Dr. James Perkinson, Ecumenical Theological Seminary (Detroit, MI)
The signs of our time shout! Harvey hammers Houston and the entire Gulf Coast camps out in a boat or a grave. Then comes Irma with Jose and Katya in Her wake, raking an entire peninsula with rebuke. While fire ungraced with gendered traces of naming, blisters the west. All on top of Charlottesville, itself evoking Trump, chopping restraints militant and policing, channeling a large chunk of the dominant demographic of the country! As I write, Kid Rock readies his concert of hate in downtown Detroit, as front for the Ilitch family take of Motown turf, faking concern, raking in tax dollar support, celebrating white vituperation in the gala opening of a new ice hockey stadium at the core of an 82 % black city. Little Caesar indeed! But what do all of these events have to do with each other? How might a community aspiring to some measure of humanity and morality “hear” what these events sound out? I do not yet even dare to say, “Respond.”
I confess deep concern. The country is in the dock. The court today is the entire planet—Earth Herself as prosecutorial presence, calling every community of suffering to speak—brown Bangladeshi bodies floating bloated and dead in floods covering a third of that state, Nigerians in the mix swimming with crocodiles in downtown Lagos streets, repeat killings of African American youth in our own supposedly “United” States by militarized police acting with virtual impunity, incarceration a stock-option confection yielding dividends to the rich and dark skin to an ALEC-happy industry eager to grant employment to white rural voters and gerrymandered office to their political recruits, while out West the continuing rape and early-death-fate of Native Women here and in Canada continues at epic levels of unrequited rates, etc. And North Korea and Iran serve as the latest foil for “deep state” demand to keep the weapons factories oiled and running, But even such a brief litany itself perpetuates the most pernicious presumption of the time that rages unabated in the hearts and minds, through the hands and mouths, and out the anuses and garbage cans, of most of us.
That presumption is supremacy—white at its core, vitriolic in its roar, Neo-Facist in its most outrageous spore, but rampaging relentless and unconfessed under the floor of a now globalized lifestyle, taking the Middle Class “American” Dream as its theme, Hollywood as its norm, corn syrup as its elixir of choice, and our species’ unquestionable right to eat, mine, slice, dice, bend and break everything else as its bottom-line stance toward an entire biosphere now in irrepressible revolt asserting otherwise. And the deep question is whether we can listen and hear. Harvey and Irma are not just devastation. They are speech.
Indigenous cultures historically would know how to interpret. In the 2004 Banda Ache tsunami, BBC discovered a Sea Gypsy fishing folk tribe known as the Mokan off the coast of Thailand, who had survived the wave just fine. No member of the tribe had ever seen such a phenomenon, but as soon as the sea receded prior to rising and roaring inland, the community instantly came to attention: they regularly told stories around their camp fires at night of a Human-Eating Water-Creature and recognized the signs. Their ancestors had experienced such, and memorialized the event in myth. The Mokan turned for direction to the animal-kin with whom they shared their island home, observed what such “elders” did in response, and imitating them, did not go down to the shore to investigate the recession, but hightailed it to higher ground. This Big Water Creature was a Being they could give place to because they understood the planet is not theirs to own and bend, but rather a Gift to learn and know and respect, as merely one small community among a vast panoply of communities—finned and winged, furred and four-legged, crested and flowing or billowing and dripping—whose overall concert of living was an orchestration human beings did not conduct or control, but participated in by way of those couple of notes of beauty they could uniquely contribute. But not so Houston or Miami, Louisiana or Georgia. Not so, indeed, most of this country—including most of us reading (and I confess, even writing).
The preeminent racism of the hour—the supremacy under the supremacy some of us so readily decry—is species-wide and ubiquitously modern. Most of us living industrial and high-tech—and most of those colonized to aspire to such though it remains out of reach—are racist to the core in our conviction that our “human” race is preeminent and central to the entire planetary roar of living. We do not give a fig for the fact that our lifestyle now renders extinct and gone forever, some 200 species per day. We do not care that we raise chickens to eat in cages so small and densely-packed that the birds so raised and killed never once in their adult lives get to so much as raise their heads to the full extent of their necks. Or raise cattle on industrial farms, so shot up with hormones from an early age onwards that they are forced to grow monstrously huge and unnaturally “mature,” to be served up quickly to our plates, at dire cost to the rest of the environment (not to mention the world’s indigenous peoples who are coerced off their ancestral lands to make way for the cattle ranching elites who clear-cut their forests in service of a carcinogenic production of beef).
