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Hill, Brenner Read at Moe's

Incredible Double

By Ken Bullock
The Berkeley Daily Planet
June 11, 2009

Owen Hill, longtime bookseller at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, will read from his new humorous detective novel about the Berkeley adventures of Clay Blackburn, book scout and private eye, The Incredible Double (P.M. Press), for the reading series he established and continues to run at Moe’s. Summer Brenner will also read from her latest, I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex.

“Summer and I read together on tour,” Hill said, “Five readings in New York City. We come off as a team. She writes hardhitting noir; mine’s full of jokes.”

Hill’s detective fiction comes from the building he lives in, around the corner from Moe’s, on Dwight Way, the Chandler Apartments, also the title of his first novel, published in 2002 and now out of print

“It’s a grand old building,” said Hill, “And would work well in a mystery, I thought. It became a kind of joke. I’d always written poetry. On a whim, when I was laid up, I started The Chandler Apartments. I must’ve joked around enough. I’d always been a mystery fan, knew the form as a reader; there’s a lot of pulp in my library. I stole from [poet] Jack Spicer’s Tower of Babel the idea of using the detective novel to poke fun at the poets in your circle. The Chandler Apartments is full of poets. In a bland world, poets are still kind of nutty. I respect them for it.”

Asked to give a thumbnail description of the story, Hill said, “With a short book—The Incredible Double is 140 pages—it’s hard to give a reading without giving the plot away! Clay Blackburn’s a book scout and poet at the end of his scouting run. It’s harder and harder to make a living as a scout, so he falls into detecting. Through some weird fluke, he’s hired to find a Berkeley nut who threatened a CEO, whose security forces don’t know how to penetrate the Telegraph Avenue underground.

Questioned about that impenetrable underground, which swirls outside Moe’s front window, Hill replied, “It’s as I’d like it to be. There’s not much of a Bohemia anymore, in this country at least. But there is in my novel.”

Pressed about Berkeley locations in the book, Hill cautiously answered, “Moe’s is in it a lot, of course, where Clay sells his books; a couple of my coworkers get to have cameos. There’s a kidnapping in Elephant Pharmacy—gone now. Clay likes to drink at Cesar’s; he meets his love interest there. My car mechanic, from Pete’s Automotive, happens to drink at Cesar’s, too, so another cameo.”

“It’s kind of a Berkeley thing,” Hill added, “An auto mechanic with an advanced degree. The overeducated underachiever. A friend’s plumber is a marine biologist! Such a beautiful part of Berkeley, which makes conversations so interesting. It doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Hill himself hails from Southern California, “Torrance, the suburbs, till 20, 21, then to Santa Cruz. I was heading for college, but dropped out. I did a stint as ice cream maker at Polar Bear, pre-Haagen-Daaz gourmet ice cream, then got a job as a buyer at Logos Books on the Mall. Then came to San Francisco, worked at Columbus Books, after Discovery Books went out of business there, near City Lights. Then did a stint at Shakespeare & Co. while I argued my way into Moe’s—‘Moe, I could buy for you...’ ‘No, no...’ Finally, he gave in.”

Moe gave in in 1986. Reflecting on almost a quarter century on the Avenue, Hill said, “It’s been a long ride, but it’s home. It’s the best bookstore I was ever in. Moe took care of his employees, and that’s still happening, post-Moe. It’s a little oasis.”

Expanding on the theme, Hill said, “I’ve always really liked public life, bookstores and cafes as the place to make a living. There’s a constant flow of characters.”

The reading series at Moe’s “started very informally, then snowballed. So many other bookstores were dropping off; we became the premiere reading series in the East Bay—readings once, twice, three times in a week. But it began almost by accident. There was a little garden area behind Moe’s we don’t use anymore. [Poets] Clark Coolidge, Michael McClure, Nanos Valaoritis were all friendly customers, shopping the poetry section. I said, Why not come outside? That was 1999. Then we came back in, later got a microphone ... Now I’ve invited myself to read in my own series. And I accepted.”

Bookseller, “curator” of the poetry section at Moe’s, himself a poet, detective novelist and humorist ... “I’m happy to be in the middle of it. Coming from the suburbs, I’ve been running away from blandness my whole life. Berkeley isn’t bland.”

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The Southside Sleuth

Incredible DoubleBerkeley Eccentrics Animate Owen Hill's Mysteries
By Anneli Rufus
East Bay Express
June 9, 2009

Clay Blackburn gets to prowl around strangers' houses and peek into their lives. He does this under the auspices of not just one but two different occupations: Blackburn, the bisexual Berkeley-based protagonist in a series of mysteries by poet/novelist Owen Hill, is a book scout: That is, he browses yard sales, estate sales, and other venues seeking secondhand volumes that he can sell for a profit. But he's also a private eye: very private, in that "I barely qualify. I don't have a license, don't carry a gun," Blackburn muses when about to meet a prospective client at the start of Hill's latest book, The Incredible Double. Books are his main gig. "But sometimes I take these jobs."

The job driving this novel, which Hill will discuss at Moe's Books (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) on Monday, June 15, starts when a drugstore-chain magnate claims he's been getting snail-mail death threats with a Berkeley postmark and hires Blackburn to scope out their source. This magnate, whose not-so-subtle-reference surname is Wally, "looked like Ross Perot, but with hair. ... Soap-opera hair, silver and sprayed." Sure, he's got his own crack security detail: "Gleaned from the Special Forces, mostly. ... They captured Saddam, for heaven's sake," Wally boasts. But "Berkeley isn't Iraq," so he wants Blackburn, who knows this turf — because "Berkeley gives 'behind enemy lines' new meaning."

That's the first measure of a maze along which Blackburn hurtles with his trusty clutch of Berkeley regulars: a conspiracy theorist, an eloquent ex-druggie, and his best pal Marvin, whom he calls "my own personal Jiminy Cricket. ... He's an unrepentant Communist, but it's easier for him. He owns his house."

Blackburn's bisexuality is remarkably rare in fiction. "Until recently," Hill says, "the 'bi' part of the gay-bi-transgendered coalition wasn't there. I had an agent tell me, 'There's a niche for gay, but not for this.' But I'm optimistic. Remember, Gore Vidal once said, 'Everyone is bisexual.' I like those demographics."

"Most people don't really know what their books are worth. They think they have 'rare' first editions." When they're wrong, "I try to let people down easy." When he does make a buy, "sometimes I feel like the smiling undertaker."

On the night of his reading, he'll share the mic with Summer Brenner, whose novel I-5 is, like Hill's, new from Berkeley-based PM Press.

Although his eccentric characters are admittedly often based on real people, he says he's had "no complaints so far. When I use real names, it's out of respect — Edward Dorn, Joanne Kyger. The scenes I'm documenting are full of these offbeat, interesting characters. Sometimes it feels like fish in a barrel. Any given day at Moe's I see enough characters to make up a novel." 7:30 p.m., free. See Calender Listing.

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PM Press at Think GalactiCon

Think GalactiConPM is going to Chicago to talk politics and fiction! Speculative fiction at that, you all know there's nothing we'd rather be doing, and we have some brilliant sci fi coming out soon ourselves! We'll have a table with all of the finest in PM wares, and one of the featured speakers is Josh MacPhee, author of Paper Politics, which will also soon be available through PM! So check out the con's website, and if you'll be in Chicago between July 26th and 28th, we hope we'll see you there, as it's not too late to register!

Think GalactiCon 

Taking a cue from Wiscon, the world's leading feminist science fiction convention, we are looking to create a space in which leftists can discuss politics and speculative fiction in an intelligent, engaging, and fun fashion. There will be multiple tracks of programming that seek to expand the boundaries of typical discussions. We want to explore issues of oppressive hierarchies, confronting topics of race, gender, sexuality, class and more. We have a lot of great ideas for a thoughtful and challenging weekend of radical politics and fiction, so we hope to see you come!

Featured guests:

Eleanor Arnason is a science fiction author who brings politics into her writing in thoughtful and engaging ways. Her works are subtlely complex explorations of how cultures engage with colonialism, gender, and sexuality, and the compromises individuals must make to find their place within them. Her first novel, The Sword Smith, was published in 1978 and she is the author of four other novels and numerous short stories. She is the winner of the Homer Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, the Mythopoeic Award, and the very first James Tiptree, Jr. Award—an award for "gender-bending" science fiction. Check out her blog at

Josh MacPhee is an artist, activist, and sci-fi fan. He made his first political zine in high school and has been engaged in activist projects ever since. He is the author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street and editor of Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority. He has curated numerous art shows focusing on political art, most recently Paper Politics, which has been touring the US since 2004, and is the founder of Just Seeds—a collectively run distribution system for getting radical art projects out to the public. Josh was an early supporter of the Think Galactic reading group and was there when it all began. Check out some of his amazing artwork and the People's History poster series at

PM's new offerings in Speculative Fiction:

Lucky StrikeComing Soon!

The Lucky Strike
By Kim Stanley Robinson

Combining dazzling speculation with a profoundly humanist vision, Kim Stanley Robinson is known as not only the most literary but also the most progressive (read “radical”) of todayʼs top rank SF authors. The Lucky Strike, the classic and controversial story Robinson has chosen for PMʼs new Outspoken Authors pocketbook series, begins on a lonely Pacific island, where a crew of untested men are about to take off in an untried aircraft with a deadly payload that will change our world forever. Until something goes wonderfully wrong...

Plus: A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions, in which Robinson dramatically deconstructs “alternate history” to explore what might have been if things had gone differently over Hiroshima that day; and an extended tour though the mind and work, the history and politics of our Outspoken Author. Surprises are promised.

“The foremost writer of literary utopias.”—Time

“If I had to choose one writer whose work will set the standard for science fiction in the future, it would be Kim Stanley Robinson.”—The New York Times



Coming Soon!

The Left Left Behind
By Terry Bisson

Hugo and Nebula award-winner Terry Bisson is best known for his short stories. He is also a 1960ʼs New Left vet with a history of activism and an intact (if battered) radical ideology. The Left Behind novels (about the so-called “Rapture” in which all the born-agains ascend straight to heaven) are among the bestselling Christian books in the US, describing in lurid detail the adventures of those “left behind” to battle the Anti-Christ. Put Bisson and the Born-Agains together, and what do you get? The Left Left Behind—a sardonic, merciless, tasteless, take-no-prisoners satire of the entire apocalyptic enterprise that spares no one—predatory preachers, goth lingerie, Pacifica radio, Indian casinos, gangsta rap, and even “art cars” at Burning Man.

Plus: a no-holds-barred author interview and Special Relativity, a one-act drama that answers the question: When Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and J. Edgar Hoover are raised from the dead at an anti-Bush rally, which one wears the dress?

“Bisson is a national treasure!”
—John Crowley, author of Little Big

“Bisson can charm your toes off!”
The Washington Post


fireComing Soon!

Fire on the Mountain

By Terry Bisson

Itʼs 1959 in socialist Virginia. The Deep South is an independent Black nation called Nova Africa. The second Mars expedition is about to touch down on the red planet. And a pregnant scientist is climbing the Blue Ridge in search of her great-great grandfather, a teenage slave who fought with John Brown and Harriet Tubmanʼs guerrilla army.

Long unavailable in the US, published in France as Nova Africa, Fire on the Mountain is the story of what might have happened if John Brownʼs raid on Harperʼs Ferry had succeeded—-and the Civil War had been started not by the slave owners but the abolitionists.

“Bold and provocative! Reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin and Marge Piercy!”

“Visionary! This utopian tale is rendered both believable and desirable!”
Denver Post

“African astronauts land on Mars in the 1950s! Bisson’s approach is original, fleshed with vivid detail and utterly convincing characters...might-have-been history brought stunningly to life!”

“A talent for evoking the joyful, vertiginous experiences of a world at fundamental turning points."
—Publishers Weekly

“You don’t forget Bisson’s characters, even well after you’ve finished his books. His Fire on the Mountain does for the Civil War what Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle did for World War II.”
—George Alec Effinger, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards for Shrödinger’s Kitten, and author of the Marîd Audran trilogy

“McKinley Cantor and Ward Moore move over! The South has risen again—this time as a brilliantly illuminated black utopia. Terry Bisson’s novel touched my heart, brought tears to my eyes, and kept me thinking about it for days after finishing the book. It’s an astonishing feat of re-writing history into something truly wonderful.”
—Edward Bryant, co-author of Phoenix Without Ashes and winner of two Nebula awards for short stories Stone and gIANTS

If Women Ruled the World

Nothing Would Be Different
By Lisa Jervis
LiP Magazine

The biggest problem with American feminism today is its obsession with women.

