Another dimension — indigenous!
Seeking a true civilization

by G.S. <>  3 September 2009
this page is at

In fact, though the title is changed, this is really a continuation of the 'Straight talk' series. Our greatest, most urgent collective challenge is to change in a very deep way the system of values that guides human behavior throughout the world. I see such a change as absolutely crucial if humanity is to have even a chance of surviving in conditions that allow lives worth living for our children and grandchildren, or as the American Indians would put it, to the seventh generation.[1]

      It may seem silly to say we need, desperately, to do away with lying. But in fact it is essential in order to have a collective social structure in which we can have trust in each other. At the start of the 2003 military attack on Iraq I wrote about the social need for honesty in an essay, "Out of the mental prison!" which included the dire but justified warning:

      A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty . . . We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive. [emphasis added by G.S.]
--Albert Einstein

Staff member of the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center in Chengdu Sichuan, China. Photo by Edward Ginsberg, 31 July 2009

      Anyone who has made an effort to understand even to a limited extent the nature of the colonial conquest of the Americas by the European invaders is acquainted with a striking contrast between the cultural behavior of the two groups with regard to lying. The indigenous natives were 'as good as their word'. Lying was foreign to their experience. The Europeans invariably lied to the Indians in order to carry out the conquest, with no intention of fulfilling the promises they made. Of course the colonists succeeded in their conquest. But only temporarily!

The temporality of ‘conquest’

      Five hundred years - half a millenium - may seem like forever to us, we modern 'hot-shot western' news junkies whose interest in the past often seems not to extend beyond news flashes no more than five minutes old. But in reality it is not 'forever', as indigenous cultures emphasize. Particularly in parts of Latin America (which includes Mexico), the struggle to reject the European conquest is very much alive. Here we eagerly watch the cataclysmic collapse of the American Empire, as we seek to assert true humanitarian values in our ways of living, in opposition to the dying neoliberal efforts of the faltering dinosaurs.

      I'm convinced that no society based on conquest (always with violence) and lying -- and every conquest is carried out with a surfeit of lying -- can succeed in building a healthy social order. America - the U.S. - is a textbook example. Based on conquest and a set of values with lying in a prime position, we can see clearly how debased that society is, how it destroys everything it touches - peoples, from infancy to old age, the ecosphere, all animal and plant life. Our task ought to be to understand why this is so, and then to change the destructive reality that now governs our collective lives. This is precisely where the earth's indigenous peoples can point the way towards survival.

The indigenous dimension

      To help comprehend 'the indigenous dimension' I'll begin with a whimsical little adventure story, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by A Square [Edwin Abbott Abbott]. [2] The reason I'm putting this in is not only because it's fun -- the tale is imaginative and socially satirical -- but also so that I can then draw an analogy that I hope you won't balk at and reject. Practically everyone that I correspond with is a relatively privileged English speaking 'westerner', as am I. Most of us have not had the experience of living in a culture largely characterized by indigenous values, and quite naturally most of our perceptions and interpretations are rooted in our own experiences. I think this limits our imaginations, preventing us, as Einstein phrased it, from entering 'a substantially new manner of thinking' which he said was necessary 'if mankind is to survive'. As the brief excerpt in Note [2] suggests, the author of Flatland, A Square ( ) was quite conscious of, and poking fun at the peculiarities of British class society. The fact is that the overwheming majority of so-called 'intellectuals' -- a group that includes practically everyone I correspond with -- is perfectly comfortable, so far as everyday life goes, to be in the relatively privileged class. Even those who are politically astute, and consequently are informed radical left critics of the dominant contemporary order -- even they mentally set themselves aside in a distinct category of individuals who deserve, and deserve to enjoy, their privileges. I began to discuss this about two and a half years ago in an essay (unfinished at the time) titled "On the social value of 'intellectuals' -- is it zero or negative?" [3] Here is that incompleted start (slightly modified):

The intellectual “class”

      By the term intellectual in this discussion, I mean a 'professional' intellectual, i.e. someone whose work is primarily mental — not manual. My contention is not only that the group of professional intellectuals is socially worse than useless, but that this is a class attribute -- being worse than useless, i.e. having negative social value -- of the entire so-called middle class. I believe all humans are intellectual in the sense that we are a unique species that thinks, that seeks to understand. That is precisely why the ruling hierarchical institutions - governments, the major mass media and corporations - are doing their utmost to prevent uncensored open global communications - to keep us uninformed and hence unable to understand the larger social reality. They know that if everyone was adequately informed, that would signal the coming end of their special privileges. Professional intellectuals – I am one – are people who are paid, or otherwise maintained by society, to work with ideas. In the dominant capitalist culture we are a large group, which includes lawyers, doctors, clergy, journalists, stock brokers, accountants and other money manipulators, corporate and government administrators, scientists, academics of all specialties, and so on, most of us people whose clothes don't get filthy by the end of a day’s work.

      What unifies us for purposes of this discussion - and this applies to the entire so-called 'middle class' - is our deeply-held belief that as intellectuals not only is our work dignified labor, but it entitles us to a life of considerable privilege as compared to common laborers. Belief in the same entitlement, as contrasted to ordinary laborers, is common, almost universal, among the middle classes. The mind of each of us was impregnated with the tenets of the dominant ideology, including the belief in our personal entitlement. It is an almost unquestionable belief, a matter of faith not to be challenged. Let me be specific.

      OK now, let me be specific, which I did not get to two and a half years ago, undoubtedly put aside then (temporarily) because of some emergency and subsequently forgotten. Finally, I've got to tackle the hardest obstacle, trying to convince friends to think hard about some of the things they enjoy, the social consequences of those pleaures, and whether perhaps they ought to consider giving some of them up. The psychological barriers to persuading folks to even 'risk' thinking about such changes are simply enormous. For me too. There are things I'd rather not think about. I'll take only a single example, long-distance high-speed travel. It would be presumptuous of me to say to any one of them, You should not fly. Clearly there are some circumstances that call for as rapid travel as possible. But what I do say, and am arguing here, is that each of us ought to think about the social consequences of our behavior. A large majority of my friends in the U.S. and here in Oaxaca are relatively privileged people. We are all able to use our credit cards to secure airline tickets when we choose to do so.

      Normally when I'm with friends I don't raise questions about travel choices. Usually when travel comes up in a conversation it's in the context of someone telling me they're going to be leaving for some purpose, e.g. a friend this past Sunday informed me he's going to the U.S. for medical treatment, for which he has insurance that requires him to be treated there. Also Sunday, a woman acquaintance said she was going to go to Europe, first to England to see her daughter and then on to France and Italy (if I recall correctly) for other personal visits. An American expatriate, she's fairly bored with her existence here and makes several trips annually that include extensive air travel. There seem always to be many Americans and Canadians here who do a lot of long distance travel. I know of only two people here who have deliberately chosen not to fly, one an American from the south who travelled by bus because she lacked the money for air fare, and the other my friend Phil Dahl-Bredine [4] who jokingly told me within this past year, with feigned annoyance, that I was responsible for his switching from air to bus for his semi-annual visits to see his children.

Vacations, cruises, tourism, options for privileged people

      As an alumnus of the Physics Department at the Univ of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus, where physics is part of the School of Engineering, I used to receive in the mail glossy announcements of upcoming luxury cruises to the Greek Isles and other such classic itineraries for Illini Engineering alumni and spouses at costs in the thousands of dollars. Obviously tours and vacations can range from spartan to luxurious. They all involve some travel.

This essay is not quite complete, but the subject seems of
such urgency that I am posting it now, and will con-
tinue to work on it. —G.S., 3 September 2009

2009-09-04: I believe that it is simply wrong for anyone to indulge in the luxury of a costly vacation instead of using the legal (but illegitimate) control over that wealth to divert a substantial portion of it into efforts to make global society less murderous. I'm using the term murderous deliberately, because when decisions are taken by people in powerful positions to allocate resources for the desires of the privileged instead of for the necessities of the impoverished, for example for elegant hotels instead of health clinics and hospitals, then deaths of poor people inevitably follow. I remember Marcos, the Zapatista Sub-Comandante, comparing the number of hotel rooms in Chiapas to the pathetically small number of spaces in clinics or hospitals. The entire thrust of the tourism industry is for one purpose only -- to get money from privileged people into the pockets of business and government individuals, also privileged people. Of course it's clothed in the claim that that is a way to provide 'jobs' in the economy for working people. But we know that the 'jobs' are usually demeaning, low pay, with minimal or no so-called benefits, jobs that provide not only poor income but little or no security. Everything to maximize the flow of money into the pockets of the already wealthy.

      My point of course is that those of us who have options, if we are really committed to maximizing the chances of even half-way decent lives for our children and grandchildren, ought to think about how our actual behavior affects that prospect, and not just engage in self deception as we continue feeding the capitalist machine. My experience has been that when I talk to friends their reaction is almost invariably to rationalize doing what they want to do, to indulge themselves. I hardly need spell out the host of 'reasons' offered to 'justify' their pleasure. Perhaps this is to be expected among older folks, who have been generally brainwashed into believing they have no real possibility of affecting the course of events. Victims of the mantra 'You can't beat City Hall'. But in the younger people -- that's where my hope lies. They're not locked into their retirement plans, insurance payments, investment portfolios, second homes, and so on.

[1] Guiding system of social values. Some essays.
    2003-03-25 Out of the mental prison!, essay 9 of the series Building a global grassroots infrastructure

[2] Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. In the site, we find "In Abbott's Flatland, the more sides you have then the higher is your class." It goes on to explain that workers are equilateral triangles, the author himself is A Square ( ), a person of middle class, while the highest classes are the circles who are priests. The Flatland world is visited by a sphere, which sees at first as a dot which grows into a disk, then shrinks again to a dot and vanishes. The sphere opens his eyes to the possibility of a third dimension, and he suggests to the sphere that he might live in a world with four or more dimensions, but the sphere makes fun of this suggestion. When tells his fellow Flatlanders about the third dimension they ridicule him, and eventually he is put in prision where he writes the book.
      The article also says, "It is worth noting that this remarkable piece of writing by Abbott predated by many years Einstein's four dimensional world of relativity."

[3] 2007-03-16 On the social value of 'intellectuals' -- is it zero or negative? (an unfinished essay)

[4] Phil Dahl-Bredine. One of the most dramatic revelations to me, as a privileged westerner, came from a quote in Phil Dahl-Bredine's book, about the Mixteca town Santiago Tilantongo, "We don't have much water. But we don't need much because we don't have a sewer system", said Jesús León. The very idea of living without a sewer system simply never crossed my mind as a viable mode of life. I'm quite confident that practically all the people I correspond with would be equally uncomfortable with the idea. Could it be, for example, that we should all give serious consideration to living without flush toilets? I highly recommend Phil's book. The Other Game: Lessons from how life is played in Mexican villages, by Phil Dahl-Bredine & Stephen Hicken, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY (2008). It's an eye-opening introduction to 'the indigenous dimension'. I've introduced some of the ideas briefly in the essay, How many voters does it take to change a light bulb? None. Because voters can't change anything. It's at

George Salzman is a former American Jew living in Oaxaca, Mexico, an Emeritus Prof of Physics, Univ of Massachusetts-Boston.
All comments and criticisms are welcome.

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