Life in a Dead Culture
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
Part I: Facing failure
When we seek the truth, we try to make sense of a chaotic world. We struggle to achieve what clarity is possible. When we look honestly, we face the cruelty of that truth. But the crucible, the most important test of our capacity to face the truth, comes in the steps we take at that point. What if the human species has failed, finally? Can we move forward, even when we recognize we may face insurmountable obstacles? Can we work for justice and sustainability within a dead culture?
For many years I said in public talks that we live in a “dying culture,” but I have abandoned that phrase. The dominant culture in the United States—hyper-nationalist ethnocentrism and a predatory corporate capitalism shaped by patriarchy and white supremacy, playing out within a broader human assault on the planetary ecosystem—is not dying. It is already dead. Of course the United States government and United States-based corporations continue to wield incredible power at home and around the world, and it may seem odd to refer to a society that can impose its will on so much of the world as a dead culture. Sick, maybe even dying, certainly in the last throes of imperial power—but dead? Yes, and the distinction in phrasing makes a difference.
It is time for us to stop trying to revive our dead culture, to stop believing that the nation-state and capitalism—born in, and still infected by, patriarchy and white supremacy—can be the basis for a just and sustainable future. It is time to go to a deeper level and think about the major changes coming, most likely sooner than later.
Even with the economic and military setbacks of recent years, many in the United States hold on tightly to a delusional triumphalism—a belief that the United States is the ultimate fulfillment of human promise, that shining city upon the hill, a beacon to the world. The commitment and faith we need must give us strength to recognize we live in a dead culture and to speak this harsh truth. Beyond that, it must allow us, first, to be decent to one another despite our knowledge that being heartless will be rewarded. Second, it must embolden us to confront systems that will be intensely resistant to change and will reward those who refuse to acknowledge the urgent need for change. Third, it must empower us to maintain these personal and political commitments with no guarantee that we can transcend and survive this dead culture.
The ultimate test of our strength is whether we can recognize not only that we live in a dead culture but also that there may be no way out. It’s true that throughout history cultures have died, empires have fallen, societies have been replaced by challengers. Through all that, the world survived. But consider the unprecedented destructive capacity of the United States military, the entrenched pathology embedded in our psyches through capitalism, the ecological damage already done, and the further damage likely to occur during a collapse—it’s no longer clear that by the time the United States empire collapses, the world will survive in anything like the form we know it. And as this future unfolds, we will have to cope with the delusions (both of grandeur and victimization) that power and affluence tend to produce in elites and the general public, which will undermine the clear thinking that will be so desperately needed.
The ultimate test of our strength is whether we would be able to persevere in the quest for sustainability and justice even if we had good reasons to believe that both projects would ultimately fail. We can’t know for sure, but can we live with that possibility? Can we ponder that and yet still commit ourselves to loving action toward others and the non-human world?
Said differently: What if our species is an evolutionary dead end? What if those adaptations that produced our incredible evolutionary success—our ability to understand certain aspects of how the world works and manipulate that world to our short-term advantage—are the very qualities that guarantee we will destroy ourselves and possibly the world? What if that which has allowed us to dominate will be that which in the end destroys us? What if humanity’s story is a dramatic tragedy in the classical sense, a tale in which the seeds of the protagonist’s destruction are to be found within, and the play is the unfolding of the inevitable fall?
No one can know for sure, of course. But what if? Do we have the strength to ponder that? In a let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-to-work culture, what if we were to roll up our sleeves forever and still not be able to get the job done? Most people would say we demonstrate our strength when we tackle such jobs with a can-do attitude. A demonstration of greater strength—maybe the greatest strength we can imagine—is to take on those jobs with an understanding not only that failure is possible but that it may be likely. This goes against the grain in a culture that assumes that success is inevitable. Lewis Killian described this outlook in the context of his own discipline, when looking at white supremacy in the 1960s:
The sociologist, no matter how gloomy his predictions, is inclined to end his discourse with recommendations for avoiding catastrophe. There are times, however, when his task becomes that of describing the situation as it appears without the consolation of a desirable alternative. There is no requirement in social science that the prognosis must always be favorable; there may be social ills for which there is no cure.