Yes, you heard me: It’s time for those of us who care deeply about eliminating sexism within the context of social justice struggles to stop caring so damn much about what women, as a group, are doing. Because a useful, idealistic, transformative progressive feminism is not about women. It’s about gender, and all the legal and cultural rules that govern it, and power—who has it and what they do with it.

A transformative progressive feminism envisions a world that is different from the one we currently inhabit in two major and related ways. Most obviously, this world would be one in which gender doesn’t determine social roles or expected behavior. More broadly, it would also be one in which people are not sacrificed on the altar of profit—which would mean universal health care, living wages, drastically reduced consumption, and an end to the voracious marketing machine that fuels it. The link between these two elements is clear: Both gender and race, as they currently exist, are socially enforced categories that shore up a consumer capitalist system by providing opportunities for both marketing and exploitation.
But much of the contemporary American feminist movement is preoccupied with the mistaken belief—call it femmenism—that female leadership is inherently different from male; that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change; that women are uniquely equipped as a force for action on a given issue; and that isolating feminist work as solely pertaining to women is necessary or even useful.

The influence of femmenist thinking is broadly in evidence today, from casual conversations in which arrogant know-it-alls are described in shorthand terms like “typically male” and “how very boy” to nonprofit groups that exist to promote the leadership of women—any women—in business and politics. It manifests itself in the topics that are considered most central to feminism. The problems feminism should be trying to solve are not caused primarily by a dearth of women with power. The overwhelming maleness of the American population of congressional representatives and physics professors, CEOs and major-newspaper op-ed columnists, is a symptom, sure, of a confluence of economic, political, and cultural forces that devalue women’s work, denigrate our ideas as less important than men’s, and discourage us from aiming high. Would more women in high places signify a change in that? Yeah. And that would be nice.

But any changes would likely be superficial: More women in high-paying corporate jobs might mean that women would finally be making more, on average, than 76 cents to the male dollar, but it would do nothing about the 35.8 million people under the poverty line—and it’s definitely not going to transform the values of profit maximization that keep them there. It wouldn’t even necessarily mean that large numbers of women were being paid wages closer to their male counterparts’. Like the wage gap itself, it would be a symptom of power at work, a signal that women are being allowed more access to the benefits of a destructive value system. If we’re fighting just for that access on behalf of women, without mounting a challenge to it, then feminism is, to borrow a phrase from Barbara Smith, nothing more than female self-aggrandizement.

Furthermore, the most pressing issues facing women worldwide—slave wages, inadequate health care systems, environmental degradation, the endless war and surveillance society of Bush-era neo-conservatism, and rampant corporate profiteering involved in all of the above—are a) no less important to feminists just because they also happen to be the most pressing issues facing men and b) directly related to the particularly ruthless brand of global capitalism we’re currently living under.

This vulture capitalism would not magically disappear if women were in charge of more stuff. Racism would not go away. Hell, sexism itself would probably be alive and kicking. God knows the gender binary would be stronger than ever. In short: The actual workings of power will not change with more chromosomal diversity among the powerful.

Even if, to stick with our example, the wage gap were eliminated through genuine equal pay for equal work, without a radical challenge to the economic system that structures all of our lives, it would most likely mean that men are now being paid as badly as women. (In fact, the narrowing of the wage gap since 1979 can be largely attributed to decreases in men’s wages.) And while that certainly seems fair on its face—if we all have to live under a shitty system, the burdens of shit should at least be shared as equally as possible—as a political goal it’s an admission of defeat.

Let’s take a quick look at some history. Femmenism is an outgrowth of the deeply flawed and largely debunked philosophy of gender essentialism: the belief that biology is destiny and that men and women’s bodily differences translate into universal and unchanging/unchangeable gender roles and traits. Essentialist thought dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who saw men (of a certain class) as smart, strong, noble citizens and women as unfit to take part in intellectual exchange. Eighteenth-century philosophers laid down the natural law, which dictated that women’s childbearing bodies rendered them natural caretakers and little else. To this effort, scientists at the time contributed their data on things like skull size to confirm women’s lack of intellectual capacity. Similar modes of data interpretation were also useful in “proving” that black people were fit only for the hard physical labor of slavery and that poor immigrant folks’ criminal tendencies were evident in the shapes of their heads. Today’s version of this argument—with the same flaws in evidence and interpretation—comes from the evolutionary psychologists and brain researchers who assert all kinds of neurobiological explanations for supposed gender differences in everything from verbal skills to the propensity to cheat on a partner.

The first feminist activists, the suffragists and temperance women of the 19th and early 20th centuries, sought to use essentialist thinking to their benefit: Women, as the raisers of children and caretakers of home and hearth, had a natural morality that could be brought to bear in politics and against the social ills caused by excessive drinking. Feminist essentialism grew up along with the movement as a whole, as thinkers and activists in the ’60s and ’70s sought much-needed recognition for undervalued “feminine” attributes like cooperation and caretaking and as part of the struggle for gender equality. Feminist essentialism reached full flower in the backlash-laden ’80s, as rigorous intellectual work exploring the behavioral effects of gendered socialization—most famously, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice—was broadly popularized, misinterpreted, and oversimplified as nothing more than a call to reverse the cultural values placed on essential male and female natures. Thus certain political and intellectual circles came to valorize women as inherently nurturing, peaceful, connected to nature, and noncompetitive, and to demonize men as bellicose, unfeeling, and destructive.

It’s important for me to pause for a minute and make a few things crystal clear. First of all: Yes, gender difference exists. Of course men and women often behave differently, see the world differently, and have different political views—when you’ve been raised with sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice expectations and the knowledge that (if you choose to sleep with men) you’re just a broken condom away from a lifelong responsibility, it tends to make you both more empathetic and more likely to favor safe, legal, accessible abortion. Duh. But such differences are neither automatic (as the evolutionary biologists would have us believe) nor universal (as the cultural essentialists assert).

Second of all, the forces I’m referring to as those that have led to the problem of femmenism have been essential to both concrete feminist political gains and to feminism’s intellectual development. I am not at all suggesting it’s unimportant to call attention to the fact that the Senate is only 13% female, to encourage society to recognize the value of women’s unpaid childcare labor, or even to rescue politically neutral traditionally female pursuits like knitting from the pink ghetto.

Acknowledgement and discussion of culturally produced gender differences is essential to dismantling sexism—but the line between acknowledging cultural differences that demand examination and allowing them to persist unchallenged is a fine one indeed. Femmenism crosses it constantly.

And some of those alleged gender differences are easily disproved. If women’s maternal instincts and natural compassion will bring about a kinder, more peaceful world, what’s up with Condoleezza Rice? (It’s also worth noting that Madeleine Albright didn’t exactly transform the Clinton administration’s foreign policy into a bastion of benevolence, either.) If women were truly sympathetic to and cooperative with each other, Ann Coulter’s journalistic achievements would have made the media less misogynist, not more. A woman was in charge of Abu Ghraib when Iraqi prisoners were tortured by American soldiers; three of the seven charged with perpetrating the abuse are female. Inherently nurturing? Sisterly? Yeah. Sure.

More important, however, is that femmenist thinking threatens to drain feminism of progressive politics—and, in many cases, of any politics at all. Take, for example, a 2004 book called If Women Ruled the World. The changes this slim volume predicts would result from such ruling are both serious (“we would all have health care”) and silly (“business would be more fun!”). A few might even be accurate (“equal parenting would be the norm, not the exception”). But they are all assumptions based on a fallacy: that (as the book’s foreword asserts) “empathy, inclusion across lines of authority, relational skills, [and] community focus” are “values that women uniquely bring to the table.” This line of reasoning urges us to forget about forging the argument that our current healthcare system is inhumane, profit-driven, and inefficient. It gives us a pass on making the case for universal healthcare as the best solution to skyrocketing costs and 44 million of us without insurance. We won’t need to do that if we can just get more women in on that ruling-the-world game.

This tactic is taken up by quite a few feminist groups seeking to influence the political landscape. One of these is the White House Project, “a national, non-partisan organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership across sectors and fostering the entry of women into all positions of leadership, including the U.S. presidency.” A female president is a tempting goal to pursue, an important symbol of gender equality, and, yes, someone whose inauguration will surely make me kvell even if I find her policies repugnant. But having a woman in the White House won’t necessarily do a damn thing for progressive feminism. Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman—any woman—an attractive proposition, even if it’s just so she can serve as a role model for others who’ll do the job better eventually, it’s ultimately a trap. Women who do nothing to enact feminist policies will be elected and backlash will flourish. I can hear the refrain now: “They’ve finally gotten a woman in the White House, so why are feminists still whining about equal pay?”

Other groups carry the “if only women ruled the world” belief to a wistful, apolitical extreme. Take the organization (and I use that term loosely) Gather the Women. GTW is “a gathering place for women and women’s organizations who share a belief that the time is now to activate the incredible power of women’s wisdom on a planetary scale.” One of its purported goals is to “celebrate women as global peacemakers.” However, they “seek not to change minds but to connect hearts.” Just how anyone is supposed to be a global peacemaker without trying to change anyone’s mind is never articulated. Then again, neither is anything these folks do, except have an annual conference with panels such as “Divine Goddess and Leadership.”

If the problem were confined to fringe, mushy-thinking non-organizations, it wouldn’t even be worth writing about. But even groups doing effective, important, progressive feminist work often fall prey to essentialist thinking. Code Pink’s Call to Action contradictorily declares that women organize for peace “not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men but because the men have busied themselves making war. Because…we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children and the driving desire of that child for life.” Translation: It’s not that women are naturally more nurturing and peaceful than men—it’s that women are naturally more nurturing and peaceful than men.

This covert embrace of essentialist thinking (and the intellectual dishonesty that it requires) manifests in many of Code Pink’s central tactics. One of the group’s major activities has been sending delegations of parents and others close to either 9/11 victims or enlisted folks to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. The delegations have brought humanitarian aid and drawn attention to horrific conditions caused by American military activities. But their very premise—that being a mother of a soldier is the best platform from which to speak out against the war—ensures that the resulting arguments are a plea not to cause unhappiness by sending a kid off to die rather than a principled stance against unjust and corrupt use of force. The former isn’t even a compelling moral argument, much less any kind of a political analysis. And when real political analysis is slipped into a femmenist framework, it’s easily neutered: In a keynote speech at the 2005 Center for New Words Women and Media Conference, Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin detailed the ways in which their peace delegates’ comments to the media were edited to remove commentary critical of the war and of the Bush administration so that only worry over their children remained.

Women’s eNews, a news service that, in the words of its mission statement, “cover[s] issues of particular concern to women and provide[s] women’s perspectives on public policy,” is yet another promising project that would be far more effective if it weren’t thoroughly mired in femmenism. While it is indeed imperative for the news media to recognize women as sources, experts, and commentators more than they currently do, an approach like Women’s eNews’ is patently unhelpful. Its May 9, 2005, cover story is indicative. Headlined “Mothering From Afar Extracts Heavy Price,” and accompanied by introductory text noting that “as a growing number of Latin American women migrate to the US, many of these women will spend the [Mother’s Day] holiday far from their children—some of whom have forgotten them,” the piece does little more than tug at readers’ heartstrings. When Women’s eNews defines “women’s concerns” as Ana and her plans to migrate north to better support her and 8- and 10-year-old sons, but not the underlying political economy that determines her decision to seek work in the US, it actually works to shore up the “feminine” realm of home, hearth, and kids.

Likewise, stories like “Female Dems Say Social Security Is Their Fight,” “Women Pioneer Biofuel to Save Mother Earth,” and “Record Number of Female Soldiers Fall” tightly circumscribe what women are supposed to care about. If Social Security were gender neutral, it would hardly be any less of a women’s issue. It’s not because “we’ve got kids and we are thinking generations ahead of ourselves,” as one of the sources in the biofuels article asserts, that feminists bring an important perspective to the environmental movement. And it’s damn sure not primarily because female soldiers are dying that we should be paying attention to the war.

