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Excerpts from Endgame

ABUSE (Part 2 of 4)

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Quick involvement: I’m not sure how much quicker you can get than the choice offered to so many Indians as they were tied to stakes, piles of wood around their feet, of Christianity or Death. One Indian asked in response: If he converted to Christianity would he go to heaven? And if so, would there be other Christians there? When he found the answer to both questions was yes, he said he’d rather burn to death.

But there’s something else about quickness. Civilization has only been on this continent a few hundred years. There are many parts of this continent, such as where I live, that became subject to civilization far more recently. Yet in this extremely short time this culture has committed us and the landscape to this technologized path, in so doing shredding the natural fabric of this continent, enslaving, terrorizing, and/or eradicating its nonhuman inhabitants, and giving its human residents the choice of civilization or death. Another way to say this is that prior to the arrival of civilization humans lived on this continent for at the very least ten thousand years, and probably much longer, and could drink with confidence from rivers and streams everywhere. After this culture’s short time here, not only has it toxified streams and groundwater, but even mother’s breast milk. That’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily quick commitment to this technologized way of being (or rather non-being). Here’s another way to say this: these days the decision to enslave or kill a river by putting in a dam is generally made in the several years it takes to write an Environmental Impact Statement and get funding. The process might drag on a decade or two at most. But such a decision, if it is to be made at all, should be made only after generations of observation: how can you possibly know what is best for any part of the land unless you interact with it long enough to learn its rhythms? For example, four days ago hooded mergansers landed on the pond outside my window. They stayed two days, and have now been gone two. They did this last year, only they arrived one day earlier, left one day earlier, and then came back a few days later and stayed a week. Will they come back next year? I don’t know; I haven’t been here long enough. And last year there were many rough-skinned newts living in the pond. I saw them almost every day. The mergansers ate some (rough-skinned newts are one of the most poisonous creatures around, but mergansers don’t seem to mind). This year I haven’t seen so many newts. Is that because of the mergansers, because of me, or because of something else entirely that I would only understand if I lived here long enough to start to know the place? I panicked two years ago because there weren’t as many tadpoles as there had been the year before. Was the population collapsing? Well, the next year the frogs were quieter because there were fewer returning yearlings, and I was even more worried. But these new males must have been especially virile, the females especially fertile, because there were once again lots of fat babies. Many of these tadpoles, however, were eaten by roving packs of backstriders, far more than were eaten in the prior two years. Should I worry? The point is that I have no idea, and I can have no idea till I’ve been here enough years, even generations, to begin to know what is normal, expected, desirable. In the meantime, I’m a fool if I do something grossly destructive.

Were we not abusive to the land, to each other, to ourselves, we would sit back and see what the landscape gives willingly, what it wants us to have, what it wants from us, what it needs from us. That’s what you do in relationships, if you’re not abusive.

But we are abusive, so in the blink of a mountain’s eye we have forced this continent (and the world) into an abusive relationship. The good news is that the planet seems to be in the process of getting rid of the relationship.

Dependency. One of the advantages of not having to import resources is that you need depend on neither the resources’ owners nor on the violence necessary to eradicate these owners and take what’s theirs. One of the advantages of not owning slaves is that you need not depend on them for either your “comforts or elegancies” or even the necessaries of life. We have at this point become dependent on oil, on dammed rivers, on this exploitative way of being (or, once again, non-being). Without it many of us would die, most all of us would lose our identities.

Of course everyone is dependent. One of the great conceits of this way of life is to pretend we’re independent of our landbases, and indeed of our bodies: that clean streams (or clean breastmilk) and intact forests are luxuries. We pretend we can destroy the world and live on it. We can poison our bodies and live in them. This is insane. The Tolowa were dependent on the salmon, huckleberries, deer, clams, and so on who surrounded them. But these others, too, were dependent on the Tolowa and on each other, as happens in any long-term relationship.

