This Is How They Broke Our Grandmothers


It’s that time of year again for those tired old, hackneyed negative stereotypes to be unthinkingly reinforced and imprinted on innocent children, most of whom will have to wait many years to hear the real story, if indeed they ever do.

Not uplifting reading, but valuable for gaining or widening your perspectives on a range of subjects and issues including history, colonialism and sexual politics. As a detailed overview of an often unexamined phase in history, it’s essential reading.

This Is How They Broke Our Grandmothers

Once, there were witches. No. There were never witches. Not in the way men said, anyway.

Once, there were many Indigenous polytheist and animist faith traditions in what is now Western Europe. Their customs supported varying levels of respect and authority for women. They had holy women, woman healers, and woman leaders.

Once, there was a church that was a kingdom, built on the body of the Roman Empire, which itself was built on the abduction and rape of the Sabine women. This church was a principality in truth, ruled by princes who had a lust for land and gold that was almost as insatiable as their burning hatred for women.

They converted heads of state and demanded tithes of members, while leaving most local governance alone. They created a very early, very ephemeral transnational empire that required little in the way of personnel or men under arms, and was mainly concerned with governing what’s often classed as the private sphere.

Eventually, the church’s client states had a problem keeping their peasants in line, because the church and the aristocracy wanted to steal all the land and privatize it for themselves through enclosure of the commons.

As Sylvia Federici explains in her book, Caliban and the Witch, secular authorities eventually hit on the popular strategy of giving everything that women had to men, including the women themselves. Civil servants didn’t forget to account for the economic value of women’s work; rather, it was explicitly written out of economic accounting — declared to have no value during the enclosure era. Male tradesmen coordinated boycotts of female competitors and of men who worked with them. Women who persisted in trying to engage in public trades were harassed, called “whores” or “witches,” or were even assaulted without repercussion.

Eventually, to be a woman in public alone was very nearly synonymous with being presumed a witch or prostituted woman. Violence against women was both normalized and sexualized. Women were increasingly driven into prostitution  if no man supported them or if they were pushed outside of polite society through accusations of misbehavior, unsanctioned relationships, or sexual abuse. In the sex trade, upstanding men in their communities could torture these women at will, their victims the only party subject to legal sanction.

In order to do their part in solving the problem of the revolting peasantry and acquire their own share of the former commons, the church stepped up to bless this destruction of women’s rights and independence with the seal of divine approval. Their priests invented witches. That is, they invented women who worshipped and had sex with the Devil, who then gave them ludicrous powers  — what feminist historian Max Dashu calls “diabolism.” The church further asserted that everything that wasn’t approved as Christian was diabolism.

Again, there weren’t any witches as the church defined them. The pornographic, diabolist image described in the Malleus Maleficarum didn’t refer to any existing persons. For the most part, it didn’t even refer to things that are possible, in spite of the fact that some Indigenous spiritual and women’s health practices were included as evidence of witchcraft.

“Witches” were just women. That’s what men meant, in their own words.

“All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman… What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with
fair colours… When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil… Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.”Malleus Maleficarum

Diabolism was so broadly defined that any female rejection of male authority was potential evidence of witchcraft. Any woman could be a witch. Any look or word that offended a man, any angry speech, any unnecessary fraternization with other women, any sexual activity outside church-approved relations — all could trigger a charge of witchcraft.

Accusations could also be levied for material gain, as the church or state could then seize the property of the accused or charge them ruinous fines for a chance at freedom. Jews and Muslims were targeted as well, fitting the expansive view of diabolism as synonymous with being non-Christian, conveniently enriching the prosecuting authorities.

It became a major public project to humiliate and subjugate women, or to get women and girls to testify against their accused mothers and then stand at the front as they were executed.

serveimage-2Women could also be made to wear scold’s bridles, or branks, in public for speaking out of turn to any man, including their husbands, or for simply being poor and too old to work. The injuries sometimes sustained while they were paraded through the streets would have been life-threatening in the days before modern medicine and antibiotics.

When chattel slavery was instituted in the colonies, the brank was used as a methodserveimage-3 of breaking the will of slaves. It had worked so well with the women back in the old country, after all. Throughout the colonies, subjugated peoples were controlled after the initial conquest in ways that strongly echoed the patterns of dominance European men had been trained to enact towards their female peers.

Again, every woman was maybe a disobedient witch who might displease her Lord or master. Every woman needed strict control to keep her in line and loyal in allegiance to men. The fact that the last two sentences are both true and sound like purple prose from a BDSM story should indicate that these attitudes remain with us. Eventually, European men no longer needed to burn their women alive or subject them to public torture in order to get them to cooperate, to be quieter, or to consent to play along willingly, even eagerly, in their own submission.

“Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically. Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable.” – Audre Lorde

When men are put under constant surveillance, restricted in their speech, dehumanized, otherized as dirty and innately evil, or subject to torture or murder on the barest pretexts, all in hopes of a societal rebirth from the decadence of carnal softness, they call it fascism.

When women have to teach their daughters to conform to that sort of oppression, generation after generation, without any other hope of survival, men call it the natural order.

People seem to think that it was so long ago, it could hardly matter. Or that it only affected witches, whoever they were, and they sound like awful, terrible women, anyway, didn’t they.

The important thing to realize is that “witches” were just women that men were either jealous of, felt threatened by, or didn’t like. In practice, those were the triggering conditions for getting tried as a witch. More simply, witches were just women. Potentially all women.

To survive, women under the Inquisition submitted to isolating themselves away from the friendships of other women, and learned to be very good at making men like them. They taught their daughters to do the same.

For hundreds of years, any woman could be taken away to jail to be tortured and sexually assaulted. Any women could be pornographically tortured in public before her execution, in front of her family if she had any.

Why didn’t she speak up? That’s why. Why didn’t she stand up for other women? That’s why. European men ritually abused women for expressing any social solidarity with each other, or independence for themselves, for generations.

Men forced women to testify against other women, even their own mothers, to live. Yet they still mock women as jealous and spiteful of each other, still joke about “cat fights.”

The destruction of women’s history of community leadership, economic independence, and support for each other wasn’t so complete that there was no evidence remaining. But the living cultural practice of female solidarity was so utterly destroyed that it’s still newsworthy for us to talk about supporting each other.

Long after they stopped burning us alive in public, women could still be removed from public life to asylums , or subjected to torture, for displeasing men or showing too much independence. They could be abused for being pregnant or an unmarried mother.

When domestic violence wasn’t a crime, that meant it was still legal for a man to torture his wife in the privacy of their home if she displeased him. Or for no reason at all. The state considered it a matter of public health and safety to prosecute assaults, except of a man against his wife, which was legal. Marital rape wasn’t a crime in all 50 U.S. states until 1993. And given that barely one per cent of rapists ever see a day in jail in even the most supposedly egalitarian countries, that form of male torture against women is still effectively legal, also.

Individual men sometimes go to great lengths to plan to commit abuses against women and children, and this is often written off as inevitable misfortune. Other men often cover up for them out of a sense that they should give the male perpetrator the benefit of the doubt — an attitude which even police seem to extend to accused men, but often lack for female victims, empathy for women having been burned right out of our social norms. Male coverups and victim blaming is how individual misdeeds are transformed into what Andrea Dworkin called the barricade of sexual terrorism.

There are women still alive today who were simply disappeared from their communities for unsanctioned sexual activity. Maybe they became pregnant “out of wedlock,” outside the control of a husband, whether by choice or rape, and their children were taken from them. They were the girls who went away, either to give a child up for coerced adoption or to be committed to psychiatric hospitals and possibly treated with electroshock.

If you make the men angry, you can just disappear. That’s been true for a very long time. So many men still act in expectation of the instant obedience such fear can command, that the tragedy continues.

These forms of abuse were exported to colonized states, and having started as a political persecution of women for economic gain, they metastasized into a political persecution and style of conquest employed against non-Christian peoples across the world.

The theft of children from Indigenous populations by settler states, alone, is an ongoing rights violation that differs more in scale than in kind from the historical thefts of children from “wayward” white women. It’s a logical consequence of societies operating under the cumulative presumption that only (white) men really have any rights to children; damn the mother, damn the child themselves,
damn the forcibly “feminized” masses of the brutally subjugated

The Inquisition certainly didn’t invent patriarchy, torture, or reigns of public terror designed to break the will of a conquered people. Yet it did set in motion a powerful set of social norms that remain with us. And even though the world has changed so much that the Catholic Church has apologized for persecuting heretics, such apologies are rare among the other churches and governments that murdered people on allegations of diabolism.

Women continue to be driven out of employment by male harassment, publicly vilified in sex-specific ways, tortured for entertainment in the sex industry, and killed for displeasing men.

As then, as ever, these injuries add up to degradation and disadvantage. Though they feel very personal when we are subject to them, the men who benegt from driving us out of public competition for power and resources don’t really care who we are. If another woman was in our place, they’d do it to her.

It’s the result of a centuries long, deliberate political project of destroying women’s will, power, and independence. That power and independence won’t be restored without similarly
deliberate political resistance. Because, as Lierre Keith says  oppression is not a misunderstanding.

This is how they made her a political prisoner in her own home. This was how they broke her. Remember.

 Natasha Chart


Install LOVE on the Human Computer


Customer: I really need some help. After much consideration, I’ve decided to install LOVE. Can you guide me through the process?

Tech Support: Yes, I can help you. Are you ready to proceed?

Customer: Well, I’m not very technical, but I think I’m ready to install it now. What do I do?

Tech Support: The first step is to open your HEART. Have you located your HEART?

Customer: Yes, I have, but there are several other programs running right now. Is it okay to install while they are running?

Tech Support: What programs are running?

Customer: Let’s see… I have PAST-HURT.EXE, LOW-ESTEEM.EXE, GRUDGE.EXE, and RESENTMENT.EXE running now.

Tech Support: No problem. LOVE will gradually erase PAST-HURT.EXE from your current operating system. It may remain in your permanent memory, but it will no longer disrupt other programs. LOVE will eventually overwrite LOW-ESTEEM.EXE with a module of its own called HIGH-ESTEEM.EXE. However, you have to completely turn off GRUDGE.EXE and RESENTMENT.EXE. Those programs prevent LOVE from being properly installed. Can you turn those off?

Customer: I don’t know how to turn them off. Can you tell me how?

Tech Support: My pleasure. Go to your Start menu and invoke FORGIVENESS.EXE. Do this as many times as necessary until it’s erased the programs you don’t want.

Customer: Okay, did that and now LOVE has started installing itself automatically. Is that normal?

Tech Support: Yes. You should receive a message that says it will stay installed for the life of your HEART. Do you see that message?

Customer: Yes, I do. Is it completely installed?

Tech Support: Yes, but remember that you have only the base program. You need to begin connecting to other HEARTs in order to get the upgrades.

Customer: Oops. I have an error message already. What should I do?

Tech Support: What does the message say?

Customer: It says, “ERROR 412-PROGRAM NOT RUN ON INTERNAL COMPONENTS.” What does that mean?

Tech Support: Don’t worry, that’s a common problem. It means that the LOVE program is set up to run on external HEARTs but has not yet been run on your HEART. It is one of those complicated programming things, but in non-technical terms it means you have to “LOVE” your own machine before it can “LOVE” others.

Customer: So what should I do?

Tech Support: Can you pull down the directory called “SELF-ACCEPTANCE”?

Customer: Yes, I have it.

Tech Support: Excellent. You’re getting good at this. Now, click on the following files and then copy them to the “MYHEART” directory: FORGIVE-SELF.DOC, REALIZE-WORTH.TXT, and ACKNOWLEDGE LIMITATIONS.DOC. The system will overwrite any conflicting files and begin patching any faulty programming. Also, you need to delete SELF-CRITICISM.EXE from all directories, and then empty your recycle bin   afterwards to make sure it is completely gone and never comes back.

Customer: Got it. Hey! My HEART is filling up with new files. SMILE.MP3 is playing on my monitor right now and it shows that PEACE.EXE, and CONTENTMENT.EXE are copying themselves all over my HEART. Is this normal?

Tech Support: Sometimes. For others it takes a while, but eventually everything gets downloaded at the proper time. So, LOVE is installed and running. You should be able to handle it from here. Ah, one more thing.

Customer: Yes?

Tech Support: LOVE is freeware. Be sure to give it and its various modules to everybody you meet. They will in turn share it with other people and you might get some similarly cool modules back.

Customer: I will! Thanks for your help!

Tech Support: You’re welcome.

(Author unknown)


To the Next Generation of Artists

(A timely message from two favourite and respected artists, aimed at an artist audience, but relevant for everyone)

Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock have been friends for over forty years. In the pursuit of their art, they’ve shattered boundaries previously believed unbreakable, they’ve revolutionized the concept of innovation, and have chosen to make the endeavor of living compassionately and courageously the center of their lives.

From their early days composing and playing together with Miles Davis in Davis’ Second Great Quintet, to branching out and flourishing in their individual endeavors, Wayne and Herbie’s contributions to the world of music have been nothing short of extraordinary. Together, they’ve won a combined total of twenty-five Grammys. Despite their countless accolades, they’ll both insist that their greatest achievements lie in their roles as husbands, fathers, and humans of this earth.

After the recent rash of tragedies around the globe in the past year from Paris to San Bernardino, we had the opportunity to ask Wayne and Herbie how the next generation of artists can respond. Below is an open letter with their thoughts.


To the Next Generation of Artists,

We find ourselves in turbulent and unpredictable times.

From the horror at the Bataclan, to the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino, we live in a time of great confusion and pain. As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace.

While it’s true that the issues facing the world are complex, the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you. You don’t have to be living in a third world country or working for an NGO to make a difference. Each of us has a unique mission. We are all pieces in a giant, fluid puzzle, where the smallest of actions by one puzzle piece profoundly affects each of the others. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.

