21 December 2007
Are you ready for the red pill?
The Culture of Make Believe
Chelsea Green, 2004
The Culture of Make Believe picks up where its predecessor, the powerful Language Older than Words, left off. After examining in that latter volume the objectification and systematic denial of that objectification that permeate Western culture, Jensen turns his attention to the related "relationships between hate and fear, hate and power, power and fear... What are the relationships between any of these and the desire or need to control? And what are the relationships between all of these and a desire or need to perceive others as objects? It seems obvious to me that enslaving another requires that the other be, at least to some degree, objectified: Does objectification imply hatred? I used to think so, but I'm beginning to think the relationship is more complex." (67)
The relationship is indeed more complex, and because of the complexly interpenetrating nature of the subject matter, the book itself is also complex while somehow remaining an engaging read. In order to adequately describe and analyze these complex relationships, Jensen's sprawling tome draws on vivid storytelling, graphic and painful historical accounts, potent metaphors drawn from our cultural heritage, powerful intuitions, postmodern reflexivity and critical insight into the author's own biases, lengthy interviews with relevant thinkers, and an underlying logic that deftly interweaves the seemingly disparate strands of racism, sexism, monotheism, hatred, power, exploitation, colonialism, ecocide, war, abstraction, objectification, production, and of civilization (particularly the civilization with roots in the Mediterranean and the Levant, aka "Western" civilization) itself. In the Biblical metaphor that he develops throughout the book, Jensen is Noah's son Ham, sharing his vision of the naked patriarch of civilization, especially industrial civilization, and calling the reader to see that the patriarch has no clothes, and having seen, to make a choice.
Jensen's book is filled with detailed accounts of atrocities that have been perpetrated against racial and ethnic minorities, women, and against the natural world itself, but he doesn't stop with relating the gory details. Instead he digs deeper into the accounts to show how the perpetrators were most often not barbaric and marginal, as we tend to assume, but were instead policemen, politicians, businessmen, economists, investors, CEOs, Rotarians, and other decent, respectable folks, the people that Ward Churchill has called "little Eichmanns." (In other words, the perpetrators were and are all of us who benefit from the system.) He describes how South African cultures were systematically destroyed, not through lawlessness but through the passing of laws, in order to get black laborers to mine diamonds for DeBeers; in effect, racist apartheid grew out of good old-fashioned market economics. He relates accounts of how everyday black Americans were lynched and burned for looking at white women, or for looking like black men who looked at white women, or for just being black. (He even tells the story of a woman whose fetus was cut out of her belly by a bunch of upstanding white citizens as punishment for her crime of hating them for burning her husband.) Again and again, we see that the perpetrators of these evils weren't inbred reprobates, but were upstanding members of their communities, and that these evil occasions weren't attended in shame, but in celebration. For example, at its height the KKK, contrary to popular belief, did not comprise backwater yokels but police chiefs, sheriffs, attorneys general, and state governors.
According to Jensen's analysis, hatred--whether aimed at blacks, at women, at religious minorities, at Iraqi civilians, or at the natural world itself--is a manifestation of our cultural vision of the world. In this vision, the Other is objectified, dealt with abstractly in terms of a class (so an innocent black man is burned just because he looks like the actual criminal or a 2,000 year old tree is rendered into two-by-fours just to make a quick buck), held in contempt, and viewed as a resource to be exploited instead of as another living being with which one may enter into relationship. Moreover, as Jensen teases out, the phenomenon of red-faced, spittle-flinging hatred is an aberration that typically appears only when the normal direction of power is subverted or challenged. At other times, hatred merely manifests as the status quo, innocent only to those who benefit from its privileges.
This book, while engaging, is not an easy read, precisely because it challenges the reader on EVERY level. It reveals the "embeddedness of all of us in a culture that perceives war in monstrously utilitarian terms" and our "immersion in a river of deceit, a river where we take as accepted that one hand may hold forth an olive branch while another makes final arrangements to thrust with a sword, a river where treaties are abrogated at convenience, a culture in which lying to achieve one's goals in not only acceptable and expected, but routine" (175). Making the choice to see one's embeddedness in the culture of make believe and to conceive of alternatives is irrevocable and has real consequences: "The difficulty comes--and here is the real beauty of the story of Noah and his sons---when, like Ham (or at least my vision of Ham), you find your way through these shifts in perception and see the patriarch naked and vulnerable. What do you do then? Do you, like Ham, talk about what you have seen? As the story makes clear, there are grave strictures against doing so, with severe consequences. Or do you follow the lead of Ham's brothers, and reap the privilege that comes from averting your eyes?" (62-3) Jensen's book challenges our need for happy, simple solutions and implies that this need for "feel-good" vibes is itself a loss created by the culture of make believe: "I need not fight despair...despair is a normal and reasonable response to a desperate situation.... my response--breaking into sobs over the killing of so much beauty--is normal, and expected, and that to not feel these losses manifests another type of loss, that of one's own humanity, one's own heart." (249)
I could write and quote more, but I won't. My guess is that you are here, reading these reviews, because you already have an idea of what Derrick Jensen has to say and agree with it to a greater or lesser extent. Readers seem to either hate Jensen's writing style-- with its tangential approach, long narrative arcs that connect loose ends over a span of 200 pages, and self-referential quality--or to love it, hearing it in a voice as refreshing as the truth it reveals in page after page. Give this book a read. Your view of the world and of your role in it won't be the same when you finish it.
(This review was originally written on June 22, 2007.)