The Slug Factor



“You don’t want to be a spiritual slug.” — Howard Zinn, speaking at the University of California-Santa Cruz, 2004

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” — from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Right after my partner and I put on a free three-day cultural/social/political event in Santa Cruz, California in 2004, which featured Michael Parenti, Cynthia McKinney, Bill Blum, Gregory Elich, Stephen Zunes, Larry Everest, the head of Harvard’s Trade Union Program, Stan Goff, Mickey Z, folks from Fair Vote, representatives of Washington D.C.’s Center for Voting and Democracy, Marxist authors from Berkeley, video footage donated by Democracy Now!. and many others and multiple other singular offerings, I came across Ralph C. Wood, who underscored the spiritual vacuum which was making all efforts for any Cause doomed.

It was, arguably, the most ambitious such event ever staged in that “progressive” city, which is saying a lot considering the history of that town, home to the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), a campus with a radical reputation for activism in a realm commonly thought of as being quite left-of-center. The fact that those reputations are not deserved is neither here nor there. Or… perhaps some thought should be given to why they never cut the mustard. Why ALL well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced municipalities across the country are witnessing an ongoing decline on so many counts. Their causes going down the tubes.

Fourteen years ago, Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South hit me like a ton of those proverbial bricks. The lure of nihilism in American culture — and the guarantee of its becoming greater — was clear as day from reading it, and I could see at once how there was no way for activists to carve out meaningful, lasting inroads without some relationship to some god. The God of Self was proliferating hard and fast among proactive concerned citizens (especially among youth), who boasted more and more about how Religion was old time, and didn’t deserve the time of day. Atheism was not just in vogue, it was becoming de rigueur among those leading the way in protests. You simply weren’t cool or in if you believed in any of the traditional mainstream religions.

In our time, anyone who hasn’t noticed how social, political and cultural dynamics have gotten infinitely worse with each passing day hasn’t been paying attention. And I submit that that’s the case because those involved in civic engagement — at least those trend setters on secular campuses throughout the U.S. — fancy that they can be as mired as they are in apocalyptic thinking and still — simultaneously — deal properly, effectively with what’s stinking up society. In interviews I’ve conducted with undergraduates at institutions of so-called higher education all along the academic spectrum, students seem to laugh at the notion of God, for the most part. And they appear to embrace the Anthropocene as if Apocalypse were not avoidable.

For them, what human beings have figured out is what will come about. God outside of human understanding cannot be tolerated. Mystery has been eliminated in the fashion of what goes on when a child rips off the wings of a butterfly to see what makes it beautiful. Human endeavor and insight has no need of a god, no accountability to Divine Law, and nothing is mysterious which cannot be potentially understood. And in the name of traveling down that road efficiency is valued. Prized in lieu of doing obeisance to something greater than oneself. Reverence irrelevant.

Though he did not live to see much of the twenty-first century, Pope John Paul II may have best articulated its core spiritual concerns. His work mapped out and challenged the ways in which contemporary Western culture has devalued  human life. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he quoted the second Vatican council’s condemnation of a “number of crimes and attacks against human life,” which were named in a long list of current practices through which “people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons.” Soon after the publication of this document, John Paul II went on to conclude that “unfortunately, this disturbing state of affairs, far from decreasing, is expanding: with the new prospects opened up by scientific and technological progress there arise new forms of attacks on the dignity of the human being.”

John Paul II’s insistence that scientific and technological progress can create new opportunities for acts of violence against humanity illustrates how, for him, it was the violence that masqueraded as good that is most insidious today.That a great deal  of harm may be done by those with the best of intentions was the primary concern of Jacques Ellul too. His most famous book, The Technological Society, begins with

“No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world.”

Ellul defines technique in a very specific way, as the totality of methods rationally arrived at  and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”  He believed that although “technique” as a goal looks good, it inevitably does violence to persons. When all aspects of life are to submit to the goal of greater efficiency, people are viewed abstractly and instrumentally. As Ellul puts it, man “resembles a slug inserted into a slot machine: he starts the operation without participating in it.”

For Jacques Ellul and John Paul II even the best contemporary articulations of utilitarian ethics inevitably do violence to people by treating them as slugs in a machine. And that is exactly how activists treat one another today as they go about attempting to recruit the greatest number of adherents to their Cause, and try to do so working as expeditiously as possible.

As if there is no God. As if their perceived ends justifies most if not all means.

Well… I believe things are getting worse by the day with the measurement of everything being determined by Man of the Moment. As if there is no Eternal Truth. As if everything is relative, and that what the most convincing and powerful citizens dominate and lead will do, as long as they have “the majority” behind them. Free choice based on what one sees fit to do at a given moment ruling the roost, no boost of any kind from the Divine is required. No reference to anything outside of oneself needed.

Well, Nietzche died in a madhouse, and the same is happening all across the U.S. God is dead with those who worship The Undead (in films) or those who dread the notion of obeying anything at all that doesn’t fall within their personal preferences. Humility has no place.

UCSC, which I made reference to earlier, has a banana slug as its mascot. It’s hard to remember that the slug was once subversive. For the slug’s earliest fans, rallying behind the mollusk was a mischievous gesture, a thumb in the eye of the status quo. But today it’s become something to rival Disney’s most beloved, mainstream and harmless characters. A joke of sorts.

Like the joke that’s made of Jesus in the quarters of would-be comedians on campus. To be in.  To be popular. In, arguably, the most sick society on earth. Where neither sin nor evil can be called out for what it is… in our realm of everything is relative, there are no absolutes to guide us.

We must not allow ourselves to be slugs in a machine. Not in The Machine which is now gobbling up our souls, convincing us that we are only machines ourselves. There’s virtually nothing left with which to protect ourselves from ourselves except FAITH in something outside of ourselves. And like the tough-skinned terrestrial mollusk that typically lacks a shell and secretes a film of mucus for protection, we must discharge logical positivism, release something that will release ourselves from our mundane take on activism.

We can pursue our various causes, but we must do that as if we are small, not all. We don’t know everything, the cries of all-knowing activists notwithstanding.

If you do not believe in God, perhaps you should at least practice some humility. You don’t want to use people as slugs for your Activist Machine to slug it out with others.

Valleria Ruselli is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at [email protected].



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