You may remember the affair of Dr. Stella Immanuel, now long buried under the detritus of the news cycle. I’d like to exhume it for a moment, as its remains reveal a hidden cultural racism that afflicts the supposedly anti-racist left nearly as much as it does the traditional right.
Dr. Immanuel, who hails from Cameroon and received her medical training in Nigeria, participated in a right wing-associated press conference in which a succession of medical doctors expressed dissenting views on Covid public policy. She described her clinical success treating Covid with a combination of zinc, Zithromax, and HCQ (hydroxychloroquine) – the latter of which, of course, has been tainted by its association with Donald Trump and virtually eliminated from the Covid pharmacopeia of the US and many other Western countries. Dr. Immanuel also spoke of its wide use in Africa, where doctors are well familiar with it as a malarial drug, and admonished American doctors to trust that their colleagues in Africa are real doctors who wouldn’t be using it if it didn’t work.
I hold no strong opinion about HQC, a chemical which clinical studies in the United States have shown to work quite well on Republicans. Joking aside, it is impossible to discern much about the drug through the haze of political pettifoggery that surrounds it, a haze that also obscures deeper issues than whether or not it is effective: issues around Big Pharma, the funding of medical research, and cultural imperialism.
Within hours the press conference was scrubbed from Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, and the media descended upon the doctors with a furious vengeance, especially Dr. Immanuel. Here is a typical takedown from the Daily Beast:
Immanuel, a pediatrician and a religious minister, has a history of making bizarre claims about medical topics and other issues. She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches.
She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by “reptilians” and other aliens.
Other commentators dug up videos of Dr. Immanuel performing exorcisms to drive out evil spirits. Surely, the reasoning goes, we shouldn’t listen to a person like this on matters of medical policy.
The racism of this criticism has little to do with the fact that its target happens to be black. Rather, it embodies a cultural superiority complex so entrenched that its precepts seem, to those immersed in it, like reality itself.
Let’s look first at the “bizarre” idea that gynecological problems are caused by dream sex with demons and witches. In fact, such ideas are commonplace in indigenous and traditional cultures, the more general idea being that improper or unlucky interactions with the spirit world, ancestors, sorcerers, etc. can result in disease, injury, or financial misfortune. Accordingly, healers treat disease by exorcising bad spirits, lifting curses, negotiating with the ancestors, driving away ghosts, and so on.
People in those cultures widely consider such methods to be effective. Why do they believe in them? Here are two possibilities:
(1) Mired in ignorance and superstition, they have yet to emerge into the light of modern science, which would lay bare the absurdity of their primitive beliefs and usher them into the enlightened world of evidence, reason, and truth. They are less advanced than we are, and their progress is a matter of adopting our, superior, way of engaging the world.
(2) They believe in them because they work. Which means, these people are no less intelligent, no less empirical, no less rational, and no less astute than we are.
Would you ridicule a Hindu villager for saying that the earth rests on the back of a turtle? Would you ridicule a Hopi or Diné for saying that Spider Grandmother weaves the world? Most of us know better, yet a shade of that ridicule colors the ready dismissal of other culture’s ideas of health and disease.
The Bizarre Other
A bit of personal history here. When I arrived in Taiwan in 1987, still a teenager, I found a culture in which beliefs and phenomena I considered bizarre were commonplace. People would hire dangji (Taiwanese for the Mandarin jitong, or shaman) and Taoist priests for all kinds of situations: illness, business problems, family problems, misfortune on a construction site, ghosts, etc. People were generally satisfied with these services, and even highly educated people and large business enterprises would engage them (along with fengshui experts, astrologers, and so forth) when breaking ground, planning a wedding, or launching a business. Having already at that age been influenced by post-colonial thinking, I was loath to dismiss these practices out of hand, which would have required a patronizing certainty that my ways (of living and of knowing) are superior to theirs. I recognized such a dismissal to be part of a familiar colonial pattern of subjugation. Are we really so sure that our ways are the best ways?
