Endgame: The Problem Of Trivialization

On the advice of many Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame” has been on the ‘should read’ list for years, but somehow I have never gotten around to it. More recently a youtube clip of him reading an excerpt was brought to my attention, so I watched that, and then checked out sections of the books that are available online.

The clip in question is a reading of the apparently infamous “The enviromentalist version of Star Wars” analogy (text from book here). Many apparently feel that this is a wonderful encapsulation of all that is wrong with “mainstream environmentalism.” Actually it’s a pretty good encapsulation of all that is wrong with Derrick Jensen’s arguments.

The short version (if you want to save 9 min of your life) is that Jensen uses a Star Wars analogy to mock nonviolent activists. eg:

In a surprise move that will rivet viewers to the edges of their seats, other groups of rebels file lawsuits against the Empire, attempting to show that the Environmental Impact Statement Darth Vader was required to file failed to adequately support its …

Straw Man Fail

Not surprisingly the case for nonviolence is NOT best articulated by a random collection of “standard lines thrown out by pacifists“, which is what Jensen uses to (mis)represent the nonviolent argument. A fair critique of nonviolent action would discuss and attempt to refute people like Gene Sharp, Bill Moyer or George Lakey, none of whom are even mentioned on the site.

Excuse me? you are pretending to critique a political strategy and you don’t mention any of the important current writers and thinkers? much less discuss their work and ideas? What am I supposed to believe? That:

  1. Jensen’s grasp of the subject is so lame that he doesn’t even know about the core writing and thinking on it, and couldn’t be bothered to find out?;
  2. Jensen knew about them, but has such a limited grasp of political struggle that he didn’t understand them, and hence left them out?;
  3. Jensen knew about them, but since he had no intelligent response he instead chose to ignore them and substitute cartoons instead?

Strangely, none of the above explanations give me any confidence that Jensen is worth taking seriously as any sort of authority on political struggle; I’m funny that way.

Regardless, the fact remains that Jensen has not even talked about the case for nonviolent resistance, much less refuted it.

Even though he restricts his arguments to refuting cartoons, his arguments are still frequently weak or outright false:

It has always seemed clear to me that violent and nonviolent approaches to social change are complementary.  Jensen

It may have “seemed” that way to Jensen, but we know from history that when violent resistance occurs at the same time as nonviolent, it strengthens the oppressor.

From An interview with Lierre Keith

Derrick Jensen always asks in his lectures for a show of hands on who thinks this culture is going to willingly make the transition to a sustainable way of life. No one raises a hand. So if we all know that a mass movement isn’t going to happen in time to save the planet, why are we bothering to consider nonviolence? Nonviolence only works en mass.

Except:

  1. A Derrick Jensen audience is largely made up of people who have self-selected as not believing nonviolent action can succeed. This “survey” is like asking a Church Congregation “who believes Jesus is our Saviour?”
  2. Since when are “nonviolent struggle” and “willingly make the transition” synonyms? They aren’t (more like opposites actually), and conflating them shows either basic confusion or dishonesty.
  3. “Nonviolence only works en mass” Red herring. What percentage of the population actually took part in nonviolent resistance during the civil rights struggles? the Indian Independance struggles? what percentage is needed to successfully wage (ie win) violent resistance? How different are those numbers?
  4. Ask the same audience how many of them are willing to risk everything to wage violent struggle, then ask them to give up their cell phones, ipads and mp3 players right now “for the revolution”; then ponder the amazing contradictions and self-deceptions people are capable of.

Loaded Words Fail

Jensen never uses the proper term “nonviolent activist” presumably because that sounds too much like they actually do things and one of his memes to trivialize his opponents is to claim that they never do anything.

Instead he prefers the more archaic and inaccurate term “pacifist” since it is suggests (wrongly) that they are passive. That’s not quite enough though, so it is often “dogmatic pacifist” rather than simply “pacifist.”

Apparently he wants to convince us that nonviolent activists are unreasonable, nonthinking do-nothings, but without actually having to intelligently demonstrate it with facts and evidence. Since that isn’t possible I can understand why he didn’t do it, but he should just acknowledge that rather than waste our time with propaganda tricks.

Appeal to Ridicule Fail

Instead of intelligent arguments Jensen uses ridicule that plays on the stereotypes and ignorance of his audience to trivialize nonviolent action. In this way he affirms their ignorance while pretending to have critiqued the opponents position. Well Jensen, ridicule away if you must, but don’t pretend that you have said anything that refutes nonviolence.

