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White Men in Suits, Original Sin, and Rumplestiltskin

The millers daughter happens upon the imp dancing around his fire in the forest while he is chanting his name, Rumplestiltskin

The millers daughter happens upon the imp dancing around his fire in the forest while he is chanting his name, Rumplestiltskin.

As a kid growing up in Ohio in the 1950s and ‘60’s I was taught to admire and respect—frankly, be intimidated by—white men in suits. They were the priests of the High Holy Church of  How the World Works, constantly chanting the liturgy of economic expansion, war, consumption, entitlement, white supremacy, American superiority, extraction of profit from nature. This teaching wasn’t direct, as in, See that man in the charcoal gray Brooks Brothers suit with the red and blue striped tie -- listen to, obey him!  But everywhere I looked voices of authority and power emanated from these white men in suits. Kids assumed they were our wise elders, our role models. Some were politicians, some teachers, some generals, some TV broadcasters, businessmen and bankers.

The suits weren’t pretending. They believed their authority was authentic. They believed in the sanctity of their superior whiteness. They believed America was both good and great and white—it seemed the melting pot’s most important ingredient was bleach. They believed capitalism was the only right and righteous economic system. They believed they embodied the pinnacle of the great chain of being. They believed nature’s bounty was endless and endlessly forgiving. They believed God was rewarding them for their beliefs. They still saluted the flag of Manifest Destiny. They believed the US was right to dominate the people and resources of other countries; imperialism rhymed with duty rhymed with White Man’s Burden rhymed with profit. They observed men of their tribe in all the positions of power, and they knew the tribe’s costume (the expensive suit) advertised and accentuated their authority. Initiation into this tribe was the fitting of the first suit on the teenage (white male) acolyte. Often the men in suits were corrupt and yet they went on believing anyway; such is the nature of smug entitlement. Corruptness was at one end of the necessity scale. The exception proved the rule.

White supremacy intends that marginalized people, people who are objects of racism, will internalize the relentless propaganda of their inferiority,  believe that their lack of material and social success is a product of their race or ethnicity or gender or failure to work hard enough, think it’s racial and personal rather than systemic and engineered.  So, the white elders in suits internalized the opposite. That same propaganda justified their belief in superiority, that the systems they constructed to deliver them wealth and power were deserved. 

We are fortunate to live in a time when white supremacy, power and wealth are finally being challenged by a broad and insistent coalition of ages, races and genders. As is often the case, the spark igniting the resistance was an event of both brutal realism and profound metaphor: the white knee on the black neck. A particular white cop on racist autopilot supplied the knee; centuries of white men in suits the weight. The former is the tool, the latter the business plan. The former the puppet, the latter the master. The former just another day-in-the-life, the latter the men who narrate history.

Original Sin

When I was a kid, I was also learning about the doctrine of original sin in Sunday school. I resented the hell out of that idea. The notion that every newborn, innocent child was de facto burdened with an immense, irrevocable sin he or she could hardly have committed was offensive. Should Adam & Eve’s refusal to follow orders condemn us all in perpetuity? Seemed an abuse of power to me. And as a young boy as yet unaware of his own flaws, the idea that to be human is to be sinful soured me on Sunday school altogether: if God was good and all-powerful, why would he create men and women to be irrevocably sinful? Not fair!  Why should I suffer my entire life paying for Adam’s screw-ups?

However, the popular attribution today of both indigenous genocide and chattel slavery as this country’s original sins is as sound philosophically as it is historically undeniable. White people living in this culture who espouse its values of equality, rights and freedom are morally compromised by the legacy of those facts. One of the primary responsibilities of citizenship, then, is atoning for those dual sins, realizing how wealth and value, dignity and equality have been apportioned by race and power.  Being born here doesn’t condemn one to the burden of those sins. You can move to another place and assume another society’s collective guilt. But good citizens must swing whatever sledgehammer they can heft to smash the foundation of white supremacy.  

I think, though, there is another sin which precedes and informs genocide and slavery.  That sin knocks down the living pillars holding up the temple of this Earth.  Ironically this sin was codified as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery by  Catholic Pope Nicholas 5th  in 1455.  It would be hard to imagine a more ruthless, racist, and arrogant assertion of greater consequence than this one which posits humans and their activities as somehow separate from and superior to the laws of nature. It also determined that non-Christians had no rights—not to property, or land or life. That is, it gave the church’s blessing to brutal imperialism. Columbus and the Conquistadores (the transnational corporate emissaries of their day) came to these continents infused with this doctrine which justified robbery, slavery, murder and rape. Conveniently, thanks to their Pope’s Doctrine of Discovery, they were fulfilling God’s will.  Such thinking is spectacularly criminal, self-serving, and ultimately suicidal.   

