellow European exploiters simply “greedy” men whose “ethics” were such as to allow for mass slaughter and genocide? I shall argue that Columbus was a wétiko, that he was mentally ill or insane, the carrier of a terribly contagious psychological disease, the wétiko psychosis. The Native people he described were, on the other hand, sane people with a healthy state of mind. Sanity or healthy normality among humans and other living creatures involves a respect for other forms of life and other individuals, as I have described earlier. I believe that is the way people have lived (and should live).
The wétiko psychosis, and the problems it creates, have inspired many resistance movements and efforts at reform or revolution. Unfortunately, most of these efforts have failed because they have never diagnosed the wétiko as an insane person whose disease is extremely contagious.
Jack D. Forbes
Why civilization is killing the world, take eighteen. An actual conversation that took place in an exercise center near Seattle. Men and women walked on treadmills as they stared at televisions, read books, or looked in mirrors.
One woman said, “I can’t handle my neighbors’ trees. I wish she’d cut them down when the crane comes through. After the last storm a branch came right through my deck.”
Another woman responded, “I know what you mean. Last year no one in my neighborhood wanted to cut their trees. Luckily, when I had the crane come, everyone on our cul-de-sac changed their minds, and we were able to get rid of sixteen of those trees.”
The first: “I still have two trees left. I’m ordering the crane this year. I don’t want one to fall on my house.”
A third woman, an environmentalist, said, “An arborist could thin the branches so the wind will go through them and the tree won’t fall.”
The first: “If anyone comes out, the tree goes!”
The third: “Wow. I was just thinking about all the things trees do for us. They exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. They provide homes for animals, who are fun to watch. They—”
A fourth woman interrupted: “Trees are a mess. You know, the manager here had fourteen taken out of her yard when she moved in so she could have some light. And my neighbor has this stupid 150-year-old tree that just has to go. Its roots are pushing up our three-thousand-dollar shed. No tree is worth that.”
First woman: “I’ll replant anyway. Just not with some ugly evergreen. Maybe a dwarf tree.”
I have to admit it discourages me that at this late date we still have to fend off this argument that we must not tell the truth for fear we will frighten or anger the mass of people. Certainly an examination of history shows a greater willingness of the mass of people to participate in the atrocities of the culture than to oppose them. How is it that a sure-fire way for a president to increase his standing in the polls is to invade yet another defenseless country? Or, compare how many Germans were in the Wehrmacht in World War II—or how many were just good Germans—to how many were part of the resistance. One of the reasons members of the resistance knew they had to kill Hitler was because he was so magnificently popular among the majority of people: if Hitler were allowed to speak, they knew the people would listen.
* * *
WHY CIVILIZATION IS KILLING THE WORLD, TAKE NINETEEN. Two words: Detroit Tigers. No, not because the Tigers are so terrible that they threaten life as we know it—although they are bad, historically bad, bad enough that if there were a hypothetical contest between the 2003 Tigers and the legendary 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20 wins, 134 losses: .130 winning percentage), the only reason the 2003 Tigers would win is because everyone who played for the Spiders is long-since dead—but because more people care about Detroit Tigers than real ones.
I’ve commented elsewhere how deeply it saddens me that hundreds of thousands of Americans attend sporting events each night, and millions more watch on TV, yet if we try to get a rally together to do something—anything—to save salmon, we’re lucky to get fifteen people, and they’re the same ones who showed up last week to protest the circus, and the week before to hold signs decrying increases in the military budget.You could argue that the difference is adver-tising—if smooth-voiced announcers constantly exhorted us to blow up dams, and if newspapers daily devoted a dozen pages to the travails of endangered species, then more people would care.
I doubt it.
There’s a deeper point to be made here, which is that what people want can to some degree be told—more or less tautologically—by what they do. If more people go to see the Detroit Tigers every summer night than do anything to save real tigers from extinction, it’s probably because that’s what they want to do.
Or maybe that’s what they think they want.
Or maybe that’s what they’ve been taught to want. Or maybe that’s what everything in the culture has led them to want. Or maybe that’s what everything in the culture has traumatized them into wanting. (And yes, it’s pretty traumatizing to watch the Tigers, but I’m talking about something deeper here.) Or maybe these wants are toxic mimics of real wants. Or maybe they’re what people have become addicted to.