But the problem with femmenism goes even deeper than these strategic missteps. Because it’s founded on gender difference, it retains a strong investment in gender divisions. Not only will we never dismantle gender discrimination as long as gender divisions are philosophically important to feminism, but we’ll end up reproducing the gendered oppression we’re supposedly fighting against.

Femmenism seeks a circumscribed set of qualities for womanhood the same way that conservative, gender-traditional patriarchy does. Gender conservatives see motherhood as women’s natural role; femmenists see motherhood (or the capacity for it) as the ultimate political motivator. Gender conservatives prefer to see women in the role of helpmate ; femmenists see women as uniquely equipped with superior relational skills. Gender conservatives justify male aggressive behavior by virtue of its being an inherently male character trait; femmenists criticize male aggressive behavior for the same reason. But what about those women (and there are many) who have no interest in parenting, who have crappy communication skills, who would rather compete than cooperate? Are they not women? More to the point, are they bad feminists?

This sort of gender essentialism can be particularly divisive when it comes to women’s and feminist activism, because it polices the boundaries of womanhood; implicitly or overtly, femmenist organizations, groups, and events require a certain degree of “femininity” for participation. Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the tension between certain corners of the feminist world and trans and genderqueer movements. Femmenist thinking practically demands distrust of and even hostility toward gender-variant people. There’s simply no room in a movement overinvested in cherished notions of who women are and how they behave for the myriad gender identities that exist in our world: transsexual women who know they were born as women even if their genitals said otherwise; biologicially butch dykes who prefer male pronouns; intersex folks who choose not to pick a side; and many, many others.

But it’s the obliteration of rigid gender categories themselves, not any kind of elevation of the feminine, that is our best hope for an end to gender discrimination. And the fragmentation of gender that trans and genderqueer folks embody is our best hope for that obliteration. It’s exactly this challenge—the way that transgender and genderqueer movements are forcing us to ask deeper questions about what woman- and manhood are, how femininity and masculinity are defined and determined—that stands to enrich feminist thought and action immeasurably.

In spite of my generalizations, femmenism as I’ve been discussing it here is far from monolithic, and, like feminism as a whole, encompasses people and ideas with disagreement and contradictions aplenty. It includes folks as wide-ranging as liberal feminist organizations such as the White House Project and separatist crowds like those who attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. There are valuable aspects of each of these branches of feminism, and critiquing their femmenist tendencies does not have to mean rejecting everything about them. But it’s equally important to recognize that those femmenist tendencies are deeply antithetical to where feminism needs to go in order to stay effective and vibrant, to eliminate gender discrimination at its core, and to fight for a world where human rights are more important than profit.

If we continue to believe, hope, or even suspect that women, simply because they are women, will bring pro-feminist policies with them into the corridors of power, we will be rewarded with more powerful women in the mold of our aforementioned warmongering secretary of state; anti-choice, anti–civil rights, anti–minimum wage DC Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Janice Rogers Brown; and business-as-usual corporate execs like the women occupying top slots at Avon, Xerox, Citigroup, ChevronTexaco, Pfizer, MTV, Procter & Gamble, Genentech, the New York Times Company, and more. If we allow the fact of our femaleness to motivate our objection to, say, the war on Iraq, we are forced into asserting that a feminist position is one of simple concern for the deaths of civilian women and children. We will have to abandon opposition to the war on more substantively feminist grounds: because it involves killing people in order to support an unsustainable way of life for overentitled Americans and secure profits for the corporations that depend on our energy-guzzling, buy-crazy ways for their revenues.

If we cling to any gender categories at all, we lose out on tremendous liberatory potential. In other words, the half-witted, sentimental obsession with women that is femmenism causes sloppy thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and massive strategic errors. Thanks to the tremendous feminist work of the last century, we have the opportunity to leave that obsession behind. If vital feminist work is going to continue, we need to seize it.

The End of Feminism's Third Wave

The cofounder of Bitch magazine says goodbye to the generational divide
By Lisa Jervis., This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine.


Are you in the third wave?

When did the third wave start?

What's the most important issue to third wavers?

I get asked this a lot — at campus lectures, during radio interviews, at publishing conferences. I hate these questions. There are so many ways to answer, none of them entirely satisfactory.

I always want to pepper my interlocutor with questions instead:

Do you want to know how I identify, or how others would label me? Are you asking when the term was coined? When the first feminists who are considered part of the third wave became politicized? When the first riot grrl zine was published? What makes you think it’s possible to elevate one issue over all others? Which definition of the third wave are we talking about here, the chronological or the ideological?

This reluctance isn’t just me being cranky and not wanting to answer any hard questions. Here is the reality: We’ve reached the end of the wave terminology’s usefulness. What was at first a handy-dandy way to refer to feminism’s history and its present and future potential with a single metaphor has become shorthand that invites intellectual laziness, an escape hatch from the hard work of distinguishing between core beliefs and a cultural moment.

Using the simplest and most straightforward definition, I am, indisputably, a member of the third wave: I was born in 1972, right smack in the demographic that people think about when they think about the third wave. But discussions of the waves are only nominally about demographics. The metaphor wraps up differences in age, ideology, tactics and style, and pretends that distinguishing among these factors is unimportant.

Even the more nuanced discussions of third-wavers tend to cast them (or, given my birthday, should I say “us”?) as sex-obsessed young thangs with a penchant for lip gloss and a disregard for recent history, or sophisticated identity politicians who have moved past the dated concerns of their predecessors.

It’s no mystery why the discourse that has developed around the waves is divisive and oppositional. Writers and theorists love oppositional categories — they make things so much easier to talk about. Similarities are much more difficult. So, naturally, much has been said and written about the disagreements, conflicts, differences and antagonisms between feminists of the second and third waves, while hardly anything is ever said about our similarities and continuities.

The rap goes something like this: Older women drained their movement of sexuality; younger women are uncritically sexualized. Older women won’t recognize the importance of pop culture; younger women are obsessed with media representation. Older women have too narrow a definition of what makes a feminist issue; younger women are scattered and don’t know what’s important.

Stodgy versus frivolous. Won’t share power versus spoiled and ignorant.

Nothing on this list is actually true — but, because this supposedly great generational divide has been constructed out of very flimsy but readily available materials, the ideas persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It’s just so much easier to hit on the playful cultural elements of the third wave and contrast them with the brass-tacks agenda — and impressive gains — of the second wave: It’s become the master narrative of feminism’s progression (or regression, as some see it).

But when has it ever been a good idea to trust a master narrative? After all, the oft-repeated notion among self-described third-wavers that those labeled as hopelessly second-wave reject humor, fashion, sex or anything else that might be fun is just a slightly — and only slightly — more nuanced and polite version of the stone-faced, hairy-legged manhater whom we all know to be a myth that originated in the sexist culture at large and was cultivated and amplified by conservative, antifeminist and/or just plain clueless journalists and pundits.

The image of the frivolous young pseudofeminist has the same provenance. Take Time’s infamous June 29, 1998, cover story “Is Feminism Dead?,” for instance. In lambasting young women for being more interested in celebrity than the wage gap and seeing vibrators as more important than protests, writer Ginia Bellafante had to carefully ignore the vibrant anti-sweatshop movement spawning on college campuses at the time, or organizations like the Third Wave Foundation,, SOUL, Home Alive or many of the other activist projects founded and run by women born in the ’70s and after.

When feminists engage in this kind of nuance-deprived conflation of age and ideology, we’re doing little more than reinscribing the thoroughly debunked notion that we need to agree with each other all the time.

As we all know, feminism has always held within it multitudes of ideologies, tactics and priorities. The movement’s two current generations have come to be painted as internally monolithic, but they are each as diverse philosophically as feminism itself — they have to be; they are feminism itself.

There are elements of both that are playful and take pop culture as both their medium and their subject matter: The 1968 Miss America protests defined the very start of the second wave, and their lineage extends to guerrilla theater groups like Ladies Against Women in the ’80s and the Radical Cheerleaders today.

There are elements of both that are relentlessly — and appropriately — serious: Combating rape and domestic violence was a key issue 35 years ago; its importance has not changed. Affordable, accessible child care is no less a concern now than it was in the ’70s.

Chronologically thirdwave publications such as Feminista! share their ideologies about pornography and sex work with Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. The riot grrls groups that sprang up in the early ’90s have clear connections to consciousness-raising groups. Last April’s hugely successful and inspiring March for Women’s Lives was intergenerational in both planning and attendance.

There’s certainly no shortage of disagreements both large and small within feminism. There are those who see transgender folks as interlopers in feminist spaces, and those who see genderqueers as the frontline soldiers against sexist systems of power.

There are those who would like to see “feminine” values replace “masculine” values as the defining characteristics of our society, and those who reject the very notion that these values have any gender apart from what’s been assigned by a sexist culture.

There are those who see gender as the overarching factor that shapes women’s oppression, and those who think that raising the minimum wage would achieve more feminist goals in one fell swoop than any other single act.

The issues motivating both sides of the ’80s sex wars are very much still with us. Even if some views are more common among one generation than another, at their roots these are ideological disagreements — but they can’t be discussed productively while in disguise as generational issues. That disguise keeps us distracted from the real work before the movement today.

Here’s what we all need to recognize so that we can move on: Those in their 20s and 30s who don’t see their concerns reflected in the feminism of their elders are ignorant of history; those in their 50s and beyond who think that young women aren’t politically active — or active enough, or active around the right issues — don’t know where to look.

We all want the same thing: To borrow bell hooks’ phrase, we want gender justice.

We may not all agree on exactly what it looks like or how to get it. We should never expect to agree. Feminism has always thrived on and grown from internal discussions and disagreements. Our many different and often opposing perspectives are what push us forward, honing our theories, refining our tactics, driving us toward a more thorough dismantling of the white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy (to borrow another phrase from hooks).

I want to see these internal disagreements continue. I want to see as much wrangling over them as ever. But I want them articulated accurately. And that means recognizing the generational divide for what it is — an illusion.

Written by Lisa Jervis. This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine.

Lisa Jervis is the cofounder and publisher of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and the editor at large of LiP: Informed Revolt. This piece is adapted from a speech given at the 2004 conference of the National Women's Studies Association.

Tenacious: Art and Writing From Women in Prison

An interview with Vikki Law from New York, United States.
Grassroots Feminism Blog
February 2009

Tenacious zine started in 2003 after Vikki Law was approached as an outside publisher and co-editor by women incarcerated in Oregon; they needed a self-determined forum for female prisoners' voices after the mainstream media kept ignoring their proposals. Vikki wrote a piece called "Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media" for the feminist magazine, Off Our Backs, detailing this background, and recently published a book entitled Resistance Behind Bars from her involvement in prisoner support and incarcerated women's struggles. An interview with Vikki on the role that zines play in movements for social change, and the importance of striving for liberation for all in freedom, not equality for some in injustice.

Off Our Back article, ""Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media",

Can you introduce yourself?

I just turned 32 years old. I was born and raised in Queens, one of the 5 boroughs of NYC. I now live in the city itself, in a rapidly-changing neighborhood called the Lower East Side. I’m the proud parent of a 8-year-old daughter named Siu Loong (which is Cantonese for “little dragon” since she was born in the Year of the Dragon). [Read Vikki's interview about zines, radical parenting, and how to support parents in your activist scene here]

Can you tell our readers about Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison ?

It’s a collection of articles, essays, poetry and art by formerly and currently incarcerated women across the United States. Their works cover subjects like the health care (or lack of health care) system, being HIV-positive inside prison, trying to get an education while in prison, sexual harassment by prison staff and general prison conditions, and giving up children for adoption - in the U.S., if a child is in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state automatically terminates the parent’s legal rights. Many women in prison have sentences far exceeding 15 months AND the majority of them were single parents before entering prison.

The idea for Tenacious actually came from several women incarcerated in Oregon. However, people inside prisons do not have access to printers, copy machines, massive amounts of postage and all the stuff that we zinesters on the outside may take for granted. So they approached me and asked if I would be the outside publisher. How could I say no? That was in 2003 and I’ve just finished Issue #16.

Can you tell us about the process of how the zine articles and drawings make it from the women in prison to yourself? Do they get censored by the prison authorities on the way out?