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Even then scientists knew that the earth and all its species existed in a closed ecological system, a miraculous web of life, tuned to a frequency requiring the balanced hum of every living thing. They knew that the balanced hum was generated by the vibrating laws of nature. They also knew that this living miracle took place on a tiny planet spinning through a vast cosmos. As far as they knew there was not another planet like it—certainly not within hailing distance. Instead of accepting the laws of the one place they could survive in the universe, these wise elders decided to flout those laws and write their own.

Many people attribute the arrogance of the attitude that human will and desire can disregard nature’s laws  to ‘human nature.’ As though it’s human nature for all humans to be so relentlessly acquisitive and self-centered that they are hardwired to refuse the reality and limits imposed by nature, and to refuse the grace of living in harmony with them. That’s absurd. Indigenous peoples all over the world have lived and live within the grace of nature’s laws. They have human nature. They never took a course at a great university nor understood the politics and economy of a city-state, but they identified reality, thanked it for its beneficence. The wise white men branded indigenous peoples as uneducated, superstitious, pagan, savage and dispensable as they clearcut their forests, mined their resources, and polluted their water. These men had power, but all their learning reinforced and mechanized their ignorance. They asked their one God to grant them dominion over nature. If they had accepted the reality of the earth, they could not have generated their wealth.

Sure there is greed in human nature, and lust for power, but there is also good sense and a desire to honor the reality of the place we are in. As conquerors write history, so the powerful write the schools’ curriculum. Sure there is the propensity to make new, convenient rules for a game that already has intransigent rules, but there is also the wisdom to play by the rules of the game that sustain life. Billions of people are now playing by unsustainable rules which are leading to planetary suicide. When you insist on playing by the wrong rules, no matter how many degrees you have from MIT and Harvard, you become the superstitious, uneducated, dispensable ones. Your arrogance creates a flat world with an edge tipping into oblivion and the stupidity to sail over that edge.

Refusal to want to live in harmony with nature’s laws alienates us all from this earth, alienates us from ourselves as creatures in nature’s web, alienates us from our biological and spiritual connection to the past and the future. That is, it alienates us from time. This refusal insists on a temporal, temporary, commodity-driven relationship to the earth, bribes us to resemble the throwaway products we use—the same respect for a human life, a tree swallow as a plastic bottle. One and done. This refusal insists that we weave ourselves into a web of unreality and glory in the power and brief profit of that unreality. 

Rumplestiltskin

We are the felicitous function of vast amounts of time, of sunlight, of evolution, of water, of gravity, of recycled lives and elements, of creativity—of a life force we can neither understand nor duplicate. Just for fun, let’s play a variation on Rumpelstiltskin.  You remember the fable? A miller boasted to a king that his daughter could spin hay into gold. The king locked her in a roomful of hay and told her that if she didn’t do it overnight, he'd kill her. Marry her if she could. A magical little imp appeared to the terrified girl and volunteered to do the spinning for her but she would have to give him her firstborn child if she couldn’t guess his name. A year later, pregnant and married to the king, she’s terrified that she will have to give up her child. She happens upon the imp dancing around his fire in the forest while he is chanting his name, Rumplestiltskin. Saved again.

So, you be the miller’s daughter. You’re CEO of  The Miller’s Daughter, Inc., a Fortune 500 company. I know you, a good capitalist, can weave straw into gold, that is, you know how to turn a profit on any resource properly marketed.  But now I’m giving you a room full of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. I’ll give you, not one night, but a million years. I don’t want you to spin those elements into gold. Instead, make me a passenger pigeon. Make me a golden toad. Make me a white rhinoceros. A Giant Auk. Make me ten million Monarch butterflies.  Heck, just make me one acorn. Combine the elements using the economic rules of capitalism. What? you say, that’s not fair!  Of course it is; didn’t you tell me free markets solve all problems? You used those rules to cut them out of the web. Use them to weave them back in. OK, stop whining. Start small, make a flea.

If you think the time frame is too tight and the buzzer might sound before you get all the legs on the flea and its tiny little heart beating, well, then, maybe you will realize capitalism is a better destroyer than savior, more likely to create violent oligarchy than either miraculous creatures or peaceful democracy.  Maybe you will have a clue about how alienated we all are from the sanctity of life and our responsibility to its web of creatures and laws. Forget your mea culpas, though. Nature’s not interested. Built into her laws is infinite forgiveness disguised as irrepressible, exuberant creation and change. Nature’s marching band never stops strutting her stuff. Live in harmony with her and she’ll begin to heal, if not you, then a creature evolved without arrogance.  But be prepared for a bumpy transition of tough weather and ark building.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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