The world didn’t end yesterday (unless the next world includes a bus from New York to Philadelphia equipped with the electrical outlets and wifi that enabled me to write this essay). Yes, I’ve been on the road all spring, a condition that tends to impair my ability to focus on a single topic long enough to write. But there is something about predictions of impending doom that brings focus. (As Samuel Johnson said, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Life has been putting intense doomsayers in my path lately, so often that I am impelled to pay attention. What are they telling us, this ever-larger cohort dedicated to sounding the alarm? Their specific messages differ greatly, but underneath, there is a single message: Consensus reality is wrong; look harder, pay attention to what’s really happening, and be very, very afraid.
Some believed in a divine plan to bring about an end to the world as we know it on May 21st. Some are associated with “The 9/11 Truth Movement,” which includes (among others) architects, engineers, and former elected officials who strongly doubt the official story behind the explosions of the World Trade Center towers. (For a sample, here’s a recording of a recent event that can be heard on NoLiesRadio.org.) Some of them are part of what is being called “deep green resistance,” convinced that Earth’s finite carrying capacity has been exceeded by greed and entitlement, and that much more than a wake-up call is needed to create what some activists call “a soft landing,” rather than a violent and bloody die-off of human and other species.
My skepticism in response to the prediction of imminent Rapture has always been profound. I would guess that by now, most people agree, since the world didn’t end this weekend. But with the others, I find myself of two minds. One response turns on the information they are disseminating, and the sense of urgency attaching to their message. The other turns on what it all means, how the messengers want us to feel about it, and why.
Believing that essential information is omitted or distorted in the official story of 9/11, global climate change, state-sanctioned conquest, and other defining elements of post-Industrial Revolution power relations—well, I don’t have to stretch at all to get there. What’s more, I feel a certain kinship with many of the people who promote that viewpoint: we share a potent desire to pull back the veil of received truth and direct others’ attention to whatever it hides.
My subject is human culture—specifically, the transformative power of creativity to actuate a paradigm shift—which doesn’t overlap much with the assertion that 9/11 was created by domestic rulers as a pretext for a power grab. But whether the subject is culture or geopolitics, we all feel that enormously useful truths lie just beneath the surface of the official stories broadcast so loudly and insistently from the center to the margins; and we all want to shatter the orthodoxies that prevent so many people from looking beneath the surface of those stories.
Consider the work of Derrick Jensen, for instance. He is a prolific writer and apparently tireless speaker who co-leads“Deep Green Resistance” workshops, predicated on the understanding that lifeboat Earth is sinking, that people ought to resist the policies and actions that have sprung the leaks, and join at the local level to bail out human-scale communities. Friends and acquaintances have been sending me his links lately. “The Tyranny of Entitlement” most recently.
Jensen speaks and writes with the amazed voice of one who possesses the gift of sight in the kingdom of the blind. He often questions the sanity of those who hold views he finds repugnant:
I’m continually stunned by how many seemingly sane people believe you can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet….
Some of those who believe in perpetual growth are out-and-out nut jobs, like the economist and former White House advisor Julian Simon, who said, “We have in our hands now—actually in our libraries-—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.” And showing that, when it comes to U.S. economic policies, insanity is never out of season, are yet more nut jobs, like Lawrence Summers, who has served as chief economist at the World Bank, U.S. secretary of the treasury, president of Harvard, and as President Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, and who said, “There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind at any time in the foreseeable future. . . . The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.”
He writes with an overwhelming sense of certainty, and a large dose of hyperbole:
[T]his economic system must constantly increase production to grow, and what, after all, is production? It is the conversion of the living to the dead, the conversion of living forests into two-by-fours, living rivers into stagnant pools for generating hydroelectricity, living fish into fish sticks, and ultimately all of these into money. And what, then, is gross national product? It is a measure of this conversion of the living to the dead.
I don’t know if Jensen is right that Earth’s carrying-capacity is exhausted to the point that the products of human ingenuity can be of little help—that nothing short of turning back the clock a few generations to far less consumption and much simpler technology can stop the decline. I am convinced that significant change is needed, but uneasy with the absolutist position he adopts. Certain weaknesses in his rhetoric dull the edge of his argument. He relies very heavily on assertion and analogy, often comparing those who exploit the living planet with men who abuse women. He asserts that the essence of abuse is a sense of entitlement, and that it is impossible to persuade abusers to change. After a while, I find so much certainty and assertion exhausting, and so much argument from analogy unconvincing.
