Equally What?

(revised 4-11-14) (The following essay was built out of a segment of a speech that I gave at the Idle No More rally in Helena, Montana, on February 18, 2013.)

“If we do not save the environment, then whatever we do in civil rights…will be of no meaning, because then we will have the equality of extinction.” –James Farmer, Jr.

During the 1960s, while the focus of many activists for social change was on equality and racial justice, some of us asked a very important two-word question: “Equally what?” Equally materialistic and consumptive? Equally ruthless, dishonest and unethical in business? Equally corrupt in government and disregardful of the people whom we are elected to serve? Equally destructive to the environment (the word we used then—now I say the planet, the biosphere, or life itself)? For many Americans of color, both then and now, the major victories and small social reforms brought by the Civil Rights and anti-racism movement of the 1960s meant greater chances for economic and social “upward” mobility. For some of the more traditional Native Americans living on reservations, equality was not as important of a goal as maintaining tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural preservation, but, for the increasing number of urban Native Americans at that time, and for many reservation people as well, being free from racial discrimination and being allowed equal rights and opportunities for “success” in the larger American society was also a major concern. Many people from historically marginalized and oppressed groups in the U.S.—African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, southern Euro-American sharecroppers, Appalachian coal miners, and the low-wage working people of all colors—were focused mainly on issues of economic inequality and economic injustice, as they attempted to overcome the obstacles that hindered them from full participation in the modern industrial, consumption-obsessed, capitalist society of the United States. To such Americans of the first generation to get hooked on television, lacking a developed critique of imperialism, and imagining endless expansion of the industrial “frontier” of raw material resource extraction—extending even into other planets in outer space—their critique of capitalist society did not generally extend far beyond the fact that they had not been allowed to fully participate in all of its possibilities and fully benefit from all of its real or imagined perks. This limited understanding of our socio-economic system and our collective history, and the consequent limited sense of purpose in life still prevails among the majority of United Statesians from all historic and cultural backgrounds to this day, although a concurrent thread of “alternative consciousness” and differential thinking, with a sense of better, more sustainable, more life-nourishing purposes and possibilities has also been in development for the last five decades and is rising.

This alternative thread of higher creative consciousness was clearly present during the 1960s among many of the people, of all kinds, who decided to intentionally live by a different set of values than the American majority and to try to either transform American society or create alternative socio-economic systems and other ways of life within their own small social or cultural enclaves. “Returning to ancestral traditions,” “conserving nature,” and “getting back to the garden” were some catch phrases of that movement, along with a whole new wave of activists for the earth. The corporate-controlled mainstream media, along with some historians whom the corporate powers have also bought and influenced, want us to dismiss what is called the “hippie movement” as nothing more than a hedonistic, drug-addled, directionless, misguided conglomeration of disjointed, experimental social activities. That may be a good description of the masses of effectively-programmed, young, popular-culture-conformist, industrio-techno consumers of that era, but we who were there know that there was also something much deeper, much more vital and essential to the current plight of life on Earth going on adjacent to all of that other “youth culture” commercial consumer nonsense.

As a teenager, coming of age in California in the 1960s, I found the alternative consciousness or alternative perspectives and ways of life movement to be very appealing. I sensed then, and am aware even more clearly now, that the prevailing cosmology or world view of so-called “western” (west of what?), modern industrial, unlimited consumption-oriented society is fundamentally wrong. I first became suspicious of Western Civilization as a young teenager, watching scenes from the Civil Rights protests in the South on the nightly TV news. Watching and listening to the unabashed, virulent racists, my earliest questions ran along the lines of “what the heck is wrong with those people?”, soon followed by rampant, wholesale questioning of the society that produced them. What began as a nagging sense of doubt and discomfort, followed by cautious investigation, developed over time into my current understanding that the socio-economic and paradigmatic status quo of what is also strangely called “the developed world” is basically toxic and unsustainable for life on Earth. I only understood that intuitively back in the Spring of 1970, when I gave away most of my earthly possessions, including my car, and hitchhiked north from Los Angeles, with no specific destination except “maybe Canada” (I was non-compliant with the draft). Nothing certain but “North,” and away from a society to which I did not want to belong. Knowing all that I know now (based on real science and professional historiography), and only having a vague suspicion about it way back then, I now think that I was really onto something.