Even so, are there not some truths in his version? Sure, but mostly truths about the audiences’ cartoon understanding of political struggle. Some truths about equally ignorant cartoon understanding by some advocates of nonviolence. No truths that I saw about actual nonviolent theory and practice.

One could write an equally valid “Black Bloc version of Star Wars” eg: “So then they tied bandanas around their faces, spray painted anti-imperialist slogans on the Death Star and threw rocks at the Imperial Storm Troopers. [Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha]

Yup, as a critique of Insurrectionary anarchism that sure is lame, vacuous, irrelevant, and juvenile … just like Jensen’s version as a critique of nonviolent action.

False analogy fail

The use of the Star Wars analogy is interesting though, because it appeals to a basic narrative that the violence advocates generally hold, and which Jensen himself explicitly rejects.

Simplistically, the fairy tale narrative is that “what is wrong” is due to a central power figure and his immediate circle of power holders. All “the hero(s)” needs to do is kill/defeat the “supreme bad guy” and then the unicorns will come back etc.

The appeal of this narrative is:

  • the solution is simple; not necessarily “easy”, but simple to understand and relatively simple to implement;
  • the solution will be accomplished by the Hero; the individual activist is free to cultivate a duality of feeling important by identifying/aligning with the Hero while rationalizing not doing a lot because it is really up to the Hero;
  • It ends. When the Death Star explodes, or the Emperor dies “it” is all over and we can go back to being happy forest folk;
  • “they” are bad, “we” are good. Any act committed against them is ok because they are bad. Any act committed by us is justified because we are good.

The analogy is false because:

“The solution” is not simple; there is no Supreme Bad Guy who is forcing the destruction of the world and causing all of the injustice. There is no Death Star, the destruction of which will make everything alright.

Of course there are some not nice people in positions of power who will fight to maintain the status quo, but “the problem” (as Jensen himself acknowledges) is our collective participation in a consumerist, exploitative culture.

“The solution” depends on each and every one of us taking action. “The Hero” is not going to save us (another argument that Jensen also makes). We each have to do things that could be described as making sacrifices.

We may well lose our lives, or at least as we understand them to be, and we probably will not get the prince(ss) at the end either.

There will be no end. The forces and factors that created this system will not magically go away by killing certain people (also acknowledged by Jensen). They will be with us always, and hence the need for struggle will also always exist. There may be pauses, but no rolling credits, no ultimate resolution.

We are not inherently good, nor are “they” inherently bad. Some of what we may do is just as bad as their actions, and may well result in worse consequences. Our motives do not justify anything and everything, and it is necessary to do the difficult, sometimes painful work of being introspective, self aware, and honest.

Derrick ‘Glenn Beck’ Jensen

Has no one else noticed that the self-proclaimed radicals use the same tactics and modes of nonthinking to discredit progressives as the radical right (eg teabaggers) do? ie ridicule, straw men and misrepresentations, loaded terms, false analogies, fairy tale narratives and simplistic solutions? Sure sounds like Glenn Beck, doesn’t it?

I know for a fact that both the teabaggers and self-proclaimed radicals refer to me as a ‘libural’, and in both cases it is used as a substitute for an intelligent response to what I have to say.

Here’s a piece of advice for Jensen and company: anytime you find yourself sounding just like a cheap Glenn Beck clone, you’re not necessarily wrong, but it’s definitely time to do a reality check.

If there is a cogent, intelligent argument for violent struggle I would love to see it. One that honestly engages the real case for nonviolence and does not build its’ argument on logical fallacies, misrepresentations and cheap rhetorical tricks. If any know of such, please let me know.

I am skeptical that it exists though, since every advocate I meet cites one or more of Ward Churchill’s ‘Pacifism as Pathology‘, Gelderloos’ ‘How Nonviolence Protects the State‘, and now Jensen’s “Endgame” as the “must reads” for a convincing case.

Convincing? yes! Since all three rely on the same straw man arguments and cheap rhetorical tricks I am becoming very convinced that there is no intelligent case for violence.

Struggle is not trivial

The most instructive thing about Jensen etc is what it tells us about the resistance movement as a whole. That arguments this intellectually lame and transparently false have broad appeal and are considered by many to be the creme de la creme of resistance thinking tells us that we are in deep, deep shit. If this is our best …

For there to be any hope we need many more within the movement to understand and be able to articulate the politics of nonviolence. At the very least to have read and know George Lakey’s “Nonviolent Action as the Sword that Heals.” Even better would be Bill Moyer’s “Doing Democracy“, better still Gene Sharp’s writings (or these,) or any works of equal substance.

