“Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins.”-Jacques Ellul
“Our life and our death are with our neighbor.”-St. Anthony, father of Christian monasticism
“I can see now that I have to start this journey without a map.”-Paul Kingsnorth
Implant or not, the machine is inside us. It dwells in our homes and in our minds, for the industrial complex is not only an economic network that controls more and more of our days; it’s also narrating who we are.
For instance, following the four-year ceremonial cycle of this culture, the storytellers are once again preparing for their primary ritual. At the end of the ritual, a ruler will have been named, and the map of the social world recreated. Yard signs will reflect the map, and we will learn once again which neighbors to love, which to hate. If we imbibe the story, our minds and hearts once again will be given to Caesar.
There is another way.
Let me tell you about my neighbor.
Jamie Miller, from the perspective of the industrial storytellers, is the backwards rural neighbor I’m supposed to despise, as I’m the stuck-up urban invader he’s supposed to despise. Jamie lives up the hill from the organic vegetable CSA farm where I work, and his family has lived on the ridgetop for generations, long before us urban transplants arrived. A father of one grown son and twin sons my daughter’s age, Jamie farms, fixes machines, hunts, curses, and laughs louder than anybody I know. His father and sister and relatives populate the ridgetop and surrounding valleys. His son sold his old truck to the farm, and Jillian worked hard to scrape off the big sticker on the rear window that read, “Locally Hated.” Like other rural folks on the red part of the map, Jamie is a gun-owner, adores the Second Amendment, and voted for Trump in large part because Trump would protect his guns.
Jamie is stout, his voice gravelly, his face always cocked in a half grin. Like some rustic elf, he aims every conversation at a punchline.
“I don’t know where we’d be without Jamie.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the couple who runs the farm where I’ve worked for 13 years say some version of this. Jamie is integral to the functioning of their CSA. A welder and shade-tree mechanic, he helps keep their tractors and vehicles running and adapts implements, like the bed lifter, to specific needs. That he is so close and so willing to help in a pinch saves them countless hours and countless headaches. But Jamie is not just one of their mechanics (another lives elsewhere on the ridgetop). Jamie hunts the deer that pester Jillian and Adam’s crops. He presses apples with them in the fall. One day, when Adam and I were working in the greenhouse, Jamie stopped in and asked if Adam was interested in buying his two miniature horses for the kids. Adam most certainly was not. “Well I guess I’ll go talk to Jillian and the girls about it then,” Jamie said, a big smile on his face, his elvin eyes gleaming.
I doubt Jamie considers himself an environmentalist, but he does more to foster natural culture than many college folk who could tell you how many parts per million of carbon is currently in the air. He gardens, cans, hunts, fishes, raises and butchers his own meat. He farms organically and built his own house. If he were to write a book, I’m not sure how he’d articulate his values. Maybe he’d call it “Deep Ecology and the Second Amendment” or maybe “The Eco-Hick’s Guide to Guns and Self-Reliance.” Whatever the philosophies and values swirling around in him, his knowledge of the land, the local animal communities, tree identification, family-scale food production and the practical skills that enable him to care for many of his own needs and the needs of his family and neighbors are what urban runaways like myself strive for.
Of course, on the political map, and in the minds of many liberal urban professionals, Jamie is something else. He is one of the nameless, blood-thirsty creatures prowling in a sea of red, enclosing the blue urban centers with rural carnage. He is the cancer of the body politic, the virus leading to fascism, the racist, gun-toting, people-hating, oil-loving savage threatening the cosmopolitan, enlightened, sustainable, diverse, evidence-based civilization. He is the monster under the beds of the corporate professionals, the scary Trump-voter who—in liberal fantasies—wakes up in the morning roaring racial slurs, who would never wear a pussy hat on his head but disgustingly might use the word in a demeaning way. In short, Jamie is not Jamie at all, but the fantasy alt-villain of the Left: the Right.
Please forgive this descent into the toxic waters of politics. My point is not to get lost in conventional debate here. But seeking to heal from the culture war, I want to uncover the bodies of my neighbors, which industrial stories kick in the face, deform, and then at election time bury beneath the red-blue map. Aligned with my neighbors, I want to stand in a place off that map, outside those stories. From the world of actual bodies, I want to embody a story outside the industrial story machine.
