Friday, August 10, 2012


Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.  

Since my disaffection, several people have expressed concern to me about "the leaders I choose to follow" since turning my back on Mormon prophets.  This concern is profoundly troubling to me, mostly because I don't believe in following leaders.  I am my own person.  If I do something, then I am the one doing it: I have reasons of my own for doing it, and I am personally answerable for any consequences that result.  I don't do anything merely because someone else told me to.  Even when I act under duress, I am doing the best I can for myself, from my own personal perspective.  For me, that is what being a moral person is.  I cultivate my own spirit, and scrupulously respect the right of other people to do likewise -- even when the spirit that they cultivate is very different from my own.

Just as I don't take unilateral dictation from someone else, I refuse to impose it.  I even give my baby sons choices: there are some things that they cannot do because they are not capable (like use the oven), but among the things that they can do, they have freedom.  I am not going to force them to play cars when they would rather be reading about Calvin and Hobbs.  Respect doesn't mean that they never disagree or talk back to me.  (My wife and I actually like to get them talking, since that often distracts them from acting out in ways that might be dangerous or bothersome.)  Moral education, in my view, is learning to behave oneself without external control: the perfect man is the one who makes and is answerable for his own decisions.  He doesn't hurt other people and then tell them they get no apology because he was simply "doing God's will." 

To my mind, it is acceptable to invoke the will of God as your reason for personal decisions, but it is no excuse for imposing yourself on other people.  I can choose to wear a burkha because I feel that is the will of God for me, but I have no right to make you wear one because of my feeling (which you may not even share!).  People who go around complaining that society is going to hell in a handbasket because we don't all wear burkhas with them (or shop at Whole Foods or vote Republican or Democrat or whatever) get on my nerves.  If you believe in burkhas (or Whole Foods, or the GOP, or the Democratic Party, or Scientology, or Mormonism, or atheism, or socialism, or anything similar), then by all means live your beliefs.  As long as you respect my right to live my beliefs (which are different!), then we are cool.  We can even be friends.  But I have a hard time being friends with people who think that friendship means one of us forcing the other to change his habits for no other reason than "God told me so" (so you think God never talks to me, is that it? you get to speak with God for everyone, and I cannot even get him to talk to me for myself? forget it, kid: I'm a grown man, and I don't need you to change my diapers).

There is a great passage in Blevins' account of Crazy Horse that captures the contrast between moral autonomy (freedom) and moral dependence (slavery).  Crazy Horse's uncle Spotted Tail is describing how the whites (wasicu) see the world (pp. 124-125, 126-127):
"The worst is, they have a terrible blindness, these wasicu.  They do not understand choice."

He was referring to a most sacred subject, and none of his hearers needed any explanation -- no Lakota who had even started on the path to adulthood did.  A human being had skan, something-that-moves, spiritual vitality.  The force of life itself [God?] gave the person skan [agency?] when he or she was born.  It also gave him choice, and through choice he or she grew into the man or woman he or she became.  Skan was the motive power, choice of direction.

A Lakota had a choice between good and evil, the red road and the black road, between what made life beautiful and what made it ugly.  He or she had help in making choices -- the quiet voice that is in everyone, the spirit helper (usually in the form of an animal), what he or she saw when crying for a vision, personal medicine, prayer, ceremonies performed alone or with others.  Still, choice remained, inviolate.

Whether your way was to paint yourself in a certain manner, to wear something of iron or never touch iron, or whether you should charge the enemy first or simply swell the ranks, that was your nature, your vision, the route of your spirit on the earth.  Other Lakota would respect it.  None would try to coerce it or even influence it.  None would mock it.  Your understanding was the essence of you, and to follow it was your sacred choice.

All this was so fundamental as to not need saying.  So what could it mean that an entire people did not understand choice?  It was almost unthinkable.  Were they human beings?

"Among the whites some think they can see and choose for others."  It was so stunning that Spotted Tail just let the words hang in the lodge, heavy and oppressive.  "Then comes what you would expect.  They quarrel with one another not only about small things, but about the biggest.  They fight and kill each other.  Instead of respecting another man's way, they stop at nothing to get him to adopt their way.  Like the Mormons [!]."

The Lakota knew the U.S. government this very summer was sending an army against the Mormons at the big salty lake to make the Mormons live like other wasicu, especially not to take more than one wife.  Incomprehensible.

"They hate our way," said Spotted Tail.  His voice was weary now and faint.  "Their deepest desire -- believe me about this -- is to change our way of living.  Their deepest desire is to make us like them.  I swear it" ...
A-i-i-i, surely they were impossible to understand.  You might fight your enemy -- that had respect in it.  You might even kill him -- respect again.  But to do what the wasicu did: afflict your enemy with disease, pen him up, starve him, and then rescue his body on the condition that he surrender his spirit ... Incomprehensible.  Not the way of men.

But he [Crazy Horse's father] believed Spotted Tail.  Everything about his brother-in-law sang conviction.

What a peculiar people, the wasicu.  They had a certain genius.  They could make things -- wagons, wheels, guns, knives, watches, far-seeing glasses, and much more.  But these were only things.  In return for them ["Let's go shopping!"] the wasicu wanted you to relinquish your own genius, which was not of things but of the spirit.

From the beginning, said the oldest men, what the wasicu wanted was your spirit.  From the beginning, their real desire was for the blackrobes [mantles of authority!] to gouge spirit out of you, like a man scraping seeds out of a gourd.  Then they would fill the empty gourd with their religion.  [Religious freedom means you shut up and wear my burkha!] 
There is such irony in this passage when you consider that so many Mormons today are eager to impose on others the same way other Americans imposed on us back in the day.  Even in the nineteenth century, Mormonism puts a high rhetorical value on agency, the ability of individual people to make choices without coercion.  The only problem is that we also put a high rhetorical value on following the prophet: historically, following the prophet is more important to Mormons than being true to oneself.  For me, this is pure bullcrap.  There is no moral problem I can think of that would not become easier to solve if people took more responsibility for themselves and gave less to leaders.  Grow up and go your own way.  Leaders are for babies.  Grown-ups have friends, associates, people they respect (and even look up to), but they don't have leaders.  Thomas S. Monson is not my leader.  Barack Obama is not my leader.  Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is not my leader.  Christopher Hitchens is not my leader.  This does not mean that I hate these gentlemen (or all the good that they may stand for: quite the contrary!), but I am long past offering them the total devotion of a helpless little boy desperate for a superhero.  For years, I did my very best to believe in superheroes.  It didn't work very well for me, and I am very grateful to have outgrown it (finally!).

I do not adopt a fixed posture toward life anymore.  I don't have final answers.  I don't speak for other people (until they say I do, and even then I do not answer for their behavior: they are responsible for themselves).  And on the other side of the coin, no one else speaks for me (until I claim their words for myself: even then, I am still answerable for my behavior, for my reception and interpretation of the words that someone else has uttered).  I am not standing firm with this band or that one -- with this religion or that one, with this university or that one, with this company or that one, with this philosophy or that one.  I don't believe in leaders.  I am a ronin -- a wolf who goes his own way.  I am all done playing the sheep, no matter who the shepherd is.  God himself cannot separate me from mine integrity (unless he kills me, which is what it would take -- for me as for Crazy Horse: even so, I will die true to myself and to the truth I believe in).

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