Paul Gilk’s book Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego (2016), is the product of a truly unique mind. I consider it a must-read for any Native person interested in better understanding what has resulted in the dispossession of our Native nations and peoples from our lands and traditional territories. Using a clear and accessible style, Gilk works to decipher and unpack the concept of “civilization,” and its rootedness in pathology. He reveals that the origin of “civilization” is found in the historical pattern of a tyrannical and bandit class that has used various means to portray itself as perfectly entitled to fatten and maintain itself on the resources of others. The Trump Era makes the book timely.
Gilk opens his book in an autobiographical manner. Raised on a farm in upper Wisconsin, when he reached his early 20s Gilk began asking a poignant question: “Why are small farms dying?” In the course of his research, he turned at one point to his Webster’s dictionary and looked up the word ‘peasant.’ He was surprised to find that it traced to the word ‘pagus,’ or “pagan.” This connection, combined with the investigations of a deeply curious mind, Gilk began to read a number of anthropologists, such as Lewis Mumford, and other thinkers, such as Arnold J. Toynbee, who wrote about the connection between patterns of domination and the rise of the great aristocracies of the world at the expense of Indigenous or original peoples and others who lived close to the land.
By becoming masters of violence, and skilled at expropriating the possessions of other peoples, those piratical bandits (“civilizations”) rose to power and prominence. They found that wealth begets wealth and power begets power.
In the overall scheme of things, politics deals with the perennial question: Who gets what, when, and how? The dominating civis (city-life) was at perpetual war with the country dwelling pagus, and it’s that way to this day. Political communication is also a matter of who owns and controls the narrative that provides the cognitive basis for the social, economic, and political order.
Using an entertaining and good-natured style, Gilk provides important insight into these and many other matters. In the process, he takes on the ideas of some very eminent minds as he evaluates the thinking of various writers, giving credit where credit is due, but providing a critique of first rate minds when, in his view, it’s warranted.
Although he was raised in a fairly conservative Christian household, these days Gilk is not shy to take on fundamentalist-Christian neo-liberals who form the vanguard of today’s Christian Right. He sees the clear and present danger of mixing Christian dominionism, such as we find in the Trump administration (think VP Pence), and political power brokering, with quite a few billionaires thrown in for good measure. It would seem that this trend toward a Christian-premised totalitarian dystopian system is what at long last brought the Trump/Pence dynamic duo into power, with all the entertainment value that it has generated.
Gilk traces such religio-political trends back in the distant past, to “the shot-gun wedding” between Christianity and the Roman Empire, during the time of Constantine and Augustus. Rome co-opted the early Christian religious movement and from those early seeds an imperial system has emerged that has placed most of the planet in its deadly and profoundly problematic grip. Those dominating imperial patterns of Rome morphed into the Holy Roman Empire, and into many other empires in history, including the American Empire of the United States, with the current leadership of the Trump Administration.
I find Gilk’s straightforward style is accessible. His analysis breaks through confusion, which leads to a new kind of clarity. He points out that the vicious nature and behavior of the bandit invaders leads to habitual patterns that are not easy to break. He asks, “Isn’t ‘Europe’ the progeny of Christendom and the Roman Empire?” And regarding “globalization” he states: “What’s being globalized—or has been, let’s say, since the 15th century—is civilization itself, primarily its economically aggressive and predatory Western mode.”
Gilk communicates the pattern of domination when he says: “The civilizing of the world has been achieved by armed force, by conquest, and by economic aggressiveness.” He continues: “Civilization, after all, came into being with the violent and systematic expropriation of the precivilized [predominated] agrarian village, roughly five thousand years ago, with institutionalized slavery and institutionalized militarism…” This matches the definition of "civilization" found in Webster’s: “the forcing of a cultural pattern on a population to which it is foreign.”
Clearly, a “civilizing” force is a dominating force, and what is termed “civilization” is in fact domination. Roy Harvey Pearce’s classic book Savagism and Civilization ought to have been titled “Savagism and Domination.” To live the life of the “savage” (from the French word “sauvage,” meaning forest dwellers) is to live a “free forest life” in direct and reverential communication with the natural world without domination of the Roman-model of civis (dominance). However, so long as the root meaning of these words are cloaked—words such as “civil,” “civilizing,” “civilization,” and “civic"—the underlying Domination Code remains out of focus. Even Gilk sometimes seems to miss this subtle point, yet his book over and over again clearly lays out such patterns, and their destructive effect on Mother Earth.
The Trump Era is the domination system on steroids; it is “Domination gone Wild.” Paul Gilk nails the pattern when he writes:
“Various scholars (including Lewis Mumford) show that the rise of the city occurs with the rise of an explicit ruling class or aristocracy (which literally means—aristokratia—the rule of the strong or the best). Civilization since its inception has been a process, a system, created by armed coercion for the benefit of a predatory few or dominant minority. Horticulture and then agriculture facilitated a new magnitude of abundance… Civilization is the murderous, institutionalized, overpowering theft of village abundance, intentionally so.
Examples to support Paul Gilk’s hypothesis are found in the Dakota Access Pipeline issue, and myriad other issues. They are found, for example, in Bartolomé de Las Casas’ first-hand account on The Destruction of the Indies, written in the 16th century; in David Stannard’s American Holocaust (1992); in Brandan Lindsay’s Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide (2012); and in Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: the United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (2016).
What Gilk has done is provide a detailed explanation of the millennial-long record of Civis (domination) waging war on Pagus (land based, originally free and independent nations and peoples), which, of course, includes our ancestors and our Original Nations. It would seem that it is a war without end, in this current phase during the Trump Era.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.