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A Last Hoorah on My Way Out the Door
by David Goza, who teaches World Music at the University of Oklahoma. At age 63, he has probably outlived his sell-by date by at least a dozen years.
This somewhat longish essay may constitute a farewell of sorts: not so much a farewell to this forum in particular (a forum I’ve been following closely for some years, without ever submitting so much as a single comment), as a farewell to an online life in general. In the near future I will no doubt be posting similar messages on my personal Facebook page and in other groups in which I’m active, as I little by little take my leave — but I want to start here because I’ve come to value this board and even to regard many of you as friends (without your even so much as suspecting my existence): some of you have come to mean a great deal to me. Despite the enjoyment I’ve derived from my interaction with good people in cyberspace, I think I’ve about had it with virtual reality, with the wraithlike, chimeric notion of an “online community.” So I’m not so much talking about bowing out of this group specifically, as I’m mulling overdue secession from a much larger domain of supposed connectedness.
This essay is also about something much more important than my leave-taking. Let me try to explain.
A year or so ago, in their unending quest to discredit me, certain Christian fundamentalists did me the greatest imaginable honor by linking me by reputation and accusation to the brightest lights of western culture — people such as Morris Berman and Noam Chomsky: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2257182604/. I would never pretend to any arrogant comparison of stature: I’m not worthy to lick the sandals of someone like Berman. Nevertheless, as he has articulated more clearly than anyone I know, the nature of the sickness of western civilization and the reason for a prognosis that is anything but optimistic, I find myself in profound agreement with him: if you want to know my position with respect to our predicament, read Berman. If we have a future, it is because of people like Berman and Chomsky. And that future — if any — lies somewhere in the twenty-second century or beyond, on the far side of that Dark Age into which we are now sinking. Our children, unfortunately, will not fare well. I wish it were otherwise, but wishing never made anything so. (But perhaps there’s hope for our great-, great-, great-, great-grandchildren. Again, I don’t think so; but who knows, really, how things will unfold?)
That Dark Age will be characterized by economic collapse, infrastructure failure and the perpetual war of all against all: a Hobbesian world. It is an open question whether the human species will survive it: thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles still sit restless in their silos, yearning to be free (and hundreds of nuclear power-generating plants stand ready for meltdown as the lines of supply erode and the technical expertise needed to keep them under control dries up). But in case some remnant of our species does survive the inevitable collapse, perhaps we should be concerned about what will follow that Dark Age, and do whatever we can to make possible a good society in a distant century, populated by historically-minded people who will perhaps be grateful to us for having made the effort.
So far as the present is concerned: in a Truthdig column published a little over a year ago, Chris Hedges — another of my intellectual heroes — tells us exactly what academia has become. It is a devastating critique, and it is absolutely on the money. Read it if you dare: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_perversion_of_scholarship_20120730/.
On the afternoon after reading Hedges’ column, I chanced to encounter a student-led brag session held for prospective OU students who were being conducted on a campus tour in 110-degree heat: an exercise in cheerleading and perception management. I tarried (and loitered) long enough to listen to the student “orientation leader” — a football player — paint our supposedly great institution in what he must have imagined to be glowing terms. He spoke of his positive experiences over the past three years: the social clubs, the dances, the camaraderie, the free movies, the games, the pep rallies and tailgate parties… and not a single word about the mind-opening, life-changing things he’d learned in the classes he’d taken. He led them in an impromptu singing of “Boomer Sooner.” That’s what academia has become. I make my living in that milieu. It’s making me sick: I think I have to leave it — an awareness the arrival of which tails Guy’s by a good number of years — and I don’t know how I will earn a living if I do. Again, I encourage you to read that column by Chris Hedges: he says much more clearly than I can, what I want to scream at the top of my lungs.
Those who have followed me on Facebook — especially many of my former students and colleagues — have noticed and commented on a kind of downward trajectory in my posts over the past few years: a tone of voice that has become and is becoming increasingly morose. There’s a lot of truth in that perception: I don’t think there’s a shred of optimism left in me, except for the possibility that I still entertain, that good efforts made now may yield fruit in a far distant future that I cannot begin to imagine and certainly will not live to see. That’s the main reason I’ve continued to teach, even as it’s become increasingly apparent that my best efforts are mostly wasted — and worse, that I am thus to a degree complicit in the Higher Ed scam. But I keep on teaching because it seems to me the right thing to do. I can only hope that at least a few others are similarly motivated (and I know that they are — but they are vanishingly few in number).
