The Mad Hatter's Tea Party by Drawing by John Tenniel -- public domain
Why Our Civilization Is Insane
In his introduction to " Columbus and Other Cannibals, " by Jack Forbes, Derrick Jenson writes that he thinks this is " the most important book ever written on one of the most important topics ever faced by human beings: why is the dominant culture so excruciatingly, relentlessly, insanely, genocidally, ecocidally, suicidally destructive? " How could any group of people, no matter how insane, no matter how stupid, actually destroy the planet on which (or rather, whom) they live?" 1 Its a good question. I doubt that anyone has a complete answer, and surely I do not claim to. But if we are to have any hope of curing this illness, then perhaps we need a better understanding of its nature and causes. The purpose of this essay is to make a contribution to this understanding.
The full title of Jack Forbe's book is " Columbus and other Cannibals: the Wetiko disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism. " As a Native American, Forbes writes as a member of a culture that has seen the full fury of w estern i nsanity. The central thesis of his book is that western civilization has suffered for centuries from a mental/spiritual disease he calls by the Native American term " Wetiko " -- a Cree term which means "cannibal" or a person who terrorizes his neighbors with violent acts. He goes on to explain: "Cannibalism, as I define it, is the consuming of another's life for ones own private purpose or profit" 2 In western parlance, we in the dominant civilization on the planet are collectively insane.
Perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of this madness is found in the words of Christopher Columbus in his description of his first astonishing encounter with Native Americans.
"The lands... are all most beautiful... and full of trees of a thousand kinds, so lofty that they seem to reach the sky. And some of them were in flower, some in fruit, some in another stage according to their kind. And the nightingale was singing, and other birds of a thousand sorts, in the month of November... The people of this island, and all of the others I have found and seen... all go naked, men and women... they are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but he who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts... they believed very firmly that I, with these ships and crew, came from the sky; and in such opinion they received me at every place where I landed, after they had lost their terror. And this comes not because they are ignorant; on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelously good account of everything... And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force, to the intent that they should learn and give me information of what there was in these parts. And so it was, that very soon they understood and we them, by what speech or by what signs... To this day I carry them who are still of the opinion that I come from heaven, from much conversation which they had with me. And they were the first to proclaim it whenever I arrived; and the others went running from house to house and to the neighboring villages, with loud cries of "Come! Come see the people from heaven!..."
And he adds,
"These people are very unskilled in arms... with fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished..." 3
Now that is madness. As we know, this willingness to destroy a paradise and enslave a people that welcome you with open arms was not an idiosyncratic characteristic of Columbus. He was not more insane than others his culture. Rather, he accurately reflected the madness of his civilization. And, of course, the Native People were helpless against the this insane aggressiveness.
Have things improved in the last 400 years? When we look around us what do we see? A huge number of people who cannot tolerate life without the aid of drugs -- whether illegal, or prescribed. A phenomenal insensitivity to the suffering of others, as we see in the routine use of torture in Abu Ghraib and other prisons. A preoccupation with gaining dominance over others, as in the US drive toward the creation of a world empire. People of all political persuasions bombing one other on a daily basis. Endless war. Religious leaders cheering all this on. The destruction of the ecosphere upon which we depend for our very survival. In some areas we seem to see progress. At least no-one believes slavery is a good thing anymore. Capital punishment is outlawed in most civilized societies, and where it is used, it is used more rarely. Headway with regard to racial equality is very real. There appears to be more acceptance of sexual diversity. Other examples could be cited.
I do not suggest that no progress has been made. But given the huge capacity for destruction our technologies have given us, it appears that our spiritual evolution -- that which is needed to save us from our madness -- may be too slow and too late. The core problem is that our technological evolution has outstripped our spiritual evolution. Revolvers are now in the hands of Chimpanzees, and mentally deranged ones at that.
In an effort to bring some order to multitudinous facts that give evidence of our madness, I would suggest that we might subsume them all under two overarching symptoms:
1. The continuing emergence of ruthless hierarchies that exploit, repress, and when necessary, slaughter the people so that an elite few might live in comfort off the labor and suffering of the rest. We are all familiar with Stalin, Hitler, and Bush. Certainly these are examples of people who were deeply infected with the madness. Paul Levy, for example, wrote a book entitled "The Madness of George Bush." 4 Using a Jungian frame of reference, he argues convincingly that Bush is insane. Unfortunately, as in the case of Columbus, Bush was simply a reflection of a larger madness -- an assessment with which I am sure Levy would agree.
2. And now a second symptom of the madness of civilization has surfaced: governments and unregulated multinational corporations and banks aggressively pursuing policies that are known to endanger the ecological balance of the earth as a whole, very likely making it uninhabitable by the human species.
The diagnosis seems clear. Western Civilization is mad. Perhaps other civilizations are, or have been, mad as well. We will touch on this point shortly. But the primary focus of this essay will be the madness of our own civilization. That is what we know best.
As I have attempted to make some sense of this astonishing and confusing world we inhabit, I found the discrepancy between two kinds of data most confusing. When I encountered people on a personal basis I found them, on the whole, to be decent human beings who would be quite incapable killing or torturing other human beings, or even inflicting unnecessary suffering on them. Ordinary people did not seem especially saintly. Even the most altruistic had feet of clay. But most people did not seem to be killer apes or monsters. Yet every day I read of the horrendous things that were being done on the political level: torture and killing in the name of fanatical delusions, lies and deceit.
It was strange. What was going on here? Then I became aware that the truly great atrocities were almost all committed by nations and groups rather than by individuals. Certainly nations kill many more people than do their private citizens. This led me to suspect that the primary locus of the difficulty might be more in the collective rather than the private sphere. 4