Only when arguments like Jensen’s Star Wars version are laughed at because the audience sees them for the idiocy that they are rather than thinking they are credible will we begin to mature as a movement.

Image Credits:

Star Wars Series by Wyckthöor

Star Wars Pullips By kelvin255

Star Wars Republic Commando – Vode An, Brothers All by Thorsten Becker

Star Wars wedding cake- Han & Leia by SomeRandomNerd

My Star Wars helmet collection by superrune

Star Wars – The Exhibition by Andres Rueda

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16 Responses to Endgame: The Problem Of Trivialization

  1. Pingback:

    Vote -1 Vote +1World Spinner

  2. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Joe
    January 9, 2011 at 9:57 am

    @ Straw Man Fail: You critique Jensen’s dismissal of non-violence based on a 9-Minute youtube clip, you should really read his whole book first, because he lists premises which lead to his conclusion. Since you are just taking a youtube clip out of context, it does seem as though he has not considered non-violence. In reality, he knows that non-violence is ineffectual because the dominant culture will continue to destroy forests and chop of mountain tops. Furthermore, he frequently references non-violent actions and how they fail in the context of stopping global environmental destruction.

    @Loaded Words Fail: Yes, Jensen uses loaded words, he admits this. Again read his work instead of cherry picking a youtube clip for christ sake and you would know this. He acknowledges ‘all writers are propagandists’ on multiple occasions.

    @Appeal to Ridicule Fail: Yes, Jensen ridicules ‘pacifists’, he also admits this in his written works. Jensen notes that pacifism frequently fails (such as tree-sitting, petition writing, lawsuit filing) and in his books he cites many real-world examples where those in power sidestep laws and peaceful attempts to stop destruction. Please, read his entire work instead of critiquing his ideas based on a youtube clip of a cartoon he modified–mostly jokingly–to simply illustrate his point another way.

    @False Analogy Fail: Once again, having taken his story out of context and not being familiar with his work, you don’t understand what he is saying. You claim ‘there is no supreme bad-guy’ but there is–the dominant industrial culture that is killing the planet. You claim there is no ‘Hero’–yes there is, its each and every one of us who can stand up to those in power and resist. You claim we are not ‘Good’–yes we are if we resist and fight to save the planet. (if this seems warm and fuzzy it is, Jensen is trying to motivate, hence the ‘loaded words’ and ‘ridicule’).

    @the rest: You condemn Jensen for his dim view of non-violent resistance but do not 1) provide examples of how you see non-violence resistance succeeding in bringing back the 90% of the large fish in the ocean now gone and 99% of prairies now gone by writing to legislators or otherwise resisting non-violently? 2) You also do not mention violent resistance and it’s possible place. The critique in general feels like it was written by just the type of person Jensen’s work could help–one who is so ensconced in the dominant culture that they would never attack it because they identify so closely with it. As Jensen mentions time and time again in his works, those who preach non-violent resistance tacitly allow the dominant culture to continue with the destruction.

    • -4 Vote -1 Vote +1greenfyre
      January 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm

      I really wish you had actually read the post before commenting, it would have saved both of us a lot of time.

      @ Straw Man Fail
      i) As I note, reference and link, I read most of the excerpts that are avaiable online, which includes the sections you reference.
      ii) He cherry picks a few examples that suit him rather than intelligently discussing radical activism;
      iii) You can’t even say what the straw man argument was, and you believe you refuted it?

      @Loaded Words Fail:
      i) How does Jensen admitting he uses loaded words refute my point that he uses loaded words? Is this even supposed to resemble rational thought?
      ii) If Jensen had actual points, why not make them using the correct “nonviolent activists”?
      iii) as noted above, I read the relevant sections AND quote them, something you might have noticed if you’d actually read this article.

      @False Analogy Fail
      So 1 man = an entire cultural, and 1 man = everybody
      Oh please, If you are willing to stretch things that far then “Charlotte’s Web” or “Pride and Prejudice” would be equally good analogies.

      As before, try reading what I actually wrote and responding to it rationally.

      @the rest
      i) I reference the appropriate texts;
      ii) I didn’t discuss Etruscan pottery or quasars either. It is a blog post about Jensen’s analysis of nonviolence as it appears in Endgame, so for some wild and crazy reason I decided to talk about Jensen’s analysis of nonviolence as it appears in Endgame … go figure.

