Open Letter to UTA from Derrick Jensen

Earlier this year you published an essay by John Sanbonmatsu, entitled, “Blood and Soil: Notes on Lierre Keith, Locavores, and Death Fetishism.” You asked Lierre if she would like to publicly respond to this essay, which even the title makes clear is more character assassination than actual essay, and she rightly declined.
I, however, am going to respond, not so much in my role as her publisher or even friend, but rather in my role as an author with twenty books out; as someone who has worked with scores of magazines, from literary magazines to book review journals to environmental newsletters to The New York Times Magazine to Orion to the tiniest ‘zines put out by teenagers; and most especially as someone who believes that words are sacred, who believes writers and editors have a sacred duty to tell the truth, and that when we write or tell or publish lies we commit a great offense not only against the victims of our lies but against truth itself, and perhaps most importantly we disrespect and disserve our readers. We mug our readers. We steal from them.
Sanbonmatsu’s piece should never have been published, and anyone who cares about truth or words or writing should never have published it. By doing so the editors of Upping the Anti harmed their readers, and harmed the truth. I’m not saying this because the piece was critical. I’m saying this because the piece was full of lies. I only partially blame Sanbonmatsu for this: he clearly has an axe to grind, and the world is full of cranks with causes, just as it is full of terrible writers who do not respect words or the truth. More of the blame lies with the editors of Upping the Anti, for publishing a piece that is full of lies.
I am telling you this because at least some of you editors are young (as a writer part of my necessary work is to do research to make sure that what I say is true, so I know that editor SW, for example, graduated with a BA in Canadian Studies in 2008, Kelly Fritsch is a Ph.D. student at York University, and so on, so I’m presuming from this and from your pictures (and from your poor editorial skills) that you are young: this is the sort of basic research you should have done as due diligence before publishing this piece) and so you may learn from this mistake and become better editors. Or you may not, in which case you should not be editors. I say this, once again, as someone with long experience in writing and publishing, and as someone who cares deeply about words, truth, and social change.
When I was a very young writer—about SW’s age—I used the wrong word in a description, and one of my writing elders corrected me. I said to her, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a word.” The elder lectured me for the next two hours on the importance of being truthful, saying, “When you speak or write, you are responsible to each and every person in your audience for every word you say or write, and for the effects of your language; and when you say things to them that are untrue, inaccurate, or somehow otherwise false, you steal from them as surely as if you had stolen their wallet. Worse. A wallet contains only money. You steal their time, and you steal their thoughts by telling them things that are untrue.”
I learned from that hard-to-hear lecture, and because of it became a better writer and person. I hope that you can learn from this one. If you can’t or won’t or don’t, you need to stop being editors, because you are harming your readers, and you are harming the word; and because it is true that, as George Orwell wrote, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” your printing of lies is profoundly reactionary, and counter to your stated goals of social justice.
To put it clearly: it is your responsibility as editors to make sure that what you print is factually true in its statements and in its implications.
I’ll give an example from one of my upcoming columns in Orion. I was talking about the unsustainability of aluminum recycling, and I mentioned that the process requires aluminum to be heated to 750 degrees Celsius. It ends up I was mistaken: the editor checked my facts and corrected this to 650 degrees Celsius. Even though this error did not in this case affect the point I was making, the change was necessary, and I was glad my editor did the work she’s supposed to do, and corrected my error, saving readers from being misled and saving me from, at the very least, embarrassing myself. Correcting errors is all the more necessary when the research will affect your point. In my book Dreams I critiqued scientific philosopher Richard Dawkins, and while doing research on him came across a speech he’d written that caused me to delete several of my most critical paragraphs because I realized they were not accurate: they were no longer defensible. I will only write what is defensible, and you should only publish what is defensible. If you are going to publish something, you need to perform the due diligence of making sure that what you publish is true. Every editor and publisher goes through this process, and it is completely unacceptable that you did not.
I’m not going to go through and correct all of the lies, logical fallacies, and false insinuations in Sanbonmatsu’s piece, in part because this open letter would probably then be far longer than his original piece, and in part because that was your and Sanbonmatsu’s job. It is not my (or Lierre’s, or anyone else’s) job to clean up after you. I’ll repeat this: you should have gone through the process I am going to exemplify below, and if you are unwilling to do this, you are not writers or editors, and you will never be writers or editors, and you need to go nowhere near magazines or other publications.
