Anyone who ever had The Scarlet Letter inflicted on her in high school is well aware of the lynchpin of Puritan violence: the omnipresent eye, watching, watching, watching to censor all inner thoughts, vague transgressions, or other fleeting expressions, even before they formulate consciously. The worst part of being Hester Prynne is the complete lack of privacy.
With the unerring if inarticulate sense of most children, tenth graders hate the unremitting, mental confinement that pervades The Scarlet Letter. Their revulsion is important, for it isolated a deep problem of Western culture: its relentless prying in the name of the social good, when in fact, the spying exists to shore up a nervous governing elite. People at the top of hierarchies become control freaks just before they become paranoid, after which, they live in constant fear that, if they are not in charge, then they are in coffins. To control everything, they need to know everything. This is, of course, the thought structure of the domestic abuser, but somehow, when violence is perpetrated against society at large, Westerners have trouble identifying it as crime.
There is a rumor afloat that the Puritans are all gone now, but if anything, their surveillance society has intensified. Moreover, spying is no longer just the job of the clergy, helpfully aided by nosy neighbors. Today, the clergy, redefined as the “mental health profession,” enjoys police powers, while neighbors are displaced by the police, along with various “national security” agencies and, most intrusively, the social media. Whereas the coerced self-reporting of yesteryear consisted of a forced confession of sins before the assembled community of one’s church, the new and improved version of public humiliation is Facebook, which reaches any and every one. Nowadays, people are encouraged to self-report, hourly, so that anyone who does not, is viewed askance as a scofflaw.
What? You don’t have a Facebook account? No Wikipedia page? How about Twitter? No IPhone? No nothing?
Eyes narrowing: What are you up to?
It comes as no shock to me that a whole bevy of Associated Press reporters was heavily surveilled by the government, on the flimsiest of pretexts, in a monitoring of media that far exceeds just the Yemeni story.1 Meantime, the rest of us should pause to consider that our cell phones do the double duty of letting us call home about cat food while letting any spy agency with a bug in its bonnet pinpoint our locations, moment by moment. However it may be gussied up as the “convenience” of modern communications, the animating impulse behind all this intrusion is none other than the Puritan imperative of yore, still hard at work, and still in the service of a jumpy elite.
Under the heavy oppression of Euro-Christian surveillance, the chief survival strategy of the peasantry became the complete openness about experiences and ideas. In cultures that, first, drove dissent underground and then, second, ran it to ground, the only way around the stress of being under constant suspicion was to spill all the magic beans, immediately as they were acquired. It is hard, even for paranoid elites, to distrust someone who blabs everything s/he knows on first meeting, and if, in the process, s/he is busy parroting a ruler-friendly line, such as Christianity, then no danger at all is apprehended. Blabbermouths are safe in Puritan America.
The sideways symbiosis thereby established between oppressor and oppressed created a cultural mindset, now deeply laid in Western culture, that “full disclosure” equaled safety, whereas a refusal to reveal all on demand equaled danger. Consequently, for Euro-Christians, the line between a secret and a conspiracy became blurred, so that in the face of any recalcitrance about “sharing,” the Western Danger-O-Meter craned over, in full tilt, screaming that secrets covered lies.
When a culture cannot tell the difference between a secret and a conspiracy, then everyone is in trouble, yet this confusion persistently skews Western discourse. No one trusts anyone, so that everyone constantly demands “transparency,” i.e., an abject, public dissection of every last twitch. Worse, someone started the buzz that democracy requires “transparency,” when in fact, all that democracy requires is confidence in one another, whereas “transparency” signals a profound lack of social trust.
“Transparency” is demanded, not just politically, but also on the personal level. Everyone is pressured to “share,” especially deeply personal feelings of humiliation, pain, anguish, and anything else that might otherwise radicalize that person. Whole group collectives exist to yank information out of people in the identity-stripping ritual called “therapy,” during which no one is allowed any emotion, experience, or thought that is not laid bare and recorded. Indeed, people are assured, in unctuous tones of implied authority, that keeping things to themselves is “unhealthy” (the new “sinful”).