      As before, try reading what I actually wrote and responding to it rationally.THe same applies to you comment here http://greenfyre.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/endgame-the-problem-of-trivialization/#comment-10604

  3. +5 Vote -1 Vote +1Joe
    January 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Hey, so I read your comments and wanted to say that 1) sorry if my response came off like an attack, I know your response to mine did. 2) after reading your response I think I understand why you don’t appreciate Jensen’s work. You operate very scientifically, and while this is great for analyzing evidence for global warming that same mindset cannot capture the non-scientific or moral aspects of Jensen’s writings on social theory and civilization.

    For example: you claim he uses loaded words with the unstated premise that loaded words are bad, yes? And while loaded words should be omitted from something like an IPCC report, a writer trying to evoke emotional responses from readers does not limit themselves in the way a scientist would. Derrick is NOT trying to use scientific evidence to support a hypothesis on the limits to non-violent resistance, he is persuading the reader to realize how this destructive culture will stop at nothing to gain absolute control over every ‘resource’ on this planet, and to use any means necessary to dismantle it.

    Jensen acknowledges that civilization will consume all of Earths resources and eventually itself (if you disagree on this point, I guess you can stop reading now)

    If, however, we can agree on this point–then you can see why non-violent protest cannot succeed. Sure it worked for Gandhi in winning independence in India but if you believe (as Jensen does) that civilization as a whole must be taken down, then non-violence alone will not work.

    You mention Sharp, Moyer, and Lakey, as preeminent speakers on non-violent resistance, but they all take civilization as a given, as something to be maintained throughout the process. Jensen doesn’t.

    This is why Jensen promotes violent resistance–because he acknowledges the need to dismantle civilization in its entirety–not just to secure more land for preservation, limits on CO2 emissions, etc.

    Finally, Derrick has a book called “Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control” which might interest you, where he talks about how our cultures obsession with science blinds us to the spiritual aspect of existence and how we want to live our lives, and how science is like our cultures religion. Just some food for thought, nothing personal. peace.

    • -3 Vote -1 Vote +1greenfyre
      January 11, 2011 at 11:38 pm

      How about you talk about what I actually wrote and refer to it?

      Actually I teach nonviolent resistance, have been arrested many times & have done jail time … you could have spared yourself that useless conjecture by talking about the post.

      Re: “then you can see why non-violent protest …”

      No, I would still need an intelligent, informed, thoughtful critique of nonviolent theory and practice.

      re: but they all take civilization as a given,

      No they don’t … where did that come from?

      Please stop making assumptions about me & then creating arguments to speak to some illusion of yours. You have no idea what my spiritual basis is, if any.

      Talk intelligently about what I actually wrote and I will respond.

  4. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Miss Pixie
    January 10, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    umn… the star wars thing is a JOKE, you know, satire… if you’re going to critique someone, at least read their book first.

    Derrick has been personally involved with above ground legal activism for years. He has personally saved hundreds of thousands of acres of old growth forest through timber sale appeals… he’s been doing nonviolent activism for years… he’s poking fun at his own work as much as anyone elses.

    and go watch tehrest of teh endgame talk, it’s available on youtube. but seriously, if you’re going to critique someone, at least read their book first.

    Pixie.

    • +5 Vote -1 Vote +1Miss Pixie
      January 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm

      oops… that should read “the endgame talk is available on googlevideos”, it’s also available on the essential dissent website.

    • -4 Vote -1 Vote +1greenfyre
      January 11, 2011 at 11:30 pm

      You are critiquing me … have you read everything I have written about violence and nonviolence?

      I critique what he said, accurately and in context. If you can find specific errors or show that I have misrepresented him, then by all means do so.

      If you can’t, have the grace to acknowledge it.

  5. +5 Vote -1 Vote +1Miss Pixie
    January 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    >>> If there is a cogent, intelligent argument for violent struggle I would love to see it. <<<

    Umn… how racist is this statement?????

    Go talk to indigenous people who are fighting against their forests being masacred… go talk to the remaining indigenous people who are living with the aftermath of genocide…

    are you saying people shouldn't fight back when their sources of life are being privatised and converted into soya plantations? Are you honestly saying that people who are being killed shouldn't fight back against those killing them?

    Wow… how insulting, patronising and racist can you be?

    • -4 Vote -1 Vote +1greenfyre
      January 11, 2011 at 11:45 pm

      Lets see, some of the principle advocates and practitioners of nonviolent action have been people like Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez … and yes, I have been working with First Nations on 3 continents for over 20 years.