We’d like to be clear that while this letter is written with an artistic audience in mind, these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.


We are not alone. We do not exist alone and we cannot create alone. What this world needs is a humanistic awakening of the desire to raise one’s life condition to a place where our actions are rooted in altruism and compassion. You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet. Music is but a drop in the ocean of life.


The world needs new pathways. Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers. Whether through the exploration of new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies or unexpected collaborations, processes and experiences, we encourage you to dispel repetition in all of its negative forms and consequences. Strive to create new actions both musically and with the pathway of your life. Never conform.


The unknown necessitates a moment-to-moment improvisation or creative process that is unparalleled in potential and fulfillment. There is no dress rehearsal for life because life, itself, is the real rehearsal. Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.


We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon. In life there are unlimited opportunities. The words, “success” and “failure”, themselves, are nothing more than labels. Every moment is an opportunity. You, as a human being, have no limits; therefore infinite possibilities exist in any circumstance.


The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common. We can work to create an open and continuous plane where all types of people can exchange ideas, resources, thoughtfulness and kindness. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts. The more we interact, the more we will come to realize that our humanity transcends all differences.


Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool. It is time for the music world to produce sound stories that ignite dialogue about the mystery of us. When we say the mystery of us, we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all. Yes, you are enough. Yes, you matter. Yes, you should keep going.


Arrogance can develop within artists, either from artists who believe that their status makes them more important, or those whose association with a creative field entitles them to some sort of superiority. Beware of ego; creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.


The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones. We’re speaking directly to a system that’s in place, a system that conditions consumers to purchase only the products that are dictated to be deemed marketable, a system where money is only the means to an end. The music business is a fraction of the business of life. Living with creative integrity can bring forth benefits never imagined.


Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom. They have weathered storms and endured the same heartbreaks; let their struggles be the light that shines the way in the darkness. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes. Instead, take what they’ve done and catapult you towards building a progressively better world for the progeny to come.


As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away. Look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut or a pilot. Imagine exploring the pyramids or Machu Picchu. Imagine flying like a bird or crashing through a wall like Superman. Imagine running with dinosaurs or swimming like mer-creatures. All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery.

How does any of this lend to the creation of a peaceful society you ask? It begins with a cause. Your causes create the effects that shape your future and the future of all those around you. Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.

The Battle of Orgreave

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, a pivotal event during the miner’s strike in Britain in 1984-5. On that day in 1984, miners who went to picket lorry drivers supplying coke to the steel industry were met by thousands of police officers drawn from all over the country, commanded by South Yorkshire police. The force included officers on horseback and the first units with short shields and truncheons ever used in Britain. Their official purpose, stated in the police’s tactical manual, was to “incapacitate” demonstrators.

On June 18 1984, after weeks of picketing, miners and supporters turned up at 8am outside the Orgreave coking plant to protest at the “scab” labour and coal lorries passing through the South Yorkshire site. After bricks and bottles were thrown at the “scab” vehicles, the police commander at Orgreave, assistant chief constable Anthony Clement, responded by sending in the mounted police. It was a serious overreaction and the miners’ mood quickly turned violent.

When the pickets countered with a second push, Clement ordered another mounted advance and demanded that the pickets disperse. They refused and Clement unleashed a third advance, backed up by short-shield snatch squads. Known as Police Support Units (PSUs), these were a new development on the British mainland. An aggressive, consciously offensive form of policing, they were developed out of the Toxteth and Brixton riots of 1981 and modelled on some of the colonial riot tactics used by the Hong Kong police force. As the mounted police cantered out, the PSUs followed in their wake, delivering baton beatings to the unarmed miners.


Lesley Boulton from Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures was calling for an ambulance for an injured miner when attacked by a mounted policeman in riot gear with drawn truncheon.

2112Events did not end there. As a majority of miners headed off to Orgreave village, the police sweltered in the sun. Those miners still picketing the plant played football and goaded the police lines. As the hours passed, the police became increasingly frustrated. Now it was no longer about keeping Orgreave open; the police wanted it out with the miners.

Massively outnumbering the pickets, they started banging their shields with truncheons. Then came the PSUs. Then came the cavalry. Then came the charge. As miners fled the field, across railway lines and into the village, the police closed in. Miners were beaten on the field as they lay. But when the cavalry entered Orgreave village, they came under renewed attack. Clement ordered a mounted police canter through this small Yorkshire village. An out-of-control police force now charged pickets and onlookers alike on terraced, British streets. The full brutality of the police was only revealed later as prosecution after prosecution of “rioting” miners was thrown out. Instead, the South Yorkshire police force ended up with a huge compensation bill.

