* * *
The phone rings. I answer. It’s a friend. She asks, “How much longer do you think we’re going to be in Afghanistan?”
She can’t see this, but I look around, look outside at the redwood trees. I respond, “We’re in Afghanistan? I thought we were in northern California.”
Silence on the phone. A sigh, and finally she says, “How much longer do you think our troops are going to be in Afghanistan?”
I say, “I’ve got troops? Really? Will they do whatever I tell them? If I tell them to take out the dams on the Columbia River will they do that?”
More silence, until she says, “This is why I only call you every few weeks. I’ll be in touch.”
* * *
We are no longer children. It is dangerous to us and to others to maintain the illusion that we are responsible for the destruction, an illusion that may have been appropriate when we were powerless. But we are not.
I remember the decision I made in my mid-twenties to pursue my life as a writer. I was scared to do this. I did not have sufficient self-confidence, I thought, to follow my dreams. I traced this lack of confidence to the abuse I’d suffered as a child. Part of my father’s modus operandi—and I recognized this while very young—was that any time any one of us children (or our mother) revealed that something was important to us, one of three things would happen: he might use that thing as a form of payment for cooperation in his sexual abuse (I was interested in the Civil War as a child, and we took long trips to see battlefields, but at what cost?); he might use the promise of this thing to build up hopes so he could watch our faces as he dashed them; or he might simply destroy the thing itself in front of our eyes. I learned to not express my dreams.
I recognized in my mid-twenties that because of this abuse, I would have the best excuse in the entire world to not follow my dreams of becoming a writer. Who could blame me after what I’d been through? Mere emotional survival was triumph enough.
The choice quickly came to this: I could go the rest of my life with an airtight excuse for not doing what I wanted; or I could go the rest of my life doing what I wanted. It took me only a few months to decide which it would be.
* * *
As a consequence of the belief that violence done to us is our own fault—or sometimes more simply because we do not want to be violated—we often become self-policing. I write this on an airplane flying home from giving talks. A friend took me to the airport. As we pulled into the parking lot we saw a uniformed man whose job it is, evidently, to search every car that enters.
I said, “I can’t believe this.”
“Do you want to not go in?”
I thought of the words I’d been told years before by a police officer when I’d commented that drivers licenses are in essence government “identity papers” we’re “asked” to produce at least as often as people were in those old black-and-white movies of resistance against Nazis. He didn’t appreciate my film reference, and told me, “If you don’t like it, don’t drive.”
I also considered the checkpoints and travel limits heroes always faced in those movies, and the absolute necessity of such restrictions under repressive regimes. I thought of the comment I’d received more recently when I’d complained as an “airport security agent” put her fingers against the skin of my lower belly beneath the waistband of my pants. I’d asked her what she was doing.
She’d responded, “This is for your safety and the safety of others.”
“You putting your hand inside my pants doesn’t make anyone safer.”
She’d said, “Flying is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t like it, stay home.”
I’d begun to disagree, and she’d motioned to a nearby cop. I’d had a plane to catch, and so I’d had a choice: I could make a scene, or I could get the hell out of Austin, Texas. I got the hell out of Austin, Texas.
Back at the airport parking lot, my friend said, “Let’s just go ahead and park. Let them search the car. We have nothing to hide.”
We looked at each other, shook our heads, and laughed.
This laughter kept us from cursing.
I’m not sure that’s such a good thing.
* * *
I don’t mean to suggest we should override every fear. I’m not sure we should override any fear. Fears should at least be listened to, whether or not we act on them. But I did not want to live a life based on fear. To live a life following my heart was important enough to me that I was willing to move into, through, and beyond this fear to my life on the other side.
There are certainly other fears I’ve not afforded the energy to move through. Because when I was a child there were beatings associated with water skiing and rapes associated with alcohol, to this day I carry powerful fears of both. But neither of those is particularly worth the effort to work my way through: I can happily live a life without water skiing or alcohol. I was not willing to live a life without my heart.
