I reproduce here lengthy excerpts from an address by a friend and pastor from England who reflects very astutely, I believe, on the dark arts that aim to eliminate our sense that truth and falsity matter. Here is Rev. Andrew Brown exploring a culture’s loss of meaning and hope, and of what accounts for our present darkness.
“After this, nothing happened”
The philosopher Jonathan Lear in “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” reflects on lessons we might learn from the life of Chief Plenty Coups (1848–1932) from the Crow Tribe who lived in Montana and North Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to being a warrior Plenty Coups’ whole form of life was centred on the hunting of the buffalo but when the buffalo had gone (a catastrophic event caused, of course, by the white settlers) and the tribe were confined to a reservation, his form of life was finished. Here’s how Plenty Coups expressed this to his friend and biographer Frank B. Linderman (1869-1938):
“I have not told you half of what happened when I was young. . . . I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened (p. 2).
Lear notes that we could simply interpret Plenty Coups to be saying something like the tribe was depressed and things seemed as though nothing happened. But what Lear wants to stress, rightly in my opinion, is something deeper, namely that the loss of the buffalo destroyed Crow subjectivity; what it was to be a member of the Crow tribe was to hunt buffalo and if there were no longer any buffalo to hunt then there could no longer be, in any meaningful sense, a Crow person. It would to be somewhat like a captain and crew of an ocean-going liner on a planet that has lost all its seas.
To be sure Plenty Coups was still alive, still getting up in the morning and doing certain kinds of everyday things, but he could no longer truly be a Crow Indian and so we may take his words to be a declaration that the ideas around which he has shaped his whole life were no longer livable. What was required, and which amazingly Plenty Coups achieved, was to find a way poetically to take elements of his own past and make of it something capable of generating for the Crow a new field of possibility for authentic living as the Crow.
. . . We (also) need to think ourselves into what might be the end of our own tradition — but that’s a very difficult and challenging thing to do. . . We all now know we are no longer in times we consider “normal”. . . As Lear observed in his book published in 2006:
We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilisations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world — terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes — have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. I suspect that this feeling has provoked the widespread intolerance that we see around us today — from all points of the political spectrum. It is as though, without our insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself may collapse. Perhaps if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could find better ways to live with it (p. 7).
It seems to me that the vulnerability which today is threatening to pitch us into our own darkness is the fear that we seem rapidly to be losing a coherent (enough) shared understanding of what “truth” — a central, if always complex, pillar of democracy — consists in.
To help me bring the vulnerability most forcibly before you I want now to turn to a shadowy but hugely influential figure called Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov (b. 1964). Here’s how the film-maker Adam Curtis’ introduces Surkov and his work to us in his recent BBC documentary “HyperNormalization”:
Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way. He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics. His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin. But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake.
As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.” A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable. It is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine this year. In typical fashion, as the war began, Surkov published a short story about something he called non-linear war. A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to, or even who they are. The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.
As Peter Pomerantsev writing for “The Atlantic” in 2014 put it, The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions.
Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime
But don’t for one single moment let yourself be seduced into thinking this is just an isolated Russian phenomenon because increasing numbers of our own British, European and American politicians, financiers, digital-tech and social-media moguls (such as those running Cambridge Analytica and Facebook et. al.) are daily applying Surkov’s methods all around us. The result is that truth, the central pillar of all genuinely democratic traditions, is in danger of disappearing completely from our lives as did the buffalo from the lives of the Crow and Jesus from the lives of the first disciples. It is this loss that may, if not stopped, pitch us into our own deep and dark Black Saturday. It could threaten to deliver us up into a situation that Plenty Coups faced, namely, suddenly finding ourselves in a world where the ideas of truth which shaped our lives are no longer livable.
To be sure the first disciples and Chief Plenty Coups show us that a radical hope can emerge from dreadful loss and from this we can, and should, take some comfort, cold though it necessarily is.
On balance, it’s surely far better to find ways not to fall or be pushed into any kind of blackness, especially since, thankfully, we are not quite there yet. Given this, may I gently but firmly encourage you to seriously to meditate on how truth, like Jesus and the buffalo, is today being forced by Surkov and his ilk to walk a via dolorosa towards its death. As best we can, let’s together stop being merely passive bystanders in this awful spectacle and try to ensure that truth’s crucifixion does not come to pass.
[for Rev. Brown’s full address, see CAUTE — A free-spirit archeology of morning, https://andrewjbrown.blogspot.com