“think different?” think again: reading vine deloria, jr..

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

You can’t think your way to right action. You can only act your way to right thinking.

– AA proverb

Vine Deloria, Jr. died in 2005, leaving behind as eloquent and comprehensive a critique Western society and culture as anything else I’ve read or am likely to read. Taken together, works like Custer Died For Your Sins, We Talk, You Listen, God is Red, and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties were not just catalogs of historical wrongs, but indictments of an entire civilization and, most importantly, the fundamental modes of thought that have provided ballast for its centuries of conquest and exploitation. His writings and talks were also, happily, full of wit and humor, and a real engagement with the particularities of the Western (his term) mind. Deloria was fascinated by the Western scholarly tradition, and sought tirelessly within it for thinkers who truly represented alternatives to the mindset that had unleashed ecocide and genocide on the North American continent.

Deloria’s holistic view of the catastrophic effects of Western expansion led him to critique Western religion and Western science (in both its “hard” and social formulations). The 1999 collection of essays called Spirit and Reason, a selection of writings from the above-mentioned works and others, contains exemplary work in this regard. Deloria went unhesitatingly out on some shaky theoretical limbs, supporting outsider-thinkers like Immanuel Velikovsky, whose ideas of catastrophic cosmological interventions into human history have been largely discredited by scientific and historical research. But his real goal is to attack the creation of scholarly consensus itself, and he bemusedly cites his own experiences in academia and publishing as indicative of just how supine to the demands of power the manufacturers of such consensus can be.

In the midst of the Kansas-centered culture wars, Deloria published Evolution, Creationism and Other Myths, which cursed the houses of both Darwinians and Dominionists. For someone like me, deeply committed to the idea of evolution as the cosmos’ ultimate expression of non-teleological purpose, some of this is hard going, especially his dismissal of someone as genial, intelligent and humane as the late Stephen Jay Gould. (I’m happy to report I found their books coexisting quite peacefully on the library shelf, with only a slender Matthew Fox volume between them). But here again, Deloria was after a bigger idea: that both the materialistic explanations of science and the teleological historicism of Judaeo-Christianity leave no room for a sacred, respectful, and wholly encompassing relationship of humans to their biosphere, because both deny that that it is wholly alive and sentient.

The only difference in thinking that makes a difference where the biosphere is concerned is the difference between humility and arrogance. Deloria makes it clear that both Western science and Western religion are hopelessly permeated with hubris. Much as I would like to believe that science teaches us the vastness of our ignorance and the scientific method gives us rigor to keep us real, I have only to look at the basic presumption of experimental research: that the world and any element of it can be treated without further protocol as a corpse to be dissected, as matter to be manipulated, to see where it all goes wrong for Deloria. Only some ecologists have come close, thousands of years after the First Nations discovered “sustainability,” to a similar understanding of the real complexity of non-human living systems, of their intelligent nature and of the posture of humility we ought to assume towards them. But they are the minority report. As Deloria points out, wherever science begins to hold hands with the mysticism that a sense of awe produces, it quickly gets jerked back into place by the constraints of its own method.

Unless, I would add, that mysticism is marketable, like the “physics” of personal transformation. In which case it bubbles along in its own channel, producing weird but wildly lucrative froth like “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and The Secret. And of course the desire for personal power over material reality is absolutely the opposite of real humility and awe. But it’s predictable, given how desperately powerless even the relatively privileged and relentlessly individualized beneficiaries of Western civilization know they are, in their heart of hearts.

Religion is a more passionate and vital subject for Deloria, because for him it means something quite different from the individualistic power fantasies of both New Agers and fundamentalists (with their personal relationship to Jesus), or the abstract and hypocritical proscriptions of mainstream Christianity. Time Magazine appears to have deemed Deloria one of the “11 most important religious thinkers” of the 20th century. (Such are the discontents of these media-generated “best of” categories; I keep wondering who edged him out of the Top Ten). Deloria’s insistence on the centrality of religion is a challenge to anyone like me who tends to feels that religion is superstition used as a form of social control—period. But the more you read, the more you understand how distant the doctrinal harangues of Western religion are from the set of fundamental relationships he describes as the “moral universe.” His religion is the awareness of inter-dependence at every level of reality and the discovery of purpose and intelligence throughout. Humans are important, but they are also neophytes in the scheme of creation, and need to spend most of their time on earth learning from other life forms how to be. The ultimate goal of any individual is to understand and practice right relationship to all things, which Deloria simply calls maturity.