We do not take account of the fact that we have cast into our oceans particulate plastic matter so prodigiously there are floating islands of the stuff as huge as Africa in the Pacific and hundreds of miles across in the Atlantic, infiltrating the food chain irreversibly, and now showing up in 94% of all tap water across the US (and even 72% of all tap water in the countries with the lowest rates) in the form of micro-plastic fibers that are carcinogens. (In consequence, Kenya, in the last month, has gone so far as to criminalize the use of plastic bags, because the cancer rate is already spiking there.) The seas are acidifying; the plankton that form the base of the food chain and synthesize into existence some 40% of the oxygen that we breathe, can no longer congeal their body-sheaths and bleed internal organs out into the surrounding waters. We may grow concerned politically for our own future; what we have not yet done is take seriously the right to exist and flourish of all other life forms. Even in our environmentalism, we largely remain supremacist in vision and action.
Not so peoples yet living close to the land. In my neck of the woods Ojibwa Water Walkers, circumambulate the Great Lakes Basin in ritual interaction with the creature flowing there. Further east, an Ojibwa-inspired trek of native folk has teenage girls and their relatives carting a pail of water 402 miles the length of the Potomac River, from clean headwaters to polluted mouth emptying into Chesapeake Bay. Asked if they are trying to raise consciousness about degradation of this most precious “resource” the women will say, “Sure, but not primarily that.” Such thinking for them remains white male and settler colonialist. They are largely doing the walk for the water “Herself,” giving Her “a taste,” they will say—right where She is most abused—of Her character as she issues fresh from the mountain rains and springs before being compromised by industrial effluent and mindlessness. They are talking to the water as a Living Being, with a spirit and a body worth honoring with “conversation” and reciprocation. In order that She might remember . . . Herself! And it is “we,” who find incomprehensible or silly such a practice of talking to what we consider “inanimate,” who actually show ourselves to be “not fully alive.”
It is so strikingly apparent that even the most “progressive” left activists will show great concern to include indigenous peoples in their calculus of who is oppressed and stands in need of solidarity and liberation, but actually pay no attention to what such indigenous people actually say about how to live and what “freedom” looks like when it comes down to strategy for the struggle. The need, from the point of view of many indigenous, is not “progress,” but remembering and returning. As a species, we have long known how to live in relatively sustainable symbiosis with local ecologies. And how to tell stories and practice ceremonies that keep the community “woke” and alive to the necessity of respectful “conversation” with the non-human world. Many such indigenous cultures tell myths of origin that identify their deepest ancestry as not-human, but rather arising from that plant or animal who has most allowed them to survive as human communities in such local ecologies. If Mayan, they “were” originally corn; if Inuit, whales; if Ojibwa, sturgeon; Mongol, wolves; ancient German, boars or bears. We as moderns hear such claims as charming conceits.
But really, they are closer to truth than our own mythic fictions that we descend from ourselves and only need take account of the human community (as if “Adam” was a singular human and not a social collectivity integrally related to the adamah/mud from which the name derives). We would not long survive if we ate only human flesh and breathed only human “airs.” Of course we did not come primarily from ourselves! At the most literal level, we are temporary realizations, inside human skin, of all kinds of iterations of other creatures—floral, faunal, mineral, pluvial, alluvial, microbial, and atmospheric—whose gift to us of their own bodies is not “other” than ourselves, but the very sum and substance of who we are. We just live a lie when it comes to actually honoring where we came from.
There is not time or space to tell of the Tzutujil Mayans who, according to author/adopted tribal member Martín Prechtel, survived the 1976 Guatemala earthquake in the mountain heights, endured more than a week out in the open with scarcely any water or food—with community members with bones sticking out of flesh or delirious with contusions—who nonetheless refused to eat the only two ears of corn they managed to salvage intact from the landslides and dust, because (paraphrasing) “they are our mothers, and whether we survive does not matter as long as they do. They will seed the future and birth the successor ‘people’ (whether human or otherkind) worthy of living at that time.” It gives a deeply radical twist to the typical Christian insistence (very rarely lived out) on “giving up one’s life for one’s friends.” Are we big enough to live on behalf of other species and give our breath and flesh for them—as they do all the time for “us”? Why do we draw a line around our own bodies as the vaunted parameters of “human identity” when, in fact, we actually live in and through all kinds of other bodies every millisecond (beholden, for instance, to the hundreds of bacterial species and billions of cells vastly outnumbering our “own” non-bacterial cells to such a degree we are minorities in our own bodies—not to mention all the soil bodies, and air bodies, and water bodies, and “fish and chips” bodies, and micro-brew beer bodies and on-the-run Chicken McNugget bodies that “become” us just as surely as we regularly defecate and become someone else’s body)?
