by Jonah Mix
Henry Ford is a shining example of two great American traditions: Amoral, hardheaded industrialism and unapologetic racial hatred. He hated Jews; his pamphlet The International Jew was singularly responsible for the anti-Semitism of Hitler Youth Leader and mass murderer Baldur von Schirach, while the Holocaust’s chief architect, Heinrich Himmler, praised Ford as a “great man” and “one of our most valuable, important, [and] clever fighters.” He hated the disabled; along with John Kellog, Andrew Carnegie, Woodrow Wilson, and dozens of other illustrious Americans, Ford openly advocated for the obligatory sterilization and involuntary imprisonment of the mentally ill and retarded, as well as unwed mothers and criminals with brown skin. I’ll let the reader guess how he felt about immigrants, homosexuals, and people of color; let’s just remember that Hitler proudly proclaimed in 1938, “I shall do my best to put [Ford’s] theories into practice in Germany.” This might be a good time to mention that I’ve now written two essays that mention Henry Ford – the first was in seventh grade, when I picked his name off a sheet of potential subjects in my history class. It was labeled “American Heroes.”
Henry Ford hated a lot of people – Jews, women, the poor, immigrants – but that didn’t stop him from utilizing them as easy fodder in his factories. He often paid black teenagers half wages to work on steel presses, partly because it was easier to unleash crooked cops on them if they tried to form a union. Unwed mothers who escaped sterilization and imprisonment often performed menial labor, both on the factory floor as cleaners and outside as unofficially corporate-sponsored sex workers. Men who had lost limbs, either in the war or in Ford’s own steel presses, occasionally worked for slave wages. Ford’s corporate website refers to this history as one of “diversity and inclusion.” When Henry Ford died, he was worth 188 billion dollars.
Where did Henry Ford’s hate end and his business sense start? Derrick Jensen once said that hatred, if felt long enough, just feels like economics. Wherever the line between the two falls, one thing is certain: a vicious practicality underlies both. The famously industrious anti-Semite undoubtedly hated people of color, and his hatred almost certainly allowed him to rationalize to himself and others their continued exploitation – but mangled hands and broken limbs also objectively cost less when they were brown instead of white. Ford had a deep personal hatred of labor organizers, but simple pragmatism was all that one would need to call for the savage beating of unarmed men and women, as he proudly did at the Battle of the Overpass in 1937. Sustained brutality and intimidation was the best way to keep his factories running smoothly. These choices were as much business moves as his later decision to move away from ethanol and towards gasoline. Gasoline goes into an engine because that’s the best way to make an engine run. Young black bodies get destroyed by steel presses because that’s the best way to get steel made. Indigenous people die of cancer when toxic waste is dumped into their rivers and forests because that’s the best way to get rid of toxic waste. The planet is ripped apart and hollowed out because that’s the best way to get at what’s inside.
Hate, whether expressed in on the New York Stock Exchange or the front yard of a black family, has a goal. It has an agenda. Henry Ford was not stupid, or uneducated. The common understanding of racism – or, for that matter, misogyny and homophobia – as a symptom of ignorance, a vestige of an older time, is not only false but lazy and destructive. Rape, abuse, mass incarceration, police brutality, the denial of education, housing, and healthcare – these things are not driven by illogical prejudice or senseless bigotry. They are strategic political actions, and they are incredibly effective. The ones who are truly running this genocide systematically abuse, exploit, disenfranchise, imprison, and murder for one reason and one reason only: Because it helps them achieve their goal, and that goal is universally resource extraction. Henry Ford’s goal was resource extraction. Columbus’ goal was resource extraction. Hitler’s goal was resource extraction.
People of color, the indigenous, and women are all fuel in the engine of civilization, and civilization subjects them to this brutality because brutality is the most efficient method. By definition, this system requires the unsustainable importation of resources through an unrelenting campaign of ecological cannibalism. The horrors that follow – patriarchy, white supremacy, anthropocentricism, colonialism, and militarism – are not unintended side effects but instead logical strategies utilized by the dominant culture to ensure its survival. Mass incarceration and miseducation has allowed for the theft of billions from minority communities while creating modern-day slave plantations providing free labor and preventing successful political organization among people of color and the indigenous. Rape and sexual violence protect a structure of power that allows for women to be continually exploited for their resources. There is no ignorance involved. Our civilization is a vampire, and it is a pragmatic vampire. It does nothing for fun, for pleasure, or for personal gratification. It only acts to feed its insatiable hunger for blood.