We can ask the same questions on the cultural level. Are we willing to live a life without clean air, clean water, wild animals: a livable planet? For what, precisely, will we face down our own fears?
We have the best excuse in the world to not act. The momentum of civilization is fierce. The acculturation deep. Those in power will imprison us if we effectively resist. Or they will torture us. Or they will kill us. There are so many of them, and they have weapons. They have the law. And many of them—prob-ably in the final analysis nearly all of them—have no scruples, else they would never support the current system in the first place. Because of all this, there really is nothing we can do. We may as well admit that.
But the question becomes: would you rather have the best excuse in the world, or would you rather have a world?
* * *
Here, once again, is the real story. Our self-assessed culpability for participating in the deathly system called civilization masks (and is a toxic mimic of) our infinitely greater sin. Sure, I use toilet paper. So what? That doesn’t make me as culpable as the CEO of Weyerhaeuser, and to think it does grants a great gift to those in power by getting the focus off them and onto us.
For what, then, are we culpable? Well, for something far greater than one person’s work as a technical writer and another’s as a busboy. Something far greater than my work writing books to be made of the pulped flesh of trees. Something far greater than using toilet paper or driving cars or living in homes made of formaldehyde-laden plywood. For all of those things we can be forgiven, because we did not create the system, and because our choices have been systematically eliminated (those in power kill the great runs of salmon, and then we feel guilty when we buy food at the grocery store? How dumb is that?). But we cannot and will not be forgiven for not breaking down the system that creates these problems, for not driving deforesters out of forests, for not driving polluters away from land and water and air, for not driving moneylenders from the temple that is our only home. We are culpable because we allow those in power to continue to destroy the planet. Yes, I know we are more or less constantly enjoined to use only inclusive rhetoric, but when will we all realize that war has already been declared upon the natural world, and upon all of us, and that this war has been declared by those in power? We must stop them with any means necessary. For not doing that we are infinitely more culpable than most of us—myself definitely included— will ever be able to comprehend.
* * *
To be clear: I am not culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper. I am culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper and I do not keep up my end of the predator-prey bargain. If I consume the flesh of another I am responsible for the continuation of its community. If I use toilet paper, or any other wood or paper products, it is my responsibility to use any means necessary to ensure the continued health of natural forest communities. It is my responsibility to use any means necessary to stop industrial forestry.
* * *
The next characteristic of abusers is that they get upset easily. They’re hypersensitive, and the slightest setback is seen as a personal attack. Much of the reason for this has to do with the fourth premise of this book, that violence in our culture flows only one way. This is true not only for violence, but for all control, all initiative. Those on top are allowed to have control and initiative. Those below must have them only insofar as control and initiative make them more effective proxies of those above.
Any breach of this etiquette must be dealt with swiftly, surely, and completely, so the hierarchy can remain seamless, safely unacknowledged, hidden from the possibility of change by either victim or perpetrator. That this is as true on the larger social scale as it is on the more personal or familial should be obvious, but I’ll provide a couple of quick examples. Just last night I spoke with a group of students from San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, California. The kids were delightful, intelligent, passionate, and defiant. One told me she had asked the school’s administration for permission to put up posters containing these words from the Declaration of Independence: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Far from rewarding her interest in history and politics (Who says kids these days don’t know important historical documents?), administrators not only denied her request, but threatened her with “forced transfer” to another school should she post them anyway.
She asked my advice.
I suggested that since her request had already identified her to authorities, other students should put up the posters. Another student objected to this, saying that many students had already been threatened with expulsion.
She answered that they’d planned a one-period walkout to protest a school policy of administrators giving students’ names and phone numbers to military recruiters. Teachers had infiltrated the organization planning the walkout, she’d said, under the guise of being advisors. When students rejected the teachers’ advice to limit their protest to writing letters for the administration to ignore, teachers and administrators stood as one, telling students they’d be expelled if they walked out of any classes.