Let’s start with some simple factual inaccuracies. Please note, again, that this is only a sample, and is in no way complete. Nearly every paragraph of his essay contains some inaccuracy or another.
Sanbonmatsu asks, “How does a vegan who once ‘wanted to believe that my life – my physical existence – was possible without killing, without death’ (14), end up waxing rhapsodic about hunting and singing joyously as she kills her farm animals with her own bare hands?” It’s certainly a dramatic image, and it’s also a dramatic question to ask, made meaningless and bizarre, however, because its basis is completely untrue. Not only has Lierre never sung joyously as she killed farm animals with her own bare hands, and not only has she never killed farm animals with her bare hands, she has never killed any farm animals by any means whatsoever (whether she was singing or not). Sanbonmatsu’s statement is not supported by the text he’s supposedly “reviewing,” nor by anything else Lierre has ever written or said. In other words, he’s making it up. In other words, he’s lying. And you could and should have caught this. If you are not willing to do the work to make sure to the best of your ability (we all make mistakes) that what you print is true, don’t run a magazine.
Sanbonmatsu writes, “Meanwhile, her own chickens ‘happily lounged’ (154) and her cows ‘spent contented lives’ (154) at pasture – again before having their throats cut or getting the pickaxe or bullet to the brain.” Like the previous quote, it’s certainly dramatic. But also like the previous quote, it’s completely untrue. Lierre has never owned cows, so his comments about her cows spending “contented lives at pasture” before “having their throats cut or getting the pickaxe or bullet to the brain” are once again entirely inaccurate, despite the fact that Sanbonmatsu references page 154 of Vegetarian Myth for this inaccuracy. The fact that he referenced this quote should have made your job even easier, since all you had to do is pick up the damn book to see that Sanbonmatsu was wrong. Here’s what I did, which is what you should have done. I marched to my bookshelf, pulled down the book, popped it open to page 154, and found that not only does this page make no reference to Lierre owning cows, but the “contented cows” mentioned on that page are not even destined for slaughter anyway: they are heirloom dairy cows. The sentence reads “She’d [Lierre’s friend] never had eggs from chickens who happily lounged and hunted and lounged some more in woods and pastures [please note that these chickens are explicitly egg-laying chickens, not meat chickens, so he’s wrong on this one, too], nor cream from heirloom cows who spent contented lives with their heads in the grass.” Re-reading this, I laughed out loud not only at John Sanbonmatsu’s clear dishonesty, but also at the relevance of Lierre’s next sentence to this current open letter: “Those details matter, not just morally and politically, but also nutritionally. . . .” Yes, details matter, morally and politically. Were I an editor at a magazine where Sanbonmatsu’s piece was submitted, I would have taken the thirty seconds necessary to perform this due diligence and follow back this quote, and his willful misrepresentation of this quote would have destroyed his credibility. I would have rejected his piece. And by the way, although it makes for a dramatic image, cows are not generally killed with pickaxes. I believe the word he is looking for is poleaxe, although of course these days even poleaxes are rarely used.
The point here is that Sanbonmatsu consistently chooses dramatic language and imagery over what is physically true. That’s no way to write an essay. And publishing a piece like this is no way to run a magazine.
More factual inaccuracies. Here’s a paragraph I’ll put in full here for convenience, and then take apart line by line: “Killing other animals is justified, she writes, because it is natural. In order to advance this claim, she makes an unusal [sic] methodological choice: in the face of a veritable mountain of scholarly work on animal consciousness and animal rights in analytic and continental philosophy, sociology, political theory, feminist theory, literary studies, and a dozen scientific fields, Keith pretends that none of it exists. Let me be clear: Lierre Keith has written a book-length treatment of animal rights and ethical vegetarianism that ignores everything written on the subject over the last century and beyond. Besides being grossly unfair to advocates of animal rights, Keith’s anti-intellectual approach also leads her to advance a variety of bizarre and unsupportable claims. Among other things, she argues that plants are sentient (a position held by not a single reputable scientist in the world) and that sentience is anyway irrelevant in a discussion of moral interests (a position not held by a single moral philosopher in the world).”
Okay, line by line (and this is, once again, the sort of analysis you should have done, the sort of analysis you need to get used to doing, and the sort of analysis you need to preferably enjoy doing if you are going to be editors).