Industrial storytellers orchestrate a fake split between left and right, and this manufactured split foments hatred between neighbors.
For instance, my wife once overheard some members of the local Democratic Party chapter discussing how to approach political opponents. When you find yourself starting to agree, they said, you should immediately examine your thought process and question why you are agreeing. Such a posture is disturbing. It assumes our political opponents are so deranged that agreeing with them likely signals our own slipping toward derangement. It’s pathological, human-hating advice, stunning in its own deranged logic. It’s the same ideology that causes one to see a political sign in a yard and feel an immediate, pre-cognitive repulsion.
I write as one whose political roots are Left, and I am harder on the institutions that have blinded me than I am on the institutions that blind those identifying as Right. Clearly, though, industrial hate infects both ends of the political spectrum. The problem is not that your neighbor votes for Biden or Trump. The problem is that so many still think they have more in common with a presidential candidate than they do with their neighbor who voted the opposite way. The problem is that a yard sign with nothing but a name on it can trigger hate.
If we watch conventional, industrial news or continue to find meaning in conventional, industrial stories, then our hatred gets amplified over and over and over. Ukraine. Covid. Guns. Abortion. Joe Rogan. Kyle Rittenhouse. January 6. Black Lives Matter. Proud Boys. Russiagate. China. Each of these stories, as told on industrial story machines, has two sides with a line of hate in the middle. That line of hate is a basic pattern of machine stories. Industrial storytellers, like sorcerers of hate, cloak their voices with authoritative, serious-sounding objectivity, as if they are just reporting the facts. But if we imbibe their version of facts, we learn little about reality. Instead, we just get drunk on hate. The telling has clear intent. It’s hate information.
In early 2022, for instance, this fabricated hate targeted podcaster Joe Rogan. I only listened to Rogan a couple times before the incident and have listened occasionally since. He strikes me as generally affable, thoughtful and curious, naturally opinionated, with a capacity for questioning his assumptions. He’s a good case study because he’s basically just a dude who people might like or not like depending on taste more than politics. But caught in the crosshairs of culture-war leaders, Rogan became deformed. Interviewing guests who questioned the industrial narrative on Covid, he became a vessel of misinformation and a conspiracy theorist. Shortly after, the name-calling shifted, and Rogan was denounced as an unrepentant racist.
The details of the story can be read elsewhere. Here, I’m interested in why they went after Rogan. Two reasons stand out. First, in questioning the industrial narrative on Covid, he questioned the machine, and one does not question the machine, says the machine. Second, and more importantly to us, Rogan and his listeners represent what so many people on the ground have discovered: the left-right, red-blue split is an artifice, and a world of real people exists outside of it.
Rogan is a multi-millionaire, and while the truth about him matters, the real tragedy of the attack on him was its effect outside the story machines, among neighbors, in the world of bodies. Rogan as a symbol was deformed into one more front in the armed conversations that make up our culture war, setting neighbor against neighbor. Because the term is used so often, we can forget that “culture war” uses the word “war”—the most extreme form of collective violence—to describe the split between two dominant cultural worlds in the United States. The war has generally been a cold war, but since the Covid years, it seems to be heating up. Within this milieu, our neighbor-enemy is becoming so demonic, so inhuman in the minds of some that state violence, either through censorship or detention, is increasingly justified. At war with neighbors, the opposed camps align themselves with various factions within the industrial power structure, blind to how the real victims are us and those with whom we live. It’s as if we’ve totally inverted some of the most beloved messages of Jesus: Hate your enemies, hate your neighbors, and align with those who persecute you.
Of course, not everyone is following the culture war path. Some are actually loving their neighbors regardless of their cultural backgrounds or their opinions about the latest scissor issue.
That day Jamie came in to sell Adam the miniature horses, he of course stopped and we all chatted for a while. Some political issue came up, and Jamie expressed perfectly the awareness that scares the industrial story complex as much as anything. “It don’t matter which station you turn on,” he said. “They all fuckin’ lie to us.” After a bit, he went up to the house to find Jillian. A few weeks later, the girls were riding their miniature horses in the pasture.
