Et tu, Barbara Kingsolver?
On reading Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder, a collection of her essays constituting her response to the monstrous event of September 11, 2001. Actually, I listened to the book on tape as I installed plumbing and electricity as part of a kitchen remodeling job in the winter of 2003. I am grateful to her for providing me with stimulation while doing work that would have been much less interesting without her companionship. This page is green in tribute to environmentalists everywhere.
I’ve consistently enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’s novels. They are wholesome environments not littered with corpses. Members of the same generation resonate together to some extent and I’ve thought of her as a fellow traveler until I read Small Wonder, a collection of her essays constituting her reaction to 9/11.
Stay tuned, news junkies, this topic is still relevant and will continue to be until all questions are answered, or until Our Way of Life is a stinking heap of rubble, whichever comes first. ( 7/26/04. If you find the report of the 9/11 commission comforting, then I suggest you also try a strong dose of barbituates. Heroin is even better, though illegal, of course, so I couldn't in conscience recommend it.)
Thinking in generational terms has a certain validity because some generational groupings do demonstrate a collective intent and leave an identifying mark on history while others do not. A notable example of an outstanding American generational grouping was the one that wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and established this Republic. The generation I speak of was born between 1945 and 1963, which has distinguished itself enough to be given the name “baby boomers” because of its impressive demographic. It is the one Roger Daltry of “The Who”, once voted the world’s loudest rock band, was referring to when he sang: “I d-don’t want to c-create a s-sensation! I’m j-just talking about my g-g-generation!”
It’s better known for its idealism than those that went before and came after. It marks a turning point in cultural attitudes, towards the role of women and minorities, and especially towards the environment. It is a generation that wanted to change the world for the better, and has, in some small ways, though I would be the last to celebrate it effectiveness. After all, one has to factor in that George W. Bush is an idealist of a different stripe, so that the overall generational idealism gets diluted. Today, I wistfully recall that I once thought of my generation as a “movement”. Large numbers of fellow travelers did once create the illusion that war might be ended, that the environment & other species might be respected, that justice might be had for all, and so forth. It was a very brief moment, on the soggy plains of Woodstock. George Jr. wasn’t there. I saw an expression of his idealism in the cab window of a pick up truck the other day.
The people sleep peacefully in their beds
at night because a few rough men are
willing to do violence on their behalf.
The last time I heard Timothy Leary speak in the mid-80's, he was staging debates with G. Gordon Liddy, his personal nemesis, notorious Watergate felon, and latter day talk show host. He informed the audience not to worry because we’d have a baby boomer in the White House in ‘88 to replace the doddering old conservative mouthpiece, Ronald Reagan, the last remnant, Leary promised, of the Nixonian shadow that had been cast over the land. The chances were good this boomer would be a mutated president who’d taken the psychedelic sacrament and opened the doors of his perception. He would then lead us through onto a new evolutionary path. Unfortunately, we got Daddy Bush instead, godfather of a dark political family, who had been pulling Reagan’s strings all along, and when the first baby boomer finally did arrive, it turned out that he was an opportunistic skirt chaser who never inhaled, so he said. And the second representative of our generation to take that office is George Jr. Cocaine and alcohol are not considered psychedelic sacraments.
George is an apple that didn’t fall too far from Daddy’s tree. It was highly coincidental that in a state controlled by his brother, Jeb, mild Al Gore didn’t get all his votes counted. ( If there is any doubt that the election was indeed manipulated and stolen, the reader is referred to the careful research of journalist Greg Palast in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.) Al Gore was probably an approximation of Leary’s mutated messiah. So poor Tim died before he got to see whether his theory was true or not. And I am not laughing at him and his great expectations. I do not fault a man for grasping after straws. At least he wasn’t a cynic.
Barbara Kingsolver doesn’t like cynics, either. She’s attuned to the small wonders of life, the sprouting of seeds, the blooming of flowers, the hummingbird building its nest, the marvel of an infant’s perfect tiny cuticle. And then along came 9/11, no small wonder at all, but the sort of gruesome event that would never find a place in her fiction. She experienced the destruction of the WTC towers as a personal violation that knocked the wind out of her while it evoked an adrenalin flush of patriotism. It was a national rape, the sort of trauma that exposes the self most nakedly to itself, though one did not hear the outrage characterized in just this way in a land of rough men dedicated to righteous violence.
In her role as artist, gentle steward to the collective mind, she tried to apply analgesic to the pain and to counsel the victims, herself not the least among them, as she penned her obligatory responses to this monstrous event. It was sad and disturbing to her that her ministrations were not universally appreciated. These rough men treated her roughly, impugned her patriotism, made her feel that this is not her country, too. It is sad when brutes refuse the counsel of angels. But, surely, she didn’t actually expect them to listen! Or maybe she did? One can’t be sure. She claims she is not naive.
