The way things are

“Hatred felt long enough and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred. It feels like economics, or religion, or tradition, or simply the way things are.”

— Derrick Jensen

Imagine that you were offered the chance to examine our society through a special kind of microscope. You could see so clearly that normally invisible structures and patterns would be obvious — you might even discern the future of Western civilization.

But what if the price for that vision was a walk through a historical chamber of horrors, rendered with the same burning clarity? Would you look?

For the bravest of readers, there is Derrick Jensen’s newest book, Culture of Make Believe (Context Books, 2002). Jensen is a masterly writer who weaves threads as diverse as the Holocaust, lynching, environmental destruction, rape, Colombian death squads and manufacturing disasters into a cohesive picture that, however horrific, makes perfect sense — because, according to Jensen, such atrocities are the inevitable fruits of an economic system that values production over life.

We put a price tag on everything. We commodify living beings. Our system rewards the very greed and globalization that will, in Jensen’s view, deliver our destruction. Those are wide-ranging assertions — but he weaves the history, the details and the context so naturally that his conclusions ring disturbingly true.

Jensen is a truth teller. He writes with a fierce personal passion and is a genius at making connections between seemingly unrelated events. To read Jensen is indeed life-changing, a phrase used regularly by those who’ve read his previous book, A Language Older Than Words. Now in its fourth printing, Language traces the connection between family violence and the larger violence that permeates our society. Jensen’s honesty is wrenching as he uses his personal story of familial abuse as a mirror to reflect the same symptoms in American society.

In Culture of Make Believe, the mirror is larger — to the tune of 700 pages — and the reflection even more devastating as Jensen examines “the precise relationship between our economic system and hate.” Leaving childhood stories behind, Jensen turns his considerable intellect to bear on the numerous horrors of our country’s recent history. Although extensively researched, the result is far from a dry recounting of events. Jensen’s special power as a writer is the weaving of fact with the personal details that arrest the heart, even as the mind gropes for explanations.

The book opens with a grisly retelling of the 1918 public murder of Mary Turner, a black woman, in Valdosta, Ga. Turner’s husband was one of 11 black men lynched by a white mob enraged over the killing of a white farmer. Ten of the black men were innocent, including Mary Turner’s husband, but that fact was irrelevant to the angry community. When Mary Turner publicly vowed to seek revenge, or at least justice, for her murdered husband, the upstanding citizens of Valdosta — according to an AP report of the time — “took exception to her remarks as well as her attitude” and gruesomely murdered the eight-months-pregnant woman in a public frenzy of gasoline, stab wounds and bullets.

Before letting the reader leave this event, Jensen describes a similar murder, of a young Colombian woman by a South American death squad last year. Thus begins an in-depth exploration into the workings of hate.

Jensen does not write for shock value or for shame. Yes, he renders grievous scenes — some from our past and many from our present — in disturbing detail. But it’s what comes next that matters. Jensen explores where we as ordinary Americans appear in these events. What is our involvement?

The answer is foreshadowed in the quote by Primo Levi which opens the first chapter: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” Jensen asks deeper questions than most dare to do, and the answers are profoundly disturbing. By the end of the book, it’s impossible to deny that we sustain the corporate culture of greed that creates such horrors as the 8,000 people dead in the Union Carbide disaster in India, slavery, the decimation of Native Americans, poor people battling one another to work in jobs that will kill them, and the ongoing destruction of the very ecosystem which keeps us all alive.

We find ourselves the unquestioning foot soldiers in a dirty war called “progress,” “civilization,” “development” — everything except what it is: warfare against life itself. Culture of Make Believe reveals that our economic and social systems carry hate at their very core — and require hate in order to function.

Civilization, as we have lived it so far, will inevitably yield more of the same in the future — it’s the very nature of the beast. How does one recommend, in the strongest possible terms, a book as unsettling as Culture of Make Believe?

Jensen answers in his introduction: “If we wish to stop the atrocities we will need to understand and change the social and economic conditions that cause them. This book is a weapon … it is a knife that cuts through the ropes that bind us to our ways of perceiving and being in the world. It is a match, to light a fuse.” We can choose to look away, to make believe the connections Jensen describes don’t exist. Or we can take a hard look, take a deep breath, and begin to change our world.

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