The Radical Turn?
For a book that advertises itself as a “shift in strategy and tactics,” Deep Green Resistance (DGR) has an overwhelmingly dispiriting tone, and is riddled with contradictions. While DGR provocatively addresses many pressing social and ecological issues, its opportunistic, loose-cannon theoretical approach and highly controversial tactics leaves it emulating right-wing militia rhetoric, with the accompanying hierarchical vanguardism, personality cultism, and reactionary moralism. By providing a negative example, DGR does us the service of compounding issues into one book. Take it as a warning. As we grasp for solutions to multiple and compounding social and ecological crises, quick fixes, dogmatism, and power grabbing may grow as temptations. By reviewing DGR, we are also defending necessary minimal criteria for movements today: inclusivity, democracy, honesty, and (dare we suggest) even humility in the face of the complex problems we collectively face. None of these criteria can be found in DGR, and its own shortcomings are a telling lesson for us all.
It is instructive that the group based on DGR has become geared almost exclusively to outreach, not unlike a book club. At certain times, they claim to forbid their members from participating in illegal activity after having attempted a short-lived attempt to generate a grassroots, direct action network. At other times, DGR members claim to be involved in nonviolent civil disobedience. The ambiguity of their attempt at organization stems from the muddled ideas of two of the book’s authors, Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, who forced out the main organizer, Premadasi Amada, as well as their other co-author, Aric McBay, over the question of inclusive gender policies.
DGR’s organizational body (distinct from the book, but modeled after it) leads us to agree that they have been rightly accused by former members of acting like a cult rather than as part of a larger movement. They seem much more interested in lionizing their leadership than in taking direct action.
DGR’s approach is purely ideological; they intend not to form their own groups or cells to carry out direct action, but to teach the need for direct action to the supposedly ignorant masses. Such an attitude of approaching from above, rather than joining in solidarity, is degrading to peoples’ ability to self-organize. We must equally lead and be led by engaging in struggle, not standing outside of it. Our ultimate conclusion is that DGR’s goal of “civilization’s” destruction through “underground” attacks against infrastructure manifests both an ideological and strategic misdirection, foreclosing the potential for participatory democracy and direct action as it veers into intellectual dishonesty and irreconcilable political contradictions.
The Would-Be Ecological Militia Movement
To carry out the Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy, Keith states that a “true people’s militia” is necessary. Declaring a need to return to value-based politics, Keith declares, “the right places the blame for the destruction of both family and community at the feet of liberalism… [A]s long as the left refuses to fight for our values as values—and to enact those values in our lives and our movements—the right will be partially correct.” Keith writes that “the social upheavals of the ’60s split along fault lines of responsibility and hedonism, of justice and selfishness, of sacrifice and entitlement.” According to Keith, these “fault lines” are also responsible for the failure of the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, among others. A successful resistance movement militia would be based on justice, responsibility, and sacrifice, not the kind of hedonism, selfishness, and entitlement that Keith identifies with the Left. As for the right wing, Keith continues, “many right-wing and reactionary elements have formed sects and founded communities. In these groups, the sin in urban or modern life is hedonism, not hierarchy.” So the fight against hedonism is a shared value between Keith’s militia and the right-wing sects and communities that she’s talking about. Although she does not specify precisely which right-wing communities she draws from here, the most famous ones with ties to militias and anti-hedonistic points of view are places like Elohim City and the Covenant—survivalist compounds built around violent white supremacism.
It is also clear that Keith links hedonism with youthful anti-authoritarian extravagances; implicit in this formulation is the need for a hierarchical structure to mediate these dynamics. As for hierarchy, Keith declares, “the rejection of authority is another hallmark of adolescence,” and “underground groups engaged in coordinated or paramilitary activities require hierarchy. DGR’s platitudes about the unity of hierarchy and civilization conveniently disappear once their prospective underground militia formation comes into focus. Apparently they have the right anti-civilization kind of hierarchy in mind, and we should all just relax, and let them run the show.
For Keith and Jensen, rejection of youthful hedonism merges with a strict anti-pornography/anti-transgender stance driving a haughty sense of righteousness compatible with right-wing moralism. Ignoring the complex and nuanced landscape of feminist pornography criticism, Keith claims the left has embraced porn “as freedom,” that transgender people simply don’t exist, and that the youth have impeded brains that cannot function without elder hierarchies. Clearly, Keith connects hedonism with “the entire culture of queer, including s/m and porn, that gave rise to the phenomenon of ‘trans.’”