She did not realize, I think, that she would deny them the fulfillment of their knightly duty, their very raison d’etre. She suggested that they not ride off to do violence in defense of their outraged country. War was not an appropriate response, she counseled. Though not herself a card carrying pacifist, she wanted them to turn the other cheek, as it were, and behave like true Christians for whom violence is not an appropriate response to violence. Christianity never has caught on. Small wonder! She, too, dreams of a blessed mutation in the species, as Leary did, whether or not she ever partook of the psychedelic sacrament.
It is sometimes the case that an affliction can’t be healed. This is the most challenging situation for any physician or ministering angel. As she confronts the festering wounds of 9/11, it is my impression that Ms Kingsolver is trying to heal the healer while steadfastly refusing to admit the affliction has won out. To declare the patient lost would be tantamount to what she thinks of as cynicism, and she resolutely refuses to listen to the siren song of the last days, the gospel according to cynics, and binds herself firmly to the mast of her ship of good hope. She will never admit that all is lost, even when the landscape seems most barren and bleak because she knows, as a biologist, that life has the most unimaginably clever adaptations, and that flowers always bloom in the desert, even if one does not see them for many years at a time.
Her refuge, her healing, comes through nature. Her reverence for the mother of us all is compelling and beautifully expressed. And she can be as eloquent in her environmentalism, marshaling facts and figures, as any preacher citing Holy Scripture, yet like many environmentalists it seems to me that she herself doesn’t fully understand the writing on the wall. Her diagnosis is incomplete because based on insufficient data, and her optimistic prognosis, therefore, has less to do with the patient’s outcome than it does with her own wish to stay within the confines of her particular comfort zone.
The Hopi Indians, Ms Kingsolver’s near neighbors in her adopted home of Arizona and inhabitants of this land from time immemorial, have the most profound insight into the relationship between nature and humankind, difficult for science-minded European immigrants to understand. The evolutionary development of the European has alienated us from our source in nature, whereas the Hopi have never left. The concept of environmentalism therefore strikes them as peculiar since they have not made significant distinction between their interests and the interests of nature. The human world and the natural world are one and the same. Such an attitude the scientific mind regards as quaint, or merely primitive. The psychologist Carl Jung was privileged to observe a charming native ceremony in the 1930's in which the Indians performed a ritual intended to cause the sun to rise. Without this ritual, they solemnly informed the great doctor, the sun would not rise. The integration of the native and his environment was so complete and so intimate that the science mind could only speak of “superstition” or “mysticism” with a little indulgent smile for the naivety of childlike aboriginal psychology.
It seems to me the Hopi are not the naive ones, and it is the science mind that is actually clueless when it fails to see the true equivalence of the human condition and the condition of the natural world. The Hopi word “koyaanisqatsi”, meaning “life out of balance” or “crazy life” recognizes this equivalence. A brilliant film built on this concept was made by Godfrey Reggio in 1982.The desolation of the landscape, the pollution of the air and water, the extinction of species are mirrored in the misery of human populations subjected to “natural disasters”, disease, wars, moral depravity, lack of dignity, untimely death. Most significantly, this life out of balance, this crazy life, is a psychological fact. The disruption of planetary ecology is exactly mirrored in human mental ecology. We are unbalanced, as the Hopi well know, and teetering on the brink of a complete psychotic break. The cure, if any is to be had at this time, depends on a correct diagnosis. Terrorists are not terrorists, engaged in a rational, if macabre, political agenda, they are madmen. And the war on terrorism is not self defense, a righteous response to the evil among us, it is a delusional system born of the madness that is the dominant characteristic of this moment in history. It is a highly contagious disease. One must take hygienic measures against infection, as Ms Kingsolver does by banning television from her home, for example, even though methinks that amounts to little more than sticking one’s head in the sand.
It is necessary to seek refuge in the unspoiled places that persist in our environment because those places are the image and the experience of sanity. In those sacred places one can imagine a life in balance. There are no lies there concealing hidden agendas. No ideology. No political maneuvering. One can set aside skepticism. One doesn’t doubt the testimony of the flowing stream, or the birds announcing a new day, as one might the testimony of the Director of the CIA before Congress. One can be healed there and perhaps find strength enough to confront the perversion of the human mind that would destroy such places.
A moral homily, however lyrical and closely reasoned, or an impassioned anti-war screed will not slow the juggernaut of this madness. Ms Kingsolver tirelessly argues the futility of war. She may manage to comfort herself with the contemplation of her small wonders, but she has only irritated the rough men who grumble that they must go to war for the likes of her and Jane Fonda. She has also left some of her readers dissatisfied with what I am sorry to say is too much familiar rhetoric, however sincerely felt it may be, and however true it may be! She doesn’t dive so deeply into the wreck as she imagines. She tries to avoid creating more controversy than absolutely necessary, steering clear of politics and religion as best she can in her futile effort to achieve a godlike detachment, and she positions herself on a high moral ground, in good company, with Charles Darwin, among others, with whom she has an edifying chat.