Unfortunately for me, this enticing vision can’t simply be appropriated by meaning-deficient non-Indians. Deloria explains more clearly than anyone I’ve ever heard why Native American religion doesn’t “work” when avid white acolytes try to pick it up: because it is entirely based in the concrete conditions of kinship, place and collective experience. There are no scriptures to codify it, no set of general precepts that can simply be adopted by any person, no matter how conscientious or how willing, who does not share those formative conditions. And, in his view, any well-paid shaman who tells you otherwise is lying.

The wonderful portability of Western thought paradigms, like ethical codes, for example, was precisely because of their level of abstraction from specific context. They could exist and be considered “true” in a myriad of settings because they were not inextricably bound to actual forms of social organization or to a geographical place, unlike the truths of Deloria’s religion. But this also means that the collective behavior of a society could bear little or no resemblance to its code of ethics. This capacity for abstraction (which is not the same, in my view, as real complex thought) allows us to straddle the most absurd contradictions, like the co-existence of perpetual warfare with “thou shalt not kill.” Not to mention logical contradictions, of course. Deloria might have gotten a bitter chuckle out of a recent poll that showed that a slight majority of Americans actually believe in both creationism and evolution.

What all this suggests to me is that, as a collective phenomenon, Western civilization will never be able to use its conceptualizing ability to make itself sustainable in practice, to correct its fundamental wrongs—that is, to think itself to right action. The Marxist project was the most comprehensive attempt in history to use an intelligent, rational foundation to produce a complete alteration of social norms. And look what we did with that. The other great pillars of Western modernity fared no better: as everyone knows, Einstein’s new understanding of the unity of the cosmos was used to fulfill our civilization’s bloody endgame fantasies by creating the atomic bomb; Freud’s revolutionary dissection of personality unleashed the PR industry, the marketing machine, and the infinite regression of therapeutically-enabled individual self-absorption.

Bring it right up to our moment, if you will, and look at James Lovelock, whose Gaia hypothesis was noted, although skeptically, by Deloria as a possible sign of a more promising direction in Western thought. Lovelock hasn’t even waited for society to pervert his idea; the potential decline of Western civilization due to the effects of global warming has him so fraught, that his answer is the unbridled expansion of nuclear power (something that the planet’s skirt-shaking has been giving us one more reason to rethink, most recently in Japan). The terrifying, just now-beginning-to-dawn realization of the post-Enlightenment is that reason appears to have produced the same number of monsters as the sleep of reason. And because they are technologically enhanced, they are a lot more destructive too.

At the same time, Deloria’s work offers a powerful caveat to what I would call the “Get Out Gang,” social critics like Derrick Jensen, Chellis Glendinning and John Zerzan, who urge that the conscientious among us simply jump ship from the whole doomed and bloody mess of Western civilization. Deloria’s argument that fundamental understandings are determined by kinship, place and collective experience can help us understand why the Get Out Gang’s prescription, however intellectually attractive to many with a radical perspective, is un-followable.

Like Native American experience, our historical experience as Westerns is collective and formative. And the formative conditions are all around us every day in globalized society: there is no “away” to run to. Chellis Glendinning’s metaphor of “recovery” from Western civilization is particularly specious. She wants us to stop denying that we have been repeatedly raped and abused by our serial killer parent civilization and stop hurting ourselves by associating with it. But this, again, is the old hopeless fallacy (of the West, in fact) that prescriptions which may work for the individual can somehow be applied to situations that are determinatively collective, and still be valid. The problem with framing the issue thus is that you have to somehow get your mind out and leave your body behind, because Western civilization is the total material (and most of the cognitive) environment in which you find yourself.

Every single daily slap of my shod feet on pavement emerges from and feeds back into a whole conceptual universe, whether I like it or not. And any mind/body separation puts you right back in abstraction. If you accept Glendinning’s metaphor as literally true, it leaves you with the unbearable horror that you have finally realized just how sick and evil your abusive Dad is, but you can never actually get out of his house. This makes your emotional life something like a politicized version of the kidnapped girl’s in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In fact, I think this is exactly the conscious bind many political radicals find themselves in, and it is utterly psychically unsustainable. It produces an intolerably heightened level of alienation, as if good old everyday alienation wasn’t bad enough.

The problem is that no substantive change in our total cultural ecology will be created by individuals instructing us to “think different,” whether they are visionary social activists or creative consultants at cynical marketing firms. In fact, the irony of a powerful info-tech corporation choosing that slogan and papering the walls of our cities with gargantuan images of titans of 20th century history a few years back was a galling, if fleeting, example of the cultural hall of mirrors in which we find ourselves.