A classic example of the out-of-control behaviour of the police that day was captured in what has become an iconic image of the time (above) when Lesley Boulton narrowly escaped serious injury when a mounted police officer attempted an assault.

“I was attending to a man who was on the ground and seemed to have some chest injuries. I was standing trying to attract the attention of a police officer in the road to get him an ambulance. Because I thought, I don’t know how serious it was, but it warranted some medical attention.”

“As I stood up to attract this policeman’s attention, this officer on a police horse just bore down on me. Fortunately for me there was someone standing behind me who was also with the injured miner, who just yanked me out of the way.”

“John Harris, who was taking the pictures, was using a motor drive and I’ve seen not just the famous photograph but the subsequent picture which shows the baton going down very close to me. I felt it go past me. I was just missed by the skin of my teeth really.”

A fuller account which is well worth reading can be found here.

To many, Orgreave remains a symbol of resistance to Thatcherism’s attempt to crush not only the miners’ strike, but with it a culture and a community diametrically opposed to 1980s Conservatism. (The coking plant itself was later shut down and demolished.

…the strike was a “struggle for a livelihood, for jobs, and even for the identity of communities devastated by political decisions to close pits without thought for the lives affected. The poverty, deprivation and oppression were terrible. Yet the bravery of the men, women and children in those communities is almost forgotten, the struggle has all but been erased from memory.

Following the outcome of the inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, pressure has been put on the Home Secretary Theresa May to order a Public Inquiry into the vicious and unruly policing of picketing miners, wrongful arrests and the subsequent falsification of police evidence, especially in light of the fact that the same police force, the South Yorkshire Police Force, was responsible for both and responded to both incidents in the same way.

The falsification of evidence was also aided by the media coverage of events, with the news media reporting and showing police responding to attacks by the miners, when in actual fact the reverse had been the case. The BBC subsequently apologised nearly a year later for their skewed news coverage, saying that somehow the video footage had got mixed up

Following the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquest, a jury ruled all 96 people who died at the stadium were unlawfully killed, mainly as a result of gross negligence by South Yorkshire Police officers. A redacted version of the Orgreave report shows that the same officers and solicitors linked to Hillsborough and the subsequent cover-up were involved in the aftermath of the Orgreave.

If the police hadn’t been allowed to get away with Orgreave, the cover-up at Hillsborough would never have happened, – Chris Kitchen, NUM General Secretary 

The IPCC is currently considering whether an unredacted version of the report  can be published. Of the report, shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, said: “As I’ve always said, we won’t have the truth about Hillsborough until we have the full truth about Orgreave. Finally, this report provides proof of what has long been suspected – that underhand tactics were used first against South Yorkshire miners before being deployed to much more deadly effect against Liverpool supporters.”

Burnham added: “Like the people of Liverpool, the mining communities of South Yorkshire now need to be told the truth about their police force and the policing of the miners’ strike. On the back of these revelations, Theresa May must now order a disclosure process not just on Orgreave but on the policing of the miners’ strike.”

Shelia Coleman, spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, who believes the Hillsborough cover-up was sanctioned by the then Tory government because of how South Yorkshire Police managed the miners’ strike.

“Margaret Thatcher got off very lightly [over Hillsborough] and the government of the day got off undoubtedly.

“We are of the firm opinion that the cover-up came from the top, so that’s a very disappointing aspect.

“It’s always been our argument that it [the cover-up] was payback time, Margaret Thatcher’s way of thanking South Yorkshire Police for how they managed the miners’ strike.”

Men who were young at Orgreave are now approaching their 60s. Memories fade, evidence disappears and many who were there have not lived to see the truth come out. But this is not history, it is a vivid and open wound. Its impact lives on, both for the community, but in particular for those who were there. We owe it to them to deliver the truth and allow these wounds, finally, to heal.


Technology & the Other War

Address by Daniel Quinn at Student Pugwash “Technologies of Peace” Conference, Carnegie Mellon University, 1997

I’m not going to talk long here, because it’s been my experience that people who’ve read my books always come loaded with questions that are always much more relevant to them than anything I could dream up to say in advance.

Four years ago one of the organizers of the Minnesota Social Investment Forum called to ask if I would come address their annual meeting. This was in fact one of the very first invitations I’d ever received to speak, and I must say that it puzzled me a lot. Why would a bunch of investors–social or otherwise–think I had something to say to them? I know nothing whatever about investing, have never written a single word about investing.

The following year I received an invitation to address a sort of executive committee made up of representatives from every department of a regional hospital system centered in Albuquerque New Mexico–each of whom had read my work. Needless to say, I was even more puzzled. I’m a regular mine of information about investing–compared to what I know about hospitals and health care.

