Blame it on Gilgamesh

I've been looking for a couple of weeks now for a way to talk about some of the core obstacles that stand in the way of a constructive response to the predicament of industrial society. It's a complicated task, because the obstacles I have in mind are rooted in many of the ideas most often used to explore that predicament, and point in directions many people find acutely uncomfortable.

So I was glad when a friend forwarded an essay titled "The Lost People," by a radio talk-show host and author named Thom Hartmann, that makes it a good deal easier to start the conversation I'm convinced needs to happen in our society. I doubt Hartmann would be pleased to hear this, since the points that most need making are exactly the ones he didn't make in his essay. The value of "The Lost People" isn't that it offers useful insights into our predicament; it doesn't. On the contrary, it's valuable because it showcases the attitudes that keep modern Americans from responding effectively to that predicament. If there's an elephant in our collective living room -- and there is -- Hartmann may just be the one who slaps its gray flank and says "This isn't an elephant!" so loudly, and so many times, that eventually nobody can keep pretending the elephant's not there.

The essay presents itself as what Hartmann intended to say to a group of mostly Native American elders at a harvest festival in New England a few years back. He didn't get a chance to speak, which is probably just as well. He meant to tell the Native elders -- members of the most economically and socially disadvantaged group in modern America -- that they ought to feel sorry for white middle-class Americans, because these latter are far more terribly deprived than Native peoples are.

You have to follow Hartmann's logic to make sense of this remarkable claim. According to his version of history, the ancient tribal cultures of Europe were completely destroyed by three waves of conquerors -- first, the ancient Celts (well, actually the Celts weren't conquerors and belonged to tribal cultures themselves, but we'll let that pass); second, the Roman Empire; and third and most completely, the Roman Catholic Church. Supposedly not one scrap of folklore, not one fragment of language, not one sacred place, and not one iota of spiritual teaching from the tribal cultures of ancient Europe survived this process. As a result, according to Hartmann, the historic and modern cultures of Europe aren't real cultures at all -- they're worthless "dominator cultures" completely corrupted by the imperial ambitions of ruling classes. As for American folk culture, Hartmann never mentions it at all.

The whole process of decline, according to Hartmann, was set in motion by Gilgamesh, king of Ur (well, actually, if he lived at all he was king of Erech, a different city-state, but we'll let that pass), who invented the first "dominator culture" and, by a kind of domino theory of history, caused the entire western world to go insane. And this, Hartmann concludes, is why Native American elders shouldn't be offended when white interlopers claim the right to walk off with Native spirituality. First, whites ought to be forgiven because they're so much more deprived than the people they're victimizing, and second, since white American culture dominates the planet, it's up to white Americans to save the world, and if they steal Native American traditions to do it, well, hey, it's for the greater good and all that.

It's an astonishing document, in more ways than one. Though it's couched in terms of respect for Native traditions, it's profoundly ethnocentric; it defines the white American experience as unique and central to the history of the world, flattens the contested conceptual terrain of a multipolar world into the usual rhetoric of American global dominance, and manages to find room in an apparently inclusive stance for familiar biases against Roman Catholicism and people from the Middle East. Though its argument is based on history, nearly all the historical "facts" Hartmann cites to support his claims are wildly inaccurate. He comments, for instance, that "all but two of the 'modern European' languages are based on the official language of Rome — Latin"; well, actually, modern European languages not descended from Latin include Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Basque, English, Dutch, Frisian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Lapp, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, German, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Polish, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Albanian, and Romany, just for starters, which is a few more than two. But we'll let that pass, too, because there's something much more complex going on here than simple misinformation.

There's a history, in fact, to Hartmann's version of history. For the last half century or so, when people in the American middle class have said they don't have a culture, what they've meant is that they're trying to turn their backs on the culture they inherited, whether it's the one their grandparents brought over from the old country or the rich and vibrant folk culture of America itself. Middle-class Americans feel cut off from a living folk culture, in other words, because they've cut themselves off. That's part of the price you pay for upward mobility. Under the circumstances, though, Hartmann's self-pitying account sounds a bit like the old joke about the guy who killed his father and mother, and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan.

Still, Hartmann's essay is no joke; he's playing for high stakes, and his forthcoming book Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class will apparently push the same agenda further. What he's trying to justify with his rhetoric and his garbled history is the elephant in the living room of our culture today, the reality of middle-class privilege. By objective standards, remember, members of America's middle class may just be the most pampered group of people in the history of the planet. They enjoy luxuries and opportunities Roman emperors and ancien regime aristocrats could only dream of having, and earn on average more money in a day than most people on earth make in a year. Of course most members of this privileged class believe that this state of affairs is inevitable and just; the privileged always do. The hard fact remains that in an industrial civilization stressed by the growing mismatch between unlimited demand for goods and services, on the one hand, and ever more limited resources on the other, the lifestyle of the American middle class and its equivalents in other industrial countries is among the most potent factors dragging the world to ruin.

The problem we face today is that there isn't enough real wealth in the world -- enough available resources, goods, and services -- to support the members of the industrial world's privileged classes in the style to which they've become accustomed, and at the same time rebuild industrial civilization from the ground up to enable it to weather the transition from exponential fossil-fueled growth to a sustainable society based on renewable resources. The political, cultural, and spiritual crises that surrounded the oil shocks of the 1970s had the conflict over these two choices as their (usually) unstated subtext. The beginning of the 1980s saw the middle classes in America and several other countries put the maintenance of their own privilege decisively ahead of the needs of the future. That choice, not the imagined misdeeds of Gilgamesh et al., has created today's most pressing problems. To accept that and act on the knowledge, though, is to hear the words the statue of Apollo said to Rainier Maria Rilke: Du muss dein leben andern, "You must change your life."

I suspect that this awareness is at the root of Hartmann's insistance that the folk cultures of Europe and America aren't real cultures at all, and the efforts so many middle-class Americans make these days to ignore their own cultural roots, here in America as well as overseas. Traditional American folk culture in particular takes a very dim view of the notion that if you're rich enough, you don't have to concern yourself with the well-being of your neighbors, the quality of your community, or the fate of your world. Like folk cultures around the planet, it evolved in close interaction with the unyielding natural limits of a preindustrial economy, and its insistence on core values such as thrift, self-discipline, and mutual responsibility grew out of this context. In the future looming up ahead of us just now, those values will again be crucial, but to people used to the very different values of today's middle class, they pose drastic challenges and require the surrender of a great many comforts and perquisites. It's a good deal less difficult to blame it all on Gilgamesh instead.