Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An Open Letter To Derrick Jensen

Dear DJ,

I hope you don't mind me addressing you by your initials because that has simply become a habit of mine over the years as I've spammed links to your articles and videos all over the internet. Indeed, you have often given voice to certain issues in a way that is very much appreciated. For that, I must thank you.

However... I am inclined to write this letter, and make it public, because I don't feel you adequately address criticism from those of us who share many of your concerns and much of your perspective. I can understand this lack of a response in psychological terms because no one likes to be criticized. Nevertheless, I feel that honestly acknowledging such criticism could be beneficial to expanding the discussion about the issues and ideas you champion. As I don't have much faith in getting a response from you on any public forums, and because my time during any Q & A period would undoubtedly be limited, I've chosen to present my criticism and questions thusly.

Cutting to the chase, I must ask you about the statements you gave to Chris Hedges in regard to militancy within the #OccupyWallStreet movement and about the general level of militancy which should be engaged in by activists located within the borders of the United States. Do you stand by the statements he attributed to you in his article entitled "The Cancer of Occupy" and are those statements reflective of your current position? Specifically, I want to know if you stand by the following statement:

If you live on Ogoni land and you see that Ken Saro-Wiwa is murdered for acts of nonviolent resistance, if you see that the land is still being trashed, then you might think about escalating. I don’t have a problem with that. But we have to go through the process of trying to work with the system and getting screwed. It is only then that we get to move beyond it. We can’t short-circuit the process. There is a maturation process we have to go through, as individuals and as a movement. We can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw a flowerpot at a cop because it is fun.”

If you have repudiated these statements, I hope you will go to greater lengths to make that repudiation more widely known. I try to pay attention but have not noticed a public repudiation coming from you -- I am, therefore, unfortunately left with the belief that you do actually stand by those statements as quoted by Hedges. I've written a fairly well-received critique of Hedges' article (you can find it by searching for "The Folly of Christopher Hedges"), but here I'd like take issue with your personal role in his dubious piece of intellectually dishonest editorializing.

For starters, Ken Saro-Wiwa was essentially killed for his resistance to degradation brought about by a western oil company with petrol stations distributing their products in the United States. This, in itself, makes the struggle of Ken Saro-Wiwa a struggle for those of us living here. To pretend otherwise is a prime example of the NIMBY attitude. Because western corporations are merely killing environmental activists overseas... that's not our problem and western activists should not escalate their level of activism where those corporations are based? I find that line of thought questionable. And I also don't believe it would be vanguardist to act in solidarity with the Ogoni people in this particular struggle.

But your statement also makes it seem as if environmentalists in the west aren't brutalized and harshly mistreated. I hope you are at least aware of what happened to Judi Bari & Darryl Cherney? Theirs is a cautionary tale which all environmental activists should know well. But that's merely the tip of the iceberg and many environmentalists face violent attacks at the hands of the U.S. government. And those that aren't killed often face excessive legal hassles -- including tortuous incarceration.  And, like the Ogoni, we in the U.S. do, in fact, "see that the land is still being trashed." When, pray tell, would enough be enough? And why should it be acceptable if such violence and degradation were only happening in Nigeria or somewhere other than in our own personal backyards? It must be reiterated... the exploitation of the environment and the abuse of activists elsewhere often occurs at the behest of western corporations which are facilitating the western lifestyles we see all around us.

You suggest that we "have to go through the process of trying to work with the system and getting screwed. It is only then that we get to move beyond it. We can’t short-circuit the process." Is that really your position now? We haven't worked within the system enough and haven't been screwed enough? Well... I do hope you'll start passing out voter guides and petitions at your talks then. I mean... we must try to exhaust the possibilities of futility, shouldn't we? But seriously... you don't think those trying to work within the system have gotten screwed enough yet? Really?! So... when precisely should our breaking point be? When would enough be enough? When do we get to move beyond reformism? Do you really think we shouldn't try to "short-circuit the process"?

