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
be 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
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
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
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
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
Baker, Ph.D. is author of Coming
out of Fundamentalist Christianity
History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You .Her
website is www.carolynbaker.org
where she may be contacted.