Last winter I was contacted by someone connected with The Woodlands Group, an informal gathering of human resource professionals and organizational development specialists who have been meeting four times a year for something like twenty years. Each meeting has as its focus a book that has a unique contribution to make to them and their work. The focus of this spring’s meeting was going to be on two books of mine, Ishmael and The Story of B. The question for me was, would I care to come and interact with them for the three days of their meeting? I have only the vaguest idea what human resource professionals and organizational development specialists actually DO, but of course I said yes.

And then of course there was the invitation to address this group here, meeting to consider something called “Technologies of Peace.” I’m very far from being an expert on the subject of social investment, health care, human resources, organizational development, OR technology–but there I was and here I am. Why? Not “Why am I here?” but rather “Why was I invited?”

I’ll share this answer with you because I think it may in fact be more important and more useful to you than anything I have to say on the subject of technology. If you were to ask all those people WHY they invited me to speak on subjects I’m apparently unqualified to address, I think you’d work hard to get a single, coherent explanation out of them. But here it is. The characteristic of my work that appeals to all these different points of view is this: I follow a strange rule that can be applied usefully to any subject whatever, whether it’s social investment, health care, human resources, or the technologies of peace. Here it is: IF THEY GIVE YOU LINED PAPER, WRITE SIDEWAYS.

We are perpetually being presented with lined paper on which we are expected to write our thoughts, our lives, and indeed our futures. Nicholas Copernicus received a full sheaf of lined paper at the end of the fifteenth century, and some of those lines represented the physical arrangement of the universe as it was understood at that time. It was perfectly possible for him to be a respected astronomer so long as he did his work within the lines of the Ptolemaic system. But because he eventually saw that he had to write sideways against those lines, he knew that his most important work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), could not be published until after his death. Albert Einstein similarly received a full set of lined paper as a young man, but his was a different sort of age. When he turned the paper sideways and began to work out his theory of relativity, this was very quickly recognized as an important contribution. Darwin, Freud, and Marx are other well known examples of people who took the lined paper they were given and turned it sideways to do important work that changed the world.

Let me give you an example of some of the lines found on the paper you’ve received so far–you, I–everyone who grows up in this culture. “Because we have a growing population, we must finds ways to increase food production. Increasing food production is essential and undoubtedly beneficial work.” These are the lines on the paper we’ve been given. But when I turn the paper sideways and write, “Food production is the fuel of our population explosion, and the more we increase it, the more fuel we supply that explosion,” everyone goes crazy. I’m not writing inside the lines!

The paper we receive provides lines not only for single opinions in our culture but for opposing opinions as well. For example, there’s a set of lines for writing in favor of capital punishment and a set of lines for writing in opposition to capital punishment, and we’re all familiar with them. When writing in favor, you say, “Some crimes deserve this ultimate punishment, and it acts as a deterrent.” When writing in opposition, you say, “No crime deserves this ultimate punishment, and it DOESN’T act as a deterrent.” You can use either set–but only an original thinker turns the paper sideways and says, “Punishment isn’t a value for me, and deterrence can never be demonstrated in any definitive way. So where do we go from here?”

There is a set of lines for writing in favor of abortion and a set of lines for writing in opposition to abortion, and if you turn that paper sideways and write the wrong way against those lines, you’d better do it anonymously–or move to the moon. There is even a set of lines for writing in favor of technology and a set of lines for writing in opposition to technology. Here is someone writing within the lines in opposition to it: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in ‘advanced’ countries.” The media has elevated the author of these commonplace ideas to the level of a genius, because a madman is always more interesting if he’s a genius. He is Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who seems to have imagined that he was saying something terribly original in his ponderous diatribe, called “Industrial Society and its Future.”

You might be surprised to know how many people go along with the line of thinking taken by the Unabomber–or perhaps you wouldn’t, I have no way of knowing. Some heavy lines have grown up in recent decades around the concept of “natural.” Natural foods are good foods, foods that come to us, as it were, directly from nature, without the addition of artificial colors or preservatives. This notion has been extended in all sorts of directions. Clothes made from “natural” fibers contribute to a more “natural” lifestyle. Shampoos made from “natural” ingredients are presumably better for your hair than shampoos made from ingredients synthesized in a laboratory. Thinking along these lines has produced, by a kind of sympathetic magic, the notion that everything manmade is unnatural, and therefore unhealthy and quite possibly evil. If something comes to us from bees or sheep or flowers, it’s natural and okay, but if it comes to us from humans it’s unnatural and noxious. Humanity has gradually come to be perceived as ITSELF unnatural–as somehow no longer belonging to nature. When a beaver fells a tree, this is a “natural” event. When a man fells a tree, this is an unnatural event–perverted, unholy.