Is it really true, for instance, that the essence of abuse is entitlement? That is one true story, no doubt, but there are others. From everything I have learned, a fairly significant segment of abusers have first been abused themselves, and are attempting—however futilely, however much at the expense of their victims—to gain a sense of personal power or exact revenge by doing unto others what has been done to them.
“The only way to stop them,” writes Jensen, “is to make it so they have no other choice.” Is that true? I have seen individuals turn away from the path of abuse when they have been granted healing experiences that cultivate empathy. In the public realm, although their numbers are small, we see conversion experiences: former executives who devote themselves to healing the damage they unthinkingly committed, former fundamentalist believers in humans’ dominion over all others who turn onto a path of stewardship. Some of the key 9/11 doubters (e.g., Senator Mike Gravel and Lt. Col. Bob Bowman, who both speak in the recording linked above) are deemed credible precisely because they were part of the power establishment before they became part of the movement.
Nearly every bloodbath in recorded history has been conducted by those who believe their opponents are incapable of real change. It’s just a hop and a skip from there to the conviction that they ought to be eliminated. Idealism, just as often as the desire to dominate, has been the reason to spill the oceans of violent blood saturating human history.
With the 9/11 Truth Movement, part of my hesitation is related. I can examine and appreciate the vast quantities of documentation assembled to prove that the official stories are unsound. But motive matters, and underlying the evidence are two propositions I just can’t buy.
My first reservation turns on the implicit charge that the perpetrators are so far removed from the sensibilities we call human that they were willing to sacrifice large numbers of their own class and kind—not, as in war, that they objectify and destroy declared enemies, but rather that they blithely eliminate allies. To believe this is—ironically—to place them in a category labelled “less than human,” and from there, it is not so difficult to see them as less than deserving of life.
My second reservation is that the whole structure of argument supposes that powerful people in government and the private sector masterminded 9/11 with seamless competency, including the coordination of highly complex missions demanding a vast degree of complicity and secrecy on the part of humans whose lives are otherwise as replete with blunders as the rest of us. Unlike, say, the Watergate break-ins, no one is standing up to say, “I did it.” No one is breaking ranks. There’s a hidden message in this that I would have to describe as an unintended tribute to the remarkable powers and (albeit evil) genius of the perpetrators. They come off looking like supermen, and here’s my question: if they are capable of such superior peformance with respect to 9/11, why do they make so many blunders and embarrassing mistakes elsewhere?
There is an irresistable psychological subtext that keeps poking its head above the words: these accounts of the misdeeds of the “fathers” puff up their power until they seem more or less omnipotent, essentially rendering the rest of us betrayed children. The wounded aura of childhood grievance is thick, and it undermines the argument. In the grip of these feelings—whether the alarm sounded is about 9/11, environmental damage, or the Tea Party/”birthers” charges of coverup and conspiracy—nothing is too monstrous to be believed, and all the evidence seems entirely credible and entirely coherent.
Of course, if that’s the subtext, it’s bouncing off of its opposite: that the “fathers” are benign and believable, that they would never betray their children, and that it is therefore heretical to question their motives and veracity. In the grip of these feelings, no accusation merits attention, all evidence can be ignored, and a benefit of the doubt the size of an iceberg is granted to whomever succeeds the “Founding Fathers.”
I find myself wanting to separate the baroquely hyperbolic conspiracy theories from the underlying and worthy questions. Mike Gravel takes care to focus on his desire for an independent investigation, stressing the large number of open and urgent questions rather than attaching to a particular answer, and that seems believable. He advocates an international authority to reign in corporate power and globalizing forces that cannot be adequately checked by individual states, an idea that obviously warrants consideration. Derrick Jensen supports many types of local initiative and reform efforts grounded in a realistic assessment of current conditions. But it’s all wrapped in a certainty about causes and effects that doesn’t match the omnipresence of mixed motives and unintended consequences in human events. You have to buy a large number of assertions about who is sane or not, you have to find analogy a devastating mode of argument, you have to believe that only a few people are able to see through falsehoods, while everyone else is deluded.
I wonder how much further—how much more traction and interest—these messages would get if they weren’t so steeped in resentment. But the desire to call out and punish betrayers is so powerful, we may never have a chance to see. And of course, I imagine the people I am writing about would read my words and ask how I could fail to respond as they have to betrayal on such a monumental scale.
Here’s the fabulous Bettye LaVette, my soundtrack for all of my spring travel, singing “Your Turn to Cry.” What makes this song apt isn’t the domestic drama, but the palpable sense of betrayal and the intensity of desire to see the other suffer the pain that has been meted out to oneself. And a musicality that lifts you half a foot off the ground.