      Please stop trying to fake it on a topic you clearly know little about. Intelligently address what I actually said and support your claims with facts.

      Thank you

    • -4 Vote -1 Vote +1greenfyre
      January 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm

      PS I take it then that you know of no “ogent, intelligent argument for violent struggle”

      No one else seems to either

  6. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Scott
    January 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    “If there is a cogent, intelligent argument for violent struggle I would love to see it.”

    You have obviously never found yourself pinned to the ground and about to be raped.

    • -3 Vote -1 Vote +1greenfyre
      January 11, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      I will not insult you by pretending to know anything about you. Please extend me the same courtesy.

      Insomuch as many survivors of all forms of violence remain nonviolent advocates despite that you may want to stop pretending to speak for them.

      Political activist Wangari Maathai was gang raped in front of her children (just one of the many attacks on her). Please honour her courage by reading her thoughts on nonviolence and retaliation.

      If you won’t do that, at least stop pretending that you speak for her.

  7. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Miss Pixie
    January 11, 2011 at 6:05 am

    you also clearly have no understanding of Jensen’s position either.

    He doesn’t advocate violence any more thna he advocates non-violence. He advocates for being attentive to our circumstances and using multivaried approaches. If purely nonviolent actions will be successful and are best, then great.

    Jensen makes the distinction not between violence and nonviolence, but between action and inactivism. He doesn’t care what tactic you use as long as you are working for the landbase.

    … and ditto what Scott said… it is only the threat of a prison sentence which kept me from killing the men as they were raping me.

    Pixie.

    • -3 Vote -1 Vote +1greenfyre
      January 11, 2011 at 11:53 pm

      I wrote a piece about what Jensen actually said. To critique I suggest you refer to what I actually said.

      I am sorry for your experience with sexual violence, but justified or not, the anger of individuals is not a basis for choosing the best political strategy. My concern is that we need to win far more than we need to feel vindicated.

  8. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1aurora
    January 12, 2011 at 9:36 am

    I think it is not really fair to criticize an author as a whole or one of his works on a video clip that is meant to be satirical. IIRC, that Star Wars analogy was near the end of the book and clearly it is meant to be something of a cheerup after a read that is largely very serious. No analogies ever work perfect – but they rather illustrate what has been explained before in more detail or are starting points to a more detailed explanation. To limit the perception of a person to what is said in a video that is in the limits of the average youtube attention span of 10 minutes is not really nice.
    I think it is also needed occasionally to build arguments from scratch and not merely as a reply to other people’s statements – a back-and-forth between advocates of nonviolent vs violent struggle would likely more read like a random internet forum, drifting offtopic by the second book or so.
    Looking at history, both forms of resistance had their successes and failures and a combination of them seems to be possible really. A classic example I like to use in environmental context is Germans anti-nuclear movement. There are people there destroying roads and rails and there are grandmothers with their children at the protests holding up signs. The first tactic made transport of nuclear material really expensive and slow and resulted in frequent media reports, keeping the public aware of the problem, while the second part prepared to bring the message to the people who got curious about it and as a result there is a ban on building nuclear power plants now. I doubt that using a single tactic would have sufficed. An opposing example is the organization of massive numbers of people standing with candles in the night to protest Germany going to war. That was about in the same decade and despite some pictures in newspapers that helped not a lot.
    Another argument for violent action can be found in the need for a judgement of situation. Not every means are appropriate under every circumstances. There are certainly circumstances when violence is counterproductive, but there are also some in which nonviolence is useless. The main thing I believe Jensen asks for is to allow for acknowledgement of this distinction, for a choice of tactics in the context they are used in. I guess, Jensens overall impression is, that the current political and ecological situation is a pressing and dire one in which nonviolent tactics are of declining use and asks to accept other possibilities. As almost every economist, engineer, scientist and developer will tell you, things are moving faster and faster and changes that are needed have to happen quickly. With the same speech, people came along 30 years ago and more, saying that “the time to act is now” to save the climate and stop overfishing. People held strong speeches and tried to persuade people and politicians to act, petitions and protests were organized, but what we see now in the shape of an almost unavoidable increase by 2°C global temperature is a sign that this has failed. We can of course hope that to do more of what has not done so much yet will succeed in the future or that “this time” people will act upon the same call that was heeded over and over again, that if people just would unite, things can be changed. You can hope of course, but is that all we can have? Is all we can have a faint hope that this time will be different? And soon enough?