Now, such prying and crying may be justifiable acts of self-defense for those stuck in elite hierarchies run by sociopaths, but just for a moment, let us imagine a social structure not run by psychopaths. When surveillance by elites is no longer the prime directive of culture, the positive value of privacy rises to the fore.
The first European raiders in the Americas were horrified to discover that no one surveilled anyone in Indigenous cultures. In fact, it was against the law for anyone to tell anyone else what s/he must think or to coerce compliance with imposed dogmas. Women as well as men conceived of reality however they would, and, just so long as they met their obligations to the community in terms of providing food and shelter for all, tending to the weak, and supplying muscle power as needed, they were free as birds to do as they chose. No one spied on them. No one pried into their personal lives. In fact, any heavy focus on the individual was considered a sign of mental illness.
This freedom from the oppression of surveillance was undoubtedly why so many Europeans, the nanosecond they hit this continent, hightailed it out of “civilization,” to seek adoption by the Indians. As François-Réné, vicomte de Chateaubriand recorded in 1816, one such French ex-patriot told him of becoming “happy” only once he “became a savage.” Like the teenager who viscerally loathes The Scarlet Letter, this ex-patriot had fled Western culture purely on “instinct,” but Chareaubriand observed that his “soul,” once freed “from the conflict” of European “social passions,” became as “calm as the field of battle after the warriors had smoked together thecalumet of peace.”2 So subversive was the lure of a surveillance-free society, and so numerous were the deserters of Western culture, that colonial elites flatly outlawed the “crying scandal” of going Native.3
It only seems counterintuitive to Westerners that communal structures breed personal independence. This is largely because the only model of communism that most Westerners have in mind is the false model of the old Soviet Union, which was but a continuation, under convoluted rhetoric, of the old czarism. Instead of imposing Christianity as its mind-control tool, the Soviet Union imposed “scientific materialism,” but the people were still opiated. By contrast to the vast U.S.S.R., or the vast U.S., for that matter, Indigenous communes were and are consciously constructed as small enough in scale that everyone in them knows everyone else. Leaders must walk among the people every day, not only seeing the impact of every decision, but also partaking in it. Because of this dynamic, people trust those whom they tap to lead, so that, instead of suspiciously monitoring every last move under the banner of “transparency,” the people allow them to do their jobs, unmolested.
Communal freedom yields respect for the dignity, the integrity, the privacy of everyone’s personal experience. This heavily includes spirituality. Unlike in Euro-Christian culture, for which no spiritual experience is real until it is broadcast and then ratified by some anointed hierarchy (medical, religious, scientific, etc.), in Indigenous cultures, people are more likely than not to keep spiritual experiences to themselves, because the spirits choose to whom they talk. If the knowledge is to be shared with the whole group, or with a specific medicine society, then that much will be clear in the revelation to the individual. If it is not, then that person had better keep the information secret, or the spirits will not reveal any more to her.
Following the example of the spirits, elders are chary of repeating important things, and do so only when they believe a listener is able to use the information wisely. Even then, they do not preannounce that a vital issue is to be revealed at such-and-such a time but, instead, will slide a tidbit into a general gab session. The listener hears the important tidbit — or not. If the listener misses it, it will not be repeated.4 This method keeps people who are not ready or able to grasp a certain wisdom from getting hold of it, because they are likely to misuse it to the detriment of all. Sacred information is thus deliberately kept secret from them, much as adults will deliberately keep matches out of the hands of toddlers.
Moreover, breath medicine — talking — expels and dissipates the energy of knowledge. The more a sacred specific is bruited about, the less force it has. This is why, for instance, Indigenous people never tell anyone their names. All Indigenes who have any connection at all to their home cultures have spirit names, but they all know not to speak them aloud, unless they are willing to hand over the whole spirit force of their lives to whomever is listening. Sometimes, people do this, but a weighty issue must be before them, a cause for which it is a good day to die. There is something of an understanding of this sort of breath medicine in the old injunction on Jews not to speak aloud the name of their god, but always to say, “Adonai,” instead, when they see הוהי in the text.