The kind of exorcism that Dr. Immanuel performs, representing a syncretic overlay of Christianity on prior pantheistic worldviews, is only “bizarre” to the insular, culture-bound Western mind. The media have called Dr. Immanuel a “witch doctor,” a “crazy,” and in the words of Live Leak, a “religious lunatic voodoo priestess,” who went to medical school in “Yes…. THAT Nigeria” (presumably the one of internet scammers? One of Trump’s “shithole countries”?) The very use of the word “voodoo” as a term of disparagement illustrates my point, since voodoo exemplifies the rich syncretic traditions through which native peoples met the onslaught of colonialism and Christianity, appearing to have been converted but actually performing a reversal by incorporating the religion of the conqueror into their own culture. Anyone who uses the word “voodoo” to connote someone else’s ignorance only demonstrates their own.
A similar disparaging tone infuses the mainstream media’s treatment of other, non-Western treatments for Covid-19 (and non-Western medicines in general). Let’s take for example Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which has been used on over 90% of patients in China with Covid-19. While the Chinese people and government are quite confident in the therapeutic effectiveness of the six main herbal formulas (some thousands of years old) used to treat Covid, the Western popular and scientific press know better. Here are some representative quotes:
“China is promoting coronavirus treatments based on unproven traditional medicines.”
“For TCM there is no good evidence and therefore its use is not just unjustified, but dangerous,”
From NBC News (subheadline: “Scientists warn against it”):
“[TCM] can also give patients a false sense of security, leading them to neglect proven medications or therapies.”
“Herbal remedies — which China is exporting as part of its efforts to combat the coronavirus around the world — pose both direct and indirect risks to patients.”
From the BBC:
“A lack of standards and almost no clinical trials have hampered the widespread adoption of TCM.”
“Critics say China is now using the pandemic as a way to promote it [TCM] abroad.”
An attitude of cultural respect wouldn’t be so quick to write off a medical tradition with thousands of years of clinical experience and refinement practiced by literally hundreds of thousands of doctors. Chinese people alone make more than 2.5 billion visits to TCM doctors annually. To imagine that they have somehow been in the grips of a collective mass delusion for thousands of years is a kind of lazy cultural arrogance. It is the mentality of, “They must not be as smart, as rational, as evidence-based as we are. Their advancement means to adopt our medicine. We can improve them by bringing our ways to them, because we know better than they do.”
It would be an error to attribute the dismissal of TCM to overt racism. The Western medical establishment rejects it in large part because it is unwilling to seriously look at it in the first place. After all, how could anything match science? Furthermore, a cultural misapprehension of the basic philosophy of TCM reduces a sophisticated, coherent, and self-sufficient set of paradigms to a crude, haphazard corpus of placebo, superstition, and guesswork. This cultural superiority complex assumes that we know better, that our standards of proof are higher, that we can see obvious flaws in reason and evidence that they cannot. Thus, the experts quoted in Nature and NBC belittle TCM for “Using vague terms and nonpharmacological concepts or testing too many combinations of herbs to parse out their specific effects.” What are “nonpharmacological concepts”? Things like “wind heat,” “spleen qi,” or “liver fire.” To the culturally bound Western scientific mind, these are nonsense. They are sensible only if one admits the possibility that another culture might apprehend the world as astutely and fruitfully as ourselves using an entirely different conceptual vocabulary. As for “too many combinations of herbs,” this bespeaks an even more fundamental blindness. TCM is holistic and its formulas are irreducible. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because its herbal formulas are synergistic. The normal experimental method of isolating variables and identifying active ingredients (that can then become the basis of pharmaceutical drugs) is antithetical to TCM’s basic diagnostics and therapies. As for a “lack of standards,” that is because prescriptions and doses are tailored to the individual. The demand that TCM research abide by standardized and reductionistic practices is an act of cultural imperialism, justifiable if and only if our own culture’s framework of knowledge is superior to theirs.
