Utopian Dreams

Note 9: Cynthia Tucker: Even "Global Peace" Won't Save You From Some Trekkie Heaven. 6/14/99

Cynthia Tucker isn't my favorite contemporary columnist but I never shy away from reading most of what she has to say about the world as it unfolds in front of us these days. I usually avert my eyes from the likes of George Will and Cal Thomas, not because I can't hold my own against their points of view, but because I already have a fair expectation of what they are likely to say about most any given subject and none of what that usually turns out to be strikes me as significant to the way things are. Conservative points of view seem always ready to favor a whiteman's perspective against anything a person of color believes about the nature of reality and most of us "coloreds" already know what they think. Tucker, on the other hand, sometimes managers to bring a fresh perspective to the issues that haunt late twentieth century America. Other times, however, she gets herself tangled up in the same spider-webs of false consciousness that tend to afflict all predominantly Christian points of view whether they are spoken by white people trying to wear a colored mask or by a black person trying too hard not to offend a white majority. I don't mean to characterize Cynthia Tucker's point of view as falling into either of these two categories because she always manages to say a reasonable and thoughtful word about subjects of sensitivity when racial concerns come into play.

In a recent column (June 14, 1999) in the New Orleans Times Picayune, she began by characterizing the original crew of the Star Trek television show as one that had achieved a portrayal of racial harmony almost any reasonable person could live with in reality if it ever came to be in our daily lives. She rightly attributed the image of that society to Gene Roddenberry in the following manner:

"For the record, I'll admit that I've never given up on the future that Gene Roddenberry created, no matter how many times reality punctures that utopian vision. No matter how many massacres in Rwanda, campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or misogynistic coups in Afghanistan, I still believe mankind must progress beyond our primitive, perhaps instinctive, fear and hatred of the other."

Tucker concludes her discussion of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which is the subject/object of her essay, with the thought that, while the intervention of NATO in the Balkans will not cure the ills of racial and religious hatred that mar that particular countryside, European and American action there "at least assures [us] that we will start the next century in a better place than we started this one."

While the sentiment expressed here is pure and hopeful, Tucker suffers from the same malady that afflicts all people who see and mis-see the world of social relationships in Western culture through eyes that have always already been trained in the methodologies of perceiving a Christian reality. When she asserts that "mankind" needs to get beyond a "primitive, perhaps instinctive, fear and hatred of the other," she plays herself into the very ideology that makes it impossible for any of us to get beyond it in the first place. In short, "mankind" is not afflicted with "fear and hatred of the other"; rather, only a certain definable group of human beings is afflicted with that malady--namely, people who have been trained to accept the notion that a utopian state of civil and social perfection is a necessary consequence of believing that their way of life is superior to all other possibilities.

Utopia, as everyone from Thomas More to Gene Roddenberry has tended to describe it, is little else except a more detailed and articulated image, made contemporary, even futuristic, of the perfect world derived from and based on the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden as a place created by God to be the proper kind of home for His perfectly created and innocent creatures, the ones we all know and love by their universalist tag-name "mankind." In particular, Adam, because of Eve's inability to resist the temptation of Satan (which explains the origin of misogyny as well as the concept of original sin), also agreed to disobey the only prohibition placed on him by his benevolent Creator and together they were cast out of the perfect utopian world where they started out their lives. Since this same myth enshrines (wo)man's inescapably sinful state, the original disobedience is passed down as a kind of genetic DNA supplement from generation to generation, and you don't even have to swallow a germ to get it, a return to that perfectly innocent garden is essentially impossible for a flawed, pitiful, worthless, immeasurably depraved, and eternally degraded humankind. God, in His infinite wisdom, of course, does provide a kind of escape from all this dismal degradation: if you eat the flesh and drink the blood of a sacrificial victim to (wo)man's incurable beastliness, then your sins will be forgiven and you might go to heaven when you die.

This scenario, however, hasn't done much for your average utopian ideologue. From a purely political point of view, and Utopia has been a political concept from the time Saint and Martyr Thomas More first described it, going to heaven after you die does little or nothing for the teeming masses of underprivileged people who are waiting for the realization of Eden on earth. Since impatience is one of the sins usually singled out as marring (wo)man's character, any number of such people can be recruited to help hurry the process of building Utopia along. Serbian soldiers, for instance, can be told that cleansing Kosovo of the Muslim disease that has afflicted it for 600 years will do much to create a perfect Garden of Christian delight among the shrines and monastaries that dot the northern latitudes of the province. In a few weeks, almost without effort as it were, you get 1.5 million homeless, exiled, and starving Kosovars living in tents in Albania and Macedonia. Kosovo itself, mostly in ruin, has been delivered back to its pure and innocent state of having no Islamic people living anywhere inside its borders and the ones who stubbornly remain behind have been conveniently hidden from view beneath the fertile soil of Eden's eternal promise.