Nor is there a requirement in theology or politics that the prognosis always be favorable. There may be not only specific social ills for which there is no cure—it may be that we humans are just smart enough to get into trouble on all fronts but never quite smart enough to get ourselves out. What if the tragedy of human intelligence is that we are bound to create complex problems for which there are no simple solutions?
Serious scientists are speaking of these questions. James Lovelock, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose work led to the detection of the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, is most famous for his “Gaia hypothesis” that understands both the living and non-living parts of the earth as a complex system that can be thought of as a single organism. He suggests that we face these stark realities immediately:
The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end, and unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions. … We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia.
If we are truly strong we must face these questions. Strength is exhibited not by manufacturing a sense of hope that ignores reality but by facing up, while not succumbing, to a situation that may be hopeless. It doesn’t mean hope is unavailable to us, but that we have to find honestly what Albert Camus called a “stubborn hope”:
Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope.
Part II: We Are All Prophets Now
It may be that people always want to believe they live at the most important time in history, that their moment is the decisive moment. But even factoring in this tendency toward a collective sense of self-importance, it is difficult to ignore that the multiple crises we face today—economic, political, cultural, and, most crucially, ecological—have the potential to make impossible ongoing life on the scale we know it today. Even though predictions about the specifics of the trajectory are beyond our capabilities, we can know—if we choose to know—that we must solve problems for which there are no apparent solutions and face “questions that go beyond the available answers,” to borrow Wes Jackson’s phrase. These threats have been building for the past 10,000 years, intensifying in the past two centuries to levels that only the foolhardy would ignore. The bills for the two most destructive revolutions in human history—the agricultural and industrial revolutions—are coming due, sooner than we think.
Never before in this world have we had such a need for strong, principled, charismatic leadership. In the United States, where such leadership is most desperately needed at this crucial moment, the old guard in politics has failed and the younger politicians taking power offer no indication they are up to the task. We can look around the national scene—whether in politics, business, religion, or intellectual life—and see that no one measures up.
Thank goodness for that.
It would be seductive, as we stand at the edge of these cascading crises, to look for leaders. But where would they lead us? How would they answer the unanswerable questions and solve the unsolvable problems? Better to recognize that we are at a moment when leaders cannot help us, because we need to go deeper than leadership can take us. Perhaps there are no honestly inspiring figures on the scene—and by honest, I mean those willing to tell the truth about the nature of the systems in which we live—because those kind of authentic leaders know that we are heading into new territory for which old models of movements and politics are insufficient. Rather than trying to claim a place at the front of the parade, they are struggling to understand the direction we should be moving, just like the rest of us.
When traditional political and/or theological leadership fails, it’s tempting to want to turn to a prophet. But that too would be a mistake. This is a moment that cries out not for a prophet but for prophets. It is time to recognize that we all must strive to be prophets now. It is time for each of us to take responsibility for speaking in the prophetic voice.
I don’t mean this in the shallow sense of the term prophecy, claiming to be able to see the future. The complexity of these crises makes any claim to predict the details of what lies ahead absurd. All we can say is that, absent a radical change in our relationship to each other and the non-human world, we’re in for a rough ride in the coming decades. Though the consequences of that ride are likely to be more overwhelming than anything humans have faced, certainly people at other crucial historical moments have faced crises without clear paths or knowledge of the outcome. A twenty-five-year-old Karl Marx wrote about this in 1843:
The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. For although no doubt exists on the question of “Whence,” all the greater confusion prevails on the question of “Whither.” Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it.
We should understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly—both how our world is structured by illegitimate authority that causes suffering beyond the telling, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in that suffering. In that same letter, Marx went on to discuss the need for this kind of “ruthless criticism”:
But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover about the injustice of the world. It is to name the wars of empire as unjust; to name an economic system that leaves half the world in abject poverty as unjust; to name the dominance of men, of heterosexuals, of white people as unjust. And it is to name the human destruction of the planet as our most profound failure. At the same time, to speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.