Photos by David Penchansky

The directions of thought and action that I took during my teenage years were not based in any direction from my parents and family of origin, who strongly believed in the pursuit of equality in both economic opportunity and material consumption. My family and my ancestors are very diverse: a mixture of Native American, African, and European peoples of many tribes and nations. But, unlike many “people of color” from historically oppressed groups in the U.S., my immediate family participated broadly in much of the mainstream consumptive activities and were what sociologists might call “upwardly-mobile middle class Americans.” Both of my parents, two of my grandparents, and one great-grandparent were college-educated. My Dad was an industrial engineer (aerospace/military-related product design) who made enough money for my Mom to not need to work. We had a swimming pool in the backyard, always had plenty to eat, and nice, shiny new cars and clothes. Therefore, I did not have the same motivation to “escape poverty,” or become a “player” in “The Man’s” economic game, or get a “piece of the action,” that many other people from a similar historical and cultural background had, and some still have today. I had seen what “the game” can do to people and I’d had a decent share of “the action,” and found it all to be ultimately empty and unappealing.

Another element that contributed to the forming of my alternative consciousness was the experience of attending central and west Los Angeles schools back when that part of L.A. was still largely integrated, during the early stages of the “white flight” to the suburbs. In that social context, when I began to deeply question the status quo during the 8th grade, I naturally began to bond with the few other people in my peer group/age cohort who were asking similar questions: the mostly Jewish and Euro-American young “hippies” and “lefties.” So, besides all of the direct experience I had of the emptiness of material comfort, I shared the moral outrage and angst about an unjust, racist, materialistic, easily-manipulated, militaristic, environmentally toxic, imperialist society of my high school hipster peers. Like many of my peer group of that era, my extreme differences in cosmology from my parents’ generation often brought me into conflict with them that was amplified beyond what most people in America would consider normal. So, when my Dad, who had to struggle against blatant racial discrimination—from serving in a racially segregated U.S. Army and seeing German POWs treated to better accommodations than his so-called “colored regiment,” to routinely seeing Euro-American engineers that he helped to train get promoted above him—told me, “Son, if you want to be treated as an equal in this society you can’t just show that you are as good as the white man, you have to be better than him,” I thought to myself (but did not dare say it to him out loud), “Go to all that trouble to be equally what?”             

As an American historian and observer/participant in this unbalanced society, I am fully aware that my life experiences and the familial and societal contexts in which I was raised, in the era in which I was raised, were exceptional and not “normal” in the U.S.A. I also understand how others who struggled against greater obstacles than I had, in pursuit of the so-called “American dream,” or at least a decent living, might be thrilled and pleased with themselves to have a college degree, a skilled professional career, property and nice possessions, be able to travel to conferences and stay in fancy hotels, eat at nice restaurants, earn awards and recognition or even just little pats on the back, etc., etc. That is all just fine, and in synch with some very natural human traits, as expressed in this societal context. But, one of the great ironies of human history, repeated through the ages, is how oppressed people often admire the lifestyles of their own oppressors, and, to varying degrees, aspire to attain similar wealth and power over others. During the American Colonial era, the vast majority of Europeans who immigrated to North America were indentured servants from the landless, tenant farmer, or “peasant” class and their ancestors had been in that social class for centuries. They were subject people, with little or no human rights, subject to the whims and dictates of the monarchs and their titled peers—the two to five percent of the population who claimed ownership to all of the vast tracts of land in Europe, and all resources and species who dwelt upon those lands, including their human tenants. Those immigrants to America signed their indentured labor contracts and took passages on ships bound for a world that was new to them, suppressing their fear of the unknown, in hope of attaining something that their ancestors never could: land ownership, freedom, human rights and upward social mobility. Indentured servitude was what I call, “slavery: for a limited time only.” They were not free to come and go as they pleased and runaway indentured servants were pursued and re-captured just like runaway slaves. These servants were unfree laborers, bound to contracts for an average of seven or eight years, and if they ran away from their servitude they faced some prison time and/or more years added to their contracts. Many were promised that at the end of their servitude they would receive land grants in the colonies of 40 or 50 acres. The great irony regarding these formerly oppressed people is that many of those newly-minted colonial landowners (and land-stealers) went on to become landlords and masters of other indentured servants and eventually holders of permanent slaves, exacting cruel and oppressive treatment upon their fellow humans, equal to or greater than all of the horrors that they and their own ancestors had experienced themselves. Now to the relevant question: Would you call such a person a “success story” or an exemplary “role model?” What if we change the person’s skin color and slightly alter the context to that of an African American former slave in early 19th-century Louisiana who was freed by his French master/father and granted some land and slaves of his own, which he gladly accepted? Or, we could take our time machine into the future and imagine a Native American officer in the U.S. Space Force ordering her troops, regarding the “alien life forms” on some resource-rich planet in another galaxy, to “round `em all up and march them over to the reservation” so that the industrialists can plunder the rest of their homelands. Would you call that “progress” or “quite an accomplishment?”