My students at the prison who’d been addicted to crank often said they started taking drugs because the drugs felt so good (especially in contrast to the often-not-so-quiet desperation of their lives), yet soon found themselves taking the drugs no longer to feel good but to keep from feeling bad.
I have known women who were sexually abused as children who as adults loathed and feared sex, and who at the same time became extremely promiscuous. They were disallowed from saying no as children, and were trained well in the ways of subsuming themselves in order to please men. Now, these women went to the bars voluntarily, yes? Doesn’t that mean they wanted to? They picked up the men for sex. No one put a gun to their head, yes? Doesn’t that mean they wanted this?
But it didn’t make them feel good. They told me this later. Many hated it. Or did they? They thought they loved it. They thought it validated them. They thought it was what they wanted. But did they? What did they really want?
And the men. What did they want? If all they wanted was to get off, they could have grabbed some hand lotion and saved themselves the trouble of dressing up. If all they wanted was an ego boost, they could have got that through conversation. What did they really want?
Let’s go further. What did my father want when he beat or raped us? On one level he obviously wanted to do what he did, or he would not have done it. He had choices, didn’t he?
Or did he?
After high school I attended the Colorado School of Mines, a well-thought-of engineering school. I did this because I got an academic scholarship and because I’d been told—I’d internalized—that anyone who got through calculus in high school would be an idiot to pass up an opportunity like this: After college I would be sure to get a high-paying job, and isn’t that the point of life? Never mind that I didn’t like my high school math and science classes. But I still wanted to go to that school, didn’t I? Or I certainly wouldn’t have gone. Or would I?
These questions go to the heart of everything I’m writing about in this book, and go to the heart of how we’ll get out of this mess we’re in. We’ll talk about how in a while, but first I want to bring in another piece of this puzzle. I receive a lot of letters commenting on the books I’ve written, and many letters specifically about A Language Older Than Words, but no one has ever mentioned what I’ve always thought of as one of the most important sections of that book. This is the section where I describe how scientists set out to intentionally drive monkeys insane, to turn them into, to use their words, “monster mothers.” Now, part of the reason I put in that section is to ask the implicit question: What sort of evil people would set out to drive some group of others insane? (The answer, of course, is that normally we call these people advertisers, corporate journalists, drill sergeants, prison guards, teachers, or quite often parents.) But the real point is that the treatment these monkeys received from those who were already themselves psychopathological turned the monkeys irredeemably and irrevocably insane. Their insanity was permanent. They were forever unreachable. They were incapable of normal social relations, including normal sexual relations, and had to be impregnated by use of what the human psychopaths called “rape racks.” (We can ask, once again, what sort of twisted psyches could conceive such a device.) Nothing other monkeys or humans could do would ever reach these violent and pathetic creatures. Their only relief from this pain of being who they’d been made into—and the only relief for those who then had the misfortune to come in contact with these insane monkeys—came through their own eventual deaths.
Recall the central point of R. D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience: People act according to the way they experience the world. If you can understand their experience, you can understand their behavior. So, a woman is taught at five years old that she will receive what she thinks is love when she is violated by her caretaker (she may also receive financial rewards). She is also taught that if she resists she will suffer violence and abandonment. How does this affect her later experience, her later behavior? I’m speaking not just of her sexual behavior, but other aspects, too. We can ask similar questions about my father. How did the abuse he suffered affect how he perceives the world, how he is in the world, how he treats the world around him? And how did my own abuse affect my perceptions, my being, how I treat the world around me? How did my schooling affect the decisions I made or didn’t make about going to a school to study a subject I did not enjoy? Did I want to go there? Who was the I who did?
