Last month I reviewed Naomi Wolf’s recent best seller, The End Of America: Letter Of Warning To A Young Patriot in which I praised Wolf’s succinct and thorough analysis of the triumph of fascism in the United States. This past week, Wolf’s article “American Tears” has been posted on a variety of internet sites and forwarded to me several times. Whereas I was inspired to give The End Of America a glowing review that it more than deserves, I must take issue with the fundamental premise of “American Tears” which is in my opinion, the most inappropriate of all responses to the dire situation Wolf elucidates in The End Of America.
Wolf begins by stating:
“I wish people would stop breaking into tears when they talk to me these days.”
This statement left me breathless and gasping for air. However, I continued reading because I already had a sense of where Wolf was going. As I had correctly intuited, her premise is that we should not be debilitated by our grief, but rather rise to the occasion and fight for the constitutional democracy that is being stolen from us.
What I found so appalling about Wolf’s essay was not her premise with which I agree in part, but the vacuousness of her one-sided perspective. Yes, we must resist the fascist empire that has declared unspoken war on every nation on earth and on its own citizens, but I must disagree with why and how Wolf admonishes us to resist.
Before any further analysis of Naomi Wolf’s perspective, let’s pause to consider what is at stake. Scientists are telling us that nearly 200 species per day on earth are going extinct; virtually every resource on earth, including energy, water, and food is being perilously depleted and privatized; the capacity of the planet to carry its current number of inhabitants is already stretched to the breaking point and cannot sustain the rate at which human population continues to grow; our food, water, and air are nearly unfit to take into our bodies; numerous, endless resource wars around the globe could potentially erupt into nuclear holocausts; the future of our children and grandchildren has been mortgaged into abject poverty; educational institutions are producing graduates who are incapable of thinking critically; the world economy is entering economic meltdown; and ghastly global pandemics are waiting to eliminate breathtaking numbers of human beings.
I could continue the litany, but if you’ve read thus far and feel nothing in your body, please check your vital signs. If you do feel something, it’s important to notice what that is. In fact, our not noticing, our not feeling, is exactly what has brought about the horrors I have just enumerated.
The heroic, cerebral, non-visceral perspective embraced by Wolf is unequivocally part of the problem. But what do I mean by heroic?
Western civilization is the product of the heroic attitude depicted in countless myths and fairytales of the past five thousand years. Greek and Roman mythology were replete with tales of the hero’s journey-the overcoming of ordeals in order to prove one’s faithfulness to the gods and goddesses and one’s sense of integrity to the community. The Judeo-Christian tradition further perpetuates heroism in protagonists like Moses, David, Daniel, Jesus, St. Paul, Augustine, the crusaders, and the panoply of saints.
The apotheosis of heroics in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the savior who brings salvation. Despite the Enlightenment and the rejection of the mythological, Western civilization has been profoundly and permanently characterized by a heroic attitude. In this country, our Puritan ancestors declared that their fledgling colony was a “city set on a hill”, “a light unto the world”, “a new Jerusalem”-hence the birth of the American notion of exceptionalism. Like it or not, their work-and-win ethic has permeated our culture, subtly instilling in us the belief that we must survive, conquer, and prevail. “Good” human beings, “morally responsible” Americans want to conquer adversity and win. In fact, to do otherwise implies a deficiency in character.
Heroism, a traditionally masculine, problem-solving perspective, abhors the emotional. “What good are tears?” it arrogantly asserts; “Stop sniveling and start fighting!”
I hasten to add that I am not excluding the need for problem-solving and resistance in the face of the plethora of adversities that threaten the earth and its inhabitants. What I am arguing is that the heroic approach is ineffectual given the fact that it is fragmented and incomplete because the natural human response to the death of the planet is nothing less than gut-wrenching grief.
Dr. Glen Barry, founder of Ecological Internet, states:
The Earth is dying and it makes me feel sad. Not just a bit tense or melancholy; but deeply and profoundly anguished, depressed, and angry. Humanity had so much potential that has been wasted. Our self consciousness, opposable thumbs, upright walking and ability for limited rationality has lead to great triumphs in philosophy, art, sport and leisure. But alas other aspects of our animalistic nature; libido, insatiable appetite, and desire to dominate, have won out.
Barry is mourning the loss of feeling and the triumph of heroics, and until any of us is able to feel our grief and consciously, viscerally mourn the loss of our planet, our civil liberties, and our humanity, we are ill-equipped to resist or make the changes in our own lives that will influence either microcosm or macrocosm. Certainly, it is possible to “get stuck” in grief, but from my perspective, that is hardly the most ominous pitfall in front of us. If anything, our inculcation with American heroics has facilitated ungrounded political organizing detached from our bodies and emotions which, like civilization, disconnects us from the totality of our humanity.
I’m well aware that the great labor organizer, Joe Hill, is famous for his adage, “Don’t mourn, organize”, but Joe’s late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century world was quite different from ours. He and his comrades in struggle were not facing the death of the planet and the possible extinction of the human race.
What seems to escape Naomi Wolf is that humans are capable of feeling deep grief and demonstrating fierce resistance at the same time. Indeed, this reality is paradoxical, and being incredibly complex creatures, paradox is one of the most fundamental aspects of our human experience.
It appears that what Wolf, along with nearly all Americans is unwilling to face, is that not only is the American empire in a state of freefall, but so is civilization itself. What she fails to understand is that the paradigm of civilization has already expired, and that humanity is now navigating its way to an entirely new paradigm. That process will be increasingly painful, formidable, and terribly uncertain. What will not work is reversion to left progressive or green politics which refuses to acknowledge the reality of collapse and heroically struggles to keep a crumbling civilization and its old paradigm intact. But then what do I mean by “work”?
I do not mean “succeed” in the heroic sense of the word. I do not define success at this point in human history as preventing collapse and electing the right candidates who will kiss the catastrophe and make it all better. Rather, I mean refusing to succumb to the ferocious undertow of denial that permeates the heroic perspective and instead, telling the truth about the current reality. In order to do this, we must first grieve the incalculable losses in front of us, and at the same time, introspectively assess how we will respond to them.
Introspection does not mean self-absorption. It means evaluating how one wishes to live in the face of collapse and who one wishes to share one’s life with. It means scaling down not only one’s lifestyle, but one’s problem-solving perspective. That is, instead of looking for political heroes who will solve problems for us on a national or global level, we focus on our community and work with trusted others to address issues in our place. As the crumbling of governments, financial systems, and other institutions exacerbates, collapse itself will compel us to implement local solutions. Thus, even in the face of such a painful demise as the collapse of civilization, we may be able to surrender to and celebrate the opportunity for rediscovering our own humanity and that of the other individuals who inhabit our community. Perhaps what we most need to discover and experience is not heroics but transformative defeat-the defeat of the paradigm of civilization.
Kahil Gibran in “Madman” wrote:
Defeat, my Defeat,
my deathless courage,
you and I shall laugh together
with the storm,
and together we shall dig graves
for all that die in us,
and we shall stand
in the sun with a will,
and we shall be dangerous.
Naomi Wolf states that the time for tears has to stop, and the time for confronting has to begin. Yet only our tears give meaning and dynamism to our resistance. Could it be that the most effective means of being truly “dangerous” and revolutionary is to accept the defeat of civilization? Could it be that what is most needed now is not heroics but American tears?
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