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:
- 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?;
- Jensen knew about them, but has such a limited grasp of political struggle that he didn’t understand them, and hence left them out?;
- 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.
“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.“
- 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?”
- 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.
- “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?
- 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?
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.
Star Wars – The Exhibition by Andres Rueda