I can forgive most thoughtless people, and Cynthia Tucker is certainly not one of those, for failing to recognize the inevitable connections between a Christian belief in a blissful afterlife, a tendency to convert that ideal into building a perfect state in the real world, where there is also an insistence on the notion that everyone and everything in the world is ordered into hierarchical structures, ordained by God and therefore also immutable, which creates a necessity to decide who is up and who is consequently down on an extended ladder of social value and worthiness, and not see how such concepts must inevitably lead to the kind of ethnic cleansing that occurs when the truly saved and blessed community confronts one that is by definition more depraved and worthless than they are. That Cynthia Tucker overlooks this essential connection by hoping for a utopian state that will remove from the world what Utopia is best equipped to create, the destruction of an inferior population occupying a superior people's sacred religious ground, suggests how deeply rooted the false consciousness of Christian ideology is in Western thought, how difficult it is to extirpate it from one's mind.

In Cynthia Tucker's case, because she is a person of color, the problem of how she manages to hold the view she does becomes one all the more complex and difficult to understand. One historical circumstance that might throw some light on this problem, even though it is always dangerous to cite one event in the past as an explanation for another condition that arises well beyond and outside of the context of the original circumstance, is the creation of regular calvary and infantry units of African-American soldiers during and after the Civil War. These units became known as Buffalo Soldiers and served mainly on the frontier in the "Indian Wars" that were necessary to subdue native Americans who escaped from the concentration camps where they were incarcerated before, during, and after the 1860's. Many of these soldiers served with great distinction and many were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960's, the Buffalo Soldiers came to stand for an element of Black pride among many of the people who counted them as cultural ancestors. One of my favorite reggae songs is the one Bob Marley wrote about the "Buffalo Soldiers." In New Orleans there is a tradition carried on in the Black community dating back to Civil War times, according to some historians, involving families of African-Americans who celebrate Mardi Gras by dressing in hand-crafted feathered costumes that take a full year to create and parading in the streets of their neighborhoods several times a year during the carnival season. They are known as tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. When two rival tribes meet during the parades, they engage in mock battles which are meant to determine which tribe has created the best, most elaborate costumes. According to the "natives" who participate in the tradition, they do it to honor the native Americans all across America who helped their ancestors escape from the whiteman's slavery. Whenever I hear Marley's song and see a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, I am struck by the same feeling of profound disquiet and ambiguity over precisely how those two traditions clash in their coexistence among a reasonably homogeneous culture.

I am no expert on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers but I do know some things. From the top of the mesa in West Texas where the old man introduced me to the rattlesnake, you can see the peaks of the Florida mountains in the vast distance of the southwestern desert. Between the mesa and the mountains is a wide plain of lava that will cut all but the strongest pair of shoes into ribbons after only a few miles of trying to walk across their waterless expanse. I know this because I have done it. Several intense skirmishes were fought between the river (Rio Grande) and the Florida mountains to the west between Buffalo Soldiers and bands of Apache warriors who had escaped from the San Carlos concentration camp in southern Arizona. I know this too in a very direct way. Several miles north of the mesa, and only a few thousand yards south of the place where I encountered the old man for the first time, is a place where I recovered a handful of arrowheads whose shape and design were much too large and brutal for the purpose of hunting any of the animals that one can find in the West Texan desert. They are the kind of point one would expect to find on the end of an arrow directed at a human prey, at a Buffalo Soldier say. They are as deadly now as they were then. I know that because I have been holding one in my hand as I say these words and they can still cut through bone when projected forward with enough force and determination to survive the genocide brought to bear against their makers by the whiteman's army of black soldiers who hunted them down like animals. I found a few bullets there too but they are as harmless now as the downy feathers of a sandhill crane blowing in the wind of a West Texas drought.

There is a lesson here, a lesson of an incredible kind of betrayal, one that cannot make anyone proud of the fact that a whiteman's ideology coerced a black man's army to hunt a people who had only tried to help them escape from the slavery inflicted on them by the white masters who were paying them too little, too late, to return a free man to incarceration in a concentration camp in Arizona. Buffalo Soldiers. Mardi Gras Indians. Cynthia Tucker's broken utopian dreams. The lesson I see here is that a people who have no hope cannot be made whole by a false one.

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