How do stories of “upward mobility” and “economic success” like those above differ substantially from a story like Condoleeza Rice’s or Clarence Thomas’s, whose journeys to “equality” culminated in affinity and collusion with the multinational oppressors of the American military-industrial complex? Is being allowed to join that club indicative of “success?” Or, how about the many “successful” actors and comedians who got to their positions of popularity and material reward by taking on roles that portrayed their people in degrading and stereotypical ways, thereby reinforcing racist norms that contribute to keeping our society divided and conquered? If you call such people “successful,” then I must ask you, “successfully what?” Is “rising to equality” always a good thing, or a goal sufficient unto itself? What good is “equality” if it is used to make us engines or gears in a monstrous machine, keeping destructive social mechanisms in motion?

Equally What illustration jpeg

I realize, of course, that many historically oppressed people who value the feeling of accomplishment and the material perks of upward social mobility may also be employed in rather benign professions that cause relatively little to no harm, and that many occupations actually do some social good. Some equality-seeking, upwardly mobile people might also be opposed to much of the corruption and injustice in our society, and might even actively protest and resist a lot of it. But, by my technically unscientific observations based on a lifetime of experience, there seems to be a limit to most of their criticism of society, especially regarding the industrial technological aggressively competitive economic systems, that I, and many others who are often labeled as “radicals,” do not share. Most people who wear the labels “liberal” or “progressive” tend to think that the system just needs a little tweaking or adjusting, and that we can create a “just society” with general equality of “economic opportunity” within the same basic structure of this current socio-economic system. In contrast to that view of the world, others of us think that the basic, prevailing socio-economic systems (whether capitalist or large-scale socialist, like China) are locked into a very destructive and, ultimately, lethal pathway of unlimited extraction and consumption of Earth’s finite resources, a path which is very resistant to change, and that, therefore, we need to create new or thoroughly-transformed, sustainable socio/economic systems (yes, plural and small-scale) as soon as possible, due to our current state of industrial consumption-created climate and earth-poisoning disaster. This current, world-wide crisis (which I will not describe in detail in this essay, but instead urge my readers to study the scientific community’s dire warnings—immediately, thoroughly, and critically) brings me to the heart of why questioning “equality” as a goal sufficient unto itself is such an urgent matter. We are living in a time unlike any other in human history—not only a time of great danger, but what could rightly be called a radical time, requiring radical movement away from business as usual and from casual acquiescence to status quo norms. The moderate/liberal “band-aid” approach to solving social problems may be reasonable in “normal” circumstances, but not in this time of extreme planetary crisis. The normal approach would lead only to small, insufficient reforms that do not threaten or interrupt the pursuit of excessive consumption, and do not fundamentally change systems and practices—or toxic thinking—to a degree or at a pace that would be sufficient to save this planet of living beings from continued destruction and, ultimately, mass extinctions.

As a lifelong educator, working largely with young Americans “of color” and many low-income Euro-Americans, I must now carefully re-examine how I continue to provide non-judgmental guidance and encouragement to students on their various upwardly-mobile career paths. Feeling compelled to affirm and praise them for their accomplishments, I am also compelled to encourage them to continue asking questions about the value and potential—positive or negative—in the academic or career paths before them, and to remain curious, skeptical, and inquisitive, as life-long learners. As you pursue equality, how will you use your equality? As a lifelong advocate for social equality and human rights, joined in close affinity with many dear people over the decades, working together on so many of those types of issues, it is not easy for me to bring this message, which says, essentially, that something else is now a much more important issue. I certainly do not mean to belittle or demean all of the great work for equality that has been done, nor to deter people from the fact that there is still much left to do. I will and do continue with such work. But we cannot do our work without a healthy, habitable planet, in which the biosphere systems that nourish all species are still intact and functioning. If those systems are indeed breaking down and all living species, including our own, are in near danger of extinction due to the activities of the societies that we are complicit in, as 99% of scientists in climate-related fields now say is the case, then that issue must become our most urgent priority. Even if our current situation was not so dire, we should always question any definition of “success” that includes becoming instrumental in systems and activities that cause pain, harm and destruction to life itself.