Part of the subtitle for Darwin’s famous tome is “The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life”. ( Are we a little racist, Charles? ) There couldn’t be a better description of the people who rule our country, the madmen who see themselves as the legitimate beneficiaries of natural selection, cleverly exploiting their competitive advantage, as they boast of their fitness to survive and ultimately rule the world in the name of “democracy”. They generously allow a few crumbs to trickle down from their tables, in moments of Christian weakness, for the nourishment of the less fit. We are familiar with Monsanto and its terminator seeds, and grateful for Ms. Kingsolver’s lucid sermon on the necessity of genetic diversity. But what is the nature of this pathology that could create an abomination like a terminator seed? We deplore frankenfoods and the corporate machine with its blind money-making imperative! The peoples of the world have become accustomed to the presence of the alien predator and the proliferation of his Golden Arches around the globe, but we want to go deeper into the secret core of this crazy life and part the curtains and confront these victorious competitors, these shy, lunatic wizards in their lair, and expose them for who and what they are! But Ms Kingsolver has no stomach for going quite that far. She opts for the blue pill, I’m afraid, and declines to let Morpheus show her how deep the rabbit hole goes.
She seems to have little imagination for evil, and in spite of the fact that she sees herself as a caretaker of the planet and a healer of society’s wounds, piously refusing the fruits ( and vegetables) of corporate industrial agriculture, and lamenting the necessity of the automobile, while initiating her own tithe by donating the royalties of her book to worthy humanitarian and environmental causes, she does not seem to fully accept her godlike prerogatives. As Henry Miller once said, if there is anything godlike about a God, it is the courage to imagine everything. That classical bourgeoises piety that sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil, imagines nothing beyond the tidy limits of its comfort zone. But evil, the nature of evil, the ways and means of evil, the evil within and the evil without, is what we most need to think about when we confront the monstrous act of 9/11. That act evokes the very essence of the madness of our time. We are fools to take it at face value.
And yet, that is what Barbara Kingsolver does. With the simplicity of a child, she believes what she is told.. I suppose we are all children to some degree in relation to those faces and those voices of authority that speak to us from on high in all the media because like children we want to believe what we are told, and more than that, we feel that we must believe because we are helpless to know the truth on our own. If we are told that Osama bin Laden did it because he hates our freedom and our way of life, even before the dust has finally settled over the city of New York, then we want to believe that, and we don’t ask these authorities: “How do you know this so quickly, before the dust has settled?” We want to believe in our government, its wisdom and its good intent, just as a child wants to believe in its parents.
Skepticism is not a childlike disposition. It is not a comfortable posture of the mind. When we visit those unspoiled, sacred places in nature, the burdens we carry seem to melt away, and perhaps the first to go, the heaviest, is skepticism, because we are by nature, believers who only very reluctantly left the Garden of Eden. And we are forever yearning to go back to that paradisal state, which is why that disruptive fellow people call Jesus Christ, felt compelled to admonish us that childlike innocence wasn’t enough, we also had to be skeptical, like the serpent, like those scum bags trying to pull the wool over our eyes! The pious ones, so careful to distance themselves from evil, are proud of their innocence and tend to congratulate themselves for being superior to others. Those children of Israel who perished in the concentration camps were generally innocent, if not universally pious, and never imagined the evil that swept them up in its maw, even though it was staring them in the face the whole while. When the Reichstag burned in 1933, they believed what they were told. The communists did it, because the communists hated their freedom, their glorious Weimar Republic.
Before the dust settled, it was generally agreed that this was a watershed event that would change the world, as only wars and acts of war can do. It seemed a monstrous piece of fiction to me, and all that has happened since, this war on terrorism and its political baggage, seems like a theater of the macabre, the fantasy of a deranged, paranoid mind. Had I been living in New York on 9/11, and been one of those fleeing from the billowing dust tsunami of the collapsing towers, I’d have been outraged like other New Yorkers, but for different reasons. What happened was unbelievable because it shouldn’t have happened, not in the most guarded and controlled airspace in the world, not in the most sophisticated national security state in the world!