“Killing other animals is justified, she writes, because it is natural.” First, it would be hard to argue that killing other animals isn’t natural, since in years of study I’ve encountered precisely one and only one vegetarian (and not a single vegan) indigenous human culture out of literally thousands (and in any case, as Lierre makes clear, agriculture kills animals as well, only it’s usually not the eater who is killing them, although sometimes it is—just yesterday I read in my local newspaper a column about how a gardener must also be a killer, in this case running around her garden killing every cabbage moth she can find: the point is that gardens and most especially monocrop agriculture impede succession, and nature wants for succession to take place, so those nonhumans who live on land to be taken for monocrops or who try to destroy the monocrops (think everyone from boll weevils to elephants to “weeds”) must be killed if the monocrop or garden is to stand). I would hate to try to argue that the Tolowa Indians, on whose land I now live, and who lived here for at least 12500 years, and did so completely sustainably, and who were and are a people of the salmon, were not living as fully integrated members of their natural community, and doing so by participating in the ongoing (and until the arrival of this culture, eternal) cycles of life and death. That would be a stunning, racist, absurd, ignorant, and counterfactual argument to try to make. Further, a central point of Lierre’s book, which Sanbonmatsu’s ideology seems to disallow him from perceiving, is that all eating requires death. Plants require the death of animals to nourish the soil. Herbivores require the death of plants to nourish their own bodies. The soil itself—alive, with over a million beings in one tablespoon of soil, and more than a thousand different species in just a square meter of soil, all of whom must eat—requires food. Life requires death. This is not a particularly radical concept.
He writes, “In order to advance this claim, she makes an unusal [sic] methodological choice. . . .” Given that John Sanbonmatsu seems incapable of or unwilling to accurately present such basic facts as whether Lierre does or does not sing joyously as she does or does not kill farm animals, I’m not sure that commenting on someone else’s methodological choices is playing to his strong suit. But we’ll go on: “. . . in the face of a veritable mountain of scholarly work on animal consciousness and animal rights in analytic and continental philosophy, sociology, political theory, feminist theory, literary studies, and a dozen scientific fields, Keith pretends that none of it exists.” Once again, I’m not sure he should be commenting on whether someone else is ignoring scholarly work when he does not seem capable of understanding and properly using as a citation a single sentence from a single page of a single book (page 154): he can’t even properly figure out whether Lierre has or has not ever owned cows (or whether, from another error, whether she has ever killed farm animals with her bare hands (while singing!)). And as we’ll see in a moment he is with this statement completely wrong in fact and implication. He continues, “Let me be clear: Lierre Keith has written a book-length treatment of animal rights and ethical vegetarianism that ignores everything written on the subject over the last century and beyond.” This is not only factually inaccurate it is also, as is true of so much of his “essay,” completely misleading. Lierre does address nonhuman animal sentience, but not at great length, not because she is ignoring “everything written on the subject over the last century and beyond,” but rather because she does not believe in the Christian hierarchical (Great Chain of Being) notion of nature. She doesn’t deeply discuss the sentience of nonhuman animals because it is so very obvious—both in real life and in all of her work, including this book—that nonhuman animals are sentient. Of course nonhumans are sentient. Everyone is sentient. John Sanbonmatsu here strongly implies that she does not believe that nonhuman animals are sentient. This is completely false. Let me be clear: Upping the Anti published this paragraph that misleads readers into thinking precisely the opposite of what Lierre has actually written.
He continues, “Besides being grossly unfair to advocates of animal rights [uh, the point isn’t whether someone is fair to animal rights advocates, but rather to the animals themselves, and you, as editors, should have caught this], Keith’s anti-intellectual approach also leads her to advance a variety of bizarre and unsupportable claims. Among other things, she argues that plants are sentient (a position held by not a single reputable scientist in the world) and that sentience is anyway irrelevant in a discussion of moral interests (a position not held by a single moral philosopher in the world).” Okay, first, did the editors of Upping the Anti actually read this paragraph? Earlier in the paragraph John Sanbonmatsu is suggesting that Lierre does not believe that nonhuman animals are sentient, that she is “pretending” that “a veritable mountain of scholarly work on animal consciousness and animal rights in analytic and continental philosophy, sociology, political theory, feminist theory, literary studies, and a dozen scientific fields” does not exist. And now Sanbonmatsu is saying she believes that plants are sentient. Any reasonable editor would necessarily then write back to Sanbonmatsu and verify, “Just for clarification, are you actually saying that she believes nonhuman animals aren’t sentient, but plants are?” Why didn’t you ask him this question? That’s what he’s saying, but Lierre says nothing of the sort. Lierre is saying that nonhuman animals are sentient, and that plants are sentient as well. She is, in the long tradition of liberation movements and movements for justice, attempting to expand the circle of perceived personhood. This is what movements for liberation and justice do. And reactionaries ridicule them for this. And Upping the Anti participated in this reactionary ridiculing.
I want to highlight the following phrases, “Among other things, she argues that plants are sentient (a position held by not a single reputable scientist in the world). . . .” My hope in writing this note is that you, the editors, can learn from it. When I read this parenthetical comment, I cringed, because it made clear (again) how completely you failed to do your job as editors. Just as with the quote from page 154, this comment of his is easily and simply (in perhaps three seconds or less) shown to be false. John Sanbonmatsu and editors of Upping the Anti, please meet Stefano Mancuso, one of the very many reputable scientists who argue that plants are sentient. Seriously, before you print such ignorant comments, please educate yourself on the subject. At the very least listen to the following TED talk: Mancuso is director of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. Heck, for that matter, John Sanbonmatsu and the editors of Upping the Anti, please say hello to Charles Darwin, who also wrote on the intelligence of plants. All you would have had to do is google “plant intelligence” to learn that articles have been published on plant intelligence in dozens of mainstream sources, including The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, and for crying out loud, Wired. The New York Times article was entitled, “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too.” As the author notes, “The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.” My point isn’t that plants are intelligent, which they clearly are, so much as it is that you published this statement that was so very easily shown to be false. You failed in your (in this case really easy) due diligence. How does it feel, editors of the supposedly radical magazine Upping the Anti, to be more reactionary than The New York Times and Wired?
He continues, “. . . and that sentience is anyway irrelevant in a discussion of moral interests (a position not held by a single moral philosopher in the world).” She doesn’t say that sentience is irrelevant. She simply doesn’t believe in projecting an anthropocentric version of sentience onto the real world, whereby beings would be considered sentient primarily by how closely they resemble us. She doesn’t believe in projecting this culture’s destructive hierarchical Great Chain of Being notion onto a beautiful, vibrant, living, sentient world full of others.
I could continue to expose lie after lie, but life is short and I don’t want to spend it cleaning up your messes. So I’ll just do three more.
One is completely trivial, and not your fault, and I include it merely because it yet again shows John Sanbonmatsu’s sloppiness and complete disregard for what real writers call “fact-checking.” This is that in a longer version of his essay that appeared on Z-Net, Sanbonmatsu writes, “Why have such leading lights of the left as Alice Walker and Derrick Jenson loaned their good names to Keith’s book (their blurbs adorn the book’s cover)?” Instead of simply asking either Alice Walker or me why we loaned our names to the book (the answer in my case is on the cover: the book saved my life), he then says that the answer may come from the book’s “aesthetic of killing, its impatience with scholarship, its contempt for sentiment.” So evidently both Alice Walker and I have an aesthetic of killing (whatever that may mean), an impatience with scholarship, and so on. His complaints of my (and Alice Walker’s, and Lierre’s) alleged impatience with scholarship might have carried a tiny bit more weight had he even bothered to check the spelling of my name. It’s Jensen, buddy, not Jenson. Not that facts particularly matter in his case.
Sonbonmitsi’s, er, Sinbadsombo’s, er, Sanbonmatsu’s unwillingness to be bothered to check the spelling of my name is completely trivial compared to his next whopping mistake.
He states that Lierre fails to show that agriculture leads to “biocide,” [scare quotes inserted by Sanbonmatsu], and ignores both her and the world’s plentiful examples of how and where this has happened, whether it is the deserts of Iraq, once cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touched the ground, and later the Fertile Crescent, and now ecological wastelands; or the deserts of North Africa, which once were the breadbasket of Rome; or the Thames River in what is now the UK, where hippos swam and on whose banks lions lived until the arrival of totalitarian agriculture; or the prairies of the Great Plains, once home to the greatest herds of ruminants on the planet. Worldwide, agriculture has been a complete disaster for nonhumans. Ask elephants, about whom the International Union for the Conservation of Nature writes, “Because of its great size and large food requirements, the elephant cannot co-exist with people in areas where agriculture is the dominant form of land-use.” Ask bison. Ask sage grouse. Ask prairie sphinx moths. Ask prairie dogs. Ask native pollinators. Ask mussels and fish in rivers dewatered, dammed, or destroyed by siltation to serve agriculture. Ask the Everglades. Ask the nonhuman and human residents of Lake Baikal, dewatered to serve agriculture. Sanbonmatsu claims to care about nonhumans, but evidently this care does not extend to those who are wild.