There is also blood, or place, medicine. Spirits belong to particular places, and so does their information. Ceremonies developed in one locale do not transfer to other locales or work the same way, if relocated. If, therefore, spiritual knowledge is transplanted, then it will do what any invasive species does: the transplant will drive out what is native to the area. This is something else that Westerners have an awful time grasping, since their own, desert god, who properly belongs only at the eastern end of the Mediterranean basin, falsely claimed to have been transportable, worldwide. I think that the result of that conceit is pretty clear by now.
There is a poisonous colonialism behind the assumption that the sacred wisdom of a people is portable, and it is connected to an illusion that all too many recovering monotheists still cherish, that they are somehow entitled to Indigenous wisdom. Still in thrall to the Western cultural expectations they grew up with, too many entertain the damaging is the notion that Indians are under an obligation to “share” every last scrap of ancient spiritual wisdom, on demand. It is important, however, for Westerners to realize that, unlike themselves, Indians lived safely in their home cultures. They did not have to exist ever in readiness to throw down all their medicine bundles, to appease a menacing oppressor. Demanding now that Indigenous people “share” their spiritual systems just imposes Western surveillance rules, with the seeker in the role of the ruling elite.
Due to long experience, Indigenes are in no confusion about this. Before modern seekers, Indigenous Americans were subjected to an onslaught of missionaries, soon followed by an invasion of their secular counterparts, the anthropologists. Both groups were heavily invested in delusions of civilization. Seeing themselves as evolutionarily superior people, they decided that, as such, they were authorized to take whatever they wanted from evolutionarily “inferior” people. This is, of course, a logic that only a raiding culture could love, but beyond the self-serving rationale, there is also the viking impulse simply to appropriate whatever is desired, without regard to the fallout.
The fallout will, however, be disastrous, as witness the Third Reich’s fascination with occult knowledge, which the Nazis extracted from Indigenous cultures worldwide and promptly turned to dastardly purposes. (It is frightening to me that, after World War II, the U.S. simply absorbed Nazis scientists, incorporating them under Project Paperclip as American researchers.5) Such dislocated wisdom will backfire, and stolen knowledge will always turn back in on itself in the degenerative spiral that Westerners shorthand as “evil.” Now, evil is a spiritual experience, too, but it is a flash, an undirectable burst. It must be constantly fed, in increasing amounts, if it is to continue sparking, unlike the on-going, pliable energy of honestly gained sacred knowledge. Raiding the spirits is a dangerous business.
Therefore, Westerner seekers need to quell their cultural impulse to raid others, including the spirits, rather than to seek maturely, with care and respect. Traditional Native American ideas must be correctly presented-or in some cases, not presented at all, should the elders and the spirits wish to withhold them. To engage, Western seekers must first realize the cultural gulf between the Western surveillance imperative to share/take all and the Indian precept that the spirits give out information selectively. Real respect is being able to take, “No, this is not for you,” as the answer.
1. Matt Smith and Joe Johns, “AP Blasts Feds for Phone Records Search,” CNN Breaking News, 14 May 2013, <http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/13/us/justice-ap-phones/index.html >; Julian Sanchez, “Is the Government Spying on Reporters More Often Than We Think?” Mother Jones, 17 May 2013, <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/05/associated-press-phone-records-spying-journalists>.
2. François-Réné, vicomte de Chateaubriad, Recollections of Italy, England and America, with Essays on Various Subjects of Morales and Literature (Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1816) 147. Italics in the original. By the way, our original tobacco had hallucinogenic properties.
3. Francis Jennings, Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975) 152.
4. See Christopher B. Teuton, Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012) which is written to reflect the traditional way that elders slide information into an innocuous conversation.
5. John Gimbel, Science, Technology, and Reparations: Exploitation and Plunder in Postwar Germany (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990) 37-59.
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