The gorilla licked his lips–nervously, it seemed to me. “I think we can safely say that I’m not prepared to deal with the needs of a person your age. I think that can be safely said. Yes.”
“You mean you give up. Is that what you’re telling me? You want me to go away because you give up.”
The gorilla stared at me. I couldn’t tell whether he was staring hopefully or angrily or what.
I said, “Don’t you think a twelve-year-old girl can have an earnest desire to save the world?”

“No story is devoid of meaning, if you know how to look for it. This is as true of nursery rhymes and daydreams as it is of novels and epic poems.”

“Mother Culture speaks to you through the voice of your parents–who likewise have been listening to her voice from the day of their own birth. She speaks to you through cartoon characters and storybook characters and comic book characters. She speaks to you through newscasters and school teachers and presidential candidates. You’ve listened to her on talk shows. You’ve heard her in popular songs, advertising jingles, lectures, political speeches, sermons, and jokes. You’ve read her thoughts in newspaper articles, textbooks, and comic strips.”

“Every culture has its own nurturing and sustaining educational mother. The ideas being nurtured in you and Alan are very different from those being nurtured in tribal peoples who are still living the way their ancestors lived ten thousand years ago–the Huli of Papua New Guinea, for example, or the Macuna Indians of eastern Colombia.”

“Where do you get this impression, Julie? Where do you get the impression that what’s normal is for things to work?”
“Wow,” I said. Where did I get that impression? “Maybe this is it. Every other thing in the whole universe seems to work. The air works, the clouds work, the trees work, the turtles work, the germs work, the atoms work, the mushrooms work, the birds work, the lions work, the worms work, the sun works, the moon works, the whole universe works! Every single thing in it works, except for us. Why? What makes us so special?”

Ishmael said, “It is your culture’s deep-seated perception that wisdom is not to be found among you. This is what your daydream reveals. You know how to build marvelous electronic gadgets, you know how to send ships into space, you know how to peer into the depths of atoms. But the simplest and most needful knowledge of all, the knowledge of how to live, simply doesn’t exist among you.”

“I’m going to give you two rules of thumb by which you can identify the people of your culture. Here’s one of them. You’ll know you’re among the people of your culture if the food is all owned, if it’s all under lock and key.”
“Hmmmm,” I said. “It’s hard to imagine it being any other way.”
“But of course it once was another way. It was once no more owned than the air or the sunshine are owned.”

“Another rule of thumb you can use to identify the people of your culture is this: They perceive themselves to be members of a race that is fundamentally flawed and inherently doomed to suffering and misery. Because they’re fundamentally flawed, they expect wisdom to be a rare commodity, difficult to acquire. Because they’re inherently doomed, they’re not surprised to be living in the midst of poverty, injustice, and crime, not surprised that their rulers are self-serving and corrupt, not surprised to be rendering the world uninhabitable for themselves. They may be indignant about these things, but they’re not surprised by them, because this is how they expect things to be. This makes as much sense to them as having their food under lock and key.”

“The people of your culture blame human nature for their troubles. It’s still true that you think of yourselves as belonging to a flawed, doomed race, but now we both have a better understanding of why you think of yourselves this way. It serves a purpose. It enables you to shift blame from yourselves to something that is beyond your control–human nature. You are blameless. The fault is in human nature itself, which you cannot change.”

“Thinkers aren’t limited by what they know, because they can always increase what they know. Rather they’re limited by what puzzles them, because there’s no way to become curious about something that doesn’t puzzle you. If a thing falls outside the range of people’s curiosity, then they simply cannot make enquiries about it. It constitutes a blind spot–a spot of blindness that you can’t even know is there until someone draws your attention to it.”