I need to be clear. I’m not saying that every woman who was sexually abused hates sex, or is unreachable, or must follow some self-destructive path. I’m not saying that everyone who is abused ends up abusing others. I’m not saying that education is never helpful. I’m not saying there is no reason to write. I’m not saying that no one changes. I’m not saying that no one is reachable. I am saying that there are those who are not reachable. There are those who will never be reachable. There are those who have been driven permanently insane, and especially when they have the full power of social (including financial, police, military, and public opinion) support behind them, they will never change, never stop their destructive behavior. The only relief from this pain of being who they’ve been made into—and the only relief for those who then have the misfortune to come in contact with these insane monkeys, or to be more precise, insane apes—will be through their own eventual deaths. In many ways this is merely a psychological restating of Planck’s observation on scientific revolution: “[A] new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Only this time we’re not talking about something so superficial as scientific beliefs, but the emotional, perceptual, psychological, spiritual foundations of people’s (and society’s) personalities and worldview. It’s as a friend wrote me recently: “Un-metabolized childhood patterns almost always trump adult-onset intellectualizations. Sure, one of the reasons we don’t resist more effectively than we do—or less ineffec-tively—is because the cops will kill us if we do. But I think even more important are the internalized forms of oppression, the transparent mental shackles that continue to curtail our movement without us even being aware of them.”
* * *
The same person wrote: “It feels right to say one of the fundamental reasons people don’t resist even when it’s obvious that those in charge are destroying us is that so many of us just never psychologically grew up.”
* * *
So we understand each other: We need a healthy landbase. That is the most important thing in the world. While a healthy landbase is not the only thing that matters, it is undeniably true that without a healthy landbase, nothing else matters.
* * *
It should be obvious that what is true on the personal level is even more true on the social level. One reason I have recovered from my childhood to the degree that I have is that I have worked very hard at it, and have had the loving support of my friends, my mother, and my sisters. If I’ve had to work this hard to make a life after only a formative decade of violence when I was young (as well as coercive schooling, ubiquitous advertising, and the other ways our psyches are routinely—almost mechanically—hammered into, or rather, out of, shape); and when there are so many people who have for whatever reasons not had the opportunity or ability to work toward a recovery, and so who are passing on their pain to those others who have the misfortune of coming into contact with them (and we should acknowledge that those suffering this misfortune include at this point more or less every human and nonhuman on the planet); and when this culture rewards anti-social behavior (meaning behavior that destroys human and non-human communities); how much more difficult it is and must be for an entire culture to change.
More clarity: When I say that most people don’t care, I mean this in the most popular sense of the word care, as in, “If people just cared enough about the salmon, they would act to protect them from those who are killing them.” Obviously they don’t care, or they would do what it takes to save them: We’re not that stupid, and these tasks are not cognitively challenging, once you drop the impossible framing conditions of civilization’s perpetual growth and perceived divorce from the natural world (and its perceived divorce from consequence).
There is a deeper sense, however, in which having been inculcated into this death cult(ure), we do care about salmon and rivers and the earth (and our own bodies): we hate them all and want to destroy them. Otherwise why else would we do it, or at least allow it to happen?
Fortunately, there is an even deeper sense in which we do care. Our bodies know what is right, if only we listen to them. Beneath the enculturation, beneath the addiction, beneath the psychopathology, our bodies remember that we are meant for something better than this, that we are not apart from our human and nonhuman communities, but a part of them, that what we allow to be done to our landbase (or our body) we allow to be done to ourselves. Our bodies remember a way of being not based on slavery—our own and others’—but on mutual responsibility. Our bodies remember freedom. Our bodies remember that our intelligence is meant for something better than building monuments to death, that our intelligence is meant to help us connect to the rest of the world, to understand, communicate, relate. Our intelligence is meant, as are the particular intelligences of rivers and manatees and panthers and spiders and salmon and bumblebees, to help us realize and participate—play our part—in the beautiful and awesome symphony that is life.
There are many who will never be able to reach these memories, to accept them in a way that leads them away from their addiction to slavery, their addiction to civilization. That is a tragedy: personal, communal, biological, geological.
But there are others—many of them—who can and do remember the knowledge of bodies, and who are willing to do what is necessary to protect their bodies, their landbases, to stand in solidarity with salmon, grizzlies, redwoods, voles, owls, to work with these others—as humans have done forever outside the iron shackles of civilization—for the benefit of the larger community. And that is a beautiful and powerful and moral thing.
It’s also really fun.
You should try it sometime.
* * *
If those in power really aren’t reachable, and if the majority of people probably will never act to defend their—and our—landbases and bodies, and if the culture is in fact enacting a death urge that will lead to planetary annihilation unless it is stopped, and if you care about your body, your landbase, what are you going to do? What are the right actions to take?