The women write (or, occasionally, type) their articles and mail them to me. Some women in federal prisons have access to e-mail and have been able to e-mail me their writings. E-mail seems to be more easily censored by the prison authorities - both women who have used this medium have reported that they have been told by staff members that they shouldn't be writing about such issues. In one case, the woman's e-mail access was taken away and she was threatened with being placed in the SHU (Special Housing Unit or solitary confinement). In the other case, the woman was threatened with having her furlough (a shortperiod of time - usually 36 to 48 hours that she can spend outside the prison with her
family) taken away. This is also true with snail mail, but I think that mailroom staff are a lot less likely to read each and every letter coming through (whereas with e-mail, a computer program can probably pull out words and phrases that might be seen as "threatening to the safety and security of the institution." (This is the actual phrasing that prisons use to justify banning reading material). In one case, in a state prison in Oregon, a woman was trying to send out a drawing that depicted a female prisoner who had obviously just been sexually assaulted. In the background of a drawing, one could see the back of a correctional officer (the euphemistic term for "prison guard" here in the United States) walking away. The mailroom confiscated the drawing and she received several visits from prison administrators about that drawing.

I have never heard of a prison administration encouraging the zine. One woman said that, when she was in the county jail, she would share the zine with one of the guards who liked it. In some cases, the prison has censored the zine. In Oregon, after I published an article about guards harassing a lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation,that particular issue was banned.

Obviously the zine has tremendous importance both for the women contributing, and in raising awareness of the issues to the readers outside. Has the zine been used in any way to challenge prison conditions,or to further advocate for the women? If it hasn't, do you think there isthe potential for this self-made media to achieve this?

In one instance, I know that an article by a woman incarcerated in Oregon inspired members of the (now-defunct) prisoner rights group Break the Chains! to organize a letter-writing campaign to the warden to stop the harassment against her. I can't recall any other instances in which something in the zine directly sparked outside activism/agitation. I think that there is definitely the potential for the zine to spark MORE advocacy/challenging of conditions.

What do you do alongside editing the zine?

I write about issues affecting incarcerated women and their acts of resistance and collective organizing to challenge these conditions. I correspond with roughly a dozen women incarcerated across the country. Often, they tell me stories of their lives, both past and present; sometimes they ask me to look up resources for them since prisoners do not have web access. I also send them news about the outside, often news of resistance (like the recent protests around the invasion of Gaza or the recent sex workers’ march in Washington, DC), or sometimes just more mainstream news that they don’t have access to because they are in solitary confinement. I’ve spent the past year working on a book about incarcerated women’s resistance and organizing, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, and now I suppose I’ll spend the next year organizing book events!

What do you hope can be accomplished through your DIY projects?

With Tenacious , I wanted to help give incarcerated women an outlet for their stories and experiences. At the time, I didn’t see any media devoted solely to their issues and experiences. I think it’s raised awareness among people who do prisoner support and prisoner rights work for men; women haven’t really been seen by many of these activists. At the same time, having it in zine format has also raised awareness among people in the zine community. I read a zine about a young woman’s choice to give her baby up for adoption; I’d printed a story of a young woman of roughly the same age who was arrested early during her pregnancy and wrestled with what would be best for her baby given that she was serving a long prison sentence. She finally decided upon adoption. I sent that copy of Tenacious to her (the woman on the outside who had given her baby up for adoption). She wrote me back and said that she’d been very moved, not only by the story of adoption but by all the stories in Tenacious. Before I’d sent her that zine, she had never really thought about prison issues, let alone the existence of women in prison.

What else do you love about zines? Are there any aspects you find challenging or limiting in the zine community?

I love the physicality of zines. I love the fact that you can hold them in your hands and that they come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. I love that you can carry them along anywhere and pass them along. A couple of years ago, a friend returned from Argentina and pretty much came straight from the airport to the NYC Anarchist Bookfair where China (who does the zine The Future Generation ) and I were tabling our zines. She swooped in, gave me a hug and handed me some punk parenting zines from Buenos Aires! And those zines built connections between me and some political punk parents in Argentina, connections that I would never have made through other media like blogs (since my ability to read and write in Spanish isn’t great, I don’t seek out Spanish-language blogs and so, if the information and network was in that format, I never would have come across it).

I do get frustrated sometimes, not so much by the overwhelming whiteness of the zine scene (perhaps because I do not frequent things like zine readings and zine events), but by the unwillingness of a lot of white zinesters to address their racial biases or stereotyping in their zines. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of those particular zinesters and I’m not advocating that all zines have an element of deconstructing whiteness and racism in it, but c’mon! I thought the zine subculture was supposed to be more open to introspection and other voices, not replicating mainstream views (like all Puerto Ricans who own pitbulls breed them to be nasty fighting dogs). I find it hard to enjoy a zine after I come across one or two racial stereotypes in what might otherwise be an interesting read. I’m not sure how much of this irritation stems from my being a woman of color in a zine scene that is probably predominantly white (although truthfully, because I try not to put myself in subculture spaces that are predominantly white these days, I’m more than a bit insulated from that reality and everything that goes with it).

Do you consider feminist zines as part of a social movement? Do you think feminist zines can effect meaningful social and political change at large - or do they have significance mainly in individual lives?

That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about zines in that context before. I think that feminist zines are a good tool as part of social movements. For instance, even in the age of blogs and the widespread use of the Internet, there are populations of women who are cut out of the information loop. Incarcerated women are one such population. Zines and magazines can, to some limited extent, get into the prisons and raise awareness about issues and ideas that they may not have thought of otherwise. I’ve had women in their twenties ask me to send them information about feminism because they don’t know much about it or they have always seen it as a white, middle-class issue and since the majority of those in prison are not white, middle-class folks, they didn’t relate to these ideas or issues while on the outside. Women have also told me that they’ve shared the material I’ve sent them—about feminism, politics, ideas surrounding prison abolition and the question “what do we do if we don’t have prisons?”, etc.—with the other women around them. In some prisons, it’s sparked discussions among women about ideas around patriarchy, sexism, the necessity of speaking out, etc.

I’m not sure if, at this point, zines have the same potential to effect meaningful social and political change that they might have had years ago, before the explosion of on-line, instant information and a growing lack of interest in printed matter. At the same time, though, I wouldn’t discount the possibility altogether. In 1979, after the murders of several black women in Boston and indifference from both the police and black male leaders in the community, a black feminist group called the Combahee River Collective wrote and distributed a pamphlet called “Six Black Women: Why Did They Have to Die?” The pamphlet (which today we might see as more of a one-off zine, but back then the word didn’t exist and so all historical documentation refers to it as a pamphlet) analyzed the murders as a result of the racism and sexism that devalued black women’s lives. The pamphlet galvanized diverse groups, including women from the larger white feminist community and black church groups, to begin recognizing, discussing and working around the issue and continues to influence women of color-led groups and collectives working around violence against women issues today.

Do you see yourself as part of a “DIY” or “Third Wave Feminism” movement today?

At this point, not really. I definitely wouldn’t call myself an “anti-feminist,” but I think that the term “feminism” still seems pretty loaded with white, middle class values (at least here in the u.s.) that I don’t feel all that comfortable using that term for myself, esp. as a woman of color who does not aspire to anything resembling middle class. I understand that there are women like bell hooks and Gloria Anzuldua who identify as part of Third Wave feminism, but recent conflicts between feminist organizations that are primarily white and women of color (both individuals and groups), such as the recent nastiness between the editors of Seal Press (a u.s. feminist publishing house) and women of color bloggers who called them out on publishing a racist cartoon on the cover of one of their books about feminism, have made me even more reluctant to see myself as part of a movement that includes women like that who refuse to acknowledge, let alone challenge, their own ingrained racism and racist practices.

What are the most pressing issues for you in daily life?

In daily life as opposed to broader, over-arching goals? Survival, getting through the day as a parent and a woman of color and someone actively involved in social change work and organizations (and trying not to burn myself out) …Well, not just getting through the day and basic survival (as in food, working to pay the bills, etc.) but also getting through the day in ways that are also meaningful and nourishing to me…When I have time to read a book or go outside and photograph something new and interesting or work on one of my projects, that is a good day. When I spend the entire day doing mindless wage-work and don’t have any time for ME, that is a bad, soul-sucking day. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. How do you think society might be re-thought and transformed to be a safer, more equitable place for women, grrrls, transgender and queer folks?

Wow, that’s a fairly broad question. I think one of the things that is long overdue is that people have to acknowledge how society is still a patriarchy that puts down women in all different ways. Even people in so-called progressive movements refuse to see how this plays out, whether it be in body image or standards of beauty or woman-unfriendly practices like doubting women (or grrrls or trans or queer folks) when they say that they’ve been sexually assaulted or not holding known sexual assailants accountable or at least making them unwelcome in the spaces that we have created (be they temporary spaces, like one-off music shows someplace, or more permanent places like our community centers). Just because it’s the 21st century *should* mean that these forms of gender oppression have faded into obscurity, but they haven’t and I think that people need to acknowledge that and work towards abolishing these things. If I have to explain to someone how x, y and z still occur and oppress women and that person refuses to get it and argues back with me about how the “patriarchy” doesn’t exist and it’s all in my head, well, what does that say about our ability to rethink, let along transform, the world into a safer, better place for those who aren’t at the top of the power structure?

I also think that we have to avoid these equality traps that end up making things harder for us. From what I understand, in the 1970s, childcare and access to safe and affordable childcare was considered a feminist issue. Somehow, in the 1980s, this got dropped and feminism was re-interpreted to be that women could be just as cutthroat and ruthless as men in capitalist societies. How is that safer or better for women, grrrls, trans and queer people and even men who don’t fit into the dominant perception of what a man should be? We have to realize that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Here’s an example of an equality law that ended up with terrible repercussions for women at the lowest rung of the power ladder: In the u.s., the 1964 Civil Rights legislation mandated equal opportunity for employment, including the right for women to work in male prisons (of which there were and still are many more than women's prisons). Conversely, men were (and still are) allowed to work in women's prisons, leading, in some states, to rampant sexual abuse of women in prison by male staff members. So passing legislation that made gender irrelevant to employment benefited women who had previously been barred from working in male prisons but also opened the door for men to be placed in roles of absolute power and access in women’s prisons. And the number of instances of male staff members sexually harassing, abusing and assaulting incarcerated women is alarmingly high. Obviously, this move towards equality did not make society safer for women, grrrls, trans or queer folks.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking for equality for all people. I was at the Zapatista Womyn’s Encuentro last December (2007) and spent hours listening to the Zapatista women talk about their lives before and after joining the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional or Zapatista National Liberation Army). Before, girls weren’t allowed to go to school and many weren’t even taught Spanish, but kept monolingual (for many indigenous in Chiapas, Mexico, Spanish is their second language) so that they were easier to control. Many had no say over whom they married or how many children they had. If they worked for a landowner, they were subject to sexual abuse. To be born female was to be born without rights. Many of the older women who spoke still cannot read or write; they were never given the opportunity to learn. But in the Zapatista communities now, both boys AND girls have the right to go to school and to learn. There were two 9-year-old girls who got up and spoke about the fact that now they have the right to play (girls often weren’t even allowed out of the house to play! They were supposed to follow their mothers and help them with chores from when they woke to when they went to sleep) and to go to school. They spoke before an auditorium of thousands of people and their words moved everyone.

I’m telling you this little side story to illustrate that I’m not against fighting for equality, but we have to be careful to look at what kind of equality we’re asking for. Are we asking for the right to be equally oppressive/oppressed or are we looking for liberation?

Thanks so much for this interview! Readers, please support this project by buying Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women from an independent book seller or info shop (or anywhere really).

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Vikki Law
Red Chidgey & Elke Zobl
Contact information:
Affiliated organisation: 
Books Through Bars--NYC, /// ABC No Rio,

Social Responsibilities Round Table Reviews Resistance Behind Bars

By Alison M. Lewis
Drexel University, College of Information Science and Technology
Social Responsibilities Round Table Newsletter

June, 2009

For anyone on the outside who has looked at the state of our justice system or the overwhelming issues of violence, exploitation, and isolation within the prison system, it is hard not to react with despair. Victoria Law’s Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women manages to both convey the difficulties of life for women prisoners and provide a sense of hope based on these women's own voices and actions. She shatters some of the myths of feminine passivity by providing examples of both active and subtle resistance on the part of incarcerated women, from bringing charges against abusive guards in spite of the threat of reprisals to fighting for transportation for visits from prisoners’ family members.

According to the latest available statistics (mid-year 2008, from Bureau of Justice website), there are almost 116,000 women held in state and federal prisons in the United States, about 7.2% of the prison population. The rate of incarceration in our country, particularly of women, has risen steadily in past decades, fueled by the so-called “War on Drugs,” mandatory minimum sentencing, and other public policies that target the poor and most vulnerable in our society. The prison “industry” is one of the few growth sectors in our failing economy.

Law’s book provides chapters devoted to health care issues, mothers and children, sexual abuse, education, and prison labor. In addition to describing the oppressive and inhumane conditions that incarcerated women face, she shares examples of how women cope in this environment, empowering both themselves and others. One woman, earning sixty-four cents a day in her job as a prison GED tutor, described her work as “rewarding ” as she shares in the happiness of her students’ steps forward in their literacy and education. Mothers in prison, aided by advocacy groups on the outside, have successfully lobbied for greater access to their children. Even the smallest positive steps forward can have far-ranging affects on women’s sense of dignity and personal empowerment.

There have been a number of excellent books written in recent years regarding the United States’ prison system (Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America and Sasha Abramsky’s Hard Time Blues come to mind). Resistance Behind Bars is different because it is self-consciously written from an activist standpoint. Law is not a journalist nor an academic, but rather a “writer, photographer, and mother” who helped start the Books Through Bars—New York City organization, which sends reading materials to the incarcerated. She includes in the book a list of “Recommended Readings” from activist and prisoner perspectives, as well as a list of resources consisting mainly of organizations focused on prisoner advocacy and services. This book will fill a gap on the shelves of all libraries which strive to fulfill the Library Bill of Rights’ directive to “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.”

At War With the World

CDDerrick Jensen's Now this War Has Two Sides
By William Gresham
Missouri Sierra Club
August, 2008

Among those who have read the works of Derrick Jensen (including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture Of Make Believe, and, most recently [with artist Stephanie McMillan], the graphic novel As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial), many have had the opportunity to see and hear him in person. It is not overstating the case to call what Jensen does performance. Jensen’s newest release is a recording of the talk he’s been doing, more-or-less, since the publication of Endgame in 2006. This recording was made live in Vancouver, BC (the liner notes indicate “fills from various other shows”).

Given the gravity of the topic (track titles include “Apocalypse,” “Smashing The Death Camp,” “Civilization Can Never Be Sustainable,” “How Bad Does It Have To Get?,” “Insanity,” and “Culture Of Occupation”) and length of his talk (with Q & A, these two CDs run nearly two hours), Jensen is wildly entertaining.

Jensen’s presentation is not for the faint-of-heart. He levels both barrels at what he has called “the most destructive culture ever to exist,” and few are spared, including environmental activists. He reserves his strongest criticism for the corporations and related forces which are malignantly stripping the planet of what is necessary to support life—not just that of its human inhabitants, but all life. But few, if any of us are immune to the level of reflection for which Jensen calls. Some listeners will blanch at Jensen’s strong language, but it is not gratuitous. In fact, while that language would qualify this as PG-13 (or R) as a film, the message is one which should be heard by audiences of all ages. Perhaps the greatest trepidation on the part of listeners will be reserved for Jensen’s methodical disparagement of hope, which he calls “a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” In fact, Jensen is doing us a favor, arguing that we must stop hoping and start doing, whatever it takes to prevent industrial civilization from destroying the world.

In Endgame, Jensen explicitly lays out twenty premises at the beginning of the book, in order to avoid the device of hiding his presumptions, which he says is customary in other writing. In Now This War Has Two Sides, Jensen uses several of these premises as jumping-off points on which to expand on his philosophical and scientific conclusions. In language as beautiful as a Beethoven sonata (check out his reading of “Pretend You Are A River”) or as blunt as a Megadeth guitar riff in the solar plexus at 110 decibels, he displays his art, and his heart, on his sleeve.

For fans of Jensen’s earlier works, or for those who have enjoyed seeing him in person, it would be difficult to overemphasize this recommendation to get and listen to Now This War Has Two Sides. And for those who find themselves interested (and not put off by the above qualifications regarding topic and language), this audio release would be a great introduction to the work of one of this generation’s most important intellectuals and cultural critics.

Bill Gresham is an environmental scientist. You can find more of his work at and

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Derrick Jensen interviewed on Flashpoints

September 15, 2008
94.1FM, KPFA, Berkeley, California

Nora Barrows-Friedman: 
oday on Flashpoints, we spend the entire hour with author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen, who talks about the collapse of industrial capitalism and the peak oil economy and what it will take for people to resist the destructive urges of civilization and replace it with a culture of resistance.

As deadly hurricanes, exploding cancer and asthma epidemics, endangered and decimated plant and animal species, global hunger and poverty, wars and occupations, grab the news headlines each day, many people would not thread them together.  And the question of why this is happening does not get asked by the collective populace, nor answered by those so-called few in power.  In his riveting and uncompromising two-volume book, Endgame, award-winning author and environmental philosopher Derrick Jensen carefully examines the global ecological catastrophe from the ground up, implicating not only the greedy corporations that leach off the earth and, in turn, toxify it, but our lack of resistance to the system in general, that keeps this paradigm of destruction in place and well fed.

Derrick Jensen is one of the boldest voices in our country.  Speaking out against the toxic system that is rapidly destroying the planet and changing the lives of all humans and non-humans alike, Jensen unflinchingly confronts the most urgent issues of our times:  climate change, the end of the oil economy, and the decimation of essential biodiversity with his renowned, lucid, stirring prose that has been described as both breaking and mending the reader’s heart.  He is the recipient of many awards, including the 2008 Hoffler award and the 2006 Press Action Person of the Year award.  I was privileged to be invited to spend some time with Derrick Jensen, along with Flashpoints special correspondent and independent journalist Dahr Jamail last month in Jensen’s home in Northern California.

Today on Flashpoints, we present this interview with Derrick Jensen as he describes the state of emergency that this planet is facing as corporations, capitalism, and Western culture, urged to suppress life and destroy freedom for all its beings, brings this planet to the breaking point of sustainability and viability.

I began by asking Jensen to describe and define where and who we are as a culture, what’s happening to our land basis, and how we got to this point.

Derrick Jensen:  We’re living in the endgame of civilization.  We are living in the midst of the apocalypse.  People go, “Oh, my gosh!  That sounds so extreme.”  But 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone.  There is six to ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans.  That would be the equivalent in temperate forests for there being 90 feet thick of Styrofoam everywhere.  There were once runs of salmon so thick that people were afraid to put their boats in the water for fear that they would capsize.  There were, in the Eastern United States, flocks of passenger pigeons so large that they darkened the skies for days at a time.  There were six times as many passenger pigeons as all of the birds in North America combined.  There were flocks of Eskimo curlews that were so thick that if you closed your eyes, pointed a gun up in the air and shoot, you’d kill 10, 15, 20 birds.  And they were so fat, they’d explode when they hit the ground.  And they’re all gone.

Do you know why there aren’t any penguins in the Northern hemisphere?  There used to be, but they were exterminated.  They were called Great Auks.  And there were so many that one of the great French explorers said that on just one island, you could load every ship in France and it wouldn’t make a dent.  Well, they did and it did.  And the last Great Auk was killed in the 19th century.

This culture has been destroying every land base everywhere for the last several thousand years.  I mean, this culture began in what is now Iraq, and when you think of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground?  That’s what Iraq was.  Or what is now Iraq.  And one of the first written myths in this culture is Gilgamesh deforesting the plains and the hillsides of Iraq to make the great cities.  The Arabian peninsula was Oaks of Anna.  The Near East was heavily forested.  You know, we’ve all heard of the cedars of Lebanon.  And they still have one on their flag, you know.

Greece was heavily forested.  There were lions in Greece.  And it was one of those dead Greek guys, I don’t remember who – Aristotle or Plato or somebody – was complaining that deforestation was harming water quality.  And I’m reasonably certain that those, whatever the Greek equivalent of the EPA at the time, told him that they needed to study it for a few years to make sure that there was a connection.  North Africa was heavily forested.  Those forests went down for the Phoenician and Egyptian navies.

This culture is killing the planet.  And we walk through our days as if it is all a big video game, and we can stop and go back to the last time that we saved.  And this time, we’ll do it right.  And that’s not a possibility.  This is real life we’re talking about.  You know, Dick Cheney says that the American way of life is non-negotiable.  Well, I have news for him.  Real life is non-negotiable.  There’s this fundamental inversion of reality that people somehow think that the real world is industrial capitalism.  Well, the real world is the real world.

I want to tell you a quick story about a terrible interview I did.  It was this guy down in Santa Barbara.  He’s a right-wing, anti-environmental, property rights uber-alles Bible thumper, who evidently wanted to yell at an environmentalist.  So he had me on his show by phone.  And it was pretty stunning, because I kept talking about the things I’m mentioning here – 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone, the salmon getting hammered, all this stuff.  He kept saying, “That’s all fine, Derrick, but let’s get back into the real world.”  I was really confused because I thought I was talking about the real world.  And then I realized that for him, the real world is industrial capitalism.  And that’s actually how a lot of people use it.  When you talk to college kids, a lot of them will say to each other, “So, what are you going to do when you get out into the real world?”  What they really mean, is “What are you going to do when you have to get a job?”  But that’s not the real world.  What am I going to do?  When I get out in the real world, I’m going to roll around in the dirt; that’s the real world.  So there’s this fundamental inversion of reality that so many people perceive and have been taught to perceive, that the real world is industrial capitalism, that the real world is not forests, is not soil, is not clean water.

I’ve got news for everybody.  The people who come after -- presuming that people do come after at this point -- the people who come after are not going to care about what economic system we currently have.  They’re not going to care about whether we do really great radio programs or whether we write really great books.  They’re not going to care about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists.  They’re not going to care about whether we recycled.  They’re not going to care about whether we were spiritually pure.  They’re not going to care about whether we meditated.  What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.  That’s the bottom line.  And, as things are going, they won’t be able to.

You can’t have a linear culture, a progressive culture, on a finite planet.  I mean, I was saying earlier that the culture has been destroying its land base for several thousand years.  That’s because there was always one more river to dam.  There was always one more hill you could go over and deforest on the other side.  There was one more lake you could de-fish.  And it’s not true.  It was never a viable option, and at this point, it’s certainly not a viable option.  I don’t remember who it is that said this, but somebody said that anyone who believes that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.  And that’s really true.

And that’s where we are.  On one level, we’re living at the end of the world.  And on another level, it’s a really great time to be alive because the system is so monolithic and so dependent upon one source of energy, that it is very vulnerable.  And it is more vulnerable than it has ever been.  And it is our responsibility, and our duty, and our joy, to bring down this culture before it kills everything there is.  So that’s where we are.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  You say that we’re vulnerable, but if you just take a look outside, you see the massive skyscrapers, you see the military industrial complex at its most powerful that it’s probably ever been in the history of the so-called civilized world.  You see multiple wars taking place, all to feed the system.  From all aspects, from all perspectives, it looks like it can’t possibly be vulnerable.  So, how is it vulnerable?

Derrick Jensen:  It takes ten calories of prehistoric energy, oil and natural gas, to make one calorie of food.  The food that we eat is not locally produced.  Produced - what a wonderful word!  The food that we eat is not grown or harvested locally.  It travels great distances.  And that right there is a tremendous vulnerability.  Also, why are there so many wars?  One of the reasons that there are so many wars is because of the dependence of this economic system on that oil.  And that right there creates any number of vulnerabilities.  When I look around, I see one of the reasons that those in power don’t have to worry about the vulnerabilities is because we in this country are so fully pacified and so fully metabolized into the system that we don’t resist.  And for the most part, we don’t even think about resisting.  And when we do actually resist, it’s usually in ways that are almost entirely, and probably intentionally, ineffective.

One of my heroes is Tecumseh.  There are many things I love about him.  One of them is that he was willing to fight, and kill, and die, and live, for the land where his people lived.  One of the things I really like about him, is he’d say, “Way upon the living, war upon the dead.  We should throw their bones into the ocean.”  And it’s great because after reading somebody like him, then me talking about fighting back seems a little less radical than when we compare me to people who want to do candlelight vigils and sign petitions.  But one of the advantages that he had over us is – I remember in one of his speeches, he was talking about, he was exhorting people to fight back against the dominant culture and saying, “Look at these trees that you slept under as a baby, and that you played under as a child, and you’ve sported under as a youth” – whatever sported means – “and that you rest after you hunt.  These trees will be cut down to make fences.”  And an advantage that he had was that his people lived in healthy forests.  And I was not raised under trees.  And I have not ever had a longterm relationship with a healthy forest.  And really frankly, at this point, no one living has, because there is no such thing as a healthy forest any more.  It’s much easier to fight for something that you have and is being taken from you than to fight for something you’ve never know.  And it’s much easier to get free people to fight for their freedom than it is to get slaves to fight for a freedom they’ve never know.

Whether we recognize it or not, we are slaves to this system.  Have you ever thought about the phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday!”?  What a horrible, horrible, insane phrase:  “Thank God that another week of my so-short life is gone!”  We don’t question working at jobs that we don’t love.  Based on this habit of asking people if they like their jobs, and about 90 % say, “No.”  And what does it mean when the vast majority of the people spend the vast majority of their waking hours doing things they don’t want to do?  It’s absolutely insane.  That’s not merely just a drag; that’s really very political.

A few years ago, when I was writing my book The Culture of Make Believe, I read this extraordinary book that was a collection of the arguments of pro-slavery philosophers in the 1830’s in the United States.  And a lot of them were what you’d expect, the biblical support, and the scientific support.  One of the articles was really getting to the point, which is how could we have our comforts and elegancies without slavery, which of course, is the same thing today.  But the one I really want to focus on for a second is there was this one Southern pro-slavery philosopher who’s writing to a Northern, abolitionist, capitalist buddy and saying, “You know, if we could arrange land ownership conditions like you have up North, we’d give up our slaves in a second, because it’s economically a much better idea to not own slaves.”  But it’s all dependent upon land ownership conditions.  And it’s all going to have a point, which is that what he said is that if you have a lot of land and not many people, that means that people have access to land, which means that they have access to food, clothing, and shelter.  Which means they have access to self-sufficiency, which means that the only way you can get them to work for you is at the point of a gun.  Which means that the way you get them to work for you is by making them chattel slaves. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of people and not much land, or if you can convince people that you “own” the land – little asterisk here – people like to laugh at the so-called banana republics and say that the wealth disparity is really horrible in those countries and that just a few people own all the land.  Well, I’ve got news for them, which is that the land ownership conditions in the United States are worse than in the so-called banana republics, by which I mean the land ownership is more concentrated in the United States.  And these huge landowners are not even people, for the most part, it is Sierra Pacific, it’s Weyerhauser, it’s big corporations, which don’t even exist, actually.  But anyway, back to the original point.  If you can convince people that land ownership is tied up, or if you’ve got a lot of people and not much land, what that means is they don’t have a lot of access to land, which means they don’t have access to food, clothing, and shelter, which means they don’t have access to self sufficiency, which means they are dependent upon you, which means that you can offer them whatever pittance you want and they have to go to work for you because otherwise they won’t survive.

So the listeners to this can look around and ask, “What happens if you don’t pay rent?”  We’re so metabolized into the system that we think that somehow it makes sense to pay somebody to actually exist on the planet.  So, we’re talking about it being vulnerable.  One of the things that the system can’t stand is people who think and feel for themselves, and act upon that.  There was a great line by a former head of South African security – that’s a nice euphemism, isn’t it? -- a former head of South African security during the apartheid regime.  Afterwards, he said, “You know, the thing we were most afraid of from the ANC was not the sabotage and the violence, as it was the possibility that they would convince the masses of South Africans to not have respect for law and order.  Because there is no security force in the world that can stand up to a population that does not respect law and order as such.”

And one of the reasons that I want to mention all this in terms of vulnerability is that – I just gave a talk a couple of days ago, and one of the things I asked the audience is, “How many people here believe that we live in a democracy?”  Not a single person raised their hand.  And I said, “How many people believe that the government cares more for the rights of corporations or for human beings?”  And everybody thought corporations.  I mean, admittedly, that’s a self-selected group because they were at one of my talks.  But I used to teach at a conservative school.  And I used to ask my students there, Eastern Washington University, “So do you believe in democracy?”  And they would laugh at me.  “Of course not.  Everyone knows that we don’t live in a democracy.”  And I would say, “Do you believe that the government cares more for the rights of individuals or corporations?”  And they would laugh again.  “It’s a stupid question.  Everybody knows that the government is by and for the corporations.”  So we’re one step of the way toward that recognition that the South African head of security was seeing, that we recognize that the government is not legitimate.

I mean, somebody at some point (I can’t remember who) was talking about something about taxation without representation, and I don’t remember what they were saying that you should do when you are taxed but not represented.  I think it was somebody named George.  And there was also somebody named Tom, and he was saying something about how if you have a government that is destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it’s the right, I believe, of the people to alter or abolish it.  And when you have an entire economic system that is destroying life on the planet, I think that pretty much by definition, it is destructive of life.  And I think if it is destroying the planet, by definition once again, it is destructive of the pursuit of happiness.  Insofar as liberty, do you want to talk about the one-third of all African-American males in this country who are under so-called criminal justice supervision?

Or maybe we should cut to the chase and talk about this one guy in 1940 or so, who was this Senator or Representative (I don’t remember which) who was saying sarcastically, “Maybe we should just pass a law making it so that nobody with more than a million dollars can ever be prosecuted for a crime.”  And, of course, we all know that that’s how the whole “just us” (as my friends say), how the whole judicial system works is that there is one system for the rich and one system for the poor.  And of course, there is one system for all the whites and one for all the people of color, etc.

Let me say one more thing about that, which is (I know we’re really rambling but you asked me to be on the air) I got this note from a cop after he read my book Endgame.  He said that he really liked the book and there was a lot that he agreed with, but one thing he didn’t like is that he felt I was sort of scapegoating cops.  I mean, cops aren’t the real problem.  I didn’t really attack cops all that much in the book.  But anyway, he said that cops aren’t really the problem, that cops are just doing their job.  And, of course, we could say the same thing about lots of others, historically.  And at the Nuremburg trials, it was specifically established that doing your job is not a good enough excuse, but leave that aside.  And, also one of the things they are doing is protecting people from sociopaths.  And I agree.  Cops provide a very important role.  My mom’s house got burgled, and we called the cops.  That’s all fine, great; I’ve got no problem with that.  But I wrote back to him, and I said, “That’s great.  But if we’re going to have any dialogue, I’ve got to ask you a question, which is why is it that whenever there’s a strike, the cops always come in to force the strikers to terms?  They never come in to force the capitalists to terms.”

And that makes me think of one more thing, which is that I was doing a benefit for this community outside of Las Cruces maybe a year or two ago.  The community is trying to stop a toxic waste dump from being put in their poor community of people of color.  They were pointing out that the cops were not supporting the local community; the cops were supporting the distant corporation.  And so we all started talking about what it would be like if cops started to enforce cancer-free zones, or if they were enforcing dam-free zones, or enforcing pro-salmon zones, or what if cops were enforcing free speech?  And of course, none of that can ever happen.  So we were talking about if the official cops aren’t there, what about if we in our communities decided to take responsibility?  We’re not going to allow carcinogens to be manufactured in our community.  What would happen if we in our community said that we are going to enforce free speech, that free speech will be allowed?  And what if we’re going to enforce rape-free zones?  And what if we in our communities are going to – and just go all down the list.  And what that would look like, of course, is revolution.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  So what is it about this culture in this country, and specifically that prevents that from happening?

Derrick Jensen:  Well, we might lose our access to ice cream 24/7.  There’s a character in a novel I have coming out next spring…  One of the best lines he has is, ‘Fear is the belief that you have something left to lose.”  We are afraid, and we have been bought off.  Lewis Mumford wrote, and a lot of other people have written this, but Lewis Mumford  -- and I’m going to totally butcher this, and he’d be spinning in his grave if he heard how badly I’m going to quote this – but basically, tyrants long ago learned that overt authoritarianism only goes so far.  It’s not a very efficient way to run a system.  A much more efficient way, to switch from Mumford to Juvenal, is through bread and circuses, to buy people off.

Right now, we’re all being bought off, which is bad enough when you simply consider oppression.  We’re being bought off on our silence about the atrocities in Iraq, our silence about the atrocities in Palestine, our silence about the atrocities in the United States.  We’re being bought off, and that’s bad enough, but at this point, we’re talking about life on the planet.  And we’re being bought off with computer games, with television, access to ice cream 24/7 like I said, and a very false sense of security.  We are standing by watching the end of the world, eating ice cream.  I like ice cream, but I don’t like it better than a living world.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  In your book Endgame and in A Language Older Than Words, you talk about what you call the “death urge” of this culture.  Can you explain that?

Derrick Jensen:  None of the stuff we’re talking about makes any sense.  The world’s commercial fishing fleets are subsidized for a greater value than the catch itself.  That makes no sense.  We’d all be better off if all the world’s commercial fishermen were paid to stay home and sit in their underwear and watch “The Price is Right.”  We’d all be better off with that.  And the fish would certainly be better off.  Even from a purely economic perspective, none of this stuff is making sense.

Before we turned this on, we were talking a little bit about the honeybees and how people at this point know about the collapse of honeybee populations.  One of the strong suspects is a certain pesticide made by Bayer.  There is an article today in the San Francisco Chronicle, that there is a study done by the federal government, and people are having to sue to get access to the study.

Now, even if we presume that those in power don’t care about honeybees, and don’t care about life in general, which I think is a fairly safe assumption, you would presume that they would care about the industrial agriculture system.  And honeybees are central to the entire industrial agriculture system.  So you would think that they’d want to maintain them.  So that doesn’t make sense.  So what’s the use of retiring rich on a dying planet?

I have this new slogan, which is “Protect your land base.  You can’t have sex without it.”  Because if you don’t have a land base, you don’t have anything.  So once again, this isn’t even exploiting others.  This makes no sense.  None of this makes any sense.  So it’s really clear to me that – I’ll wake up and there will be just a few clear moments between waking and sleeping or sleeping and waking, that I just can’t believe that everything that I’m writing about is true, that 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone, that global warming is melting the Arctic and the response, the sort of mainstream response, is to get excited about who gets to drill in the Arctic.  Or, you know that the methane burps have started, and when the methane burps start, it’s all over.  This planet could turn into Venus.  And the response in the articles that I’ve read about this has been that this burping methane could be a source of energy.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Tell us what that is.  Maybe people don’t know what you’re talking about.  

Derrick Jensen:  There are inconceivable amounts of methane, which I believe is sixty times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, both frozen in tundra and also at the bottom of the ocean.  The concern is that as the tundra melts, it will release methane.  And it is already doing that in some parts of Siberia where it’s shooting up like geysers.  The other fear is that the methane that is frozen at the bottom of the ocean, if it’s warmed up enough, that it will bubble up to the surface and enter the air.  That could, once again, turn the planet into Venus.  We’re not “just” talking about delta smelt, or not “just” talking about the spotted owls and coho salmon and Kootenay sturgeon; we’re talking about the Big One.  The response, once again, even in the very same articles where they will mention the danger of this, is to talk about, “This could be a great new source of energy.”  Show me where that makes sense.

We all recognize this culture needs to end, and it will end.  It’s in the Bible, it’s everywhere.  There’s a beginning, middle, and end.  This culture is not cyclical.  We all know that this culture will end.  And we know that this culture is really wretched.  It doesn’t matter; we can choose whatever statistics we want, whether it’s the gold standard study that 25% of all women in this culture are raped in their life and another 19% fend off rape attempts.  And all the women I know say that those figures are very low, and the figures are actually far, far higher, approaching unity.  That’s just a legal definition of rape; that’s not even including routine sexual harassment or anything like that.  It’s on that level, or the level of wage slavery, or the level of fractured communities, any of these levels.  We all know that this way of life has to end.  And no one understands that this end could have been, at one point, metaphorical and spiritual.  And so it’s enacted in physical reality.