Or the hunter-gatherer Dongria Kondh of India, who relate to their home mountain as a Sacred Being for whom they are willing to die in resisting corporate mining interests. Or Polynesians in their primal stories regaling bamboo shoots as the vulva “canoes” birthing them from the seas, Gaels looking to their sacred bulls, Mandingos to their termite mound “creators” of iron and kings, Slovenians to the karst-dwelling olm-dragon salamanders as predictors of their futures, weeping Bedouin singing weeping camel mothers into embrace of orphaned calves as if they are all family kin, or a thousand other memories of human provenience and well-being dependent without hesitation on the administrations of the non-human world of flesh and bone and spirit and seeking to give beauty back in kind.
Until the fatuous insistence on the human race as ascendant and alone worthy of long-term existence is discarded—there is little hope we will successfully debride our skin hierarchy of its other versions of supremacy based on ethnicity and religion, class and orientation, gender and ability and “education.” (No matter we devastate this planet and all its other inhabitants, as long as a few of us who are white and wealthy can cruise off to Mars to reproduce our fatuity and stupidity there!) But it is probably requisite at least to mention the depths involved in countering these “smaller-scale demons” as well—a profundis that real concern must plumb if ever we would shed the repugnant sense of superiority. It is not enough merely to bad-mouth the alt-right fatuity that this land belongs to some Johnny-come-lately Anglo-Saxon cabal or even resist the Tiki-lamp marches with Antifa-aggression resolved to give new-born Nazis no quarter. The land remains stolen; title a papal fiction conjured from thin air in late medieval Europe by a Christian supremacist conviction of world-dominance; real estate practice an aberration of private right and capital intent to own and mine every last bit of mineral- or fossil-fuel or aquatic-resource-bearing soil in the name of shareholder maximization of digitized fictions of value.
As journalist scholar Robert Jensen argues when asked if this country will ever get rid of white supremacy: “Nope.” Because really tackling this juggernaut would mean undoing the entire foundation of the nation—returning all of the wealth to the laboring forces whence it was stolen (namely African, and to a lesser degree, Asian and Latin-American and even poor European, workers) and all of the lands to Indians! If we are not serious about dismantling white supremacy in the corporatized commercial structures it has inhabited for its entire modern career as a settler colonial project, Antifa fulmination about alt-right excesses will not a just nation make. It will not even signal a just movement. It will merely comport as white supremacy in black-dress anarchism, attacking its own most blatant development in order to return to its unfettered promulgation of taken-for-granted “progress” as a scheme of supposed uplift for modern arrogance at the expense of all else. Not enough to deal with the supremacist myth in its merely doggerel form. Trump is a mirror for an entire 500-hundred-year regime of history. It is the whole of white society and white identity and white business-as-usual organized as suburban dwelling and corporate profiteering and high-tech-war-mongering that peers back when we look with supposed disdain at the orange-headed buffoonery.
In sum, an entire planet raises an increasingly insistent voice, challenging our entire species in its conceit as supreme. Water is Earth’s prophet. Harvey and Irma mere punctuation. Nigeria and Bangladesh a deep warning and test. La Tuna and Eagle Creek the voice running silent and hot. Even if we momentarily restrict our most immediate concern to our own kind, how many millions of our own species are we willing to consign to annihilation along with so many other species, before we respond? Nature does not target the most vulnerable; we ourselves do—by setting them up to be targets, in forcing them to live in vulnerable circumstances, in the first place. Nigeria and Bangladesh, now Houston and the Caribbean (not to mention bomb-torn Yemen and cyclone-raked Philippines and mining-raped Congo, and etc.) already cry out from within the ambit of modernist concern. And then if we dare to listen to peoples living close to the land, and through them, to the land herself, to the plants, the animals, the waters . . . We have hardly even begun to listen. Will we ever? The time is late.