I’ve spent a few days trying to figure out the differences between these forms of dependency: the parasitic dependency between master and slave, between addict and addiction on one hand, and the very real dependency on which all life is based on the other. Sure, in some cases the difference is obvious: the dependence is one-way. The natural world gets nothing out of our enslavement of it, or at least nothing that helps it (dioxin doesn’t count). While chattel slaves generally receive food, clothing, and shelter, chances are good they could derive these without literally slaving away their lives. But in other cases the differences become more subtle. My students at the prison by all means gained something from drugs, else they would not have voluntarily taken them. Adults in abusive relationships obviously gain something from the relationships—or at least perceive they gain something from them—else they would walk away. But what? The backgrounds of many of my students are not exactly filled with love but rather the sort of extreme abuse that makes even my father seem a delight. Many were raised under conditions also of race and class oppression. For them perhaps these drugs neutralize, as they say, oppressive reality. But it goes even deeper: I know that many indigenous peoples the world over ritually (and for the most part very infrequently) use mind-altering practices or substances in order to gain insight. What is the relationship, if any, between my students’ use of drugs and this mind-altering by indigenous peoples? I don’t know. And so far as abusive relationships, I know that in my own family, my mother was convinced (by my father, and by society) that she had no other options, that to leave the person who was abusing her would be to suffer greatly. It would be to lose her children, and possibly her life. In exchange for suffering this physical and emotional abuse, however, she did get to live in a nice house. But there’s something more.

All last week two words have kept coming to mind: toxic mimicry.

I used to believe that civilization is a culture of parodies. Rape is a parody of sex. Civilized wars are parodies of indigenous warfare, which is a relatively nonlethal and exhilarating form of play, meaning civilized warfare is a parody of play. Abusive relationships are a parody of love. Cities are parodies of communities, and citizenship is a parody of being a member of a functioning community. Science—with its basis in prediction and extreme control—is a parody of the delight that comes from being able to predict and meet the needs or desires of one’s friends and neighbors (this one came clear to me the other day on seeing my dogs’ joy at guessing whether I was going to turn left or right on a walk, and feeling my own joy at guessing the same for them). This culture’s recreational use of altered states is a parody of their traditional uses. Each of these parodies takes the form yet ignores the soul and intent of that which is being parodied.

But recently a friend convinced me that’s not entirely accurate: the parody doesn’t ignore the intent, but perverts and attempts to destroy it. Rape is a toxic mimic of sex. War is a toxic mimic of play. The bond between slave owner and slave is a toxic mimic of marriage. Heck, marriage is a toxic mimic of marriage, of a real partnership in which all parties help all others to be more fully themselves.

I like the phrase toxic mimic, but it didn’t quite help me uncover the relationship between these types of dependency. I asked my mom.

She gave me the answer in one word: “Identity.”

“Really,” I said. I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Abusers have no identity of their own.”

I was going to ask what she meant, but I suddenly remembered a conversation I’d had years before with Catherine Keller, a feminist theologian and philosopher, and author of From A Broken Web. We’d been talking about how abuse communicates itself from generation to generation, and about what that abuse—on both personal and social levels—does to who we are. She talked about how not all cultures have been based on domination, then spoke of the rise of this culture, and the effects of this rise: “Within a group in which warrior males are coming to the fore and dominating the tribe or village, everyone in the group will begin to develop a sort of self that is different from that of earlier peoples, a self that reflects the defenses the society itself configures.. . . Another way to put this is that if people are trying to control you, it will be very difficult for you—in part because of your fear—to maintain an openness to them or to others. Quite often the pain you received you will then pass on to other people. Over and over we see the causing of pain—destructiveness and abuse— flowing out of a prior woundedness. We’re left with an incredibly defensive fabric of selves that have emerged from this paradigm of dominance. And because the people who embody the defensive persona will dominate these societies, this kind of self-damaging and community-destroying and ecology-killing defensiveness tends to proliferate cancerously.”

I’d asked her what she meant by defensiveness.

She’d responded, “Alan Watts said one of the prime hallucinations of Western culture—and I would add of the paradigm of dominance—is the belief that who you are is a skin-encapsulated ego. And just as the skin defends you from the dangers of the physical world, the ego defends you from the dangers of the psychic world. That leads to what I have termed the separative self. The etymology of the word separate is very revealing. It comes from the combination of the Latin for “self,” se, meaning “on one’s own,” and parare, “to prepare.” For this culture it is separation which prepares the way for selfhood.”

This all made me think of my relationship with my mom. I live very close to her—three-eighths of a mile—and will live near her for the rest of her life. Part of this has to do with health problems on both my and her parts—I have Crohn’s disease, she has vision problems—part of it has to do with the fact that she is family, and part of it has to do with the fact that I like her company. She presumably likes mine as well. Through my twenties and early thirties I took a lot of flak for this arrangement from some of my white acquaintances—never friends—who told me I was suffering from what they called separation anxiety, and that in order to grow up and become fully myself, I should move far away. I didn’t really understand this, because I have a life of my own (as does she), and because the arrangement—at the time we lived probably five miles apart— works well for both of us on both practical and emotional levels, and because I knew that for all of human existence—save the last hundred years—it was expected that elders would live with or near one or more of their children. It’s been a sudden shift. It struck me as significant that none of my indigenous or third world friends have ever found the arrangement anything but expected. In fact, when I’d tell my white acquaintances that part of the reason we can live so close is that I’m very clear about saying no to the things I don’t want to do for her—for example, I dislike going to the grocery store so I don’t usually take her—they’d nod and tell me what good boundaries I have. When I’ve told my indigenous or third world friends this same thing, they’ve looked at me, pained and disgusted, then asked, “With her vision problems, how does she get to the grocery store?”

