September 5, 2000
by Townsend L. Walker, Sr.
"You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
-- Genesis 3:16f.
A disturbing parallel between the Biblical tale of Eden’s forbidden fruit and today’s stultifying anti-intellectualism jumps out at us when we put the hubris of our modernity and the weight of the past behind us. But unfortunately, this myth, like many others of the Bible, has been so tainted with the literalism of untutored minds and theological abracadabras as to obscure its relevance for an age made wiser by Darwin, Freud and the pioneers of critical Biblical scholarship. From this perspective, the myth of the forbidden fruit has much to offer our post-enlightenment age. In the way of dramatizing and providing insight into the inability of typical Americans to accept the idea of class warfare and the insidious nature of capitalism, the story, oddly enough, is without parallel. "In Adam’s sin we sinned all" takes on an altogether new -- and sinister -- meaning. Let’s see....
The god of Genesis 3:11 is a jealous god, in keeping with the mind-set of primitives who sought to understand why they had to suffer and, finally, to die. (There are those who still ask, "Why me?") In this, he partakes of the nature of the gods of other primitive peoples of the time, unwilling to share with the man and woman of his creation the magical food that imparts knowledge (for then, they would be as this god, knowing good and evil!). He is also a cruel and vindictive god, quick to infect with misery and death not only Eden’s two transgressors but all their near and distant progeny -- the master executioner of all time! Small wonder that the age of enlightenment brought this myth into disrepute, undermining its power to speak graphically to the predicament of successive generations.
We shall see that the Eden myth has retained its magic to infuse the contemporary scene with a clarity of understanding matched only by the awe with which nomadic Bedouin tribes listened to its telling long ago. We shall see in it our own vulnerabilities and experience our own susceptibilities to manipulation by the wealthy and powerful gods of the modern world.
The abiding appositeness of the Eden myth is neither in the archaic attempts of Christian divines to explain the universal shortcomings of the human species under the rubric of "original sin," nor in the enthusiasm of skeptics to discredit it as an absurd childish story. It is in the uses of knowledge by those with power to control it that we will find the perennial relevance of the Eden myth to the human condition. Having once recognized the mythic dimension of the biblical story, and the universality and permanence of the human condition with which it deals, it only remains to discover its life-or-death underpinnings in our own lives.
Today, the god of far-off biblical times has been reborn in the flesh and blood of the lords of inordinate wealth and power. No lie is too gross and no ignominy too despicable to deter today’s gods in their pursuit of power and lavish indulgences at the expense of the common good. You doubt? You demur? You think the charge exaggerated, intemperate, too harsh? Then think back on the tobacco executives who lied under oath to Congress, caring not a fig for those who died using their product. Consider the pied pipers of the corporate world who knowingly exposed workers to death-dealing asbestos -- who have done so repeatedly, and even now poison the earth and air and squander nature’s offering.
Consider how the professions of healing and caring have been subordinated to the rule of money, and lies are made to cover the hypocrisy of it all. Reflect on the near universal corruption infecting the White House, the Congress, the judicial system -- indeed, the whole governmental process. Ponder the assault on public education and the use of public funds to privatize -- to profitize, as in health care -- the one great equalizer indispensable to democracy.
Stir all these noxious ingredients and you will see emerging wraith-like from the revolting mixture a spectre that threatens the very foundation of civilized society -- the spectre of capitalism, in whose garden flourishes still the tree of forbidden fruit.
For the Genesis god walking the earth in the imaginations of an ancient people, godhood was dependent on a superior, wisdom-evoking knowledge. Thus, a Hebrew scribe centered the superiority of his god in a knowledge of good and evil. For modern man, however, faced as he is with the falling apart of outmoded interpretations of the Genesis myth, the center of the Biblical narrative moves from the primeval garden to a world of production lines, technology, high finance, and the pursuit of illusory well-being for the individual. Only the identity of the ancients’ deity and the names of the garden’s players have changed. All else, with a little imagination, essentially remains the same.
Once we understand that conceptions of deity are unavoidably anthropomorphic (seeing with eyes, hearing with ears, walking with legs -- in all respects processing bodily parts characteristic of homo sapiens) we are enabled to comprehend the relevance for ourselves of the stories told by desert wanderers four or five thousand years ago. Their experiences of life were, at bottom, the experiences we have. When, therefore, we read of the tree of knowledge and the deity of the garden "eastward, in Eden," we may reasonably theorize that reckonings incident thereto are related in actual fact, if only tenuously, to actual events in the lives of the ancients and ourselves. Thus, when we read the story today, we have gone full circle: from the lived experience of the storyteller long ago to the reflection of that experience in the story (however exaggerated or distorted) and, finally, to our lived experience. The wonder is that our experiences and understanding are so intensified -- enriched and universalized -- when studied under the aspect of eternity that the prism of myth makes possible.
A theological interpretation of the Eden story as an etiology of "sin" and death is nigh incredible and "seemingly absurd" for informed people. Therefore, we must allow the interpretive center of the story to shift from the theology of Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine -- 160-430 C.E. -- to the age of Hegel, Marx, Nietzche, Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr et al of the modern era. We do not imply that ours is the only viable interpretation for the times we live in. (Others may find in the complex and often confused Biblical text nuggets that escaped us.) We insist, however, that our attempt is closer to a "saving" existential truth binding generation to generation than the doctrine of original sin.