Before we had kids, Adrianne and I lived in the double-wide trailer on the farm. One day, I was walking down to our garden plot when Jamie pulled up on his ATV.
“Well I got you beat,” he said to me as he turned off the engine.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“Well I heard Adrianne was pregnant, but I’ve got you beat!” he said again, a huge grin on his face.
“I don’t get it.”
The trickster paused.
“Fuckin’ twins!” he pounced, sharing with me the news of his wife’s pregnancy. “We just found out yesterday Jenny’s got two in there.” He was cracking up as he told me. “We’re fucked!”
Our children ended up being born on the same day. While in other places and times, the birth of a child begins a journey of cultural formation that people embrace without need to question—in which clear social, educational and religious tasks support personal and collective growth—that’s not our circumstance. If, as parents, we follow the dominant cultural narrative, or let it happen, our children will end up with one of two industrial moralities: left or right. These are the identities drawn on the cultural map, stronger than all other cultural identities.
Of course, industrial American culture pretends to have a vast range of identities available within it, resembling consumerism’s deceptive pattern: the mirage of infinite choice. On the store shelf, the seemingly endless options available to consumers mask how we are actually limited to the single option of industrial products. Our basic humanity—our ability to feed, clothe, shelter, entertain each other, and find purpose—is gone, replaced with the singular industrial option: consumerism, through which the machine cares for our needs.
It’s the same with identity. Whether religious, political, geographical, professional, racial, economic, technological, or generational, an eclectic mix of identities is available to individuals, and we can change most of them—including gender—as we will. In industrial American culture one can be Tibetan Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Christian, atheist, secular humanist, libertarian, socialist, capitalist, urban, rural, suburban, feminist, environmentalist, white collar, blue collar, man, woman or some combination of these and countless other identities. While race and class remain a matter of circumstance, and often oppression, the rest of identity is mutable, mirroring the infinite options of the grocery store. Able to be almost anything, we pester our kids over and over, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
But this variety of identities dwells within a singular vessel, a melting pot that cooks us all down to the same thing. Like consumer goods at the grocery store, the infinity of options masks how our primary identity as human beings has been replaced by the singular industrial identity of which we are generally unaware. The machine cares for our needs within machine culture, and we embody the stories the machine provides. Our other identities are only variations on the primary theme of industrial identity. And our moralities are the product of the industrial story machine, dominated by left or right ideologies.
On some level, I think most of us intuit that the left-right, blue-red split is toxic, simplistic, and delusional. None of us gaze at our babies and dream about how they’ll one day be good liberals or conservatives because these identities carry something artificial in them. And yet, although our other identities seem primary to us, somehow this left-right spectrum becomes our most fundamental moral identity. How this left-right delusion became so integral to our experience is for a scholar to describe. What’s clear, though, is that while most would not say their allegiance to one or the other ideology is more important than other identities, that’s rarely true. Whether we are left or right shapes our subidentities much more than vice versa. Whether we are left or right is what unifies and separates people across the variety of other identities. For instance, a Biden-voting midwestern Lutheran grandma imagines she shares more values with a liberal New York City Buddhist youth than she thinks she does with her Trump-voting, midwestern Lutheran grandma neighbor.
Only the rare person cannot be situated on this spectrum. Generally, regardless of the mix of subidentities, almost all of us associate with one of these two camps. Which camp we sit within shapes how we understand morality, politics, history, the land, and each other. While we assume the camps align us with those who share our deepest convictions, they are actually war camps, turning us into soldiers who defend various factions within the industrial power structure—and keep that structure in power.
As long as we imbibe narratives from industrial story machines, the left-right split seems valid. There are people who are anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-black, and hateful. Shouldn’t we structure society to educate them and keep their worst tendencies at bay? There are people who are anti-life, anti-American, anti-God, and hateful. Shouldn’t we structure society to convert them and keep their worst tendencies at bay? Shaping society and government through this war against the reprehensible Other seems inevitable when we are caught up in the story of industrial hate.