And another part of the problem is that this culture inculcates us so much into being afraid.  Really, the central thesis of my book, A Language Older than Words, we have an entire culture that is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because it’s so traumatic, everything from our gender relations to going to school to the wage slavery, everything within this culture is really traumatic.  And that’s not the way we’re supposed to live.

Asterisk:  I’m going to go in a different direction for a while.  We are right now doing this interview on Tallowah land.  And the Tallowah lived here for 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science.  And if you believe the myths of the Tallowah, since the beginning of time.  And they didn’t trash the place.  And they lived here for 12,500 years.  If we say 20 years a generation, that’s at least 600 generations.  That’s a long time.  And when the first Europeans arrived here, it was an absolute paradise with salmon in runs so thick that people were afraid to put their boats in the water.  So thick that you couldn’t see the bottom of the river.  And this culture has been here for 180 years, and the place is trashed.  Everything about this culture is really traumatic.

Judith Herman wrote this great book called Trauma and Recovery.  In that book, she talks about PTSD, about complex PTSD.  PTSD is what happens if you are traumatized once.  If you’re raped in a certain car, then whenever you see that make and model of car again, you might feel really anxious.  That’s regular PTSD.  But she said what happens if you are actually in captivity, what she calls complex PTSD, which can include domestic violence, can include political prisoners, can include regular prisoners.  One of the things that happens if you are traumatized repeatedly over time, especially in childhood, especially from the beginning, you can come to believe that mutually beneficial relationships are not possible, that all relationships are based on power and hierarchy.  That’s one of the central ones.

And what is our political economy based on?  What is the dominant scientific perspective on natural section?  Which is all crap, by the way.  I’m not saying that natural selection doesn’t occur; what I’m saying is the notion of “survival of the fittest” is crap.  And I can show it in one sentence, which is, “Those creatures who have survived in the long run; you don’t survive in the long run by hyper-exploiting your surroundings; you survive in the long run by actually improving your habitat.”  It’s like Dolores LaChappelle taught me, it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit, how you fit into your surroundings.

So this notion that all of life is based on this hierarchy is, I believe, based on a perception of being deeply traumatized.  My point in bringing all of this up in having to do with the death urge is that one of the things that happens if you’ve been severely traumatized, is that life is very scary.  And what’s the best way not to be scared in a scary situation?  To try to control your surroundings.  I know that’s what is true for me, that when I’m feeling traumatized, especially around issues that I do have PTSD on, I need to control things around me.  Because otherwise, it’s very, very, very scary.

That’s one of the reasons why members of this culture have had to kill every indigenous culture, because they’re not controllable.  That’s why they have to kill wild animals, because they’re not controllable.  There are other reasons, too.  One of the reasons that the Pilgrims had to kill of the Pequots is because there were so many Pilgrims who were defecting.  That was first made a crime punishable by torture and death.  That didn’t suffice; there were still people running off to join the Indians.  What’s the best way?  How are you going to get people to stay in your wretched economy?  By destroying the alternatives.

Another way to say this is that no wild food stocks can survive the logic of capitalism.  Because why would I go to the store to buy some food if I can go outside my back door and catch a meal of salmon?  So it cannot survive it.  How else am I going to get you to go to work at a job you don’t love?  Once again, it’s all the same thing that we’re talking about here.  And that’s one of the reasons for the death urge, a very practical reason.  How else are you going to get people to stay in your wretched system?  It was commonly noted that in prisoner exchanges between the whites and the Indians back in the 1770s, 1780s, that the Indians would run joyously back to their families, and the whites would have to be bound hand and foot to not run back to their Indian captors, which was very, very embarrassing.

But now, we’ve gone back to something else we were talking about earlier.  Why don’t people revolt?  Because they’ve been convinced that this is the only way to be.  This is the real world.  This is the “one” system.  I mean, this culture is really monotheistic in that it can brook no heresy in that and can allow no alternatives.  Because if the alternatives were allowed to be realized, then who would stay here?  Who would work jobs they don’t love?  And that’s, by the way, I just want to mention that’s standard anthropology, that life among the indigenous was not nasty, brutish, and short.  Life was much more full of leisure, and people lived in communities, and they were all sustainable.  They lived in place.  And who was down in the Bay Area?  The Pomo?  And how long did they live there? 12,000 years, probably?  10,000 at least?  And I’ve read about what it was like when the first whites arrived there, and the same deal.  It was an absolute paradise.  And, you know, it’s gone.

People used to drink from rivers, if you can imagine that.  Many years ago, the USGS came out and said that every stream in the United States is contaminated with carcinogens.  Which shouldn’t surprise us, since every mother’s breast milk in the world is contaminated with carcinogens.  How close does it have to get before we’ll resist, before we’ll fight back, and we’ll fight for our lives?  At what point, I mean, how bad does it have to get?

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  [a station ID and reintroduction for radio listeners]  We continue our conversation with Derrick Jensen as I ask him to explain one of the premises in his book Endgame.  Jensen writes that “Civilization is based on clearly defined, yet widely accepted, yet often unarticulated hierarchy.  Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed.  When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized.  Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur, it is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”  I asked him to talk about this premise as it pertains to a reversal of our collective thinking that he says is essential to challenge and eventually overthrow this destructive cultural system.

Derrick Jensen:  We can see this everywhere.  In my own family, my father is extremely violent.  My brother has epilepsy from repeated blows to the head.  He broke my sister’s arm, and he raped my mother, my sister, and me.  The one time my brother fought back, he was beaten far worse than any other time, because he committed blasphemy.  Just one example.

Another example is cops.  Every day in the United States, between four and six people die because they encounter police.  That’s through beatings, shootings, high speed chases, and medical neglect in prisons and jails.  Yet every time a cop dies, there’s this big state funeral, bumper stickers that say, “Some gave all; all gave some.”  You know what the most dangerous civil service profession is?  Garbage collection.  It’s way, way more dangerous because you’re hanging out with these big, big trucks.  They get run over.  But when was the last time you saw a state funeral for a garbage collector?  Or when was the last time you saw a Tom Cruise movie where he was the intrepid garbageman who was cleaning up the mean streets of LA?  That ain’t going to happen, because it’s not bowdlerized, because the violence flows down the hierarchy.

Here’s another example.  I live in bear territory.  I walk through the forest late at night, and people say, “Oh my gosh, aren’t you afraid that bears are going to attack you?”  Well, what I know is that there is one person that dies in North America every two years because of bear attacks.  On the other hand, there are 42 or 44,000 people die in the United States every year from automobile accidents.  So, the truth is we shouldn’t be afraid to walk through the forests, we should be afraid to walk through a parking lot.  All these big cars are going to get you.

What’s another one?  Jaws.  You know, I live near the ocean and I never get in the water.  The reason?  Because I saw the movie “Jaws” when I was fifteen.  I can’t go anywhere near the ocean without starting to hear that theme music.  But the ratio of human attacks on sharks to shark attacks on humans is literally 20 million to one.  Another example:  9-11.  When was the last time you heard a politician’s speech where he didn’t mention 9-11?  It was 9-10, frankly.  What was it 3,000 people died there?  Well, there’s a half million children dying each year as a direct result of so-called debt repayment from the nonindustrialized nations to the industrialized nations.  But that doesn’t count.  There’s 15,000 Americans that die every two weeks because of preventable cancers.  Or if we go with the 4-6 Americans die each day because they encounter police.  That means that 365, or let’s say 350 days in the year (we’ll take two weeks off), let’s call it four of them, 714 a year is 2800 every two years.  So about every two-and-a-quarter years, there’s a 9-11 from cops.  But we don’t hear any of those.  It’s so weird.  A couple of years ago, some cop shot a motorist, so of course, it was going to be presented on the newspaper as the standard “cop shoots motorist”, so the motorist is down on the hierarchy, so it’s got to be okay.  But then, the motorist was actually a African-American, which means that they are even lower on the hierarchy.  So it’s really okay, EXCEPT the person who got shot was an Iraqi war veteran.  So, beep!  Back up the hierarchy.  It was really sort of odd to watch the newspapers.  They didn’t know what to do, because a normal shooting like that, it’s obviously the person’s fault because they were having an epileptic seizure, for crying out loud.  But, in this case, the newspaper was falling all over itself because it didn’t follow the standard plot.

So, the point is we see this all over where it is acceptable for those in power to shoot the violence down, but if anybody even thinks about shooting the violence back up, that’s absolutely unthinkable.  It’s blasphemy, and I mean that in the most religious sense in terms of its being absolutely unthinkable.  Remember this just a few years ago, it’s probably ten years ago now, where there was some guards in the California Youth Authority, who were actually caught on tape, on videotape, beating up the prisoners.  And they were found not guilty.  Of course.  Because it was a premise for an action.  Or we can look at the prison sentences given to men who beat their wives to death versus the women who kill the men who are attempting to beat them to death.  I don’t remember the numbers on that, I think the average is like seven years for the men, and twenty years for the women.  I’m making those numbers up, but it is disproportionate like that.  Or, a great example is that a few years ago there was this guy in Oklahoma who beat his wife to death.  And for that, he was sentenced to, I think, seven years in prison.  But as he was going through the judicial process, he spat on a cop.  And for that, he was sentenced to life in prison.  That’s everything you need to know that premise for, right there.  But we can throw out another one.  Dick Cheney has killed far more people than Charles Manson ever did.  And, in fact, we don’t even need to go to a place of Charles Manson killing people directly, because he didn’t.  He didn’t actually do the killing.  I’m not saying that the guy shouldn’t be put away, I’m just saying that they both basically ordered killings.  Dick Cheney is highly rewarded, and Charles Manson is in prison for the rest of his life.  

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Dick Cheney also shot somebody in the face.

Derrick Jensen:  That’s right.  Charles Manson didn’t even do anything like that.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Derrick Jensen, you talk a little bit about the threshold, like what’s it going to take.  So, fine.  We have this information.  We are outraged beyond repair.  We are watching our planet being killed.  And even those of us who are on the left or the so-called progressive wing, we feel a sense of urgency.  Yet we still organize protests that are sanctioned by the state.  We get permits to protest on a Saturday.  We tell each other not to antagonize the enemy or else we’ll become just like them.

Derrick Jensen:  Enemy?  What enemy?  You can’t talk about an enemy; that’s divisive.  That’s dualistic.  I think I need to end this interview right now.  Sorry.  Go ahead.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Well, what’s the threshold?

Derrick Jensen:  I think that for most people, there isn’t one.  It’s very interesting.  In Nazi Germany, when members of the middle class were being put into concentration camps, oftentimes even after they themselves were put into the prison camps, or concentration camps, they refused to acknowledge that the entire system was unjust.  And they would whine that in their particular case, that a mistake had been made.  But they remained identified with the system.  And they would grovel to the guards, and they would do anything they could.  And they were routinely snitches, which didn’t gain them any benefits, by the way.  The Gestapo and the prison guards would love the snitching and hate the snitcher.  So the point is that even when they themselves were suffering directly, they refused to question the system.

I think the first thing we need to do is to recognize that the system is not benefiting life on the planet, that the system is systematically exploitative, that it promises pie in the sky when we die.  But in the meantime the gap between rich and poor grows wider, and the planet gets murdered.  And I think we also need to recognize that ultimately, those in power are not going to give up without a fight which means that any form of “resistance” is going to be ultimately ineffective because they are not going to sanction, they will not allow any form that’s effective.  If you begin to do something really effective, as in Black Panthers delivering breakfasts – it doesn’t matter whether it’s violent or nonviolent, if it’s effective, they will shut it down.  We can talk about violence and nonviolence, but the point is not violence and nonviolence, the point’s effectiveness and in effectiveness.  And if you do something effective, they will stop you.  They will.  Because they are not going to allow any reduction in their power.

Part of the problem is that – you know the candlelight vigils and all that, that is fine if you want to feel good, but I don’t care about purity, I don’t care about feeling good.  What I care about is living in a world that has more wild salmon than the year before.  I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.  Part of the problem with our resistance is that it is ultimately very infantile in that a lot of it is based on magical thinking, that if we hold a protest, things are going to magically change.  If we light candles, things are going to change.  But it’s like Ward Churchill says, if you can write the song that is going to change everything, I’ll sing it.  If you can find the candle that is going to change something, I’ll light it and I’ll hold it.  I’ll hold two of them.  But we all know that holding a candle’s not going to do anything.  We can see this when it’s applied somewhere else.  If you’re a member of the Russian resistance in World War II, is holding a candle, is this what you’re going to do?  Or maybe, you’re not going to buy anything from I.G. Farben?  What are you going to do to stop the Nazis?

