Claims to Virtue

It’s not possible to commit deforestation, or any other mass atrocity—mass murder, genocide, mass rape, the pervasive abuse of women or children, institutionalized animal abuse, imprisonment, wage slavery, systematic impoverishment, ecocide—without first convincing yourself and others that what you’re doing is beneficial. You must have, as Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has put it, a “claim to virtue.” You must be convinced—as the Nazis were convinced that the elimination of Jews would allow the Aryan “race” to thrive; as the founders of Judeo-Christianity were convinced their misogynistic laws were handed down not from their own collective unconscious but from the God they could not admit they created; as my father was convinced he was not beating his son but teaching him diligence, respect, or even spelling; as politicians, scientists, and business leaders today are convinced they’re not destroying life on earth but “developing natural resources”—that you are performing a service for humankind.

Forests have fallen as surely to these claims to virtue as they have to axes, saws, and fellerbunchers. By looking at the successive claims used to rationalize the deforestation of this continent, perhaps we can begin to see not only the transparent stupidity of them but further still the motives that underlie the destruction.

Early European accounts of this continent’s opulence border on the unbelievable. Time and again we read of “goodly woods, full of Deer, Conies, Hares, and Fowle, even in the middest of Summer, in incredible abundance,” of islands “as completely covered with birds, which nest there, as a field is covered with grass,” of rivers so full of salmon that “at night one is unable to sleep, so great is the noise they make,” of lobsters “in such plenty that they are used for bait to catch the Codd fish.” Early Europeans describe towering forests of cedars, with an understory of grapes and berries that stained the legs and bellies of their hoses. They describe rivers so thick with fish that they “could be taken not only with a net but in baskets let down [and weighted with] a stone.” They describe birds in flocks so large they darkened the sky for days at a time and so dense that “a single shot from an old muzzle-loader into a flock of these curlews [Eskimo curlews, made extinct by our culture] brought down 28 birds.”

The early Europeans faced much the same problem we face today: their lofty goals required the destruction of these forests and all life in them, but they couldn’t do it without at least some justification. The first two claims to virtue were the intertwining goals of Christianizing the natives and making a profit. These embodied a bizarre yet efficient exchange in which, as Captain John Chester succinctly put it, the natives gained “the knowledge of our faith” while the Europeans acquired “such riches as the country hath.” Both the natives and the “ritches”—including the forests of New England—were quickly cut down.

Soon the claim to Christianization was dropped, and the rationalization became “Manifest Destiny,” the tenet that the territorial expansion of the United States was not only inevitable by divinely ordained. Thus it was God and not man who ordered the land’s original inhabitants be removed, who ordered the destruction of hundreds of human cultures and the killing or dispossession of tens of millions of human beings, who ordered the slaughter of 60 million buffalo and 20 million pronghorn antelope to make life tougher. Thus it was God and not man who ordered that the native forests of the Midwest be felled by the ax.

Manifest Destiny as a claim to virtue soon evolved back into the ideal of making money. An enterprise was deemed as good as it was profitable, while domination and control remained safely unspoken. The forests of the Northwest were described by a corporate spokesperson as “a rich heiress waiting to be appropriated and enjoyed.” To be honest, not even this claim was new in any meaningful sense, but a mere recycling of the words of our Judeo-Christian fathers—“And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her…then thou shalt bring her home to thine house”—with a substitution of trees for women, whipsaws for penises, and the immutable laws of economics for the immutable laws of God.

That brings us to today. As the effects of industrial forestry on this continent become increasingly clear—fisheries vanish, biodiversity goes monotone, communities fall apart, and rich biomes become tree farms—corporate profitability loses its effectiveness as a claim to virtue. Another claim—jobs—has arisen, but this has no ring of truth in an era of automation, downsizing, and the Asian lumber mill. The search for a different justification begins anew.

Recognizing that the forests of this country are in a state of ecological collapse, the timber industry and the politicians and the governmental agencies that serve it have begun to claim the way to improve the health of these massively overcut forests is, unsurprisingly enough, to cut them down. The government has provided, in the words of one of the industry’s senators, “exemptions from environmental laws for logging needed to improve forest health.” The Forest Service has disallowed citizens from purchasing federal timber sales to leave the trees standing, because “then the trees won’t get cut down.” A clearcut is then rationalized by declaring that “while insect and disease populations are currently at endemic levels, there is a potential for spruce bark beetle populations to reach epidemic proportions.” In other words, we must cut these admittedly healthy trees because they might get sick someday. The timber transnational corporation Boise Cascade has run advertisements likening clearcuts to smallpox vaccinations.

It’s all insane. It doesn’t take a cognitive giant to see that if logging were “needed to improve forest health” there’d be no need to exempt it from environmental laws. The most difficult and disturbing task is to understand how and why, after millennia of deforestation, the destroyers and defenders alike accept each new, ephemeral, transparently false claim to virtue at face value. One reason, of course, is that the pattern itself is horrifying, too terrible to think about. A second reason is that if we allow ourselves to recognize the pattern and fully internalize its implications, we would have to change it. And so we propagate, or at least permit, the myths. It’s called passing the buck.

