THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO TOM HAYDEN
12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By VINCENT CARROLL
In retrospect, it was merely a matter of time before Tom Hayden would finally proclaim himself an Indian. For a quarter century or more, Indians have been Hayden's favorite people -- equaled in his affections for only a few years by the Communist Vietnamese. But whereas Communist imperfections belatedly caught Hayden's eye, long after the last blood of American troops had stained Indochinese soil, the romance of Indians still retains its hold on the California state senator, delegate to last week's Democratic convention, and onetime leader of the New Left.
Best of all, Hayden is now one of them. His transformation is recounted in his new book, The Lost Gospel of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 267 pages, $ 22), a work of environmental theology that will solidify Hayden's reputation as his generation's most nimble spokesman for whatever leftist enthusiasm dominates the day.
Hayden clears the ground for his new identity with a necessary stipulation: "The search for the lost gospel," he announces, involves "a deeper exploration of our common identity in a native past. No one is purely settler, or purely native. We are all indigenous somewhere." Although born and raised mainly in Michigan, Hayden seems to believe he is "indigenous" to Ireland and that his Irish ancestors "could be called the Indians of Europe." For one thing, the Irish once lived in "kinship-based clans similar to tribes in America." For another, not only had these Irish once "communicated with spirits in the land and sea," but they would later develop "the 'greenest' church in Europe."
Hayden first tried to enter Ireland in the late 60s, but his reputation preceded him and he was summarily expelled. "I wonder today," he muses, "if the experience of expulsion from our own ethnic gardens doesn't reverberate as an unhealed pain in our own memories." By way of answering he notes that in 1973, he and Jane Fonda named their son Garity, his mother's maiden name, as "a step in the recovery of memory and healing of loss."
"It also was then," he now reveals, "that I began to understand how an Indian in America must feel."
Such dreadful sanctimony and self-absorption have been the hallmarks of Hayden's long public career, along with an unchecked sentimentality. Thirty years ago Hayden fell head over heels for a Third World police state; today his knees go weak at the mere mention of any people that supposedly worships trees. Hayden must feel like an Indian because Indians, above all others, embody for him the lost nature mysticism that he believes is necessary to save the world. Once upon a time, it was American imperialism that threatened human existence. Now the danger is every major organized religion on earth. They all, every one, fail to put nature on the pedestal it deserves.
The Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, has a lot of explaining to do. For openers, "the Ten Commandments prohibit adultery but not pollution, demand that we honor our parents but not the earth." And was there ever a more disturbing call to human dominion over nature ("a license to plunder the natural world") than the traditional interpretation of Genesis?
Much of this has been said before, of course, most notably by Lynn White, who in a 1967 article for Science magazine blamed "our ecological crisis" on "the victory of Christianity over paganism." Yet Hayden has no illusions about the resilience of the biblical tradition, and a fundamentalist interpretation at that. As recently as 1991, he recounts, a Gallup poll found that nearly half of all Americans adhere to the view that man was created "pretty much in his present form at one time in the last 10, 000 years." If Genesis cannot be cast aside, Hayden reasons, it must "be reinterpreted in a greener way," along with the whole of Judeo-Christian theology -- which task, in a nutshell, Hayden sets out to do, while helpfully throwing in a chapter on how to improve Buddhism, too.
Yet the endeavor is hopeless, and one senses the author knows it as well as anyone. Strip Christianity of monotheism, hierarchy, and the immortality of the individual human soul, put human beings on the same moral plane as a grasshopper or a porcupine, and what you have left may be agreeable to a nature mystic, but it doesn't remotely resemble Christianity. If "nature mysticism is the de facto religion of native people everywhere," as Hayden argues, what would distinguish its Christian variant, other than a few apparently expendable biblical stories? Hayden never really bothers to explain.
Reading The Lost Gospel, one continuously marvels that a man of Hayden's superficiality has played such a prominent role in left-wing political thought for more than 30 years. Indeed, Hayden fails to grapple seriously with any of the premises he lays down. He rails against technology and what technology has wrought, and seems disturbed by the culture of scientific inquiry itself ("Where nature becomes an object of intellectual conquest, physical conquest is not far behind"). Yet he also blandly insists he is not "advocating the wholesale rejection of science." He repeatedly mocks the idea that humans merit special consideration compared with other creatures; he even praises children because they do not "distinguish a moral hierarchy between trees, flowers, animals, and human beings" (a dubious notion, but never mind). Yet he never bothers to explore how such a view would translate into practical behavior.