That’s the question.  What are you going to do to stop the Nazis?  And if you think my comparison is not apt, then think about from the perspective of the indigenous.  Think about it from the perspective of the hammerhead sharks.  Think about it from the perspective of the coral reefs.  There is a mass holocaust going on.  There is the greatest holocaust that has every happened, that absolutely dwarfs the capital H Holocaust.  This is the endpoint of this culture.  And I think that holding a candle or signing a petition is an absolutely pathetic response to the mass injustices that we see.  What we need to do is to stop them using whatever means are necessary, because they must be stopped.  Frederick Douglas was the one who said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

And there’s another part of it, too.  A lot of our resistance is based on magical thinking, but another part of it is pretty much infantile also because it’s based on asking, petitioning, on begging those in power to act differently than we know they will.  That’s all we do, that’s the best that we do, is beg.  We never demand.  Oh, okay, we’re going to demand.  Demand means that you’re going to back it up with something, so you need to stop committing these atrocities or we’re going to write you a really sharply worded note.  We’re going to hold two candles and sing a song.  That’s not scary.  We don’t demand and we don’t do it ourselves.  If we want dams removed because we don’t want dams killing salmon, what we do is to beg those in power to take them out.  We don’t demand they take them out, and we don’t simply do it ourselves.  And that’s not good enough.  I love the word “responsibility” because it means to give in return.  And what is it we owe this planet that gave us life?  We owe it our lives back.  I don’t know why more people don’t resist.

At that same talk that I did a couple of days ago, I asked people how many had had someone they loved die of cancer, and about 80 % said yes.  It’s killing those we love.  Directly.  I have Crohn’s disease, which is an incurable, progressive disease caused by civilization.  Civilization is literally eating away at my guts.  And other people.  Diabetes, we can go down the list.  I had a friend who had a shirt that says, “My father dropped Agent Orange on Vietnam and all I got was this lousy leukemia.”  You know, it doesn’t matter how close it gets.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written essays for magazines where I’ll write about the apocalypse, and they’ll say, “Make sure you end on a hopeful note.”

One of the things I say at all of my talks is that hope is really harmful.  For a couple of reasons.  One is that because I think that false hopes are incredibly, incredibly harmful.  One of the smartest things the Nazis did was they made it so that every step of the way, it was in the Jew’s rational, best interest to not resist.  So do you want to get an ID card or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  Do you want to move to the ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  Do you want to get onto a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  Do you want to take a shower or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  At every step of the way, it was in their rational, best interest to not resist because of these false hopes.  So one of the things that I think we absolutely must do is eradicate false hope absolutely ruthlessly.  The only good news about all that is that the Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a higher rate of survival than those who went along.  I think we all need to keep that in mind over the next ten years.

But the problem isn’t just false hope, but it’s hope itself.  I was doing a talk several years ago in Colorado.  I’m bashing hope, and someone in the audience shouts out, “What is your definition of hope?”  I said, “I don’t know.  I’ve been bashing it and I don’t even know what I’m talking about.”  And I asked the audience what their definition is, and the people in the audience were able to come up with a really beautiful definition, which is “Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.”  That’s how we use it in everyday language.  I don’t “hope” that I’m going to eat something tomorrow; I just go ahead and do it.  On the other hand, the next time I get in a plane, I’m certainly going to hope that it doesn’t crash, because once it’s in the air, I’ve got no agency.  Yet we all say, “I hope that the salmon survive.”  Or, “I hope that Israel stops putting in new colonies.”  Or “I hope that the US stops invading countries.”  “I hope that this culture doesn’t kill the planet.”  What you’re doing is you’re acknowledging that you have no agency.  And this is just absurd.  I mean, how old is your kid?

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Almost eight.

Derrick Jensen:  Okay, if you asked your child to clean her room, and she said to you, “I hope it gets done,” your response is…?

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  You will clean your room now.

Derrick Jensen:  Yeah.  Exactly.  It’s a non-starter.  Yet, when it comes to these larger issues, we suddenly get really stupid and start saying, “Oh, we’ve gotta have hope, gotta have hope.”  Well, screw hope.  I’m not interested in hope.  What I’m interested in now is action.

We have a number of advantages that Tecumseh didn’t have.  One of them is that the indigenous, even though they had functioning communities, they had warrior societies, they had people with long histories of working communally.  How do we know who to trust now?  Well, they didn’t have that problem.  But we have some advantages.  One of them is that they had no way of conceptualizing how horrible this culture is.  They had no way to make context for that.  We don’t have that excuse.  We who know about the Inquisition, we who know about the Great Auks, we who know about the long history of torture, we who know about slavery, we who know about wage slavery, we who know about misogyny, we who know about, once again, that this culture is killing off the salmon, that’s killing off the oceans.  All we have to do is to pay attention to see how insatiable this culture is, that it will not stop on its own.  We have that advantage.

Another advantage we have is that had Tecumseh tried to walk into a city, he would have been recognized and killed immediately.  But we’re already in all those cities.  We’re in Memphis, Tennessee, and San Francisco, California, and in Seattle, Washington, and we’re in Mexico City and we’re in Tokyo.  We’re already there.  And, increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system will not change on its own, and who recognize that those in power will scruple at nothing to increase their power.  What are those in power going to do if we make them really mad?  They’re going to kill the world twice?  Increasingly, there are people who recognize that it is long past time that we begin to make effective resistance against this culture.  Increasingly, there are people who are utterly disillusioned.  And I mean that in the sense of having lost their illusions about the feasibility of working solely within the system.  It‘s very important, I’m not one of those people who believe in the revolution vs. reform dichotomy.  Because if we all wait for the great, glorious revolution, and nobody does anything in the meantime, there’s not going to be anything left.  But increasingly, there are people who recognize that if all we do is reform work, the system’s going to grind away until there’s nothing left, too.  So increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system cannot and will not last.  And, increasingly, there are people who are willing to fight for, and with, their lives and the lives of those they love.  And, to take us back to near the beginning, increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system is incredibly vulnerable, the blocked blood of the economic system, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that the dominant culture doesn’t destroy the world that is their only home.  

Transcribed by Kendyll Stansbur

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Bringing Down Civiliation

An Interview with Derrick Jensen
from No Compromise Issue 26
Derrick Jensen is a prolific writer, speaker and activist. He is the author of Listening to the Land, A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, and Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control among others

NC: What do you hope to achieve through your writing?

DJ: I want to bring down civilization. I’m interested in living in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before. A world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before; a world that has less dioxins and flame retardants in mothers’ breast milk; a world that is not being destroyed; a world where krill populations aren’t collapsing; a world where there aren’t dead zones in the oceans; a world not being systematically dismantled. I want to live in a world that is not being killed, and I will do whatever it takes to get there. It is really clear that for the past 6000 years, civilization has been killing the planet. I’m on the planet’s side.

NC: You speak a lot about hope. Do you think there is power in hopelessness?

DJ: I think hope is really harmful for several reasons. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and they blind us to real possibilities. Does anybody really think that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anybody really think that if a democrat would have gotten into the White House that things would be ok? Does anybody think that vivisectors will stop torturing animals just because we stand outside with a sign?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand out there with that sign. What it means is, do we really believe that they will stop because we do that? And if you don’t believe that, what does that mean? The book I have just recently completed is really centered around this question. Do you believe that the culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to obtain a sustainable way of living? If you don’t, what does that mean for our strategy and for our tactics? We don’t know. The reason we don’t know is that we don’t ask that question. The reason we don’t ask that question is that we’re so busy pretending that we have hope.

One of the smartest things the Nazis did was to co-opt rationality and to co-opt hope. The way they did that was by making it so that at every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational, best interest not to resist.

Would you rather get an ID card or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to go to a ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to take a shower or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?

Every step of the way, it was in their rational best interest to not resist. But I’ll tell you something really interesting: The Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along. We need to keep that in mind over the next ten years.

NC: How can civilization be brought down?

DJ: I’ve done benefits for earth liberation prisoners and fully support the actions of the E.L.F. and the A.L.F. That said, I do have a criticism, which is that I wish they would move up the infrastructure. I think what we need to do is start looking for bottlenecks. For example, one man acting all by himself almost stopped World War II. (Before I talk about this, I need to say that I am not talking about assassinating George Bush.)

George Elser was a guy who decided to kill Hitler. Anybody who talks about the German resistance in World War II is very clear that killing Hitler was crucial to stopping the war.

It was late 1939. The war had just started and it could have been brought to a stop. Elser was able to fabricate a bomb, put it in a place where Hitler was going to give a speech and set the timer. Hitler, instead of giving his speech at the normal time, moved it up by a half hour. Instead of finishing up at 9:30 as he always did, he finished at 9:00. He was out of the building at 9:10 and the bomb went off at 9:20. So it was 10 minutes that would have stopped World War II.

The specific reasons I’m saying that I’m not applying this to George Bush is that Bush doesn’t wield the sort of power that Hitler did. If Bush were to choke on a pretzel, Cheney would take over. In that particular case assassination would not do as much good as it would have done with Hitler. But my point is that the Elser situation is an example of leveraging power. Leveraging power does not have to be violent. I’m leveraging my voice when I write a book as opposed to standing on a street corner.

When individuals liberate animals I think that what they are trying to do is to save those particular animals. It would be the same taking out a dam. The primary reason would be to liberate that stretch of river. But I think, for example, if somebody torches an SUV, that’s not a lot of leverage. That’s a huge risk for not very much return. In no way am I saying anything negative about any of the people who have had the outrageous courage to do those actions, but if you are going to get popped for 20 years for burning a couple SUVs, there are other things that I would rather do.

That’s actually my biggest criticism of the E.L.F. and A.L.F., and it’s not even a criticism, because I would like to see them continue to do what they do. In addition, however, I would like to see others move up the infrastructure. I’ve spoken with hackers who have said things that suggest to me that hacking holds great promise.

NC: How do you maintain a positive outlook and keep yourself motivated and focused on the fight at hand?

There seems to be this idea that if you understand how bad things are, you have to be miserable all the time. But the truth is that I’m both really happy and really sad. I’m full of rage, I’m full of hate, and I’m full of love. People expend all this energy fighting the despair. Well, despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to attempt to not feel those “negative feelings.” Sorrow is just sorrow, and pain is just pain. It’s not so much the sorrow and the pain that hurts as it is the resistance to it. I’m going to quote from my new book because I address this issue there:

Most of our actions are frighteningly ineffective. If that weren’t the case we would not be witnessing the dismantling of the world. Yet we keep on doing the same old symbolic actions and keep on calling the making of this or that statement a great victory.

Now don’t get me wrong, symbolic victories can provide great morale boosts, which can be crucial. But we make a fatal and frankly pathetic error when we presume that our symbolic victories, our recruiting and our morale boosting, by themselves make tangible differences on the ground, and we should never forget that what happens on the ground is the only thing that matters.

There comes a time in the lives of many long-term activists when symbolic victories, rare even as these can be sometimes, are no longer enough. There comes a time when many of these activists get burned out, discouraged and demoralized. Many fight despair. I think fighting against this despair is a mistake. I think this despair is often an unacknowledged, embodied, understanding that the tactics they’ve been using aren’t accomplishing what they want and the goals they’ve been seeking are insufficient to the crisis we face.

These activists get burned out and frustrated because they’re trying to achieve sustainability within a system that is inherently unsustainable. They can never win. No wonder they get discouraged. But instead of really listening to these feelings, they so often take a couple of weeks off and then dive back into trying to put the same old square pegs into the same old round holes. The result: more burnout, more frustration, more discouragement, and the salmon keep dying.

What would happen if we listened to these feelings of being burnt out, discouraged, demoralized, and frustrated? What would those feelings tell us? Is it possible they could tell us that what we’re doing isn’t working, and so we should try something else? Perhaps they’re telling us to switch metaphors. That we should stop trying to save scraps of soap in a concentration camp and try to bust out of the whole camp.

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