Rational discussion presupposes rational motivations, yet claims to virtue are always attempts to place rational masks over nonrational urges. This means that to focus on the claims without broadening the debate so that it includes a consideration of the underlying urges is to be irrational and ultimately to fall into the same pattern of destructiveness. Another way to say this is that while the claims themselves possess the veneer of rationality, the process is not rational, and cannot be resolved by rational discussion, but only within a severely distorted, nonrational framework—and then only so long as one doesn’t question the framework itself.

Take the doctors at Auschwitz. As has been made clear by Lifton¹, the physicians working there would not have been effective cogs in the Nazi machine without first being quite certain they acted in the best interests of the world, and even in some cases of the Jews themselves. Some exhibited genuine concern for the well-being of the Jews, but only within the strict confines of the Auschwitz reality. In other words, while refusing to question the justice, sanity, or humanity of working prisoners to death or gassing them in assembly-line fashion, and refusing to question the abysmal conditions under which prisoners were housed, they often did what little was left to alleviate suffering.

One of the most common ways they did this was by preventing outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases by injecting patients with phenol. Children, adults who had long been on the medical block, and others who were ill or had the potential to become ill were selected for injection. The physician or technician filled the syringe from the phenol bottle and thrust the needle into the heart of the patient, emptying the contents of the syringe. Most patients fell dead almost immediately, although some lived for seconds or even minutes. Just like the Forest Service and timber companies, these physicians were preventing outbreaks by killing their patients. This could be rationalized by saying that dead and burned prisoners were no longer infectious risks to the living. Rationale aside, it was murder.

Paradoxically, the way out from these destructive frames of mind is to step in—experience, not thoughts or rationalization, is the only cure-all. Instead of hiding behind notions of racial purity or pretending to prevent epidemics, notice that at this moment I am lifting this boy’s arm. He is six. His skin is pale. His eyes lock on mine: he is terrified. I am inserting the needle between his fourth and fifth ribs. It slides in easily. He winces, stifles a sob. I depress the plunger. He stiffens, and before he can fall off the stool my attendant carries him to the back door. The attendant returns and ushers a woman through the front door. She takes her place on the stool. I begin to lift her left arm. Her eyes, too, lock on mine. I realize, in that instant, that I am the last thing she will ever see.

Trust experience. Descartes’ inversion of what is to be believed (I think, therefore I am) makes no sense to me, nor to any of my senses. Thought divorced from experience is nonsense. I know from my own childhood this divorce can be essential to survival, but paradoxically, it is this same divorce on the part of perpetrators that gives rise to these awful claims to virtue.

Few people today would be senseless enough to believe that my father beat my sister because she found dead puppies in the swimming pool, or for any reason other than those emanating from my father’s damaged psyche. He blamed it on the dead puppies simply to confuse us all, himself especially, and to drown out the horrific experience of beating his own child.

Few would be ignorant enough to believe Hitler’s justifications for murdering millions of people in Europe and Africa. We can see—probably more clearly than he—through and beyond his words to his intent, made deathly clear in the showers at Treblinka and on the stone cold killing fields of the Soviet Union.

By the same token, it isn’t difficult to honestly evaluate the insanity and hatred that characterized the witch trials, that conceptualized, then created a suitable political, social, philosophical, and theological context for the torture and murder of women because they were alleged to “do marvellous things with regard to male organs.”

How then do we so blind ourselves to the same impulses that surround us today, that are central to, and propel our culture? Do you think today’s destruction of the salmon is so much less than last century’s destruction of the passenger pigeon? Do you think the enslavement of 150,000,000 children is so much less than the race-based slavery of not-so-long-ago? Is the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples so much less than Manifest Destiny? Is it safe to speak of Hitler because he is dead, and because you and I were not there to participate?

This fear and hatred of life, shape-shifter that it is, stays always one step ahead of our discernment, slipping away each time we nearly understand it to faster, more efficient ways to control and then destroy the objects of our hatred, and with them ultimately ourselves.

The patriarchal family gives rise to a patriarchal God, who can be internalized to wield Fatherly control even when the father is absent. When threats wear thin the patriarchal God sends a Son to prove his love. My father always knew exactly how far to push with violence before relenting to confuse us with signs of affection, and to get us to agree that our suffering, compared to his own, was nothing. So, too, with Christianity. And now what? Christianity—by now entirely divorced from the teachings of its nominal founder—inevitably gives way to science, an infinitely stronger tool to control and destroy not only humans but the entire planet.

Those who wish to destroy will do so. It really is that simple. Remove the words, and the acts are there. Beatings, rapes, enslavement, sanctified murders in autos-da-fe, or industrialized death-dealing with Zyklon B, chainsaws, driftnets, mink coats, time cards, clocks, protein drinks satellite surveillance systems, and the soul-murder of lives wasted in quiet desperation.

In the beginning is the urge. In the people who would destroy it is always there.

1. Lifton, Robert Jay, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Basic, NY, 1986.

This selection has been excerpted from Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words (2004) and printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing at The MOON magazine

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