This system will never stop on its own accord through moral appeals or edification. When hate makes economic sense, no amount of education will stop it. Education may win us supporters, and even soldiers, but the social structures that perpetuate this violence will not come down until the process they protect – resource extraction – is disrupted. As long as the system can benefit from rape, abuse, mass incarceration, police brutality, and economic disenfranchisement, these horrors will continue. A wrench must be thrown into the engine itself. The process through which civilization feeds off its victims must be disrupted.
All options must be considered in our quest to render exploitation unprofitable, but the uncomfortable truth is that sustained militancy is a necessary part of any effective approach. Patriarchy will collapse only when credible threats of resistance make sexual violence, the sustaining pillar of male supremacy, impractical as a strategy of oppression. White supremacy can only be dismantled by disrupting the systems that subject people of color to brutal, indiscriminant abuse and exploitation – and the parasitic thieves who depend on that exploitation to survive will not stop until their previous tactics are rendered ineffective by organized and violent opposition. The victims of these hierarchies must band together and organize while their white male allies must work tirelessly as saboteurs.
So long as the dominant power is at all capable of turning human beings, other animals, and the living Earth itself into fuel, there will be hierarchies in place to legitimize and protect that process. Only by removing civilization’s ability to survive through exploitation will the exploitation end. We must cast off the pernicious illusions that portray these structures of domination as the product of anything but rational, dispassionate self-interest on the part of the oppressor class. Remember: Their actions are strategic and their efforts are political. Ours have to be as well.
This power structure’s insatiable need for the extraction and importation of resources underlies every possible expression of its malignant force. Sexual violence, social stratification, and ecological devastation are all geared towards the same end – securing more blood for the vampire of civilization. Any time we witness violence, brutality, oppression, or exploitation, we must ask ourselves, what resource are the agents of the dominant culture attempting to harvest here, and how can we most effectively cripple their ability to do so?
“The threats to human life on earth are many, as we move into the twenty-first century, but they are all aspects of one crisis – the crisis that arises from our inability to live satisfied human lives within the boundaries set by nature.”
– Molly Scott Cato
“To pretend that civilization can exist without destroying its own landbase and the landbases and cultures of others is to be entirely ignorant of history, biology, thermodynamics, morality, and self-preservation.”
– Derrick Jensen
by Jonah Mix
Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I caught myself mumbling words of advice, conveying childish hopes. They continued to look at me, immobile; from time to time the rosy branches of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at time like horrible judges.
– Julio Cortázar, Axolotl
I want to talk to you about axolotls, but in a way I can’t. They have to be seen. I’ve only seen one in my life, at an aquarium 2,831 miles away from their ancestral home at Lake Xochimilco in Central Mexico. There is one other lake where axolotls once lived, Lake Chalco, but it no longer exists. I’ll get to that soon.
There’s something in the face of an axolotl that is blessedly human – or, perhaps, there is something in the face of human beings that reflects the beauty of axolotls. Their neotonic bodies and knowing expressions transcend any notion of age or era. Ominously primordial, with their slow gait and mournful gaze, axolotls feel less like animals and more like manifestations of the Earth itself, incarnations of the rivers and lakes of their perpetual youth.
I first learned of them through Julio Cortazar’s story quoted above. I encourage everyone I know to read it. It’s a beautiful piece, full of incredible prose and disquieting sensuality. It’s also a requiem for these little salamanders. Even in Cortazar’s time they were dying, being found more in aquariums and fish tanks than the bodies of water where they had lived for millennia. The ancient lake Chalco, once the center of early Mesoamerican culture, is gone now, drained to prevent flooding in new housing and business developments. Xochimilco is a shadow of its former self, existing mostly as canals and shallow, oil-slicked pools. Pollution, urban sprawl, and encroaching industrial development will rid the world of wild axolotls soon. Look into the face of an axolotl. It carries the judgment that we deserve.
In Nahuatl, the intricate and beautiful language of indigenous central Mexicans, axolotl means “river monster.” And now the Nahua people are being slaughtered, exported as modern-day slaves and driven off their land. The axolotl is dying with them.
