Color line revisited: past, present, and future

In general, I enjoy reading John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report. He’s got a take that I appreciate. The last few posts have been something of an exception to that, though, in their inability to confront the color line (as spiritual and material reality) as it bears on the future he is trying to sketch out. He loses touch with a moral thread in U.S. history, over-emphasizing abstract patterns rather than the concrete actions fo individuals that give those patterns shape.

The crux of the problem can be found in this quote:

“For that matter, it’s a safe bet that the social divisions—ethnic and otherwise—of the successor cultures that emerge in the aftermath of our downfall will be established and enforced by means no more just or fair than the ones that currently distribute wealth and privilege to the different social and ethnic strata in today’s North American nations. Again, it would be pleasant to live in a world where that isn’t true, but we don’t.”

I get that he might be trying in his roundabout way to clear some space for a more colorblind way of conceiving the future, but he does so in a way that neutralizes our present racial situation, taking as inevitable the nature of the conflicts that will shape the near future. Moreover, the reificiation of injustice in the abstract erodes any commitment to confronting it in the concrete. After all, if it is just one injustice for another, why bother?

Yes, obviously, people are always going to be people and they will not turn into paragons of morality in the future. But the whole point of moral action and thought (which Greer generally seems to grasp) is that the hard work of pushing against that does have real, if sometimes small, impacts on the general course of history.

You may not be able to turn back the river, but you can shift its course. That is imperfect and uglier than we would like, but it has real moral effects in history.

“…a glance back over our past shows clearly enough that who won, who lost, who ended up ruling a society, and who ended up enslaved or exterminated by that same society, was not determined by moral virtue or by the justice of one or another cause, but by the crassly pragmatic factors of military, political, and economic power.”

This dualistic language of winning or losing doesn’t suit the topic. The Africans and Indians of the Americas? They didn’t ‘lose.’ They survived and exterted (are exerting!) their influence on the development of the world to come. Greer’s European ‘winners’ didn’t ‘win,’ either. They accommodated themselves, sometimes subtly and sometimes grossly, to the Indians and Africans. How much of the neopagan scene of which Greer is a part emerges in dialogue with European ideas of Indian-ness, for example?

There were plenty of Africans, Europeans, and Indians who refused to accept that history could only teach us morals in retrospect. These people strived to change the minds of those around them. It didn’t just ‘happen’ because there were wars, economic shifts, and changes in the whims of the political class. Those were occasions and if there had not been been people to stand up and shape them with moral force, they would have been missed occasions. Yes, I get it, even successes could be painfully meagre, but that doesn’t make them less real.

Sometimes people even went counter to their time, forcing economic and political realities to bend to moral ones. Moral force is a real historical force, one that we need to cleave to if we hope to do more than just clamber for the tyrant’s approval or flee from it.

Yes, the future that comes to be will inevitably fall short of the highest moral vision the present can provide for it. But that doesn’t mean that a morality concerned with the present historical ‘ethnic’ realities is empty and has no effect on the ‘real’ movement of economics and bloodshed. To think that way is to accede from the start to the immorality of the times and thereby to put at least one foot down with the worst. It is to become content with murder and exploitation (neither of which fit neatly into the tropes of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’).

Even excluding ‘high’ moral considerations, the nature of ethnicity in the future will emerge out of the way people deal with the ethnicities of the present, even as those ethnicities begin to be erased by collapse. Changes in habits of thinking and behaving we manage to create don’t disappear; they inform the patterns that will replace them.

If you treat them as irrelevant because they wil change, you aren’t holding to a higher view, you are simply abandoning the work to someone else.

If Greer is committed to providing a historical account of where the United States has been and use that as a basis for where it is going, he can’t do it handwaving the African American and Indian experience as a footnote to the triumphal-turned-tragic history of Europeans in America. That experience forms an essential component and the ways it has failed and succeeded, overcome and been sabotaged, fit into the story of how the future America will come to pass.

Because it is so deeply embedded in what it is now.

3 thoughts on “Color line revisited: past, present, and future

  1. I agree with you, and I consider myself a big Greer supporter; I’ve learned a great deal from the man, magically speaking — and he’s helped me frame a lot of what I learned but didn’t understand from my grandfather, a petrochemical engineer.

    I recognize some of what he’s saying about ethnogenesis — the more or less wholesale creation of new peoples out of the stresses and turmoils of societies in decline. And of course, Native peoples were no less subject to these kinds of turmoils than we were — he briefly mentions the example of the Classic Maya, but he could just as easily have mentioned the fall of the ‘Mound Builder’ culture of the central United States, and the apparent migration/refugees from ‘Cahokia’ eventually forming the tribal societies of the Great Plains that DeSoto, Marquette, and Lewis and Clark eventually encountered; you might not have had horse-riding buffalo-hunters without horses stolen from the Spanish, and the collapse of city-dwelling societies in the Mississippi River watershed a century or two before then…

    But given that he was writing during the first few weeks of the Ferguson, MO crisis, it felt tin-eared, or tin-tongued. It’s an issue I hope he addresses soon, in a more coherent fashion, and with more of a call to morally-justifiable ground. Maybe more of his audience than I anticipated is made up of apocalyptians and doom-preppers… and maybe he’s playing to them more than I feel that audience deserves? Which thought unnerves me and upsets me.

    I don’t know. Have you thought of leaving a comment on his blog and asking him?

    1. Io

      I’ve thought about it. I haven’t made up my mind there. I often don’t feel like I’m talking in quite the right way to be heard there, though.

      I also suspect some of it might be come down to some more basic difference of philosophical attitude which are difficult to negotiate via internet.

      1. That may be. I went back and reviewed the column — it still comes off as a bit tone-deaf, I think. At the same time, I see he’s more or less trying to explain what he thinks will happen in the future over the next couple of hundred years, rather than dealing with “this week in history”. Like you, I think the racial makeup and the racial issues present today will have an effect on the future of dark-ages America. But first we’re going to have to figure out how to navigate this present darkness, which is all too real and devastating.

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