I could make similar points about African medicine(s). Although these may not have thousands of years of written history, they too arise from intelligent worldviews and systems of knowledge. Even scientifically trained African medical doctors like Dr. Immanuel might usefully draw on them in their medical thinking. Maybe that explains the popularity in much of Africa of Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, for treating Covid-19. Like HCQ, Artemisia annua is a malaria remedy, and it has been savagely suppressed by the pharmaceutical industry. (Watch this compelling film produced by French public television.) Also used in China for febrile diseases for thousands of years, it is banned in many countries on the pretext that it contains toxic components. Well, yes, if you go through its scores of active chemicals you will find some that, in large, concentrated doses, will cause illness. (That is what was done to justify its prohibition.) In any event, the herb is on the radar today after the president of Madagascar (yes, THAT Madagascar) touted its efficacy in treating Covid-19. The Western media responded predictably with headlines like “Amid WHO warnings and with no proof, some African nations turn to herbal tonic to try to treat Covid-19.” Oh, those backwards Africans. The favorite term in these headlines was “unproven.” Also, “miracle cure” (a rabid mischaracterization – I’ve not read any actual African claiming that.) I thought, of course it is “unproven,” when herbal therapies lack the billions of dollars of research funding that go toward pharmaceuticals, and when the medical establishment is ignorant of how to use them or outright hostile to them. My point here is that this ignorance, this systemic and rhetorical belittling of herbal medicine, is also part of a cultural hegemony that spreads its scientistic gospel to the benighted with missionary zeal.
None of this is to say that modern medicine has nothing to offer traditional cultures. Indeed, Dr. Immanuel herself went to medical school, practices medicine in Texas, and advocates a combination of three modern pharmaceutical substances. This ability to operate in multiple realities or multiple mythologies is a central characteristic of non-modern psychology. It stands in contrast to the ontological domination of ‘white” culture, that tells everyone else what is so and either excludes other systems of knowledge, writes them off as superstition, tolerates them as anthropological subjects, assigns them a second-class metaphoric truth, or fetishizes them in the subtly patronizing category of “indigenous wisdom.”
I put “white” in quotes here, because it has only an incidental relation to skin color, as any light-skinned Sami or other indigenous person would affirm. Yet there is also a sense of whitewashing here, a painting of the entire world in the pale tones of a single homogenizing paradigm. Furthermore, it happens to be light-skinned cultures that developed to its fullest degree the mythology of modernity and spread it around the world. Christian missionaries set the example that economic and scientific missionaries have followed.
So there are two levels of ontological imperialism running here. First is simply “We’re right and you’re wrong.” The second, more subtle level is, “Only one of us could possibly be right, as our views are in contradiction. It’s either-or.” But a Hindu might have no problem saying that the world rests on a turtle’s back, and that it also originated by accretion of meteorites. Further, he might say this without relegating one to a realer status than the other – i.e. that the accretion disk is real and the turtle is metaphorical. Neither need dominate the other.
Can you see the kinship between ontological domination and other forms of domination (economic, political)? The habit of ontological domination is what might lead you to ask me, “But surely Charles, you don’t believe that demon sex can actually cause gynecological problems? Surely you don’t believe that there is actually alien DNA in medical treatments or that reptilian ETs have actually infiltrated the government?” We as a culture are not well practiced in engaging multiple mythologies, of shifting from one to another as useful. The above questions eoncode ontological primacy in the word “actually.” To model another way, I would answer them like this: I do not normally operate in the world-story of witches, demons, aliens, and reptilians. I do not normally think in those terms. More often, though still not normally, do I think in terms of spleen qi or wind heat. Neither, though, do I disparage or dismiss any of these world-stories out of hand. I adopt an attitude of curiosity and respect. What is their power and what are their limitations? What does one become inhabiting them? What is gained and what is lost? What is it like to see the world in their terms? What thoughts and perceptions are available when speaking that language? I ask these same questions in engaging modern science and medicine.
This non-attachment to a standard, homogenizing world-story offers several advantages. First, one is able to avail oneself of the benefits of TCM or a competent neighborhood voodoo exorcist when modern medicine fails (because of its own configuration of “power and limitation”). I have in my life certainly benefited from all three (TCM most of all, but also an exorcism helped me once, and I am grateful to modern emergency dentistry, without which I’d probably be dead right now). Secondly, unattached to any One True Reality, one becomes less fearful of uncertainty and change, more adaptable, flexible, and resourceful. Third, one is able to engage people of other cultures and other world-stories respectfully, without the unavoidable patronizing racism of thinking you know better than they do. This is true respect. Respect is a willingness to be hosted in another’s world, to honor their customs and learn their language. Today’s contentious debates around cultural appropriation might dissolve if we understood the spirit of guest and host as we take a seat at each other’s cultural banquets. If you have ever traveled abroad, you may have experienced how people appreciate even a feeble attempt to learn their local language. Respect opens the portal of welcome. The same is true for the language of beliefs.
Do not mistake this as an argument for the post-modern idea that truth is but a power-fraught human cultural construct. There is a mysterious way in which it is true that the world rests on the back of a turtle, and in which it is not true that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world. Truth is discovered or revealed, not made.
Perhaps it is because it rings with truth that the World Turtle appears in numerous unrelated mythologies from India, China, and North America. As for primordial planetary accretion, there is significant disagreement among astronomers about how planets form. Just sayin’.
Now somebody can go edit my (already wildly inaccurate) Wikipedia page to say, “Eisenstein claims that the world really does rest on the back of a turtle.”
Inclusion or Erasure?
A lot of ostensibly anti-racist activism carries with it the baggage of the cultural racism I am describing. Fully believing in one’s own cultural superiority, the resolution of racial injustice lies in granting the oppressed races equal access to its fruits. The Victorian doctrine of the White Man’s Burden lurks within the zealous campaign to “develop,” to “modernize,” to bring the benefits of technology to all the world, to remake their medical, educational, agricultural, economic, and political systems in the image of the West. We must remember that some of the most heinous acts of racial oppression were done in the name of uplifting the savages, Christianizing the heathens. For example, the abduction of two or three generations of Native Americans into boarding schools that purposely expunged their language and culture was infused with high-minded ideals. The idea was to bring them into the “melting pot’ of America, to make them like us, to supersede a backward, superstitious, inferior culture with a modern, superior one.
We sound an echo of that attitude today when we make anti-racism too much about how people of color are under-represented in (fill in the blank: the one percent CEOs, doctors, professors…) or over-represented among the ranks of the poor or incarcerated. While these disparities come from real racism, current and especially historical, focusing on them alone risks overlooking deeper systemic injustice. It would not be very disruptive to the status quo to merely insert people of different skin color into its existing roles and relations. Those roles and relations themselves draw from the hegemonic cultural matrix we call white. So yes, if we take that matrix for granted as unchangeable then racial justice is indeed a matter of representation. But is that breaking the monopoly of whiteness, or is that to become white themselves? This is what the Nigerian (yes, again, THAT Nigeria) intellectual, poet, and author Bayo Akomolafe rejects when he writes, “Needless to say, a steady undercurrent of self-loathing flowed through our lives – urging us to civilizational heights of whiteness. Urging us to wear three piece suits under a quizzical sun. Urging us to demonize our own traditions so that we could catch up with you.”
It is quite understandable that in a situation where one culture has vanquished another, that the vanquished should wish to join the victors. Traditionally, conservatives have said, “Too bad, we won and you lost,” while liberals have said, “Oh, we must be nice and make a place for the less fortunate.” Neither questions the desirability of the victory itself that spreads modern medicine and education, politics and science, money and markets, to all the world.
It may also look like here is a white person telling everyone else that they shouldn’t want what I have, when all the world actually does want modern medicine, modern schooling, and economic development. They themselves say they want it – case closed. One must question, though, the context of this wanting. If I may quote myself, here is a passage from The Ascent of Humanity about how to destroy a culture and make it want to be like ours:
“Disrupt its networks of reciprocity by introducing consumer items from the outside. Erode its self-esteem with glamorous images of the West. Demean its mythologies through missionary work and scientific education. Dismantle its traditional ways of transmitting local knowledge by introducing schooling with outside curricula. Destroy its language by providing that schooling in English or another national or world language. Truncate its ties to the land by importing cheap food to make local agriculture uneconomic. Then you will have created a people hungry for the right sneaker.”
As you can see, to argue, “They want their Nikes (i.e., modern lifestyles) and it is racist of you to tell them they can’t have it,” leaves the whole process of colonization unexamined.
Please don’t take this as an argument to do nothing about racially unequal access to medicine, food, power, and money. To the contrary, it is about meeting those needs outside the hegemonic white model. And do not take it as a criticism of those in oppressed groups who have striven to succeed in the white world. Theirs is a natural response to circumstances. What I am saying is that racial healing (and reparation) is much bigger than inclusion in the white-constructed and whitewashed world.
“Inclusivity” is a byword of the anti-racism movement, but it would be no victory for humanity if black people alongside white occupied the helm of the world-destroying humanity-exploiting machine. Too often, “inclusion” has meant erasure; it has meant acquiescence to the final, global victory of white culture. A true undoing of racism would not be to magnanimously “include” the formerly marginalized in the dominating culture, but rather to end the patterns of domination altogether. Many white people intuit this, which is why they yearn for inclusion themselves in cultures outside their own. While sometimes diverted onto cultural appropriation, the yearning also comes from a growing humility that recognizes maybe our culture isn’t the best after all.
A similar point applies to another byword of race discourse, “privilege.” The privilege discourse says, “White people, you have a seat at the banquet table, and others do not. Furthermore, you are directly benefiting from the deprivation of others.” True as far as it goes, this narrative leaves out whether the banquet is really worth having. Blindly holding it to be a consummate feast, we assume that justice, equity, and advancement means to make room for everyone at our table, with its menu of modern medicine, free markets, mass schooling, and neoliberal democracy.
Hot Dogs and Cheese Fries
I think the situation is more as follows: in fact, the banquet is an orgy of gluttony, and the main dishes are hot dogs, cheese fries, and soda pop. The oppressed races and classes, in this system, receive but scraps from the banquet table – the same menu, but less of it. They receive an inferior version of liberal education, modern medicine, political freedom, and the rest of modern life. With due apologies to fans of hot dogs and cheese fries, it is no real solution to extend the orgy of gluttony to one and all. That would only make sense if hot dogs and cheese fries are all that there were. In truth, the situation is that all the best dishes have been purged from the menu. Justice is not to include everyone else in the banquet of whiteness. It is to stop imposing its menu on everyone else, and respectfully sample and share each other’s dishes to create a diversity of co-evolving banquets.
If hot dogs and cheese fries are all that is available, it is better to have them than to starve. Absent wealth equality, it is better to be rich than to be poor. Absent a system of communal land ownership and vernacular architecture, it is better to afford to buy a house than to be homeless. Absent community-based ways to regulate social behavior, it is better to have the police on your side. Absent strong traditions of folk medicine, it is better to have health insurance than to be locked out of the only healthcare available. Absent robust local food systems, it is better to be able to shop at Whole Foods than at the convenience store. Absent a robust gift culture, it is better to have money than to have none. In current circumstances, one is better off privileged than not; however, the privilege discourse implicitly elevates its own values. It posits the life of the wealthy suburbanite with full medical insurance, well-funded school, secure investment portfolio, friendly police force, well-equipped modern hospital, and easily accessible Whole Foods as the good life, if only it could be available to all, if only room could be made for others to sit at the banquet of whiteness.
Such a life, if expanded to all, is ecologically unsustainable, but the problem is deeper than that. It is also socially impossible to expand it to all, since the wealth of some rests necessarily on the poverty of others. Actually the problem is deeper than that too. The banquet of whiteness is actually destitute of any real nourishment, as demonstrated by relentlessly rising rates of depression, suicide, mental illness, addiction, and divorce among those with the very best seats at the feast as well as those scrambling under the table for discarded bits of hot dog roll. Is this really the vision of the good life we would bring to one and all?
If you want to find the world’s happiest people, don’t look in Beverly Hills or the Hamptons. Look instead among the Hadza or the Q’ero, or go to a village in Ghana or Bhutan. It is not the West that has most highly developed the art of being human.
As for happiness, so also for health. What we might call “white medicine” has recorded miraculous successes, especially in emergency medicine. Overall though, it is debatable whether our society is healthier than traditional societies. It is not only mental and social illnesses that are on the rise; chronic physical ailments are as well, for which modern medicine can sometimes palliate symptoms, but offers little in the way of cure. Autoimmune diseases, allergies, metabolic disorders, and especially childhood chronic conditions run at unprecedented levels, increasing in each society in tandem with its modernization. In 1960, incidence of childhood chronic disease in the US was 1.8%; today it is over 50%.
The association of modernity with declining health was observed in the early 20th century by Weston A. Price, a dentist who traveled to remote parts of the world to document the health of people untouched by modern diets. From the outer Hebrides to Polynesia, from Inuit villages to Masai encampments, he compiled 15,000 photographs and innumerable descriptions of the magnificent health normal to those places: spacious palates with all 32 teeth, little tooth decay, no heart disease, easy childbirth, no chronic disease, and so forth. It was only with the introduction of modern foods and lifestyles that the maladies of modernity – which we take to be normal – became common. Once white diets and living patterns took hold, white medicine was also needed to handle the consequences. (Again, “white” – the cultures under assault were of every skin color.)
With the food and habits of the colonizers came the diseases of the colonizer. With the religion and worldview of the colonizer came its medical practices. If our own “modernity” is the inevitable destiny of the world, then so are the diseases of modernity, social or physical. Progress for the “underdeveloped” then means to bring them the medicine, education, and political systems developed to cope with those diseases.
That also means that to embrace TCM or African traditional medicine must go along with broader changes in thinking and living. Neither works very well as an add-on to an otherwise fully conventional life. That is why they are often a point of departure from a conventional life.
Given the menu most people have in their hand, given the realities of modern life, palliative care to manage a disease is a lot better than what the poor and uninsured often receive, which is no care at all. Within its horizons, the privilege discourse is irrefutable. It takes for granted, however, many of the values and assumptions of the very world it is trying to overthrow.
What is Real?
One way that well-meaning anti-racism activists try to grapple with the aforementioned ontological imperialism is to celebrate non-rational, experiential “other ways of knowing,” contradistinguishing them from linear, rational, evidentiary white science. This attempt unfortunately smuggles in the same cultural superiority complex I’ve described. It is not that TCM or the belief systems underlying exorcism are illogical or ignorant of evidence. They merely issue from a different set of postulates, a different theory of change, and a different metaphysics. And, they emphasize pattern logic over linear logic, synthetic thinking over analytic thinking, and teleology over reductionism.
Immersed in non-Western, non-scientific, non-white mythologies, one soon encounters evidence that makes them real. Modern thinking holds that there is reality, and then there are beliefs about reality. In so thinking, it stands at odds with other cultures in which the relationship between belief and reality, between subject and object, between name and thing was mysterious. Enter a worldview, utter its names, perform its rituals, and its denizens will come to greet you. Enter deeply the world of an actual voodoo priestess or Andean shaman or Taoist priest, and you will experience things that are impossible in the standard scientific worldview.
I once heard a story about the great anthropologist of religious Taoism, Kristofer Schipper, who served long apprenticeship under Taoist priests in Taiwan. In the dead of night a knock at his door roused him from bed. Opening the door, he saw three animated corpses staring at him. “You have the wrong house!” he barked, slammed the door, and went back to bed. Relating the story to my friend, he said, “When you enter the world of folk Taoism, sometimes the undead pay you a visit.” In that mythology, they are real.