Catherine continued, “There are many problems with the belief that separation prepares the way for self-hood, not the least of which is that it doesn’t match reality. We know that on a physical level one is not ‘on one’s own,’ that we have to breathe and eat and excrete, and that even on a molecular scale our boundaries are permeable. The same is true psychically. Life feeds off life, Whitehead says, and if we cut ourselves off from the way we psychically feed each other, the texture of our lives becomes very thin and flat. When we live in a state of defense, there is no moment-to-moment feeding from the richness of the endless relations in which we exist.

“For the system of dominance to perpetuate itself there must be clear rewards for those who manage to maintain a state of disconnection. People must be trained and initiated into that state, and they must be rewarded with a sense of dignity, indeed of manhood, if they are able to maintain a sense of self-control—as opposed to being present to their experience—and a sense of control over their surroundings, which would include as many people as possible.

“When you have a society organized so those at the top benefit from the labor of the majority, you have some strong incentives to develop the kind of selfhood that gets you there. The only kind of selfhood that gets you there is the kind of selfhood that allows you to numb your empathies. To maintain the system of dominance, it’s crucial that the elite learns this empathic numbness, akin to what Robert Jay Lifton calls ‘psychic numbing,’ so its members can control and when necessary torture and kill without being undone. If its members are incapable of numbing, or if they have not been trained properly, the system of domination will collapse.”

That’s one of the reasons, she said, that civilization so often co-opts movements opposing domination. “Society as we know it may well need,” she continued, “to live off of the energy of alternative movements. It needs to suck our blood in order to feed itself, in part because a system of domination will always be undernourished.”

“How so?”

“Once we unplug from our vital connections—connections more like the fiber of what we call nature where there aren’t barriers between the relationships of things to each other—once we unplug from the way everything branches into everything, and instead pursue the goals of civilization as we know it, the energy source has to come from somewhere else. To some extent it can come from sucking the labor of the poor, and to some extent it can come from exploiting the bodies of animals and people treated like animals. The exploiting of the bodies of women gives a lot of energy. But the parasitism of the dominant culture is endless, because once you cut yourself off from the free flow of mutually permeable life you have to get your life back somehow, artificially.”

I came back to the conversation with my mom, and heard her say, “That was part of your father’s problem. He had no solid identity of his own, which was one reason he was so violent. Because he wasn’t secure in his own identity, in order to exist, he needed for those around him to constantly mirror him. When you or I or your siblings didn’t match his projections—when we showed any spark of being who we actually were, thus forcing him to confront some other person as someone different than himself—he became terrified, or at least he would have become terrified if he would have allowed himself to feel that. But to become terrified was too scary, and so he flew into a rage.”

I just looked at her. I’d never heard this analysis before. It was very good. I was thinking also that if my publisher were present he would probably be tearing his hair out at her penchant for making parenthetical comments, just as he does with mine.

She continued, “His lack of a secure identity is also why he was so rigid. If you’re not comfortable with who you are, you have to force others to confront you only on your own terms. Anything else is once again too scary. If you’re comfortable with who you are, however, it becomes no problem to let others be their own selves around you: you have faith that whoever they are and whatever they do, you will be able to respond appropriately. You can be fluid and respond differently to different people, depending on what they need from you. He couldn’t do that.”

This same thing happens on a larger scale, of course. Deadened inside, we call the world itself dead, then surround ourselves with the bodies of those we’ve killed. We set up cityscapes where we see no free and wild beings. We see concrete, steel, asphalt. Even the trees in cities are in cages. Everything mirrors our own confinement. Everything mirrors our own internal deadness.

“One more thing,” my mother said. “This lack of an identity is one of the reasons so many abusers kill their partners when their partners try to leave. They’re not only losing their partners (and punching bags) but their identities as well.”

That’s also one of the reasons this culture must kill all non-civilized peoples, both human and nonhuman: in order to preclude the possibility of our escape.

Continue reading: Part 3 Part 4