I’ll give another example: an alienated social critic is walking back to her apartment in a comfortable neighborhood in one of the richest cities in the world, listening on an iPod to the Ugandan singer Geoffrey Oryema (from an album on the Sony label) give a chilling rendition of a superb Talking Heads song called “Listening Wind,” (originally from an album on the Warner Brothers label) about a terrorist in an unnamed country dreaming of driving away the Americans destroying his culture. So tell me, even given the critic’s unquestionably raised consciousness (and that of the musicians), where is the “out” in this scenario? How many levels of irony, that very Western acknowledgment of the distance between abstract ideals and concrete reality, does one have to pass through to get to any authentic revolutionary impulse or action in it, since the capitalist delivery system inserts itself at every stage of the way? At the very least, it’s not so simple as just thinking different.

Then what good is thinking, in our context? Well, on an individual level, contrary to AA’s point of view, the quote I began with is actually quite false. An individual can use her cognitive powers to influence and alter her actions, and successful therapeutic strategies attest to this. Thoughtful individuals, at the very least, tend to do less harm to themselves or others than thoughtless ones. I am absolutely pro-thinking, on an individual basis; “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and all that. But at least in this forum, we can probably all agree that the human species as a species cannot be rescued from itself by individual action, no matter how visionary, conscientious or compassionate. Collectively, societies have either acted with humility and maturity towards the living world, or they have acted with rapaciousness and unremitting violence. In both cases, they ensured the actions that had proven “successful” would be replicated by codifying them in a set of beliefs, which fed back to promote further such actions, and so on. Material conditions created behaviors, which led to bodies of thought, once we were capable of creating them, which in turn promoted behaviors—and that feedback loop is what we call civilization. And we are wholly creations of ours, regardless of our desire to be otherwise.

Of course, the first person to rip apart such a materialistic interpretation of the relationship of collective beliefs to collective action over time (that is, human history) would be Vine Deloria himself. Deloria’s thinking emerged from a culture that sees human history as organically related to the divine, which is omnipresent in the cosmos. He berated and cursed secularism (my only religion), and as I noted, took no joy in the so-called advances of Western science. But he would likely have agreed that the collective behavior of globalized Western society won’t change fundamentally as the result of any idea set, because it forces all ideas to participate in the vicious circle in which collective behaviors that are violent, extractive, and hierarchical continue because they generate power and profit, and these behaviors are at best accommodated, at worst rationalized and reinforced, by abstract beliefs. (Do the words “Live Earth Concerts” suggest anything to you here?)

And still New Agers go on using magical thinking to invent a mass transformation of human consciousness that is just around the corner, Cornucopians dream of technological fixes, the Get Out Gang tells us to save seeds, monkey-wrench the corporate pillagers and “build community,” which however concrete they sound, are complete abstractions to most people, utterly out of context for a global society in which so many are still fighting tenaciously for the last spaces in the steerage compartment of the departing Titanic.

But Vine Deloria was different. He had an existing alternative with an historical track record to promote. The survival of Native American lifeways was not just a question of some abstract (i.e. Western) notion of justice to him. It went beyond identification with “minority rights,” or “civil rights,” both of which he critiqued as concepts hopelessly enmeshed in the hypocrisy of Western ethical codes that were once again compromised by the abstract nature of Western thought paradigms. Its importance was, rather, in the possibility that humanity could learn from itself how to survive, but only if the people who knew how were permitted to continue to exist. And they would only continue to exist if they were able to transmit belief systems that were inseparable from collective action, from social behavior – and had been proven “sustainable” by the living world itself, if ten thousand years of inhabitation is any evidence.

His last book, The World We Used to Live In, unflinchingly addressed the diminished acceptance of those belief systems among First Nations people themselves, by presenting an archive of examples of Native American religious experience. He hoped to provide a kind of text book that could be used to reignite awareness of the religious way as a fundamental survival strategy, as well as, in his view, the most advanced thinking humankind has produced. This matter ought to be of the gravest concern to all of us who suspect that Western civilization’s clever cat may already have regenerated for the ninth and last time.

But even the continued existence of those particular belief systems, an open question, does not mean they would necessarily become the dominant paradigm for a suitably chastened global society. Rather, our actual material circumstances will (and are already beginning to) compel us to change in some way, but it is still by no means a given that we will therefore ultimately adapt ourselves to a path that bears any resemblance to the best practices of the Plains Indians or the Di’neh or the Ogunquit.

Nor should it, if we accept Deloria’s admonition that the truth of a people always has to come out of its own particular experience. Our path is still directed at every turn by the walls of the labyrinth that seven thousand years of extractive, accumulative and techno-centric civilization have constructed, on every possible landscape, including the landscape of our minds. If our biosphere gets us to listen to it soon enough, because it speaks so loudly we can no longer ignore it, then it’s possible we may also hear the voices of Deloria’s elders clearly, for the first time. If we can be taught true humility by our collective experience, then those walls may come down before we as a species do. In the meantime, Vine Deloria, Jr. left anyone who wants to start listening right away a lot of words worth hearing.




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