Keys to understanding the significance of the tree of forbidden fruit in the year 2000 lie scattered along the pathway of the twentieth century. One of the most obvious amidst the rubble consists of the collaboration of vast private wealth and educational institutions in molding minds to conform with the aims of those who control the wealth. One duo in particular stood out early on in the great American conformity project: John D. Rockefeller and son. Quite simply, in the words of Abraham Flexner of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded General Education Board, the objective was "a general overhauling of the whole education program." The reader will find it extremely instructive and suggestive to read these editorial reactions to what was going on in the offices of the Rockefeller GEB in the early 1900s:
New York Times, January 21, 1917: "It is a matter of instant inquiry, for very sober consideration, whether the GEB, indeed, may not with the immense funds at its disposal be able to shape to its will practically all the institutions in which the youth of the country are trained.... The plans of the General Education Board call for careful examination."
New York Journal of Commerce: "...(T)he mere prospect of an immense gift has changed the whole current of a college administrator’s thought and made him trim his sails on an entirely new tack to catch the favoring breezes of prosperity."
Manufacturers’ Record (Baltimore): "Control, through possession of the millions massed in the Educational Trust...makes possible control of the machinery and the methods of education. It makes it possible for the central controlling body to determine the whole character of American education, the textbooks to be used, the aims to be emphasized....(I)t gives the financial controller power to impose upon its beneficiaries its own views, good or bad, and thereby to dominate public opinion in social, economic and political matters."
New Orleans Times-Democrat: "The fund which the General Education Board administers is largely provided by men whose interest in shaping public opinion upon certain matters of vital concern to society...is very great.... The gifts are hedged about by restrictions and conditions, with the education board to name them and to see that they are complied with. Every college which shares in the largess poses as a supplicant.... Not only is its policy partially directed by the Board, but it is additionally influenced...by the desires of its benefactors." (Italics are my emphases)
On January 26, 1917 Oregon’s distinguished and progressive George Earle Chamberlain, Jr. sounded a similar alarm on the floor of the U.S. Senate: "The Carnegie-Rockefeller influence is bad. In two generations they can change the minds of the people to make them conform to the cult of Rockefeller or the cult of Carnegie, rather than to the fundamental principles of American democracy."
How prescient Senator Chamberlain was! By 1977 Donald J. Fisher would demonstrate in his Berkeley Ph.D. dissertation how the influence of the Rockefeller foundations on the development and distribution of knowledge had redefined the methodology and content of the social sciences -- not only in the American education enterprise but abroad as well. "Specifically, in Britain, the Rockefeller foundations have determined to a great extent not only ‘what’ should be studied in the social sciences but also ‘how’ these were conducted.... (T)he direction in which the social sciences developed in Great Britain tended both to serve and to perpetuate the ideological perspective of American philanthropy" (Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism, Robert F. Arnove, editor, p. 233).
But what was the "ideological perspective" of American philanthropy? of the obscenely super-rich robber barons who plundered and pillage, directly and indirectly, the virgin land? Was it not the compulsive impulse to bring to fulfillment what Max Weber called "the spirit of capitalism"? And had not the spirit of capitalism already been defined for all time as "Accumulate! Accumulate!", with a postscript: "That is Moses and the prophets!" -- an ironic disclaimer implying that capitalism is of the warp and woof of the universe besides which there is no alternative? In brief, the ideological perspective of the American philanthropist necessitated an educational program that differentiated between the wealthy ad the non-wealthy. Moreover, that program must be engineered and controlled by families of wealth and "provide a powerful legitimation of the social order, and ultimately of industrial capitalism" (Russell Marks, in Arnove, p. 91).
In 1935, anthropologist Margaret Mead prepared a report for a Rockefeller-financed commission in which it was suggested that the development of a social vocabulary could be used for organizing social action. One observation in that report is painfully revealing in today’s intemperate and dissimulating political climate: "...(For) a society to operate efficiently, there must be a great number of words and phrases which will set up immediate responses in the minds of any group which is appealed to to act or to refrain from action. Without such rally words as "Democracy," "The Constitution," "Americanism," it would be impossible to organize masses into sufficiently integrated groups to produce social action. One definite task of the social studies teaching is to build up the tone of certain words, to place them in a series of contexts so that they come to have a fixed stimulus value in the mind of the listener. The tale of the martyr, the patriot, the hero, the narration of events as traitorous or despicable -- all of these have this function."
With these words the mythical story of forbidden fruit and the penalty for eating it suddenly becomes relevant in a life-and-death sort of way. The collective god of our age and place -- the lords of wealth and stealth stealing among us, controlling our thoughts and actions and dreams and leaving us victims with no more dignity than the dogs under the rich man’s table -- this arrogant god, with no other ambition than to add to his hoard, plants his lies in our heads and darkens our minds that we may not know the truth about ourselves nor the deceptions perpetrated to make us the way we are: alienated from self and others; aware of a great emptiness in our lives longing to be quieted; knowing our world is awry and in grave danger; huddled in isolated and impotent groups for refuge from the pounding storm; fearful of acknowledging the monsters of capitalism as our common nemesis and universal incubus, terrified of socialism even when we know in our heart of hearts that Rosa Luxemburg was right nearly a century ago -- "socialism or barbarism" -- and that all we think we know about it is compounded of the lies and misrepresentations of a hundred years coming from the sly god walking among the thorns and brambles of our forfeited garden and practicing his loathsome art of deceit to feather his nest. This claw-footed god has stood truth on its head. We must eat the forbidden truth of the tree of knowledge and live -- or see the ground fall away beneath our feet, and die.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
[Author’s note: Readers are encouraged to read the review of a book by Michael Zweig in the current issue of The Harbinger. Titled, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, this book offers hope for rebirth and revitalization of democracy in America.]
Townsend Walker, Sr. of Huntsville, Alabama has been active for universal health care since his retirement some twenty years ago, and now edits New Voices/New Vision on that connection. Send correspondence to 7608 Saxon Drive SW, Huntsville, AL 35802; email: NVNV1@aol.com.
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