Teaching is no longer the joy for me that it once was: most of my students are openly scornful of my efforts and resentful of the assignments I give them. They see me as a dinosaur with outlandish, antiquated ideas and unreasonable expectations, an obstacle to their enjoyment of their “experience.” My assignments cut into their social life. Despite repeated admonitions, they persist in “texting” their friends during my lectures and sleeping during the films I show them: wonderful, vibrant, thought-provoking films about Gypsy music, African polymetric drumming, and the art of Andy Goldsworthy. The message they send is unmistakable: culture is bunk, and they can’t wait to be finished with this onerous academic requirement, and if they don’t get an “A” it will be my fault and I’ll have ruined their lives. Most of them write like kindergartners, and are not — apparently — bothered by that fact. If I were a religious man, I’d thank “God” for the exceptions, of which there seem to be fewer each semester.
The collapse of western culture will ultimately be a collapse of money and infrastructure, but it is being led by a collapse of the human spirit. The infrastructure collapse will nevertheless be spectacular, and it’s going to be shocking and horrifying to a great many people who are unprepared for it and who resist any attempt to raise consciousness about its looming inevitability. Do you remember that awful day not long ago when the northern part of India experienced a widespread failure of the electrical grid that left 370,000,000 people without power in sweltering heat? That’s more than the combined populations of the United States and Canada. The following day, a more extensive grid failure left 800,000,000 people in the dark. That wasn’t a one-time, fluke event: that’s India’s future. Moreover, it’s our future — and it won’t be long in coming. We’ve become far more vulnerable than most people realize: dependent on a fragile infrastructure that is crumbling on account of a slow-motion economic collapse and the “deferred maintenance” that always characterizes such general declines. Needless to say, the OU College of Business has nothing to say about any of this. Future historians (if any) will have much to say about the economic/infrastructure collapse of the west: that will be easy to document. What will be open to interpretation, and the subject of heated debate, is why we let things get to such a state. In answering that question, such writers as Berman, Chomsky and Hedges are our best guides. We ought to be reading them and paying attention. I can only hope that their insights will be preserved for future generations to discover and to learn from: I would like to think that our distant heirs will notice our mistakes — and the penalties they incur — and avoid them.
What will my “students” do when they discover that their laptop screens are blank? What will fundamentalist Christian propagandists do, when they no longer have the internet and television available to them as vehicles for the spreading of their hatred and paranoia? Will they find community? It seems to me doubtful: they seem to have the instincts of cannibals, and cannibals do not make welcome neighbors.
I don’t have a lot to add to what such insightful commentators as Berman, Chomsky and Hedges have already contributed. But I’d like to take a shot at saying in my own words, what I think will be necessary in order for the human species to survive in any condition that would be worth living in, and also offer a few words about how I see my own role, in whatever years are left to me, in preparing for a better human future.
I want to talk specifically about the role that I think religion will need to play, in a sustainable world in which human happiness is actually possible. In light of the overtly confrontational, no-holds-barred approach to religious fundamentalism that it’s been my habit to take for the past several decades, some of the things I’m about to say seem surprising even to myself.
My complete lack of belief notwithstanding, I’m not a very good atheist and never have been. I have a deeply religious bent. I respond to the world in a way that could only be called “worshipful.” My respect for life is such as would strike most “practical” persons as weird and unhealthy. I cannot — and never have been able to — bring myself to kill a spider, a scorpion, a wasp or a pit viper: it would never occur to me to do such a thing. Ever since I was a small child, and continuing without exception to this day, I have had a profound and unshakeable sense of the sacredness of life, of the magic of the world. And when I read the religious philosophy of the Ewe people who live around the mouth of the Niger River, I find myself in full agreement:
“ … (T)he sea, the lagoon, the rivers, streams, animals, birds and reptiles, as well as the earth with its natural and artificial protuberances, are worshiped as divine, or as the abode of divinities.” (This is a quote from an obscure and otherwise deadly ethnomusicological monograph.)
This instinct is very familiar to me, and has never been easy to square with my declared atheism: I see the divine all around me. I’m by temperament a pantheist if ever there was one. I cannot rid myself of the notion that the entire cosmos is somehow alive — possessing a consciousness (or being a consciousness) that has nothing to do with nervous systems, but likewise has nothing to do with “souls” or “vital forces” or any of that other snake-oil crap that preachers have peddled: a consciousness that is perhaps the essence of the fundamental forces of the cosmos — e.g. the “enjoyment” (I can’t think of any other word) that an electron “feels” when it jumps from a lower energy state to a higher one. Before you dismiss this as mushy-headedness, consider: at what point do you draw the line, where consciousness is concerned? Is a kingfisher conscious? How about a sunfish? What about a starfish? A coral polyp? A honeybee? An amoeba? A bacterium? A virus? A carbonate molecule coming out of solution as it contributes itself to a growing calcite crystal? Did you arbitrarily draw the line between those last two? Why not between the bacterium and the virus, which resemble each other even less than the virus and the carbonate molecule resemble each other? Or have you been unable to draw the line yet? If so, how much farther down into the submicroscopic world would we need to go before you could draw that line with any confidence?
