Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas
There’s nothing more unambiguous in the battle against global ecocide than placing one’s body between the fertile earth and a giant fossil fuel company. This is why when one spends a few minutes with the caretakers of Burnaby Mountain, one develops a genuinely abiding allegiance to their cause. This is direct witness to the existential immediacy of the climate crisis that threatens the future of our planet. This is appropriate response to the danger climate change entails. In comparison, reading Simon Fraser University President Andrew Petter’s letter in response to calls for support to the “Kinder Morgan Five” leaves a lingering question: where does he and the university really stand?
Saying the university is a “credible and neutral defender of speech rights” seems akin to saying climate change deniers should have equal hearing in policy debates to 97 per cent of climate scientists who are convinced of anthropogenic climate change. Claiming that taking a stand on issues concerning the very survival of civilization is beyond the university’s “core institutional mandate” seems a Weberian caricature. Relying on SFU’s participation in the National Energy Board hearings as an adequate response to the dangers of the new Trans Canada pipeline rings as “farcical” as the NEB process itself (as Marc Elieson characterises it). To disregard the legitimacy of potential civil disobedience in critical social change is to deny the “credibility” of the historical struggle against anachronistic legal strictures in the face of slavery and women’s oppression.
Whatever we may understand about the surface meaning of Mr. Petter’s remarks, it says much more about the university as an institution. As long as social and political philosophy that our professors teach is abstract and contained, its potential influence upon society will remain safely cloistered and ignored. The minute the university is asked make an ethically-based statement that is practical and relevant, it produces an obscurantist reply. Should the role of the President of a university be to walk the fine line of professing the most lofty set of values, while entertaining through the back door some of the worst corporate human rights and nature’s rights offenders?
What more important message are the young students who attend university and proudly graduate really learning in their years at Simon Fraser University other than the message of “hypocrisy”? The moral dilemma of standing one’s ground in the face of worldly power that threatens institutional and personal security is illustrated in this literary reference…
In English class in the last year of high school, we read The Catcher in the Rye, a book vilified by the religious right in the United States for its raw juvenile sensuality and coarse 1950s street vernacular. The protagonist, Holden Caufield is an adolescent, bummed out about everything; seeing hypocrisy in his friends and adults alike. The book is filled with down-and-out negativity heaped on pessimism that accumulates in the readers gut like a overindulged thanksgiving turkey.
Mistaken by many as a “coming of age” story, the book supposedly marks transitions from the innocence of “naïve” childhood to the “maturity” of adulthood. But Holden is a hold-out — he rebels against an ethic of “compromise” that seems to marks entry into the adult world. Everywhere Holden looks, he sees “fakes” and “phonies” constantly evincing careless and cavalier slippages of integrity. The book hints at an early tragic life experience in the form of a sibling death that may explain Holden’s heightened self-awareness of culture’s brutalizing socialization process.
One climax of the story comes after a long string of passive-aggressive encounters with friends that chips away at his emotional armour and threatens a personality break. As a last recourse, he visits an old English teacher in an attempt to find solace. The teacher and his wife greet him at the door with open arms and empathetic attitude and invite him to a warm meal and soft couch to stay the night. Holden admits to Mr. Antolini that he was just kicked out of the third school for failing all his courses but English.
The one trait we know that keeps Holden’s self-image intact is his ability to express himself in stories and creative turn-of-phrase. Holden knows Antolini recognizes the inner writer in Holden, and would affirm him by giving him the straight goods about his predicament:
“This fall you’re riding for — it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement is designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even go started. You follow me?”
“I don’t want to scare you,” he said, “but I can very clearly see you are dying nobly, one way or another, for some highly unworthy cause.”
Holden is asking for too much. Before Holden is tucked into bed for sleep, Antolini expresses a thought that one considers for a moment will be the key practical message of the book. Antolini “holds” Holden in his gaze and delivers the perfect line “the mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” Holden then enters into a blissful slumber, going “gentle into the good night” after taking this spoon of sweet medicine…but unbeknownst to him in the moment is the poison in disguise.
We want Holden to “get better,” and there is a reader’s relief at this point that he ‘gives in’. Holden almost accepts a morality that would help him accommodate himself to the world. But the overriding question is whether this is in fact, a world that we should accommodate ourselves to? Is it not a world that we must challenge, even at great personal risk? This wise and pithy bit of wisdom from a once trusted mentor turns out to be the epitome of the soothing soma of middle class morality reconciled to its own mediocrity and concessions, a mindset that makes virtue out of selling out one’s soul. It is a false and self-interested morality.
Later than night Holden awakes to a hand caressing is forehead.
Antolini is a pedophile.
Holden runs through the door and doesn’t want to stop until he leaves his family, friends, town and state – all of the ugliness of compromise and duplicity. He phones his young sister, Phoebe, to say good-bye but there is something in Holden’s voice that says something terminal is at work. She begs to meet him one last time, and when they do she has her bags packed and her whole being is ready to give up regular life and join him. Holden is crushed with love for his pure innocent sister ready to give up all else because of her equivalent love for her brother. It is in this that Holden is saved and nothing else: awareness of an uncompromising and limitless spirit that is willing to go “all the way,” with abiding allegiance. Holden now wants to live.
It’s been a few decades since I read the story. Why I bring it up now is because a good friend reminded me of it in the context of the battle being waged against Kinder Morgan. This battle is no small effort with no small significance. The whole of the North American climate justice movement, and indeed the rest of the populace that so far cynically accepts the inevitability of corporate bullying of democracy, is watching the news emanating from Burnaby to see whether a small group of Western activists can challenge a foe that presses equally hard to the East, South and even North. The strength of this small group comes only from the allegiance each has to each other and to the common vision.
We are being told by scientists that the natural ecological boundaries of the planet that sustain life are in the process of breeching. We are presently rupturing the earth’s biochemical cycles and it is leading to extreme, intractable and imminently catastrophic ecological crisis on a planetary level. Climate science tells us we must act…boldly, immediately, unreservedly, with courage and steely will.
In this context we must ask, who is the moral leader here? The titular head of an institution who seems to cave in the presence of tough ethical decisions, or the soggy climate rebels camping out in rain in SFU’s backyard? Mr. Petter’s refusal to understand the moral imperative to support the pristine spirit that “rages against the dying of the light” is a betrayal. At the same time that our earth is in peril, the institutional voices offer soothing assurances that all is well if we just know our place, take a measured approach to “public dialogue” and “public engagement” and allow the people in charge to continue what they’re doing. They love us and will certainly not let any harm be done…
Don’t be surprised to hear the murmurs of derision coming from the Burnaby camp, as well as in SFU’s corridors from enlightened students and faculty.