And, as per your quote, do you really think more militant action for social justice and the environment is premature and that those engaging in such actions are immature? Not only does that sound incredibly condescending, but it is a betrayal of all those who have taken more militant actions in the name of social justice or environmental activism. And by militant I don't necessarily mean violent.

You suggest that "We can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw a flowerpot at a cop because it is fun.’” But I pay attention to the radical press, I even go to see radical speakers, and I know of no one who is seriously advocating any such thing. This isn't to say that no one is using aggressive and militant language, but no one is really suggesting such things simply "because it's fun." And, particularly in regard to the #occupy movement, the most aggressive action on the part of the protesters has pretty much been some water bottles thrown at heavily armed police. Sure, Starbucks and some banks got their windows smashed in Oakland, but that's hardly thoughtless and it wasn't a targeting of mom & pop shops. As I pointed out in my critique of Hedges' awful piece... there are many black bloc communiques that have been distributed (with the most well-known probably being the N30 Black Bloc Communique [from the Seattle WTO meeting in '99]) which make it perfectly clear that corrupt and destructive corporations are the primary targets of such essentially symbolic (and actually non-violent) actions. These are usually very calculated actions and those engaging in them are often informed and dedicated individuals. I'd also like to point out that much of the general public undoubtedly understands why a big bank, or some other corrupt corporation, might get its windows smashed -- and such action doesn't necessarily sadden or anger them.

My primary concern in this letter is whether or not you will stand by your statements as quoted by Christopher Hedges in his recent article. Those statements seem to be in stark contrast with the ideas which you've put forward in the past and upon which you've built your reputation.

Finally, while I don't want to get into a tone argument, I must question your act of inviting even more scrutiny into your affairs by summoning the FBI to investigate the death threats made against you over the internet. Their agents may very well have been the ones placing those threats against you. Again, just ask Judi Bari. And, despite your assertions, such a situation isn't at all the same as a rape victim going to the police. Millions who play online video games have received such threats and big talk on the internet is not equivalent to rape. I understand any fear you may have, and truly feel sorry for you, but I also feel you've gone a bit too far in trying to justify a potential mistake you've made. I feel it was a mistake to seek out the assistance from, and legitimize the authority of, the butchers of Pine Ridge.

And while I wouldn't want this to be an irreconcilable point of contention between us, I also recognize that you probably aren't confronted with much sincere pointed criticism. My only hope is that you will respond calmly and civilly. And know that even a text as benign as this one, which calls for no specific action, is more than enough to thoroughly pad a file. But this isn't my first trip to the rodeo and I choose not to live in fear. 
Nihilo Zero

1 comment:

N. Zero said...

It behooves me to reiterate that, as with Jensen, I consider myself an above-ground radical (insomuch as editorial journalism and analysis is a qualifier in that regard). I assume surveillance, due to my writing and my past, and anymore I am very much disinclined to engage at all in any illegal direct actions. I've clarified these points in my security culture primer and other articles.

Also... I'd like to point that I don't have any personal ill-will towards DJ (or anyone else for that matter). This open letter to him was written because of what I (and others) perceive as intellectual inconsistencies on his part and his subsequent failure to acknowledge honest criticism. A truly radical discourse should not, and cannot, be dictated from an essentially unresponsive central authority or expert (no matter how respected they are by the bourgeois establishment -- and no matter if you are given 60 seconds to question them while they are on the stage). Further, as a radical writer becomes more prominently known, there is an increased risk that their message may become corrupted. This can occur even without the trappings of wealth and prestige. All of us need to question, from time to time, what we actually believe and where we actually stand.

It is my personal hope that Jensen will repudiate any statements he made which were potentially misused by Christopher Hedges in the latter's intellectually dishonest article about the black bloc tactic and the #occupy movement. Either way... Jensen's previous contributions will still stand as an inspiration to many of us -- but those writings and his forthcoming work may have to be examined in a different context.