Holy cross and the human condition


According to the Internet the meaning of the name “St. Croix” is “holy cross”. There happen to be three St. (Saint) Croixs listed on Wikipedia: one is the largest of the Virgin Islands (where Columbus landed in 1492 and named Santa Cruz), another is a 165-mile-long river in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the last is our smaller river along the international border between Canada and the U.S.

Those of us who live along this particular St. Croix River know that the inspiration for the “holy cross” for French explorers Pierre Dugua du Mons and Samuel de Champlain was the three-way intersection of the St. Croix River, Oak Bay and the narrow tidal bay leading into Waweig.

I expect that symbols factor large in human history. Each wave of new explorers must have re-crafted their new environments using the symbols they brought along from their homelands. This would be as true for the Asians coming to the New World some 15,000 years ago as it was for more the recent European visitors just over 400 years ago. Each new wave of migration erases the symbols of the previous inhabitants.

Coincidentally, I’ve had my own cultural intersection on the go for the New Year. As I write this I have a friend visiting Belize who sends e-mail posts of his discoveries. And another friend lent me social scientist Jared Diamond’s informative book, Guns, Germs and Steel, which deals with the spread of the human species around the globe.

Among the many striking things that have impressed my traveling friend about Belize are the ancient ruins in the rainforest. Here’s what he said after his first visit to a Mayan site:

“Interesting in all this is it's believed the actual fall of the Mayans was more of a slow decline. Having utilized all the resources near at hand, water, farmable ground, firewood, and with continuing population growth the rulers missed the signs of resource depletion, primarily due to a series of wars against other nearby cities and personal wealth accumulation. It was the ‘if-I'm-not-hungry-how-could-there-be-a-food-shortage’ syndrome. Typically the ruler’s compound was the last to be abandoned, while the citizens moved away in small clusters to set up sustainable family agricultural units—much as they still are today in rural areas. Hmm, this all sounds vaguely familiar.”

What caught my attention, other than the obvious parallels to that resource-depleted extinct society and our present modern tangent of over-consumption, is the reference to the different crisis reactions between the elite and the common folk. Where the ordinary people could see the writing on the wall, so to speak, the ruling elites were seemingly oblivious to the degradation of their environment until it was too late to change.

As a migrant to this area, the issue of social order is always at the back of my mind, as I’ve written often before in this column. To me this area seems to have a far more vertically stratified culture as compared to other parts of Canada. I’ve attributed this, variously, to the Loyalist background of the place, the greater divide between the wealthy and the less affluent here, the lack of ethnic diversity with fewer newcomers than elsewhere, a more static population, and so on.

My own personal preference might be for a more ‘horizontal’ egalitarian society, where there is a narrower gap between the social classes. And indeed, recent social research has shown that societies that are more horizontal—read: egalitarian—than vertical have a higher creative output. One only has to think about the huge “beat” generation living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s or the big generation of techie kids growing up in Silicon Valley to see the results in practice.

In practice egalitarian societies may be the exception rather than the rule. That’s where Jared Diamond comes to the rescue. According to his research over 40 years in places such as New Guinea, egalitarian societies were the norm when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. In societies in which every member has to be a generalist in order to survive, equal status is automatic.

However, with the rise of agricultural food production just 6000 years ago a new possibility arose. With a surplus of food, societies were able to devote resources to specialists. The first specialists included a ruling class, then a religious class, then a host of other clerical and artisan specialties. The vertical human society had arrived.

In this way, modern human colonies seem to have a lot in common with ants. The Times of London recently reported, “William Hughes, of the University of Leeds, who led the research (on ants), said: “The core principle of social societies is they should be egalitarian. We’ve found this isn’t always the case and that some of the males are cheating. There is a genetic influence on royalty.” Hughes goes on to say, “…we carried out DNA fingerprinting on five colonies of leaf-cutting ants and discovered that the offspring of some fathers are more likely to become queens. These ants have a ‘royal’ gene or genes, giving them an unfair advantage and enabling them to cheat many of their altruistic sisters out of their chance to become a queen themselves.”

So specialized societies, whether human or ant, are hierarchical. But not entirely so.

The whole notion of our democratic political system is based on the intersection of both the vertical and horizontal. The population-as-a-whole elects representatives, who in turn work within a vertical administrative system to represent the public interest.

This intersection between the vertical and horizontal reminds one, correctly, of the Christian cross. And it’s no coincidence. In Christian tradition, the cross is the intersection between life and death, the worldly and the divine, good and evil, and between the Biblical, tradition of a Jehovah-directed vengeance (vertical) and the New Testament tradition of love and forgiveness (horizontal).

Obviously, in a complex, densely populated world we need vertical social order. To be equally obvious, we need creative, collaborative solutions to meet our present environmental challenges—which will require a horizontal society. We need a balance.
Unfortunately, what we’ve been experiencing for the last 30 years, at least on this continent, is an increasing vertical divide between the rich and the poor. Perhaps it’s time to start reassessing the distribution of wealth in our society before it’s too late.

Maybe we can do what our Mayan forefathers could not. Only time will tell. Welcome to 2010.


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