But as soon as we see the industrial empire, and all of its major institutions bar none, as dependent on this manufactured war, the perceived division dissipates. Instead of our infinite variety of subidentities feeding into one of two industrial moralities, the identities can take on a more textured and even subversive nature. For instance, instead of using Jesus as a tool of left or right morality, he can reclaim his presence as a dangerous lover, one who taunts the power structure by bringing divided people together, by uniting opposites. Our neighbor, instead of our enemy, becomes our ally. Through love of neighbor and a posture against the industrial empire, a threatening unity emerges. Black unites with red unites with white unites with urban unites with rural unites with liberal unites with conservative. Instead of ingesting the machine’s values, we accompany each other in reality, which lies beyond the machine’s map.
My friend tells a story that illustrates this kind of love. Once he was driving through a small, rural city in Wisconsin when his car broke down. He’d been to the mechanic in this city before and knew the guys to be rough-edged. As is easy to do with most of us, he sized them up as culturally right, probably Trump voters with lots of guns. While he waited for his car to be fixed, he took a walk and came upon a mini-protest. A small group of white liberals stood on a street corner with Black Lives Matter signs. Most cars drove by quietly. Here and there, as my friend tells the story, a Prius honked.
As he watched the protest in a region where black people are a tiny minority, a black man approached on a bicycle, pulling a cart behind him. As the bicycler passed the protesters, he didn’t slow down, didn’t make eye contact with them, nor they with him. It was an awkward moment. After a while, my friend walked back to the shop, where he came upon the bicycler handing out sandwiches to the mechanics, all of them chatting and joking around as friends. In which place—the street corner or the mechanic’s shop—did love dwell? Which group—those who held signs or those who broke bread together—unsettled industrial norms?
I tell this story not to ridicule the protesters nor to deny that racism exists in this small town, but to make this point: Our liberalism or conservatism might express our admittedly imperfect moralities and politics, but they also disconnect us from at least half our human neighbors. Undermining this split requires becoming conscious of its hypnotic influence over our identities as well as how it turns us into pawns in the industrial war. It requires a posture toward the industrial story that is as militant as it’s always been: Love your neighbors, especially if the industrial story machine tells you they’re your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
Left-right identities are always performances dictated by the industrial story machine. Embodying other stories requires we undo this split, lighting the red-blue map on fire. This is one aspect of healing from the sickness caused by the machine. We are not machines, random collections of raw material with mechanistic identities and functions, nor are we what the machines tell us we are. We are not left or right—or need not be—and dislodging this story, releasing this identity, births new possibilities. A rural Trump-voter, for instance, can transform into the spiritual mentor of an urban runaway, who can transform into someone who encounters the land in the world of bodies, not just the world of books.
This healing of identity leads one to a place of not-knowing. This is different than ignorance. Ignorance is a symptom of people who know, of people, for instance, so solidly convinced of the red-blue story that they can tell you about a Trump voter or Biden voter without ever talking to one. Not knowing, on the other hand, comes when we release ourselves from dominant cultural narratives. When one does not embrace the myth of the machine or its industrial stories, one enters the womb world, where knowing isn’t a possibility. One sits within Creation, forming new ears with which to listen, new eyes with which to see. Who one is becomes a riddle. Pathways of identity grow over with weeds. Stories that will shape us hide within the world of bodies and plants, safe from the warfare of screens.
This is not an easy space to dwell within. It creates a profound conundrum for individuals, especially when one is a parent like myself. Tasked with raising actual children while abandoning the social, educational, and religious norms, the everyday challenges of childrearing take on a mythical impossibility.
When we are leaving dominant stories behind and moving toward stories unknown, how does one raise a child? In a liminal culture, who exactly are we? I have no idea, but I like Jamie’s approach.
“We’re fucked!” he said outside our trailer that day, laughing.
What else can you say as you take up such an impossible task and important responsibility as raising a child—or two—in a desecrated culture? What other posture is there besides joyful surrender and joyful failure? What other words are there but those that express mystical reality as it currently manifests: We are, at once, impregnated and ruined by this world. As Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer puts it, our task is to “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Who might we become if we give up our allegiance to industrial stories?