“I should warn you that people will tell you that the impression I’ve given you of tribal peoples is a romanticized one. These people believe that Mother Culture speaks the undoubted truth when she teaches that humans are innately flawed and utterly doomed to misery. They’re sure that there must be all sorts of things wrong with every tribal way of life, and of course they’re correct–if you mean by ‘wrong’ something you don’t like. There are things in every one of the cultures I’ve mentioned that you would find distasteful or immoral or repugnant. But the fact remains that whenever anthropologists encounter tribal peoples, they encounter people who show no signs of discontent, who do not complain of being miserable or ill-treated, who are not seething with rage, who are not perpetually struggling with depression, anxiety, and alienation.”

“Of course. All of this would work beautifully, Julie, if people would just be better than people have ever been. You’d be just one big happy family, if only you would be better than people have ever been. The warring factions in the Balkans would hug and make up. Saddam Hussein would dismantle his war machine and enter a monastery. Crime would disappear overnight. No one would break any law. You could dispense with courts, police, prisons. Everyone would abandon self-interest and work together to improve the lot of the poor and to rid the world of hunger, racism, hatred, and injustice. I could spend hours listing all the wonderful things that would happen . . . if only people would just be better than people have ever been.”
“Yeah, I’m sure of that.”
“This was the tremendous strength of the tribal way, that its success didn’t depend on people being better. It worked for people they way they are–unimproved, unenlightened, troublesome, disruptive, selfish, mean, cruel, greedy, and violent.”

“As long as the food remains under lock and key, the prison runs itself. The governing that you see is the prisoners governing themselves. They’re allowed to do that and to live as they please within the prison. For the most part, the prisoners have chosen to be governed by men–or allowed themselves to be governed by men–but these men don’t run the prison itself.”
“What’s the prison then?”
“The prison is your culture, which you sustain generation after generation. You yourself are learning from your parents how to be a prisoner. Your parents learned from their parents how to be a prisoner. Their parents learned from their parents how to be a prisoner. And so on, back to the beginning in the Fertile Crescent ten thousand years ago.”

“Mother Culture’s deception here is that schools exist to serve the needs of people. In fact, they exist to serve the needs of your economy. The schools turn out graduates who can’t live without jobs but who have no job skills, and this suits your economic needs perfectly. What you’re seeing at work in your schools isn’t a system defect, it’s a system requirement, and they meet that requirement with close to one hundred percent efficiency.”

“In effect, you’ve passed a law extending childhood for an indefinite period and have redefined adulthood as a moral privilege that ultimately can only be self-awarded, on grounds that are far from clear. In tribal cultures, people are made adults just the way your presidents are made presidents, and they no more doubt that they’re adults than George Bush doubts that he’s the president. Most adults in your culture, however, are never absolutely sure when they’ve managed to cross the line–or even if they’ve ever managed to cross it.”

“We need schools to force kids to learn things they have no use for.”

“In tribal societies, it’s taken for granted that children will want to work alongside their elders. The work circle is also the social circle. I’m not talking about sweat shops. There are no such in tribal societies. Children aren’t expected to behave like assembly-line workers, punching in and punching out. How else are they learn to do things if they’re not allowed to do them?”

“The people of your culture imagine that the treasury was completely empty when you came along and began to build civilization ten thousand years ago. You imagine that the first three million years of human life brought nothing of value to the store of human knowledge but fire and stone tools. In fact, however, you began by emptying the treasury of its most precious elements. You wanted to start with nothing and invent it all, and you did. Unfortunately, aside from the products (which work very well), you’ve been able to invent very little that works well–for people.”

“Of course when the people of your culture look at tribal peoples, they don’t see wealth of any kind, they see poverty. This is understandable, since the only kind of wealth they recognize is the kind that can be locked up, and tribal peoples are not much interested in that kind.”

“It is my bizarre theory, Julie, that the people of your culture are destroying the world not because they’re vicious or stupid, as Mother Culture teaches, but because they’re terribly, terribly deprived–of things that humans absolutely must have, simply cannot go on living without year after year and generation after generation. It’s my bizarre theory that, given a choice between destroying the world and having the things they really, deeply want, they’ll chose the latter. But before they can make that choice, they must see that choice.”