In the Christian and Jewish traditions, the Old Testament offers us many models—Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah—men who rejected the pursuit of wealth or power and argued for the centrality of kindness and justice. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.
Part III: The Costs of Speaking Prophetically
It may be crazy to accept a dead culture quietly, but in fact most of the people in the United States do just that, which means that speaking prophetically is unlikely to make one popular. While everyone honors the prophets of the past, speaking in the prophetic voice in the present typically is not warmly received by all one’s peers. A review of the prophets of the Old Testament offers some guidance on this, not because we take these texts as “true” but because they offer insights into enduring human struggles. One need not be religious in any sense of the term to profit from such insights.
First, remember that the prophets did not see themselves as having special status, but rather were ordinary people. When the king’s priest confronted Amos for naming the injustice of his day, Amazi’ah called Amos a “seer” and commanded him to pack his bags and head to Judah and “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos rejected the label:
 Then Amos answered Amazi’ah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,
 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Nor did the prophets seek out their calling. Jeremiah told God he did not know how to speak, claiming he was only a youth. God didn’t buy the excuse:
 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak.
 Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
 Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Nor was it typically much fun to fill the role of a prophet. On this, Jeremiah was blunt:
 Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words.
And, finally, the Old Testament reminds us that to speak prophetically involves more than just articulating abstract principles, which typically are relatively easy to proclaim. For example, these inspiring words from Micah are quoted often:
 He has showed you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
That is an eloquent way to summarize our core obligations, but at that level of generality, it is a statement that virtually all would endorse. Cite that verse and everyone will nod approvingly. But remember that Micah also was calling out the injustice around him and foretelling the inevitable consequences, never softening what he knew to be the truth:
 Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.
 Therefore I have begun to smite you, making you desolate because of your sins.
 You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger in your inward parts; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save I will give to the sword.
 You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.
 The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net.
 Their hands are upon what is evil, to do it diligently; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together.
 The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their watchmen, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand.
Before we can speak convincingly with such passion, we must achieve clarity in our own hearts, minds, and souls. To speak truthfully to others requires that we have first examined our own lives. When we call out the shortcomings of others, they typically ask us—and rightfully so—whether we have asked the same questions of ourselves. When we have asked and answered for ourselves, then we can find the courage to speak in that prophetic voice, knowing that we have confronted those questions and are willing to struggle with our own failures.
Our task is not to shine the light on others, but to shine the light from ourselves onto that which is wrong in the world. When we have been honest with ourselves, that light gains intensity and focus as it gathers within us. If we have turned away from a ruthless criticism of ourselves, that light will never reach the world and will illuminate nothing but our own limitations and fears.
For those who prefer a more secular term for this, perhaps we can replace “prophetic” with “authentic.” We seek to speak the truth we have come to know in our authentic voice.
Authenticity is a tricky concept. It is a state or quality we often invoke, though we are not always clear about its meaning. The best definition of authenticity I’ve ever heard comes from one of the truly prophetic voices I have heard in my lifetime, my friend Abe Osheroff, who engaged joyfully in radical political activity until his death at the age of ninety-two. Starting as a teenager in Depression-era New York helping evicted tenants, Abe was involved in progressive politics at every level—from fighting in the late 1930s for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War to community work in the civil rights movement in the United States, from neighborhood organizing against developers at home to the seemingly endless struggle to end United States wars around the world. Abe told me that in such political work, it is crucial to strive for authenticity, which he described simply and elegantly:
Authenticity comes when your thoughts, your words, and your deeds have some relation to each other. It comes when there’s a real organic relationship between the way you think, the way you talk, and the way you act. You have to fight for authenticity all the time in this world, and if you don’t fight for it you will get derailed. But when you have it, when you feel that surge of recognition—that I’m saying exactly what I’m thinking, and I’m ready to do something about it—well, that’s an intellectual and emotional orgasm that makes sex look like nothing.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen can be reached at email@example.com and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.