And it goes the other way as well: if a honeybee is conscious, how about the entire hive? The entire anthill, termite colony, school of fish or flock of birds? The city of Paris? European civilization? Human civilization? How about the entire terrestrial/oceanic/atmospheric biosphere? Can you say for certain that the ocean doesn’t enjoy the experience of having its tides raised by the pull of the moon? Can you imagine what it “feels like” to the ocean, to be drawn by the moon? Or is the ocean somehow “reaching for” the moon, as trees stretch themselves toward the sun? Do you know for certain that the earth doesn’t in some sense “love” the star it orbits? (Is gravitational attraction a type of love?) How about the “feeling” of that star for that vast community of stars of which it is a member?
I realize that by writing the foregoing I’ve diluted the meaning of “consciousness” to the point of uselessness, so long as we insist on being reductive about it. But perhaps my whole point is, our tendency to reductionism — our hard-headed, “practical” way of viewing the world (even among those who paradoxically also entertain notions of a deity who intervenes in the affairs of men) — has not served us well. At the very least, an evil impulse has overtaken and co-opted it, turning our sciences into means for commodifying the planet and stripping it of both its “resources” and its sanctity.
Consider: if the world’s rivers behave somewhat as a circulatory system behaves (and the parallels could be drawn on many levels), what does it mean that we’ve dammed all the major rivers somewhere along their way? Isn’t it as though we’ve clogged the arteries of the planet? How could that possibly turn out well? Ask the salmon, or any number of other species that are being driven (or have been driven) extinct on account of it.
The industrial misadventure that was born of the unholy alliance between our sciences and our commodifying instinct is rapidly undoing us: we have driven the inauguration of a new geologic period — the Anthropocene — whose outcome will be nothing less than a sixth great planetary mass extinction (which will in all probability include us), comparable to such debacles as the close-Permian extinction that wiped out over 90% of marine species and over 70% of landlubbers about 251 million years ago, and the much later close-Cretaceous extinction that took out the dinosaurs and ammonites. This will be the first time in our planet’s history when such an extinction event will have been caused by a single species — a conscious species, some of whose members recognized what we were doing but were powerless to stop it or too indifferent or demoralized to try.
As Guy has noted, we currently drive about 200 species to extinction per day. That’s nothing short of horrifying. That’s well over ten times the background rate of extinction, and such a high rate of extinction has happened only a few times in the history of our planet. We’re not the crown jewel of creation: we’re the next fucking asteroid.
Now, if we (and by “we,” I mean humanity in the aggregate) all held the same views that the Ewe hold, we wouldn’t be able to do about 99% of the things that we do on an average day: they would be unthinkable to us. Blasting open the skin of the Great Mother in order to mine coal, copper and tar sands would be considered an outrageous proposition. Subjecting her epidermis to hydraulic fracturing in order to make her fart methane would seem utterly perverse. Poking long bore holes into her back in order to pump out vadose water and those (wisely and mercifully) sequestered hydrocarbons we insist on setting on fire would seem like the work of madmen, behaving like blood-sucking insects with lifespans measured in hours. Yet we depend on these questionable and ultimately ruinous practices in order to keep cranking out and powering all those gizmos and gadgets that we’ve come to accept as normal, desirable and even indispensable. Our behavior is like that of addicts, and our addictions are killing everything. I wish people understood the world as the Ewe do. It’s the way I have always seen the world, and the cognitive dissonance of my life is coming rapidly to a head: my continued participation in this industrial/corporate/killing-machine horror, this life-destroying juggernaut we’ve turned loose on the world, is something that I cannot justify, and from which I believe I will soon have to withdraw if I am to retain any sense of self-worth.
I want to return once again to that religious view of the Ewe: I believe that it is the only worldview that can finally save us. Paradoxically, it is an ancient worldview that was once universal, but that has been drowned out by the siren song of civilization. It will have to be recovered. And I don’t know how that will ever be possible. It is utterly incompatible with the civilization we have built and the culture of death that we have embraced.