Technology, in this context–to use Kaczynski’s words–has made life unfulfilling, has subjected human beings to indignities, has led to widespread psychological and physical suffering, and has inflicted severe damage on the “natural” world–the natural world being that world where humans don’t belong at all.

Writing across these heavily drawn lines has been hard work. Those of you who have read Ishmael or any of my other books know that it’s been my particular business to re-imagine the life story of our species as a member of the general community of life on this planet–not as the ruler or steward of that community or as the most important member of that community or as the single culminating high point that the universe has been straining to reach for the past fifteen billion years or so.

When humanity is scaled down to the size of the rest of the community, distinctions between “natural” and “unnatural” become very hazy indeed. For example, why exactly is the trail system of a white-tailed deer “natural” but an expressway system “unnatural”? Why is a bird’s nest “natural” but this building we’re in here “unnatural”?
An easy answer might be that the bird builds from “natural” materials and we don’t. But then you might ask why wire, cotton, string, paper, fiberglass, and even cement are often found in birds’ nests. Someone in Texas recently found a raven’s nest constructed entirely of barbed wire. Workers in an office building in California once found a canyon wren’s nest built entirely of office supplies–things like pins, thumbtacks, paper clips, rubber bands, and so on–not a shred of so-called natural materials.

The ancestors of birds didn’t fly–and neither did ours. The creatures we call birds eventually FOUND a way to fly–as did we. It’s not easy to explain why this transition was “natural” for birds but NOT natural for us. If we conceptually restore humanity to its place in the community of life, it becomes a little difficult to figure out how ANYTHING we do is “unnatural.” In fact (I suggest), this distinction between natural and unnatural that we hear so often made–especially in reference to technology–is as little reality-based as the distinction between approved and unapproved recreational drugs.

Speakers at event like these always receive lined paper at the outset. This isn’t meant in any sense as a criticism. The theme of any event (as stated in its title) is specifically INTENDED to provide lines. I recently gave a keynote address at the annual convention of the North American Association for Environmental Education, and the theme of this meeting was “Weaving Connections: Cultures and Environments.” Now these were hazy lines indeed, so faint that, for all practical purposes, they could be ignored. The result was, I didn’t have to turn the paper sideways, I just talked about what was currently on my mind, and this is basically what they wanted me to do anyway.

The theme of THIS event, “Technologies of Peace,” presents a different sort of challenge entirely. There are some clear lines drawn here, and I’d like to spend a few minutes examining them.

What is understood instantly is: Technologies of peace–versus technologies of war. It’s not, for example, technologies of peace versus technologies of commerce or technologies of peace versus technologies of communications. The dichotomy to be focused on is the one between peace and war.

For any culturally literate Westerner, a foundation piece of wisdom found in the bible will spring to mind on the subject of technologies of war versus technologies of peace. Here it is, from the second chapter of Isaiah:

  • The Lord shall judge between the nations,
  • and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
  • they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
  • and their spears into pruning hooks;
  • nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  • neither shall they learn war any more. 


This is a great and famous image of people turning from war to peace–unless you happen to be in the habit of following my rule. If you turn this lined paper sideways, what you see in this business of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is not people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war–from an inTRAspecies war to an inTERspecies war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature–the mythological war that the people of our particular culture have been waging here for the past ten thousand years. 

The plowshare has always been understood by the people of our culture as the sword they follow across the face of the earth. They followed it out of the Fertile Crescent eastward to India and China, they followed it northward into Europe, and finally they followed it westward into the New World.

The first great addition to the “technologies of peace” in the New World may have been the cotton gin, but the second was the more important. This was the John Deere plow, called “the plow that won the West.” Everyone in nineteenth century America understood the military reference in this nickname. Guns and swords didn’t win us the West, though we had to have them to drive off the Indians. It took a plow to win us the West–a plow that could penetrate the intransigent, never-before cultivated soil of the Great Plains.

I bring all this up because it’s important that you not be deceived into thinking that any technology we don’t use as a weapon against each other is automatically a technology for peace. There are not two kinds of technology in this domain, there are three. There are technologies for peace, technologies we use to conquer each other, and technologies we use to conquer the world–technologies for what I’ve called “the other war.”

Technologies for the Other War need special attention, because I’m afraid most people WILL take them to be technologies of peace, and that’s a very hazardous mistake. This is because, oddly enough, the wars we wage against other species are actually no less dangerous TO US than the wars we wage against each other.

Two examples will show you why this is so. Two examples will be sufficient, because there are basically two kinds of species we go to war against: Those species we can easily destroy right down to the last member and those species we cannot easily destroy down to the last member. I’m afraid that many of our current crop of “technologies for peace” are devoted to these wars.