Together with her call for a return to “social norms” against “queer culture,” Keith wants a total elimination of all categories of gender. Gender, for Keith, is a construct of societally embedded patriarchy. By annihilating gender, people will be able to free themselves from expectations of masculinity and femininity, she claims. All people who take on gender identities are “genderists” according to Keith and her ilk of self-described “Radical Feminists” (RadFems).
The worst kind of “genderist” for Keith is a “transgenderist,” a person who identifies as being of the opposite gender. Instead of taking the social constructivist view that subversion of rigid gender and sexual identity categories exposes sex/gender as a construction, Keith grows oppressively rigid about appropriate and inappropriate performances of and identifications with gender identity. For Keith, a trans woman is still a privileged male and thus a dangerous oppressor of women, in spite of the disproportionate level of assaults, threats, harassment, and murder of trans people in the US.
There is a certain de facto biologism underlying these views on gender. Instead of subversion of gender identities and positions, she presumes a pre-cultural body existing outside gender. The problem is, simply enough, not everyone embraces the binary construct of either accepting the gender category assigned to their “natural” body or rejecting gender entirely. Shouldn’t people have the right to express themselves freely in this regard, or is that just a form of hedonistic false consciousness? Sadly, this is where DGR’s punishingly hostile tone becomes especially reactionary, shifting into sardonic mockery of anyone they deem as deviant from their morality that is distinctively driven by ideologically confusing and reactionary gender politics.
Last year in Portland, Oregon, a friend who is an Earth First!er, trans activist, and professional doula was “outed” on a transphobic website linked to DGR, forcing her to flee town due to fear of both personal and professional reprisals. This is in keeping with the tactics proposed by Keith since at least the late-1990s, when she published an article in the RadFem newspaper, Rain and Thunder, calling for taking “direct action” against trans women attempting to use the ladies’ restroom. We take violence seriously enough to call DGR’s bluff on their oscillating ethical apparatus of concerns regarding violence.
We can also see the same empty moralisms, theoretical contradictions, and hostilities in Derrick Jensen’s contributions to the book, as he bluffs his way through, offering fluffy sections of unimaginative prose without providing a single original idea. (His passages come from Q&A sessions after his lectures.) His incredible ability to attack other movements and actors via Facebook threads or blog comments stems from a decisive paranoia that has been witnessed in any number of bizarre rants in which he associates trans people with “the Taliban in a skirt,” calls their allies rape apologizing misogynists, and moves towards other well known epithets and canards to smear transgender people. According to former DGR members in Austin, “our recruitment efforts were constantly hampered by Lierre Keith’s well known stance on transgender people… It is clear to us that the DGR staff is more interested in placating key members of DGR and maintaining ideological purity than it is in creating an effective organization and movement.”
In attempts to claim a place in the larger movement, DGR’s members have attached themselves to grassroots organizations like Rising Tide, Tar Sands Resistance, and Peaceful Uprising, all of which have openly condemned the group’s “trans exclusionary hate that breeds an environment of hostility and violence.” This kind of attempted co-optation of groups opposed to DGR’s exclusionary gender policies evinces a disingenuous attempt to emerge from ideological alienation.
DGR’s “people’s militia” would still be feminist, but in the same way that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the US Army are feminist, Keith avers. To back this position up, Keith quotes Jean Bethke Elshtain, who claims that rape is scrupulously avoided by the IDF, as well as the US and British armies. At the time that DGR was being written, there were two astonishing instances related to sexual assault and the IDF. In the first, CNN published a report showing that 21 out of 134 affidavits reviewed included allegations of abuse, including sexual assault against Palestinian children. In the second, a Palestinian man was thrown in prison for having consensual sex with an Israeli woman. The US Army is also notorious for its rape culture, and in 2014 some 20,000 service members reported “unwanted sexual contact” out of a sample of 170,000 troops—half of these reports for women constituted rape, and 35 percent for men. Keith’s denial of the sexual politics involved in the IDF’s apartheid-state and the US military’s rape culture is worrying when she seeks to design the feminism of her “true people’s militia” after them. It is absurd ideas like these about the IDF and US Army’s anti-rape practices that place DGR in close proximity with other right-wing militia groups and leaders that give lip service to ecology but are in fact deeply intertwined with white supremacist and imperialist ideologies and practices.