I know this because I was the child of a mother who dedicated her life to the plight of migrant workers. A white woman herself, she learned Mexican Spanish while living in Tucson, Arizona. When she moved with my father to the Seattle area, she ignored the complaints of religious patriarchs and helped lead a church for immigrant families. Through her efforts, and through the kindness and generosity of those who she introduced me to as a child, I developed a deep and abiding interest in Latin American culture. My mother was the one who first introduced me to Julio Cortázar, Laura Restrepo, Elvia Ardalani, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ángeles Mastretta. She taught me about Cesar Chavez and Che Guevara. She called me mi amor – she still does, sometimes, when I call home after too long an absence – and she taught me that things don’t have to be this way.
Being the child of an activist is often like sailing in a glass-bottom boat – you see down into the dark and the cold, but you stay above it, dry. You see the brutality swirling beneath you, held back by the shield of your youth and privilege, the loving barrier my mother erected to keep me from seeing clearly at such a tender age. Under the pretense of visiting a friend or helping a neighbor, she would disappear for a night and be back for breakfast. It was always clear to me how tired she was. I could see it in her face, even as a child. Regularly I would come along with her to visit brown-skinned strangers and listen as they exchanged hushed whispers in Spanish. My mother told me to play with my father while they spoke, and I did. Once or twice I remember waking up at home to find them folding their blankets and pillows after a night on our couch. I know now that if I could see those scenes in my mind as they really were, and not as a child saw them, I would recall the scars, the bruises, the hollow stomachs and weary eyes.
Of course, I learned later that these were not house guests but refugees, battered by husbands or hunted by boyfriends. I discovered, years after the fact, that my mother’s midnight visits to the mobile homes and shacks outside the dairy farms were not for pleasure. She was delivering medicine. She was translating for emergency services. She was begging a mother to take her children and hide for one night in a motel. I never had to witness the suffering she dealt with daily. My mother guarded me, as did my skin and my wealth and my gender. I escaped the violence. My mother didn’t.
My mother was raped, at least once. If there were other times, she’s chosen not to tell me. I was shocked when I first heard, but now I realize now how absurd my astonishment was. Around the world, there’s a one in three chance that a woman will experience sexual violence or domestic abuse. Double that for indigenous women, at least. Most female activists I talk to say even these estimates are too low. When my mother sat me down on her bed and told me about the man who raped her, I felt an overwhelming urge to find and kill him. I wanted to end his life. I’m proud to say that I still do. I don’t think I’ll ever lose my hate. I pray every day that I don’t.
Every two minutes in this country, a woman is raped, and I hope I don’t ever go two minutes without letting that fact overwhelm me with fury. Every day, tens of thousands of children starve on their own land while globalized corporations steal the fruits of their labor, and I hope I don’t ever take a bite without remembering that. Every step I take is on indigenous land. Every road I drive down is built on the mass grave of sixty million American bison. Every cell phone call I make disrupts the travel patterns of migratory birds. Every piece of clothing I wear is stitched by the weak to make money for the strong. For all of this, I pray I never lose my rage, but I pray for more than that. I pray that the rage I feel will propel me to fight. Every moment I sit by and despair, feeling sorry, the Earth dies a little more. If my mother taught me anything, it’s that we don’t have time for self-pity. We don’t have time to congratulate ourselves for our sorrow. It’s not enough to remember, to see clearly. What matters is action. The trees, the rivers, the animals, human and non-human, they don’t have time for us to sit and cry. So if we cry, and we will – we should – we have to cry while fighting on.
My path to activism began when I learned that axolotls were dying, when I learned my mother had been raped. I’ve discovered a lot since then, thanks to Andrea Dworkin, Leonard Peltier, Lierre Keith, and others. I know more now. But what keeps me going in this war against civilization is not scholarship or theory – it’s the twin curses of agonizing empathy and belly-deep hatred, the two beating hearts that keep every warrior alive. It’s the look on my mother’s face. So yes, I’m fighting for the Earth and every living creature on it. But sometimes, in the darkness and the despair, that’s too big. Sometimes I can’t bear the weight of the planet on my shoulders. It’s too much. It’s overwhelming. It’s scary and stressful and impossible to wrap my mind around. But the little stream I just found a few miles from my house isn’t, so I’ll fight for that. I’ll fight for David, the indigenous man I met last week who is homeless on his own ancestral land. I’ll fight for my mother, for the battered women who shared the living room floors and couches of my childhood. And I’ll fight for the axolotls. They need me, and I’m here.
A special thanks to my mother for allowing me to discuss her experiences. If you would like to share this essay, know that she encourages her story to be told.