Saturday, February 17, 2018

Eco-Radicalism and Hitler Derangement Syndrome: The Strange Case of Derrick Jensen

"You seemed like such a nice man until you opened your mouth."

-----member of the audience to Derrick Jensen after one of his talks (quoted by Jensen in End Game, Vol. 1)

Derrick Jensen is a radical environmentalist and prolific author, who has been called the poet-philosopher of the ecological movement. In 2008 he was named one of Utne Reader's fifty visionaries who are changing the world. Among his many books are A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Endgame, What We Left Behind, and Resistance against Empire. His central thesis is that "the dominant culture is killing the planet," and we need to build a "culture of resistance" that includes blowing up dams and cell phone towers because "what we're doing isn't working." (Democracy Now, November 26, 2010)

Jensen is to be commended for reminding us that the world is run by force, not by voluntary interaction in a "free market" dedicated to delivering the greatest good for the greatest number. Nevertheless, while believing himself to be an intelligent dissident advancing a sensible argument, he demonstrates an uncritical acceptance of the establishment view of WWII, repeatedly lapsing into dogmatic assertions about Hitler and the "Final Solution" in order to establish a basis of comparison with the U.S., which he then condemns for Nazi-like behavior on an even larger than Hitlerian scale. The central preoccupation of his book "End Game" (Vol. 1) is elaborating an argument for "bringing down" civilization by any means necessary, in order that imperiled humanity may return to indigenous ways of living that proved themselves sustainable for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the book is shot through with sloppy thinking, adolescent bravado, and snotty asides, while overlooking the fact that trying to "bring down" civilization today is like dedicating oneself to sinking the Titanic - right after it hit the iceberg.

Jensen sees civilization as purely destructive, claiming that it leads inevitably to “assembly-line mass murder” as at Auschwitz. There is, he insists, an inherent logic that leads inevitably to “the electrified fences, the gas chambers, the bullets in the brain.” He evinces no trace of skepticism of this extravagant thesis, in spite of its flimsy factual basis, but merely blunders ahead to declare, with exaggerated self-importance, that he has an “intense opposition to genocide,” thus contrasting himself favorably with the pathological multitudes he presumes are lukewarm or indifferent to mass killing. 

Having thus established his moral superiority, he expands the definition to include the dams on the Columbia River, which he insists are “instruments of genocide, just as surely, explicitly, and intentionally as the gas chambers at Treblinka, Birkenau, and Auschwitz.” The pomposity and self-righteousness are troubling in themselves, of course, but there are also important factual questions that Jensen glosses over:  Did the homicidal gas chambers actually exist? If so, why is there no forensic evidence of them? Why no corroborating archival evidence? Why no photograph? Why so much crazy eyewitness testimony (no different in kind from that claiming that Jesus Christ literally rose from the dead)? 

Jensen doesn’t say, and apparently doesn't even suspect that such questions need to be asked. And if the “extermination” was a result of the collapse of Germany's Eastern Front after the battle of Stalingrad, don’t we need to critique what started the war? Unfortunately, Jensen doesn't see the need for doing this, since he believes in the cartoon-like view of Hitler as a cosmic force that single-handedly mobilized tens of millions of Germans to rush headlong to their doom. Sure.

Digging himself ever deeper, Jensen advocates setting up a “Nuremberg-style tribunal to try politicians, CEOs, generals, and capitalist journalists” for crimes against nature and humanity. He recommends that U.S. generals read Robert Conot's, Justice At Nuremberg, a standard work on the show trial, so that they will know what “justice” awaits them when Jensen's eco-warriors succeed "civilization." 

Justice! Starving, dismembered Germany, its cities bombed into rubble and its territory occupied by four foreign enemies that excluded their own crimes against humanity from the hypocritical indictment they advanced against the defeated "Reich," retroactively applying laws that had not existed at the time the hideous German atrocities were committed. Some of this absurdity comes through even in Conot's book, such as Hermann Goering bringing up Manifest Destiny and the U.S. conquest of the Southwest on explicitly white-supremacist principles, which the prosecutors don't even try to refute. 

To make a long story short, Jensen spews out all the myth-making minnows about "progress" and "civilization," only to swallow the establishment's ideological whale about unique Nazi racism culminating in mass extermination by gas chambers. He then goes on to paint ordinary Americans today as Nazis by default for failing to stop the capitalist rush to irretrievable environmental catastrophe. It's hard to know which is the more pathetic, his slavish devotion to an establishment version of the facts, or his sweeping dismissal of Americans as being no better than endlessly caricatured "Good Germans."

In any event, seeking to rid the world of evil (like George Bush!), Jensen argues that violence in defense of mother earth is justified, just as killing Adolf Hitler would have been justified. Had someone killed Hitler before WWII started, he claims, it would have saved millions of lives, which implies that the war only occurred because of the perverted will of a single individual. Obviously ludicrous, this is like arguing that if Thomas Edison's mother had aborted him the world would never have had electricity. More relevantly, if the West hadn't reacted hysterically to the Bolshevik revolution, Hitler never would have been Hitler. 

A childhood rape victim, Jensen's analysis is essentially psychological (abusers abuse without limit; victims are victimized without limit), and sheds no light on society or history. Again and again, he opines that fear to defend ourselves in the face of boundless abuse, not failure to understand and dismantle the intricate mechanisms of oppression, is our central problem. He appears frankly uninterested in thinking, which he does reluctantly and shoddily. For example, in attempting to counter the argument that focusing on especially appalling CEOs and corporations only leads the system to replace them with others equally bad, he misconstrues this as a form of fatalism. We would never call it pointless, he says, to arrest or kill an individual rapist on the grounds that other rapists will continue to rape. But the two situations are not at all comparable, because there is no structure of rapists as there is a structure of corporate power. CEOs perch at the apex of profit pyramids that are legally required to maximize profit. No rapist is under a legal obligation to rape. How can Jensen be unaware of this simple and highly relevant fact? 