I’m not sure the question has an answer right now. Our present phase of abandoning industrial stories seems more snake-like than cocoon-like. Rather than embodying something new, we are shedding old skin. Rather than finding out who we are becoming, we are leaving worlds behind. Before embodying something else, we are undoing the hypnotic spell of industrial stories.
This is what I am not:
I’m not a patriot, and I don’t believe any of the unitive narratives of the United States of America. This differentiates my values from the values of many of my rural neighbors.
I find industrial capitalism to be a wretched thing. I’m also no socialist. Even when socialists aren’t obsessed with state-run programs, they still seem intent on boxing our collective identities into that of workers within an economic machine. And I am not a worker within an economic machine.
When I imagine what kind of identity I want to cultivate in my children, it has nothing to do with economies, careers, politics, or nation states. I don’t believe that as a human being, I have a duty to identify with a particular political or economic philosophy. I certainly don’t find it helpful to understand identity through anything that can be drawn on maps, whether political boundaries or political colors. Maps are always abstract, and I am not abstract, nor am I raising abstract children. They, like me, are enfleshed, as their world is enfleshed, as their identities ought to be enfleshed.
Further, I resist all collective political, economic, or religious identities available to me because they are too big. When we ignore stories as told on industrial screens, our world naturally shrinks. We discover meaning and the means of survival by relating with the people, land, and spirit who dwell nearby, as in a village. A human being can only meaningfully be in relationship with a small number of people. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar put this number at 150. That number feels much closer to human-scale community than the multitudes contained within the communities our identities currently tie us to. It makes no sense, for instance, that I can share any meaningful identity with 350 million citizens of a nation state or a billion members of a religion. I cannot be responsible to that many people, nor they me. I cannot even conceive of that many people except as an abstraction. The political machinations it takes to maintain this size of community is many degrees beyond what I can comprehend and requires inhuman power and control. I want no part.
Globalism’s influence on identity amplifies the conundrum. Globalism in all its forms is the product of industrialism. We couldn’t have a global world in the way we understand it without the violent network of industrial technology, and any political, economic, cultural, or religious project of planetary unity is inherently machine-made. The cosmopolitan cultures of urban centers, despite their superficial differences, look the same the world over and represent this monocultural globalized identity.
“There can be no such thing as a ‘global village,’” writes Wendell Berry. “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.”
But while I embrace none of the mass identities available to me, neither do I seek the wholly unique personal identity at the other end of the spectrum. Exuberant expressions of personal uniqueness—in the arts, in religious experience, in the entrepreneurial drive—are shaped by the myth of individualism. While mass identity relates us to too many people to be meaningful, individualism as identity deforms us with the opposite lie: that we are responsible to no one but ourselves. To raise teenagers who believe they are primarily in a process of self-creation, that they can be whatever they want to be, is to raise disappointed adults with inflated egos. If I cannot be responsible in any meaningful way to 350 million people, I certainly must be mutually responsible with people besides myself, shaped by common notions of who we are together. Actual identity is always communal identity, and while it generates a wholly unique, personal dimension, it is also shaped by shared stories.
As we climb out of the toxic waters of industrial political identities, we find ourselves in a fog. The actual world of bodies, the ancient world where we dwell, seems new to us, unfamiliar. And who we are here is a question. We can only follow snakes and holy people, shedding cultural identities to become ourselves. In my home, this is what we try to do.
I am pretty sure my kids would be surprised if you suggested they are American, not because they’re anti-American, but because we haven’t shared the news with them yet. We try not to talk politics too much around them, but they hear enough to know we are no fans of Biden or Trump. Although prayer is a daily practice in our household, we don’t at this point identify with any particular religion, a circumstance my wife and I find regrettable but necessary.
Instead, we shed answers and sit at the feet of questions: What are we conjuring? What is this world becoming and how are we to be human within it?
Before meals, we generally say no words. We make an offering of food. We ring a bell. We hold hands and sit in silence. Sometimes, we sing. When a friend joins us for a meal, we ask how they pray. Or we take their hands and sit quietly together.
Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons