In The Absence of the Sacred

May 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 6-1: Media and Information, Media Reviews

Sierra Club Books, 1991
446 pages. $14

Review by Brian Palecek

A Sense of the Sacred

Jerry Mander is best known for a book published in 1977 with the outrageous title, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. In this more recent book, he pulls out all the stops in his criticism of new technologies and adds a special slant that involves native Americans.

Mander currently works with the Public Media Center of San Francisco, a non-profit ad agency which develops campaigns for environmental, Indian, civil rights, women’s and peace organizations. One of their campaigns, which he tells about in In the Absence of the Sacred, involved working with a native Hawaiian group to develop a full page newspaper ad protesting the desecra­tion of a sacred site in Hawaii, the Goddess Pele. The plight of native Hawaiians and the campaign reveal a great deal of what this book is about.

Mander says he originally intended to write two books, one a critique of technology and the other an account of the survival of Indian nations, a kind of update of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The one book that resulted links these two concerns.

The first two parts of In the Absence of the Sacred are a skeptical critique of new technologies. The titles of the sections tell it all: “Questions We Should Have Asked About Technol­ogies” and “The Inevitable Direction of Megatechnology.” In the second half, the theme of the survival of native nations kicks in: “Suppression of the Native Alternative” and “World War Against Indians.”

The final epilogue gives a succinct statement about the overall purpose of the book with its two intertwining points: “I hope you will keep challeng­ing yourself about technology, and begin to think about each glitzy new machine in other than its advertised terms. I also hope that you will read everything that you can by and about Indians and their struggles, and that you find a way to be engaged.”

Mander encourages us to be more skeptical about the benefits of every new technical development foisted upon us and to learn some critical thinking skills about technologies; for example, notice that when propo­nents promote a new technology, it is always presented in “best-case scenar­ios” and without consideration of alternatives.

One of the most useful parts of the book is Mander’s account of the story of native American survival and even a short history that should be known by all Americans. Mander tells fascinating up-to-date stories of native nations fac­ing the power of modern corporations, the state, and the military. He tells of the Dene in northern Canada debating among themselves about the pros and cons of introducing TV (oral story­telling declined). We read of the Western Shoshone dealing with MX missiles, the Innus of Newfoundland, Canada dealing with the overflight of military planes, and the impact of the Indian Lands Claims Act of 1946 which he sees as primarily negative since it trades land for money payment, and many other current struggles.

Mander’s book illustrates how the efforts of native people to protect a world view, sacred sites, and ancestral lands is part of a world struggle of indigenous people who are facing the invasions of the modern state and cor­poration. He calls these conflicts the “Fourth World Wars.” These people include the Yanamano and Xingu of the Amazon, the Belauans of Micronesia in the Pacific, the Kurds, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Saami of Scandinavia, the Irian Jaya of Myanmar, the Ainu of Japan and many nations in Africa. There are around 3,000 of these native nations worldwide.

One of my deepest delights as a teacher in a tribal college has been observing our students learning that there are indigenous peoples through­out the world who share a common I vision and historical experience. Students are discovering that the terri­ble human rights violations experienced by the Mayan people of Guatemala and the protection of rain forests in the Amazon—along with the people who live there—are “Indian” issues. It’s a bold new vision worth exploring. Mander’s book can help.

You will have to read the book yourself to get the full benefit of Mander’s view of the failure and false promise of what he calls “megatechnology” or a “world technical crea­ture,” with the computer as its nervous system and television as its sales sys­tem. In this creature, genetic science reworks life itself to convert nature into a commodity.

According to Mander, we lack a phi­losophy that teaches us how to live on this planet. We need reverence for the earth, a sense of the sacred (hence the title), and this is where the worldview and experience of indigenous and native peoples come in.

He writes, “There are people whose ancestors and who themselves have said from the beginning of the techno­logical age that our actions and atti­tudes are fatally flawed, since they are not grounded in a real understanding of how to live on the earth. Lacking a sense of the sacred we are doomed to a I bad result. They said it over and over and they still say it now.”

The book includes powerful exam­ples of “saying it now.” Here are pas­sages from a message from the Iroquois delivered at the 1977 UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples:

The way of life known as Western civilization is on a dead path….The technologies and social systems which destroyed the animal and the plant life are destroying the native people….The native people of the Western Hemisphere can contribute to the survival potential of the human species….Our culture is among the most ancient continuously existing cultures of the world. We are the spiritual guardians of this place. We are here to impart this message.

In a nutshell, there is the message of Mander’s book.

Brian Palecek teaches English at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota

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