One of the things that stands in its way is religion itself: specifically, the Abrahamic faiths; and most especially their fundamentalist fringes. Fundamentalist religion is the enemy of all that is good and true and — yes — holy. Science is no threat to the religious worldview of the Ewe, nor is the reverse true. Just imagine what sciences informed by such reverence, by such a care and concern for all that exists — and religion that embraces the scientific method and revels in the discoveries that the method makes possible — could contribute to the wellbeing of all conscious creatures, human and otherwise! But in a world where fundamentalism has such a purchase as it has in ours — defines religion for so many (as it often does for many atheists, in fact) — such a benign, beneficial “religion” as that of the Ewe is unlikely to gain many adherents. Fundamentalism has balkanized us this way: it has created such a climate of animosity and distrust that those who are scientifically-inclined tend to dismiss any mystical tendencies (a term I use with some trepidation) as unworthy of consideration, to be consigned to the same scrapheap as the drivel that emanates from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra (who should certainly marry so that she can call herself Oprah Chopra). I wish it were possible to make it much clearer that this is not the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’m talking about something that Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life,” and I’m inclined to extend the definition of “life” so as to include the whole cosmos, top to bottom. For me it is a religious experience: I don’t know any other way to put it.
During my long, tortuous journey out of the fundamentalist Christian faith in which I had the dubious fortune to be planted at birth, there was a time when I entertained thoughts of becoming an Episcopal priest. Here is how I saw things: civilization is rudderless, and is about to founder on the rocks. We are in sore need of guidance, and that guidance must come from our humane instincts, which we have largely stifled in order to be able to play a role in the civilization that has dehumanized us. Unless those humane instincts can be recovered and experienced as deeply — and applied as broadly — as what’s implied in the Ewe religious philosophy I quoted above, they will not suffice: humanity will remain anthropocentric, which is the worst mistake of all. The Ewe see themselves as integrated into the world: they cannot imagine the world as something different from and apart from themselves; this is the essence of numinous experience, an apprehension of the divinity of it all. Needless to say, that is not our view: we in the west are completely anthropocentric, and that myopic view is destroying us. I thought, given the liberalizing trends in the Episcopal Church over the past forty years or so, such an institution might actually be able to do some good in the world, by gradually adopting and encouraging a much larger and more loving view of the world. After all, Episcopalians generally seem to have no doubt that evolution happens, and an evolutionary understanding of life certainly reveals the kinship of all life: an anthropocentric view is impossible to sustain in the light of such understanding. But despite my hopes, I gradually came to accept the fact that Christianity (including the Anglican kind) is simply not amenable to such an enlarged worldview. Christianity is fundamentally anthropocentric: every one of its doctrines assumes the centrality of humans in the divine plan. It is thus a vastly inferior view of the world from that of the Ewe, and also that of the sciences (which likewise repudiate anthropocentrism). That’s why I finally left: I saw it as a hopeless proposition.
Nowadays, the people I’m likely to engage in heated conversations on Facebook are not Anglicans: they’re Christian fundamentalists. I’ve got a real problem with the pathology that has parasitized their brains. That’s absolutely toxic stuff: it’s the enemy of all that lives. It pretends to be “pro-life,” but everything about it trumpets the very opposite. Christian fundamentalism is a cult of death. It is a real and horrible evil. It transforms human beings into mindless automatons. It robs them of life and joy. It turns people into murderers of the mind and of the planet.
Such “religion” has no place in a better world. If a better world does someday come about, it will be because Christian fundamentalism has finally been consigned to the ash heap of history, along with the cults of human sacrifice that flourished in Mesoamerica a thousand years ago, and other such life-hating, child-destroying grotesqueries.
I don’t yet fully understand what my role ought to be, in promulgating such a revised (or recovered) view of the world, but I’ve sadly come to the conclusion that “social networking” is not the way to go. I can’t see that I’ve made the world a better place — that is, more humane, decent, kind, loving, caring, respectful — by my activities on Facebook. Sadly, I suspect I’ve had the opposite effect: continually tormenting the rattlesnake without any good outcome to show for it, making the rattlesnake meaner by the minute. That cannot possibly serve the ends I wish to see.
So I’ve concluded that it’s probably better that I take my leave of an electronic “community” that — if it exists at all, is certainly the strangest “community” that’s ever existed — and try to find a better way; and that conclusion may well be extensible to the way I make my living. Morris Berman describes a “monastic option,” a way of living that preserves that which is about to be lost, keeping it whole and safe (even if misunderstood) through a time of darkness so that it may be rediscovered later — much as the wisdom of classical Greece was kept alive after the fall of the Roman empire by people who had no idea what it meant. I think I have to find a way to become a participant — a citizen — in that tradition, or my life will ultimately have had no meaning.
McPherson’s final essay in a seven-part series was published 7 September 2013 by The Good Men Project: Questioning Culture: The Absurdity of Authenticity.
Independent filmmaker Pauline Schneider is creating a documentary film. A short clip of this work in progress is embedded below.