If all nature is equally sacred, as he repeatedly maintains, need we lament the death of a trout as much as that of a child? Presumably not, one supposes, yet isn't a moral hierarchy implicit in that distinction? Or perhaps Hayden disagrees. He does describe how he gave up fishing because he "had looked into the eyes of too many fish and experienced feelings there." So, is fishing wrong? Is eating fish wrong? A score of questions spring to mind, all unanswered. For that matter, under what circumstances are we permitted to cut down one of those trees that we are all expected to revere?
Hayden is mainly posturing, of course. What he really wants is what he has always wanted: to assert moral superiority over the rest of us. It is his single, lifelong compulsion, and he does it today through the same rhetorical tricks he employed a full generation ago. Even Hayden has admitted, in his 1988 memoir Reunion, that he was "very wrong in certain of my judgments" regarding the Vietnamese. To wit: He "turned the Vietnamese into caricatures of revolutionaries," all kind, selfless, and wise. Yet Hayden apparently learned nothing from this rare moment of self-awareness. His descriptions of Indian virtue and wisdom in The Lost Gospel are no less monochromatic than his most gullible exhortations on behalf of the Viet Cong -- if anything, they are more so. Presumably Hayden never put fictional statements in the mouth of a Vietnamese. Yet in The Lost Gospel, he quotes Chief Seattle's environmental manifesto even though he knows, and admits, that "the technical accuracy of Seattle's speech has been rightly challenged." Challenged is one way to put it. The manifesto was written in 1970 by a screenwriter named Ted Perry.
Otherwise, the excesses of The Lost Gospel parallel the excesses of his earlier work almost stride for stride. There are the same disdain for mainstream liberalism (even Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt come under mild fire for failing to uphold an "absolute standard" for the rights of nature), contempt for his suburban American roots, demonizing of political opponents (who are now described as sinners), and comprehensive rejection of his culture.
Indeed, Hayden has been trashing Christianity and linking it to a predatory capitalism for decades. In his 1972 book The Love of Possessions Is a Disease With Them (it's a quotation from Sitting Bull, marking the author's early fixation on native genius), Hayden sneers at Vietnamese Catholics as "traitors to their people" who richly deserved their often brutal fate.
The apocalyptic tone that afflicts The Lost Gospel has been a longtime staple of Hayden's, too. He was once absolutely convinced that the trial of the Chicago Seven marked "the beginning of full scale political repression" and the waning days of the American "empire." He exulted in Trial, a 1970 tract, that "private property and puritan morality, while still endorsed by dinosaurs like the Nixon family," would soon be obsolete. Today his hyperbole, equally puerile, is offered on behalf of the environment. He writes in all seriousness, for example, that "fifty thousand Americans die in car accidents every year, and many thousands more from the tobacco, alcohol, and drugs that we take to steady our nerves. All these disorders of the modern world arise from our striving against nature."
All these disorders? Will none of us die in car accidents when paganism reigns supreme?
Just as he did 30 years ago, Hayden yearns incoherently for a decentralized village culture "connected to the land." His would be a village culture sustained, however, by only the vaguest sort of private property rights. Although Hayden no longer calls for the abolition of private property, the right to own land still leaves him uneasy; how can any piece of this planet belong to us, after all, when we are merely "sojourners upon God's good earth"? All this bucolic hokum from a man who resides in Santa Monica.
If The Lost Gospel adds anything new to the Hayden oeuvre, it would seem to be a large dose of weirdness. Here is Hayden describing a transcendental moment he experienced while wading in a stream: "One day I even felt the water inside me while being in the water outside me. The stream ran through me; I was buoyed by water within my body that swelled to join the river through the porous boundary of myself."
He relates an equally bizarre encounter with a musk ox in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. During it, the animal "delivered a message, all witnesses later agreed," based upon the creature's "3 million years" experience."
At 56, it seems, Hayden has come a long long way from his lessons at the Shrine of the Little Flower School. But rest assured, he is not through. He notes approvingly, for example, that Thoreau's last words are said to have been "moose" and "Indians." What will Hayden's be, one wonders? What enthusiasm will have turned his head 20 years from now?
One thing is certain: It will fit the reigning leftwing Zeitgeist. For Tom Hayden is nothing if not a man of the herd.
Vincent Carroll last wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD about the Worldwatch Institute.