It’s relatively easy for us to destroy large, slow-breeding species like elephants, giraffes, gorillas, bison, wolves, coyotes, passenger pigeons, Siberian tigers, whales, California condors, and so on. Some of these are already extinct, and probably most of the ones I’ve named will become extinct during your lifetime. These large, slow-breeding species are not, for the most part, being killed off directly by technology. They’re being obliterated by our population explosion–which receives essential support from technologies that are perceived in our culture to be technologies not just of peace but of godliness itself. A famous recent example is the well-known “Green Revolution,” a technology that made it possible for us to grow our population from three billion to six billion in just 35 years. The sacred work continues, of course, in every school of agriculture in the world, where every researcher is diligently working to give us the tools that will enable us to grow our population from 6 billion to 12 billion in ANOTHER 35 years.

Upwards of two hundred species–mostly of the large, slow-breeding variety–are becoming extinct here every day because more and more of the earth’s carrying capacity is systematically being converted into HUMAN carrying capacity. These species are being burnt out, starved out, and squeezed out of existence–thanks to technologies that most people, I’m afraid, think of as technologies of peace. I hope it will not be too long before the technologies that support our population explosion begin to be perceived as no less hazardous to the future of life on this planet than the endless production of radioactive wastes.

We’re very like people living on the top floor of a high rise who every day set off two or three explosions in the lower floors of the building, weakening and even demolishing walls. Still–so far–the building stands, and the top floor where we live continues to sit on top. But if we continue to set off two or three explosions a day in the lower floors, then eventually and inevitably, one of these explosions is going to create a critical weakness–a weakness that combines dynamically with all the other weaknesses to bring the building crashing down.

We can say, “Yes, it’s true that we drive a couple hundred species to extinction every day, but there are tens of millions–hundreds of millions–between us and catastrophe.” We can SAY this, but the sheer number is no guarantee, because like the random bombers in the high rise, there’s no way of telling which extinction will be the one that suddenly combines dynamically with thousands of others to bring the whole structure down.

This brings me to the other kind of species we’re are war with–the small, rapidly-breeding species. Species of this type become our enemies for one of three reasons: they invade our fields and eat our food, they invade our houses and make us nervous, or they invade our bodies and make us ill. These are all pretty obvious. The first type are all the various insects and funguses that feed on our crops. The second type are creatures like cockroaches, fleas, and termites. The third type are bacteria and viruses.

The technological strategy we’ve pursued in our dealings with these small, fast-breeding creatures has been remarkably obtuse. Very simply, all too often we’ve acted as though we could make these creatures extinct down to the very last member, the way we might do with elephants or pandas. All too often we’ve acted as though the more we killed, the closer we came to making them extinct. But of course this constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of biological realities.

What we’ve done in actual fact is make ourselves the chief agent of natural selection in these enemy species. Our insecticide hasn’t killed off every last member of the targeted species in a given field. It’s killed off the 80% that are most susceptible to the deadly effect of the insecticide, leaving alive as breeding stock for the next generation the 20% that was less susceptible. Generation after generation, we are in effect PRODUCING a population of insects more and more resistant to our insecticides. If we WANTED to produce such insects, this would be exactly the way to go about it!

In the same way, I’m afraid, we’re systematically developing household pests that are more and more resistant to the insecticides we use against them.

The misguidedness of our technological strategy toward the small and fast-breeding is even more evident–and more disturbing!–when it comes to human disease organisms. In areas of the world where antibiotics are used more freely and are often available without prescription, resistant “super-bugs” are turning up with alarming frequency. Bacteria resistant to penicillin have emerged in Africa. In France and Britain, Enterococcus, a bacterium that causes blood infections, became resistant to vancomycin in the late 1980s. Atlanta hospitals recently came across a deadly staph germ that is only one step away from becoming completely immune to what is now the last-resort antibiotic against it. A strain of plague has appeared in Madagascar that is immune to standard antibiotics.

It must be kept in mind that this is nothing remotely like “nature fighting back.” This is merely nature operating exactly the way we know it operates, the way it has been operating here for some three and a half billion years. As I say, if we WANTED to produce a bacterium resistant to an antibiotic, this is exactly how we would proceed. We would kill off as many as we could from a population of bacteria and let the survivors produce a next generation. Then we’d kill off as many of that generation as we could and then let the survivors produce a next generation. And so on. Eventually, sure enough, we would produce a generation that was totally impervious to our antibiotic–and that’s what we’re doing globally.

Not that I’m trying to alarm you. [Kidding.] I’d better end here by saying that I’m definitely FOR technologies of peace. At the same time, we’d better be aware that SOME technologies of peace are actually more hazardous than ANY technology of war.