Upping the Stakes
This Culture Is #/?*#-+
What we don't say and why we don't say it
by Derrick Jensen
THIS CULTURE IS @†‰Ø the planet. The latest studies show that global warming will be far #+?þ than anyone has imagined, and could easily lead to an increase of #-+^)@ Fahrenheit by 2100, which would effectively spell the ?*#-+@* of life on Earth. Yet our response—including the response by most of the #/?*#-+^)!@* community—is utterly incommensurate with the #216;‰§« posed by #/?*#-+^)!@*. For crying out loud, most @?#/?*#-@ can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge that the @†‰Ø system is inherently unsustainable, much less that ?*??#-+^)!@ itself must be !$#/?*#=-+^)!@*.
I’m #/?*#-+^)!@* of it. I want to talk about what we #/?*#-+^)!@*. But before we can talk about what we #/?*#-+^)!@*, it’s necessary for us to talk about why we don’t talk about it.
One big reason is censorship—from without and within.
The United States government is said to have been founded on free speech and freedom of expression. After all, doesn’t the First Amendment to the Constitution state that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”? Pretty clear, no? And haven’t we seen landmark case after landmark case declaring that even such vile material as the most degrading pornography is protected free speech? And don’t corporations have the right to use their money as “free speech” to influence politicians—that is, buy elections? Actually, by extension, so do you—never mind that Koch Industries (84 percent of which is owned by the infamous Koch Brothers, who provide significant funding for climate denialists and the “grassroots” Tea Party) had an estimated $100 billion in income in 2010, while you have $524 in your checking account and $850 rent due in two weeks.
The truth, however, is that those who will stop at nothing, including the murder of the planet, to increase their power and perceived control will—no surprise—also not hesitate to prohibit speech that might lead people to attempt to decrease that power, or to decrease the ability of the rich to exploit the poor and to murder the planet. And—again, no surprise—they will not hesitate to punish those who break this prohibition.
The history of the U.S. government (and state and local governments) prohibiting and punishing such speech is nearly as old as the United States itself. Congress didn’t even wait a decade after the ratification of the First Amendment before passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among others things, punished anyone who spoke critically of the government. These were merely the first of far too many acts aimed at prohibiting speech dangerous to those in power. We can fast forward to the Wobbly free-speech fights of the early twentieth century, when local governments passed ordinances disallowing union organizing, causing union members to flood the streets of, for example, Spokane, Washington, where they were arrested for such unpatriotic acts as publicly reciting the Declaration of Independence (and where police later were said to have turned the women’s portion of the jail into a brothel, with policemen soliciting “customers”). Then there was the Espionage Act of 1917, primarily used not to prohibit espionage but to prohibit speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I. One woman was sentenced to five years in prison for saying that “the women of the United States were nothing more nor less than brood sows, to raise children to get into the army and be made into fertilizer.” A film producer was sentenced to ten years in prison for making a film called The Spirit of ‘76, in which he showed British atrocities against colonists during the American Revolution. The judge said the film questioned “the good faith of our ally, Great Britain.” The name of the case? U.S. v. The Spirit of ‘76. And union organizer and presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years for advocating nonviolent opposition to World War I; he ran for president from prison and received nearly a million votes. More recently, of course, there is the Patriot Act, among others. It goes on and on.
Part of the problem here is that government censorship—for obvious reasons—applies only to those who oppose atrocities committed by those in power. Those who support atrocities that further the ends of the state need fear no such censorship. For example, the scientific philosopher Sam Harris has suggested that a nuclear first strike against Islamic nations, killing “tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day . . . may be the only course of action available to us.” And, in an essay titled “In Defense of Torture,” he envisions scenarios where “torture may be an ethical necessity” and imagines something he calls a “torture pill” (he also calls it a “truth pill”) that would “produce transitory paralysis and transitory misery of a kind that no human being would willingly submit to a second time.” Did he need fear punishment for suggesting these horrors? No. Why should Sam Harris get in trouble when John Yoo, Dick Cheney, and George Bush haven’t been brought to justice for not merely articulating but planning and implementing programs of systematic torture?
When I give talks, I routinely ask audiences: Do you fear the U.S. government? Do you censor yourself for fear of government reprisals? If you spoke honestly about the near-complete corporate control of the United States government, and how so-called elected representatives better represent corporations than they do living, breathing human beings, and about what you believe is necessary to halt environmental degradation, do you believe you would be arrested or otherwise harmed by the United States government? Nearly everyone—and I’m talking about thousands of people over the years—says yes.
Let the implications of that sink in.
The truth is, we no longer need the government to censor us; we now preempt any such censorship by censoring ourselves. This self-censorship has become utterly routine. We see it constantly with journalists employed by the corporate media. As the world is being murdered, they act as pitchmen and -women for capitalism—that is, when they aren’t pitching mere gossip. Many, if not most, nature or environmental writers self-censor as well. How else could otherwise intelligent and sane people describe in great detail the harmful effects of the oil-based capitalist economy on the planet (through global warming and many other means), then propose solutions that run from overinflating tires to more capitalism? I’m reasonably sure that in many of these cases, if the writers didn’t self-censor, they’d probably lose their funding, their teaching jobs, or their book contracts.
But fear of state repression or loss of funding are trivial, I think, compared to our primary reason for self-censorship: fear that we’ll lose credibility. We are, after all, social creatures, to whom credibility can be more important than finances or even safety (when global warming is threatening to turn the planet into Venus, the weakness of our responses makes clear that safety has long since been left in the dust). So strong is the stranglehold of capitalism on our thoughts and discourse that to suggest that the real world, that life on Earth, is more real and more important than capitalism is to commit blasphemy. It has become almost unthinkable for far too many people.
I can’t imagine any of the victims of this culture—whether they’re salmon, sharks, subsistence farmers, or traditional indigenous peoples—proposing solutions that favor capitalism over life. But the people who are proposing these solutions are not the victims but rather the beneficiaries of this way of life, and they identify more with the industrial capitalist system than they do with life on the planet. It’s an effective system whereby the loyal opposition gets to speak truth™ to power™, and those in power get to trumpet their tolerance™ for free speech™, while they continue to concentrate their power, steal from the poor, and murder the planet. It works great, except for the poor, and except for the planet. If we allow it to continue, then we’re truly #/?*#-+^)!@*.