Worse than this, a deep cynicism pervades Jensen's thought, as he dismisses the vast majority of Americans as morally indifferent, if not depraved: 

“I don’t think most people care, and I don’t think most people will ever care. We can trot out whatever polls we want to try to prove most Americans actually do care about the Environment, Justice, Sustainability – that they care about anything beyond being left alone to numb themselves with alcohol, cheap consumables, and television.  . . . But the truth is that it’s just not that important to most people – it in this case being the survival of tigers, salmon, traditional indigenous peoples, oceans, rivers, the earth; it also being justice, fairness love, honesty, peace. If it were, ‘most people’ would do something about it. . . . There will never be a mass awakening such that a majority of Americans or even a significant minority will realize that we are destroying our land base and rise up and stop it. Good Americans are just like Good Germans." (End Game, Vol. 1, p. 341, 343) 
In short, only Jensen and the small circle of people he approves of are properly moral. This conclusion, offensive in itself, overlooks considerable counter-evidence within Jensen's own life span (he was born in 1960). When a relative handful of dedicated political activists took up popular anti-war education in the 1960s and 1970s, a highly indoctrinated U.S. population went from strongly supporting the Vietnam slaughter to an 80% majority judging the war to be "fundamentally wrong and immoral." In subsequent decades elements of that overwhelming majority grew into a myriad of social change movements raising issues of a depth and scope never even contemplated in the much celebrated protest era of the 1960s. 

True, ecological destruction has not been stopped, or even slowed down, but given the massive concentration of wealth and power at the top of society this was entirely predictable. If achievable at all, an ecologically sane world of billions of people is not the work of decades, but of centuries. The popular rebellions of the 1960s at least put the issue on the map. The collective effort to avoid human extinction will define the next two centuries, if we are lucky enough to have them. But no technique or series of actions could have transformed the U.S. into an ecologically sustainable society in a mere forty years. Nevertheless, Jensen is firm in his conviction that failure to achieve the impossible is evidence the American people are morally bankrupt.

He, on the other hand, is of the ecologically Divine Elect, blessedly free of the stain of sin. Consider this phone conversation he reports having had with a friend:

“The phone rings. I answer. It’s a friend. She asks, ‘How much longer do you think we’re going to be in Afghanistan?’
            “She can’t see this, but I look around, look outside at the redwood trees. I respond, ‘We’re in Afghanistan? I thought we were in northern California.
            “Silence on the phone. A sigh, and finally she says, ‘How much longer do you think our troops are going to be in Afghanistan?’
            “I say, ‘I’ve got troops! Really? Will they do whatever I tell them? If I tell them to take out the dams on the Columbia River will they do that?
            “More silence, until she says, ‘This is why I only call you every few weeks. I’ll be in touch.’” (End Game, Vol. 1. pps. 175-6)

Here our sympathies must be with the friend, and not at all with Jensen. The meaning of her words is clear, her concerns appropriate, and her patience admirable. But Jensen cannot see any of this. Through adolescent mental gymnastics he has convinced himself he is not implicated in imperial crimes. He is not an American citizen, but a citizen of the eco-utopia to come. American troops are not his troops; they belong to a "civilization" of which he is not a part because he has recognized the call of the wild. The fact that the soldiers are Americans, paid by American tax dollars, graduates of American schools, residents of American communities, and intimately tied in a thousand other ways to Jensen and all other American citizens and long-term residents, does not matter. Jensen is a breed apart.

And quite above the rest of us. In other words, there is not one human nature, but two: the mass of people are evil, while Jensen and a handful of heroic environmental radicals are good. And don't think Jensen will engage counter-argument on this amazing conclusion. On the rare occasions he anticipates contrary lines of thought, he slips into the sniveling tone of a juvenile delinquent: "Don't give me any shit." Or else he calls the reader stupid:  “I was going to suggest those who think the U.S. invasion (of Iraq) has nothing to do with oil should put the book down, but realized they’ve probably already tired of the big words.” Sometimes he just surrenders to empty sneering:  "I hope you're not going to suggest it would be immoral to take out television towers, that migratory songbirds should die so we can watch The Best Damn Sports Show, Period, on Fox Sports Net."  

This from the "poet and philosopher" of the ecological movement. Barf.

A legend in his own mind, Jensen considers it an affront to have to carry a driver’s license. Stopped by a police officer once and told to produce it, Jensen replied that licenses are essentially government “identity papers” which we are “asked” to show at least as often as people were in those old black-and-white movies of the anti-Nazi resistance. The police officer in question told Jensen, “If you don’t like it, don’t drive,” a perfectly sensible response. No doubt Jensen thinks that having to produce a library card to check out books is just another Nazi plot to enslave us all.

Given such consistent irrationality, we shouldn't be surprised that Jensen is hostile to science, which he criticizes for having a "basis [in] prediction and extreme control." More specifically, he abhors “the neurotic insistence on repeatability (and control) in science, and the insane exclusion of emotion – which means the exclusion of life – from both science and economics.” 

But control is only imposed in order to provide a valid basis for comparison, while repetition of results is a necessary defense against error.  Emotion is excluded from the laboratory, but not from life itself, as scientists as a group experience the same range of emotions as everyone else. What has Jensen got against being reasonable?


Unknown said...

I stopped reading and believing anything you write when I realized you are a holocaust denier.

Michael Smith said...

So if I tell you 2+2=4, you won't believe it?

Anonymous said...

i agree with the brave and bold "unknown" but for a different reason..i stopped reading and believing anything you wrote when i realized you are a resurrection denier.

antonio netanyoohoo