What is real in our own (mainstream) mythology? Viruses, for one thing. (Note that our religion – science – bears its own heretics who don’t believe that SARS-CoV-2 causes Covid-19, and they are treated, indeed, as exactly that: heretics.) Accordingly, we enact a set of rituals to ward off the evil spirit we call a virus. We don that most primal of ritual gear, a mask. We keep our distance from the unclean for fear the spirit will jump from them to us. We go through sanctification procedures like hand washing and disinfectant booths. Those seriously afflicted go to special temples (hospitals) where highly trained acolytes in ceremonial garb apply various magical potions, tablets, and ritual devices. However real and sensible these procedures are to us, that is how real and sensible the beliefs and practices of another culture are to them. We are tempted to privilege our own by saying they aren’t rituals, they are based on real cause and effect, verifiable through the Scientific Method, not realizing that we may be inhabiting an self-reifying mythology.
Our present historical moment is one of transition in our mythology, in the basic narratives by which we know self and world. Having corroded the other cultures of the world, it now dissolves itself. The ingredients of the innumerable feasts of world cultures are strewn about the kitchen. To assemble them into something more sumptuous than ever before, we must first give up the idea that our dishes were the best. A new mythology is beckoning. For it to become real, we must develop the courage to release the old one, even though it once seemed like absolute reality itself. Fortunately, courage has an ally – reality has been falling apart for a while now. There is no doubt that economic reality and political reality have shifted. But the process of dissolution won’t stop there.
Science itself is changing as long-held truisms collapse. For instance, for my entire life the scientific-political establishment derided the notion of extraterrestrial visitors to earth, explaining away, with full weight of scientific authority, UFOs as just so many weather balloons, swamp gases, illusions, and hoaxes. Now even the New York Times and the US Navy admit to numerous accounts from trained observers of aerial phenomena far beyond the capabilities of current technology. Even science’s basic metaphysical assumptions are wavering. Foremost among them are observer-independence and the isolability of variables. Meditate on quantum non-locality and the measurement paradox, or on non-linear emergence and order out of chaos, or dig down into topics like the placebo effect, water memory, psi phenomena, the Bengston method, etc., and science, including medical science, looks more and more like the knowledge systems it has long demeaned. Rather than bringing other traditions to our banquet table, the future might have us leave the table to be hosted at others.
What applies to science and medicine extends into the rest of life. As our political systems putrify, will we continue to try to impose them on the rest of the world? As our chemical- and machine-intensive agricultural system founders, do we continue to push it on Africa? Instead, we might acknowledge the crying need for all those things I listed a few paragraphs ago as absent, let go of the superiority complex, and adopt the humility necessary to relearn about folk medicine, local food systems, gift economics, experiential education, ways of ceremony and prayer, and the mindset and perceptions necessary to live in harmony with each other and the earth.
To be sure, this knowledge is not held exclusively by communities of color, but the dominant culture we are calling “white” has long suppressed or ignored it. Thankfully, it still remains in what Orland Bishop calls “cultures of memory”: indigenous, traditional, and marginalized cultures, as well as hidden lineages within the dominant culture. Maybe Western civilization did not conquer the world after all. The appearance of conquest is temporary. The apparently vanquished cultures are still here, awaiting the exhaustion of our own. Some survive in remote places, relatively intact. Others persist in cultures like India and China that were too massive to be fully Westernized, and among minorities who have resisted full assimilation (expressed in practices like voodoo). Some are wrapped up within the main culture itself, imprinted onto its wisdom lineages, customs, superstitions, underclasses, and countercultures . Even peoples that seem to have been totally extinguished bestowed seeds upon the future, suffusing the land with wisdom that may yet be recovered, ancient seeds awaiting the thousand-year flood. These cultures of memory provide the ingredients and the cookbooks from which humanity, collectively, might prepare a true feast.