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9 thoughts on “Equally What?

  1. Reblogged this on LARA/TRACE (author) and commented:
    From my brilliant colleague George Price who was on the NightWolf radio program with me recently:
    During the American Colonial era, the vast majority of Europeans who immigrated to North America were indentured servants from the landless, tenant farmer, or “peasant” class and their ancestors had been in that social class for centuries. They were subject people, with little or no human rights, subject to the whims and dictates of the monarchs and their titled peers, the two to five percent of the population who claimed ownership to all of the vast tracts of land in Europe, and all resources and species who dwelt upon those lands, including their human tenants. Those immigrants to America signed their indentured labor contracts and took passages on ships bound for a world that was new to them, suppressing their fear of the unknown, in hope of attaining something that their ancestors never could: land ownership, freedom, human rights and upward social mobility. Indentured servitude was what I call, “slavery: for a limited time only.” They were unfree laborers, bound to contracts for an average of seven or eight years, and many were promised that at the end of their servitude they would receive land grants in the colonies of 40 or 50 acres. The great irony is that many of those newly-minted colonial landowners (and land-stealers) went on to become landlords and masters of other indentured servants and eventually holders of permanent slaves, exacting cruel and oppressive treatment upon their fellow humans, equal to or greater than all of the horrors that they and their own ancestors had experienced themselves. Would you call such a person a “success story” or an exemplary “role model?” How about if we change the person’s skin color and slightly alter the context to that of an African American former slave in early 19th-century Louisiana who was freed by his French master/father and granted some land and slaves of his own, which he gladly accepted? Or we could take our time machine into the future and imagine a Native American officer in the U.S. Space Force ordering her troops, regarding the “alien life forms” on some resource-rich planet in another galaxy, to “round `em all up and march them over to the reservation,” so that the industrialists can plunder the rest of their homelands. Would you call that “progress” or “quite an accomplishment?”

  2. George, I shared this on my blog on Human Trafficking. If we could wake up to all the tricks that those “in greed and power” have played, we might have a chance.

    • Thank you, Trace. They have plenty of tricks. I would like to wake them up to the emptiness of their lives and how the world would be much healthier and less painful if they would cease and desist from spoiling it. My future posts on my blog are going to be more about showing the alternatives, the Earthways. I had to do those three essays first to explain why we need to go to the alternatives.

  3. George,

    Again, I want to thank you for posting this on Facebook, which allowed me in my daily scroll through the wall to run into and, with a simple click, read through. I’ve always thought you quite brilliant, and remember fondly the history lessons you taught us in high school.
    I just wanted to share a thought; I too am troubled by the state of the planet, and hate the feeling of hopelessness most of us feel at the thought of undergoing any radical change that is most certainly needed in the way we live our lives. Yet, there is a constant unrest that we all must feel, at the thought of what could destroy us all, our constant consumerism that ultimately will destroy our future. The fear of what legacy we actually are leaving in our wake should shakeus all to the core, but it doesn’t. We ignore it. What can we do?? What actions can we take? Where do we even start?

    • Thank you for posting your comment, Deidre. It seems to be natural for humans to not want to face things that seem to be certainly painful, and to therefore put up blinders and other psychological barriers that assist them in maintaining denial. There is also the tendency to favor what is normal and move with the herd. But we may be reaching a tipping point with growing awareness of climate disaster, economic inequality, and a sense that we really must not put up with all of this injustice and destruction. I think that “the herd” might be about to move in a different direction and many who are currently unaware and inactive will follow right and healing paths because that will just seem to be “the thing to do,” and then cognitive awareness of why will follow.

      This blog, Learning Earthways, will become more about creating alternatives than just critiquing what exists and explaining why it is wrong. Hopefully, minds will engage here in a cooperative exercise that will move us forward in useful ways, devoloping sustainable, creative, and fulfilling futures for us and all of the children, now and in the time to come. I really mean to post some very practical ideas and examples of practices, but needed first to write these essays that lay some groundwork for why we must go in these creative and very different directions.

  4. Hey George,
    I appreciate your own personal history as a means to illustrating and inspiring an authentic journey of questioning and growth. A few thoughts that came to mind as I was reading…the way conquered people come to embrace the customs of the dominant culture has a tinge of Stockholm syndrome. I also think it is extremely stressful to maintain a position of resistance in the face of an overwhelming, violence based, majority. Maybe in enduring oppression for an extended period of time, it appears to be easier and at times more “fruitful” or at least emotionally expedient to take the real or implicit violence of the system and experience it as a kind of psychological violence of blame turned inward (or towards one’s familial group or class) rather than transmuting this energy into a kind of force to be turned outward and upward to the oppressor, (which of course is a real risk.) This becomes a part of the familiar stick, while the carrot is all that material excess you spoke about. It is very sad, though, when people who were beaten pick up the stick. I also think of the state of Israel.

    I was also thinking about the notion of equality within the closed system of the Western world, and how seeking to become “equal” within this society in fact not only denies but actually enables the massive inequality in the world, ie in order to have access to material technological conveniences which are certainly a sign of our success, we are relying on cheap labor in other oppressed nations.

    While white males are the dominant oppressors in this culture, it seems that the way people of other skin colors can pick up the same mantle indicates we are looking at a kind of color blind “form” that at least in theory could be dominated by any racial group, but it is also a form which embraces racism as a means to divide, control, and oppress. The paradox, then, is that to become “equal,” you have to join a club that perhaps is not uniformly racist, but none the less engenders and uses racism (or some variation of prejudice), if in limited circles at home, certainly with violent abundance in wars, ethnic destabilization campaigns, and support of dictators abroad. If we see ourselves in a globalized world, then our society is literally as backward as it was during pre civil war America, we’ve just outsourced the field labor, and taken up positions in the manor house, where we’ve closed the blinds. As you point out though, the actual maintenance of the manor is destroying the living system it is exploiting.

    • Thank you, Luke, for contributing these very valuable, insightful thoughts. I really appreciate how you have put the pursuit of “equality” in the U.S. into a global perspective. “Wealth” and “poverty,” when we attempt to measure or define those terms, are truly relative concepts, especially if we try to define them globally. For example, the U.S. government (Dept. of Labor?) sets somewhat arbitrary dollar figures as a means to define what is called the “poverty line,” or federally recognized poverty level, to determine who is eligible for particular assistance programs. I won’t look up the numbers right now, but as I recall, last time I checked, one poverty level standard was under about $30,000 annual household income for the formerly prototypical “family of four” (Mom, Dad, Dick and Jane–I don’t think they count Spot the dog). While that income level makes life a little difficult in the U.S. (the kids can’t afford their own phones or the latest electronic games), that amount of money in Bangladesh or Mali might make a person very “wealthy,” even figuring in translations of currencies and purchasing power, etc. Rather than using dollar figures for this illustration, it might even be better to use the sheer volume of food consumed by the “poor” in the U.S. compared to working class or sweat shop laborers, or those defined as “poor” by their own country’s standards, in other parts of the world. Again, I don’t have any such figures at hand right now, but it would be interesting to do a search and see if that research has already been done. Judging strictly from the obesity rates and attendance at fast food restaurants among America’s poor, I think that the global comparison would probably be astounding.

      I’ve also noticed that since the poverty rates for “racial minorities” have gone down remarkably, since the 1960 census (for example, the African American poverty level was just under 60% in 1960 and went down to 24% by 2005. After the Recession of 2008 hit, that rate went up to about 28%.), the tendency among civil rights and economic equality activists is to discuss the issue in terms of “lesser than” (minorities having less than “whites,” in all areas of economic wealth measurement), rather than using the word, “poverty.” To cite figures that show that one’s particular ethnic or “racial” group “only” has a third or a quarter of its members living at the poverty level does not carry as much empathetic currency or emotional clout as statistics, such as “twice as less likely to graduate from high school,” or “earn 30% less than whites for equally skilled labor, with the same level of education and experience.” But, to take us back to the point, almost nobody is discussing issues like, how much food or clothing or energy to heat one’s home does a human being really need to consume, in order to live healthily and comfortably, or, is quality of consumption more important than quantity, or, most importantly, what is the real cost of American consumption to the life and health of the whole world? I won’t hold my breath waiting for such topics to jump to the top of the list for those who are concerned with economic equality issues, but I really think that those are the questions that we should be asking. If we don’t start asking those kinds of questions now, or in the very near future, systemic collapse and environmental chaos will force us to, eventually (very soon).

      Lastly, as sort of a P.S., I would like to highly recommend to everybody who is reading this that they take a look at Luke’s blog, convergence-state.com, where you can find many insightful comments and links to important current issues. I’ll add the link to the links on my home page.

    • Thanks, Luke. My friend, Rain, told me about that yesterday, and I am not sure if I can get away from campus early enough to make that. But I look forward to participating in future actions on this issue.

      George

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