The subsequent explanations are not plausible. One can’t deny the fact, and one mourns the loss of so many lives, but mourning alone will not satisfy our debt to those who died. We do owe them a debt. It is a debt to ourselves. Tears, grief, anger, righteous retribution, flag waving, and monuments are not enough. The very least that we owe them, as if they were our own brothers and sisters, our own children and parents, is a thorough, nay, a ruthless examination of the reasons why this event, which shouldn’t have happened, did happen. No one has lost his job for dereliction of duty. No head in any high place has rolled on account of security failures on 9/11. It is as though we, as a nation, hold our government blameless just because it is our government, which is like holding the husband blameless for the murder of the wife just because he is the husband. No serious examination of the causes of this massacre of the innocent has yet taken place more than two years after the fact, and this event has since become the justification for our slaughter of many more innocents in other lands, as well as the abrogation of our sacred Constitutional rights.
And. Barbara Kingsolver, angelic environmentalist, bears some responsibility for this state of affairs, as do all those members of the American intelligentsia who were struck dumb by the shock & awe of 9/11 and can no longer think. Her sorrow, her outrage over the deaths of the innocent seem hollow. She is not willing to undertake the due diligence required, unwilling to do so much as question, let alone challenge, the official explanation, in spite of the fact that there are many glaring inconsistencies and contradictions in this official story, in spite of the fact that George Bush & Co., Inc, will not answer questions publicly and have done all they can to prevent the 9/11 Commission from coming into being. The lack of transparency in our government and the lack of accountability from our leaders is an outrage that goes unchallenged and will certainly not be addressed by any report the Warren Commission, oops!, I mean, the 9/11 Commission offers the public. The insanity of our time is indeed contagious if it can infect the minds of even our self-styled dissidents and holy roller environmentalists and render them intellectually paralyzed. Grief is no excuse.( The "independent" commission has issued its report, 7/21/04, piously declaring it is not playing a blame game. No leader is responsible for what happened on his watch. All are victims of institutional failure. Ask yourself this: if even one death were the result of your negligence in your position of authority, would you get away without punishment or reprimand? Many stones were left unturned by this commission of professional politicians and their recommendation is to spend even more public money and create even more bureaucracy. In the time honored tradition of moral degenerates, they have produced an elaborate obfuscation in the hope that the sleeping dog that started barking on 9/11 will finally go back to sleep. Their objective was not truth, but the defense of a system of corrupt government.)
To question the role of government in this disaster is just the first small step. It is not sedition, it is not treason, it is only common sense and the responsibility of every citizen in this nominally free society. To refuse this responsibility constitutes a moral failure. Every moral failure weakens resistance to further infection of the mind and the heart. Eventually we succumb to the madness of the terror and the counter-terror. The day comes when we can no longer hear what the flowing water is saying. We loose our minds to the crazy life.
To dive deeply into the wreck, as Ms Kingsolver likes to phrase it, involves more than simply questioning the role of government, which only satisfies the demands of curiosity and common sense. Going deeply involves thinking the unthinkable. It means looking the insanity of our time in the eye and not blinking first. It is a matter of stepping outside the limits of the American comfort zone. Real freedom is not a paradise of consumer gratification, nor is it a return to a mythical state of natural harmony, where all food is organic, bears nurse human babies, and the sun just rolls around heaven all day.
Ms. Kingsolver bravely declares that she will never give in to cynicism, she will never admit that humanity has lost all reasonable hope for the survival of freedom and a sustainable future! Like a Sunday preacher she criticizes the American people for their sense of entitlement to luxury and profligate use of energy resources, while most of the world merely subsists, and like most Sunday preachers she is blind to her own hypocrisy. I’m not implying that she secretly has an Olympic-size swimming pool at her Arizona desert home, 5,000 pairs of shoes, a 60" plasma TV home theater system, or half a dozen opulent SUVS, though she could probably afford it all. This hypocrisy is an essential complacency she shares with her congregation, which is the failure to challenge the government in the wake of 9/11. This would involve the sacrifice of our most fundamental luxury, that illusion of a bond of good faith between the people and their government. This illusion is our comfort zone, beyond which too many nominally free citizens will not go. Since the National Security Act of 1947, in which the people agreed that their government would tell them only what it wanted them to hear, that bond of good faith has been a carefully crafted illusion.
While there is some legitimacy in thinking in generational terms, it is also fallacious when one considers that any generation is composed of individuals, and any generational purpose is but the sum of individual intentions. Therefore, I don’t blame my generation per se for a failure of political will, I blame those prominent individuals within the generation, the generational intelligentsia, for their lack of political interest and courage.
Unless we demand a full and complete accounting of our government’s role in the events of 9/11, with every reasonable question answered, we will be swept away in the madness of a war on terrorism that will not end until we are no longer even a nominally free people. At that point, when political freedom is just a word, there is no sustainable future. The irony of Ms Kingsolver’s hopeful outlook is that it almost certainly guarantees that cynicism will triumph with the madness of King George. His ideals, those of a brutal aristocracy of the dark ages, will triumph. Voting him out of office would be a helpful gesture, it might ease the pain that grips us, but it won’t change the underlying madness that infects Our Way of Life.