by Martin Murie
(Swans - February 11, 2008) Activists are dangerous people because when confronted by the complexities and uncertainties encountered while trying to change the system, it is so terribly easy to settle for an abstraction. Pristine is one of those pesky terms. It has been applied, for example, to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Visitors fly in there and raft down the river and gaze at mountain sheep, grizzlies, caribou, and all the other wonders of that place. We have to save it from greedy oil corporations, but it is not an oasis where the myriad environmental factors work in perfect harmony. I suppose that pristine is applied there because we humans are scarce, so far. It takes a grant from a foundation or considerable personal wealth to finance a trip to that remote arctic ecosystem.
But behind that rationale lurks another abstraction: that wilderness, by definition, is pristine. That is, the wild without people is a perfect paradise where all works according to Nature's own perfect stasis. Not so. Nature is a huge process without a conscience, without guilt, without compassion. Life, death, and change, sometimes sudden, are its driving forces.
It is understandable that our species has always harbored an intense longing for a place and a way of life "where the livin' is easy," Garden of Eden et al. And with the advent of capitalist domination of the earth, that longing has been built into corporate advertisements, infotainments, movies, TV dramas. Squeaky Clean is the motto: silky hair tossings, spray bottle followed by one sweep of the sponge (What does one do later with the sponge?), absolutely clean garments, totally bacteria-free homes, odors the housewife can spray to cover the failure to eliminate every last bacterium, and so on. Mr. Clean, smiling supervisor...approving and smiling. A pat on the back to the obedient human woman.
These are abstractions, though presented as full-color images. And they are intertwined with The American Way of Life. Now I'll break my rule against reliance on abstractions to assert that the American Way can be summed up in two ubiquitous bumper stickers:
God Bless America
(Old Glory) These Colors Never Run
Inside God Bless America lurks patriarchal dominance.
Inside "These Colors Never Run" are, deeply embedded, violence and approval of violence. Those are also racist slogans, attested by the fact that we stand by as the United States Empire and its "coalition of the willing" kill people of other faiths and colors and regimes, every day. Every day. Usually "surgically" from afar: clumsy air power.
We have been handing out leaflets at our antiwar demos. When traffic backs up behind a red light we rush out and offer our explanations of who we are and what we are trying to accomplish. Well, another lesson learned: so often, so far it's always a man, tells me, "I don't need it; I agree with you," and when the light turns green he drives off. This reminds me of the old Wobbly verse, song, or saying from a strike picketer: "The thing I hate worse than anything is the worker who passes by saying, Hang in there brother, and moves on." (Or words to this effect). There are two encodings here. One, "I don't need any more information." Two, "I am satisfied to rest assured and feeling good, being on the right side, so don't have to put my body on the line."
These are akin to abstractions, aka "oversimplifications." As any activist can attest, once you get on the street you discover complexities that have to be mulled over, discussed, adapted to, or confronted. The world is not simple.
And that reminds me of a statement from a Canadian who has just written a book about energy and global warming. "Biofuels programs are simply subsidies to farmers, have no affect on climate change." I have to add that if the biofuels mania keeps on it will contribute to global warming and in the process destroy jungles and forests and species and dramatically move upward the price of basic foods.
Of course we absolutely need abstractions, but they are like dynamite or depleted uranium: Handle With Extreme Care. Americans are moving now into severe troubles that put more pressures on our bodies, our minds, our spirit, and our comfortable slogans. This is shock therapy and that is what it takes to wake us up to the fact that there is no such thing as pristine. Only on the printed page or careless speech can we wallow in that word.
Is this rant in praise of relativism? No. It is a message from people we meet at antiwar demos: troubled, loaded with hate, suffering, cheerful, usually supportive. Or, if of an opposite frame of mind, willing to talk it out.
Of, by, and for the People. There, I've said it.
[Ed. Martin Murie has a new Web site, Packrat Nest, where readers can find his books and other works. Please, visit it!]
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