Interview by Thomas P. Healy / Bloomington Alternative
What is the importance of creativity and the life of the mind for people who are incarcerated?
My job in that classroom was to help the people become who they are by loving and accepting them. I was teaching both Level 1 and Level 4 prisoners — Level 4 is maximum security, where many were doing life or life without chance of parole — and someone said to me in front of my Level 4 students, “Don’t you prefer teaching Level 1 because you know that they’re going to get out and these people are here forever so it’s a waste of your time?”
I thought it was a really horrible thing to say in front of them. My response was no! First of all there’s a long list of brilliant and important writers who have come out of prison — Dostoyevsky and Jean Genet, for example. Second, it doesn’t really matter. Remember the old line, no matter where you go, there you are? So whether the students were in a university and going to end up in the cubicles of IBM or whether they were at Pelican Bay State Prison, my main job as a teacher was to accept them and help them to become who they are in those circumstances.
Many of my students told me that my classes were the only things keeping them sane. At that moment the whole reform versus revolution question fell apart for me because I realize it is really bogus. The truth is we need it all; they’re not in opposition. You can do reform work and you can do revolutionary work.
You come down hard on formal education in Walking on Water, but at the same time your book articulates a partnership method of teaching. How did you create your unique style?
The teaching style was purely experiential. I knew what hadn’t worked for me when I was a student and I knew what worked for me with my high jump coach who taught me almost exclusively by praise. The main thing for me was the recognition that I don’t really have anything to teach my students. My job was to cheerlead them into teaching themselves. I can give them the benefits of my technical experience. As I’ve written, I can teach you everything I know in 15 minutes and you just have to go home and practice for 15 years. I can sort of give them pointers but they’ve got to do it themselves. It’s really a question of humility when I say that I don’t have anything to teach them. My primary job is to create a situation where they can and want to learn.
You make it sound possible to drop the baggage of white male privilege and enter into a partnership with the students.
I can’t help that I was born a male, I can’t help that I was born — on a world scale — rich, and I can’t help that I am privileged to have been taught how to read. I can’t help all those things. I actually don’t feel guilty for white privilege or male privilege because it doesn’t do any good. Instead, I recognize that it’s my responsibility to use those privileges in order to undercut their very basis. In general, the response I’ve gotten from the Culture of Make Believe from African-Americans has been very positive.
After a talk people say, So what do you want me to do? And I always say I don’t want you to listen to me. I ask them what the nearest river is and I say the river knows how to live here so don’t ask me what you should do, go ask the river what you should do and sit there and listen to it and it will tell you.
Environmentalists seem vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed. Do you ever despair and lose hope?
Yeah, I despair all the time. I think that despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation. If you’re not going to feel sorrow and pain and despair over the death of the salmon, what are you going to feel sorrow over? I think that hope is a very harmful thing. I bash hope all the time. False hopes are really problematical because they bind us to unlivable situations. Does anybody really think Weyerhaeuser’s going to stop deforesting because we asked nicely? That’s not going to happen.
I was bashing hope at a talk and somebody in the audience shouted out, Can you define hope? I didn’t know what to say so I asked the audience to define it and the definition they came up with — which I love — is that hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.
I don’t hope that I eat something today. I’m just going to do it. On the other hand, the next time I get on a plane, I hope it doesn’t crash. That means if I say I hope the Coho Salmon survive, I am acknowledging that I am powerless over it. On the other hand, I don’t just hope the Coho Salmon survive, I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. That’s a radically different statement. So, I’m not interested in hope, I’m interested in agency.
Have you noticed that the first thing that usually gets uttered at public hearings is, “Now, we want to maintain civility, so no personal attacks.” So right up front they strip away our passion and devalue it. Is this just another example of the Machine at work?
Absolutely. Somebody once asked Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a great general in the Civil War and a horrible racist, how he won so many battles. His answer was, “You get there first with the most.”
Let’s break this down: “You get there” — get there! The point is, if you choose the terms of the battle, you’re going to win. When they frame the debate they have already won. So one of the key parts of military strategy is not to let your enemy choose the terms of the debate. And here’s a great example — “Omigod, Derrick, you just called them the enemy! That’s really divisive!” Well, you know what, if I’m not allowed to call them my enemy, once again they’ve won, because they are my fucking enemy. They’re killing the planet. I don’t know how much more enemy you want. Tecumseh didn’t have that same problem. He didn’t worry about whether to call the people who were stealing their land the enemy. So my point is that whoever frames the debate wins.
I’ve testified before federal hearings, I’ve done so much comment — and that’s presuming that those comments are supposed to make any difference. Those people in the Forest Service, for example, they’re trained to sit there with their fingers steepled before them and to look like they’re interested as you say whatever you’re saying and it doesn’t matter. Of course it doesn’t matter — the whole point of a public comment period is to give us the illusion that it makes a difference.
I want to get back to Edward Forest. “Get there first.” You want to choose where you fight and when you fight, and “the most” means you want to have local superiority. Once again within the context of environmentalism, we lose on all three: they choose the battle, they choose the time, and in terms of “most” we could have 800 bazillion comments against but it doesn’t matter because they have force on their side and they’re the decision makers.
If our input is purely formal then once again it’s worth essentially zilch, which is not to say we shouldn’t do it. Like I’ve said, I’ve participated, it’s just that can’t be all we do.Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen