The Trauma of History
“History is ending,” Terence McKenna raves, “because the dominator culture has led the human species into a blind alley”, and while it’s easy to dismiss a man who preaches the merits of DMT, presents an end-time model based on the I-Ching and the Mayan Calendar, and rants gleefully about “self-transforming machine elves” to ecstasy-eating youths over a techno-digeridoo soundtrack provided by Spacetime Continuum, he may have a point.
Climate change is destroying the world we know. Industrial democracy, neoliberalism, global capitalism, white supremacy, whatever you choose to call it, is breaking down. Not so long ago, the fictive nature of money was unveiled, but our attention was hijacked from the Wizard-of-Oz shenanigans of our global economy by those who perpetuate inequality and fear, talking about “too big to fail.” But what if society is failing because it’s too big?
My Name is Chellis & I’m In Recovery from Western Civilization suggests that what we believe is democracy is an elephant that should have been a mouse; that is, democracy can only function in small-scale, participatory societies. Chellis Glendinning theorizes that real democracy–that is, participatory democracy where individuals can directly participate in collective life–can only happen within relatively small groups. She posits that domestication of nature and self, thousands of years ago, inflicted an original trauma on the human psyche that has been exacerbated and amplified throughout history.
We find ourselves, uber-grandchildren of the traumatized, afflicted by traumas on all sides. Climate crisis, militarization of the police, perpetual war for perpetual peace, economic inequality: all arguably the products of colonial white supremacy. Or, as Riane Eisler, Terence McKenna, and others look further back, these are arguably products of “dominator culture”. Glendinning looks further still: our intractable situation is the product of our original trauma, the split of the human psyche from the primal matrix brought about by domestication.
Specialization and Incapacity
Given the multitude of problems we face, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Recently I was approached by a new friend with an invitation to interview relatives of students murdered by state and drug-related violence in Mexico, the Ayotzinapa 43.
On Nov. 7, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told the public that the students were shot, burned in a garbage dump and thrown into a muddy river in black plastic bags. His words were met with disbelief, anger, and indignation not only from the students’ families, but also by people throughout Mexico because they rely on the confessions of three drug cartel hit men, not conclusive evidence — human remains discovered near a landfill based on their information have not yet been identified yet.
But what does one ask? Say? In the face of such brutality, how do I, a stranger to the families and, until recently, a stranger to the murders, approach the trauma? Faced with such trauma, focused on the similar but different trauma of historic and contemporary state violence against Black people in the United States, what does one ask? Parallels can be drawn, but my unfamiliarity with the larger context of life in Mexico weakens my approach.
Language is an insufficient tool to bridge the gap of trauma, but it’s the best tool we have. Any tool can be abused, used as a weapon. Weaponized language is used by white supremacist society in subtle and unsubtle ways to subdue and destroy resistance. Language is a sharp tool. In an unskilled mouth, or crafted from the keys under unskilled hands, language can inadvertently wound. But we must proceed with language. We must communicate with each other.
I Assume That You Are Uneasy
Glendinning asserts that in nature-based, hunter-gatherer societies, human beings existed within a primal matrix of high attunement to the natural world. The consciousness of the hunter-gatherer differs in fundamental ways from our consciousness. The essence of the difference is the connection to and constant participation in nature. In Glendinning’s model, the human personality in a natural state is centered, but not ego-centric; the ego is integrated into the primal matrix. If we entertain Glendinning’s model to the extent that we take seriously the notion that human beings, for most of our million-year history on this planet, were integrated within the primal matrix, we may understand the context for our contemporary unease.
I assume, of course, that you are uneasy. You should be.
I Believe That the System Is Failing
Failure is an experience we all must accept, and this rhetoric of failure not being an option is the rhetoric of exceptionalism. We need to get over this notion of being exceptional, of being too essential to fail. We can fail. If our institutions are “too big to fail”, perhaps we need smaller institutions that allow for room for failure.
Humanity can fail. We are failing. The planet will survive the climate crisis. It will remain, life will likely continue in some form. Earth has undergone climate shifts before and life has persevered. Whether or not humans survive is an unanswered question, but we must begin to act like we want to survive.
For too long we’ve been acting like we don’t care about ourselves, about each other, as human beings. Whether that’s due to white supremacy, or dominator culture, or domestication is not irrelevant, and I think we could approach our existential dilemma acknowledging that all three theses are true and related. How we approach the struggle now, from our situs within a brutal culture that puts profit over people, must be informed not only by analysis, but also by will, by the belief, being articulated in the Black Lives Matter movement, that we can win.
I Believe That We Can Win
We need new systems. We need roots-oriented, community-oriented, on-the-ground democracies. And we need thousands of them, localized and decentralized. Believing that we can win is a process that is intertwined with understanding the monumental problems we face. Believing that we can win does not mean that we don’t believe that we can fail. Believing that we can win means acknowledging that failure is part of the process. Believing that we can win means, I think, being committed to transforming hegemonic, technological, exploitative society into heterogeneous, human, relational societies.
How can we get there? I recently attended a meeting of concerned citizens and community activists in my city. We met under the banner of a Communication Workshop on Racism and ostensibly focused on learning techniques of non-violent communication. What actually happened, though, was that all of us as individuals were trying to be heard, and in our effort to be heard, bypassed the techniques of non-violent communication being taught. So, from one perspective, we failed to learn about and practice non-violent communication with each other. But I don’t think that anyone attending that workshop would describe it as a failure. In a city and society that is still segregated, still separate and unequal, the act of white and Black and biracial and Latino people coming together to talk about race is itself a success. It’s practice, it’s a start for us here, and we should count it as a success. Because that is how we get to the better society we are longing for: by practice.
One thing I like about my local Buddhists in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh is that they practice. Every Sunday, they gather to practice sitting and walking meditation, to practice deep listening with each other. One person speaks at a time, and engaging in speaking/listening is intentional and respectful. Everyone sits in a circle. If you want to speak, you bow, state your name, and begin speaking. When you are done, you bow to indicate that you are done. This is usually followed by a moment of silence before someone else decides to speak.
This sort of respectful, intentional communication would have been beneficial as we talked about race at the Communication Workshop. It would be beneficial in our centers of government. It is a tool, one that we can use to create respectful, intentional spaces where we speak and listen.
We must transform by engaging in a practice of community-building, of localization and engagement. This is bound to be messy. We are not always intentional or respectful; we may be confused or agitated. Our practice of democracy is not going to look like my local Buddhists. If we are serious about survival, if we want to thrive as human beings, we need to be serious about engaging with each other locally, about knowing each other.
This is a process of recovery; we are, or should be, in recovery from Western Civilization. We’ve been colonized, but not civilized. Civilization implies civility; the United States of America is not and never has been civil. But we can work on civility, locally. In order to come to terms with our trauma, our colonization, our dehumanization, we need to know each other as human beings.
One way that I can work in solidarity with those suffering from the excesses of Mexican state and extra-judicial violence is to focus locally. I must work to empower my community, so that we can work to achieve a new kind of power in America: a grass-roots, a people power in service to human needs.
The transformation we need is from exploited beings in service to a hegemonic, technological society into human beings participating in heterogeneous, relational societies.