I told these kids I was proud of them, and that I was glad they had at such a young age experienced participatory democracy in action.
I wish I’d have told them another idea I had for the posters, but this didn’t occur to me until much later: that they form alliances with students at other schools, so that other students put up posters of resistance at this school, and these students put them up elsewhere. Not only would this lessen the easy power of the administrators to harm those who speak out, but more importantly it would begin to make networks of organized resistance, cadres for the revolution we so desperately need.
No matter what they felt in their hearts, the teachers had probably been in a very bad position. My understanding of the school climate was that had they not gone along with this silencing of dissent, they could have lost their jobs. That’s one of the ways the system works. If I complain about a woman in a uniform putting her hand in my pants, I miss my flight, and possibly get arrested. If these teachers do not stifle dissent, they possibly get fired.
This statement of course does not excuse their actions, but merely helps us understand them. Or maybe they had their actions fully rationalized, as presumably did the administrators.
The slightest real dissent—that not confined to places, times, and means designed or approved by those in power—must be perceived by those in power as an attack on the legitimacy of their rule.
Probably because it is.
It’s a wondrous thing to get up off your knees, to stand again (or for the first time) on your hind legs, to say “Fuck you”—classes in “verbal nonviolence” notwithstanding—or to say “You have no right,” or “No” to those in power, to choose where, when, and how you will express yourself, where, when, and how you will fight back, where, when, and how you will defend what and whom you love against those who exploit and destroy them.
You should try it some time. It’s really fun.
* * *
The next characteristic is that abusers are at least insensate to the pain of children and nonhumans. Bringing this to the larger cultural level requires, I think, only one word: vivisection. Okay, another: zoos. A couple more: factory farms. Okay, a few more: we’re killing the planet. Correction: they’re killing the planet, and they clearly do not hear the screams.
* * *
Abusers often conflate sex and violence. Rates of rape—so common as to be essentially normalized in the culture—make clear the conflation of sex and violence on the social level. Many films make it clear, too. So do many relationships. One can also say those magic words: breast augmentation surgery. Just yesterday I heard of a new fad in plastic surgery: reshaping the vulva to make it more visually pleasing, whatever that means (what about the notion that if you love a woman you will find her vulva beautiful, simply because it is hers?).
Really, though, this cultural conflation of sex and violence can be reduced to one word: fuck. It’s an extraordinary comment on this culture that the same word that means make love to also means do great violence to.
* * *
Abusers often actualize rigid sex roles. That this is true on the larger cultural level hardly needs remarking, and goes far beyond the stereotypically masculine values that dominate the culture. It also goes beyond the homophobia that’s based on a fear of anything that confuses those rigid sex roles.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the seeming scientific obsession to artificially create or modify life, and also the obsession to search for life in outer space. It has always seemed profoundly absurd and immoral to me that billions of dollars are spent trying to discover life on other planets as trillions more are spent to eradicate life on this one. Were scientists to discover cute furry creatures on Mars with floppy ears and wriggly noses, Nobel prizes would soon be forthcoming (for the scientists, not the floppy-eared Martians). Yet when scientists on the real world see real creatures just like these, they reach for hair spray to put in the creatures’ eyes for Draize tests (of course, the scientists would also leap to exploit the Martian bunnies faster than you can say Huntington Life Sciences).
Similarly, it makes no sense to me that we (read they) keep trying to recreate the “miracle of life” in laboratories as we (read they) daily the destroy the plenitude—we’re learning it’s not an infinitude—of miracles that surround us all.
But now I get it. It’s those rigid sex roles combined with a devaluing of the feminine and a really bad case of womb envy, all topped with a heaping of sour grapes, boiling down to the fact that women have babies and men don’t. If women are identified primarily or exclusively—rigidly—by their roles as creators of life, and if women are perceived as inferior (meaning whatever women do, men do better) then men, so as to not perceive themselves as less powerful than the women for whom they feel contempt, must figure out not only how to destroy the natural life they despise, but how to create some sort of life of their own.