In any case, the example he chooses for sustainable agriculture is an exceptionally unfortunate one for him, and for the editors who published his ridiculous argument. He writes, “In the Tai Lake region of ancient China, to name but one example, human beings engaged in sustainable agriculture practices for almost a thousand years, without depleting the soil, and even increased their yields over time.” He cites Ellis and Wang’s 1997 article entitled “Sustainable traditional agriculture in the Tai Lake Region of China.” It’s too bad the editors didn’t bother to read even the article’s abstract, which states in part, “Ecological limitations to human carrying capacity that seem [sic] apparent in the mid 1800s appear to have been overcome [sic] since the 1960s by chemical nitrogen subsidy of agroecosystems. Human populations are now nearly twice their traditional maximum, and the region remains one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions thanks in part to heavy fertilizer applications that have changed nitrogen from a limiting nutrient to a potential source of pollution. Whether these high inputs and/or other agricultural technologies will continue to sustain food self-sufficiency for the region’s farmers remains to be seen. The high long-term productivity of Tai Lake Region agroecosystems make them ideal for study of the ecological basis for sustainable [sic] agriculture.” Oops. First, there is the appallingly ignorant statement that “Ecological limitations to human carrying capacity that seem [sic] apparent in the mid 1800s appear to have been overcome [sic] since the 1960s by chemical nitrogen subsidy of agroecosystems.” Uh, carrying capacity is defined as the maximum number of any given species that can be sustained in place indefinitely, which means that by definition the use of petrochemical fertilizers (which are non-renewable and therefore, once again by definition, cannot be used indefinitely, i.e., they run out) cannot increase carrying capacity or allow anyone to somehow “overcome” carrying capacity, but only allow someone to overshoot carrying capacity—which is entirely different than “overcoming” carrying capacity, the latter of which is a nonsensical statement—with tremendous ecological costs (as we’ll get to in a moment). Overshoot, according to one reasonable definition, “occurs when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off.” As we see. And as elephants and hippos are telling us, if only we would listen. Wang and Ellis, the authors of the study, should have understood this.
Because the study was written in 1997, if its authors somehow had no understanding of what carrying capacity actually is, and if its authors were somehow ignorant of the effects of agriculture on nonhumans, the authors could at least pretend to have some slight (albeit, as we’ll get to in a moment, phony) excuse for talking about the Tai Lake region in any tone other than one of abject horror. However, in 2011, neither John Sanbonmatsu nor the editors of Upping the Anti have any excuse whatsoever. A 2010 Washington Post article about the Tai Lake region begins, “You smell the lake before you see it, an overwhelming stench like rotten eggs mixed with manure. The visuals are just as bad, the shore caked with toxic blue-green algae. Out further, where the algae is more diluted but equally fueled by pollution, it swirls with the currents, a vast network of green tendrils across the surface of Tai Lake. Such pollution problems are now widespread in China after three decades of unbridled economic growth. But what’s surprising about Tai Lake is the money and attention that’s been spent on the problem and how little either has accomplished. Some of the country’s highest-ranking leaders, including Premier Wen Jiaobao, have declared it a national priority. Millions of dollars have been poured into the cleanup. And yet, the lake is still a mess. The water remains undrinkable, the fish nearly gone, the fetid smell lingering over villages.” Please note that these algae blooms are entirely predictable results of agriculture, and are reasons for dead zones in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
And this is the example he chooses for sustainability? Later, and this is one reason Ellis and Wang’s declaration of the potential sustainability of the Tai Lake region is phony, the article describes a man named Wu whose “environmental work started in the early 1990s, when he began noticing foul smells from the lake he grew up on.” In other words, the lake was dying well before Ellis and Wang wrote their article declaring the region “ideal for study of the ecological basis for sustainable [sic] agriculture.” Please re-read the previous sentence, then reflect upon Ellis and Wang’s credibility. But there’s far more. In 2007, the Chinese “central government planned to award his [Wu’s] city the title of ‘National Model City for Environmental Protection,’ praising the very local officials Wu had fought for years. Wu was furious. He started gathering more evidence, telling friends he planned to sue the central government over the title. Within weeks, he was arrested. The exact charges changed several times, and most were ultimately dropped. In the end, Wu’s conviction on two charges of blackmail and fraud relied heavily on his confession, which Wu says he signed after being hung by the arms for five days and beaten with branches.” Great. So let’s be completely clear about what just happened here: basically Ellis and Wang are participating in fundamentally the same greenwashing process as the central state, declaring a region with extirpated fish populations (do wild fish count as sentient beings to John Sanbonmatsu, and if not, why not?), undrinkable water, and fetid smells as somehow being “ideal for study of the ecological basis for sustainable [sic] agriculture.” And more to the point, Upping the Anti prints an article that cites as an example of sustainable agriculture a region where an environmentalist was tortured by the state when he opposed the central state’s greenwashing. Is this the legacy you want as editors? Finally, the article states, “According to government statistics in July [2010], 85 percent of the lake was put in the worst possible category for water quality, unsuitable for drinking, irrigation or even recreation.” And this is the example he uses for sustainability? This is an example you publish as an example of sustainability?
Why did the editors of Upping the Anti not bother to do this basic fact checking? The issues I’m raising are not questions of opinions. They are questions of fact.
Further, temporarily increasing yields under agriculture are entirely predictable, as predictable as their eventual decline. As David Montgomery has written, “Civilizations generally lasted eight hundred to two thousand years”—as long as their topsoil lasted. So even if the area around Tai Lake were not now an environmental catastrophe, this would still not even come close to implying that the agriculture there was sustainable: for those not paying attention, for those who think you can (or should) “overcome” carrying capacity, for those who do not care about biotic integrity, for those who don’t care about nonhuman populations, overshoot can seem sustainable until the very last moment, when the die-off begins. Nor is agriculture sustainable elsewhere in China. China is now buying up swathes of land in Africa to feed its people; 80 percent of its rivers no longer support life; and the dust storms are so bad they are creating asthma in children in Denver, Colorado. Parts of China are so polluted they no longer support insect life, which means they will soon no longer support flowering plant life, which means that 500 million years of evolution has been brought to an end. And once again, this is his example of sustainability?
Although I could waste even more time correcting error after error, I want to address only one more, which is Sanbonmatsu’s and Upping the Anti’s incredibly offensive title: Blood and Soil. That reference to a phrase closely associated with Nazis came from a section late in his essay, where he writes, “Having arrived at the ‘adult knowledge’ that ‘life isn’t possible without death’ (3), she breaks down and feeds her soil ‘blood and bones’ (20). To those with a historical imagination, this literal conflation of Blut und Boden, blood and soil, cannot but sound creepy.” Okay, first, I’m not really sure how to respond to anyone who somehow believes that life is possible without death. I have hard, and perhaps adult, news I need to break to you all: we all die. Every last one of us. You will die. I will die. The elderly dog snoring gently at my feet as I write this will die. And in our deaths we feed others. This is not “death fetishism.” This is simply life. Our own death is part of the price we pay to enter this glorious and wonderful experience that is life itself. Life feeds off life. That is simply true. And I am sorry that some people seem to find this scary or hard to understand.
But that’s actually not my main problem with this passage, which instead consists of this extraordinary leap: “she breaks down and feeds her soil ‘blood and bones’ (20). To those with a historical imagination, this literal conflation of Blut und Boden, blood and soil, cannot but sound creepy.” Okay, let’s parse out what just happened. Because she puts your basic ordinary organic fertilizer she bought at the local plant store onto her garden, she’s a Nazi? Are you fucking kidding me? How did you let this pass? Were you sleepwalking through the editorial process? Because she feeds “blood and bones” to soil he conflates her (with your assistance) to Nazis? Does this mean that the people at the website are fascists because their fertilizers include, among other things, blood and bone meal? Is my trusty old 1978 edition of Rodale’s The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening actually a secret handbook to “death fetishism” and National Socialism because it speaks of the importance of both blood and bones to feeding the soil (blood, dried; and bone meal, respectively)? Did the editors of Upping the Anti actually read this paragraph? Did you think about it? How did you let this go by? His conflation is completely nonsensical, as is your publication of it.
Before we continue, I need to say that if any of this open letter seems harsh to you, please keep in mind that at no point do I call any one of you a Nazi or a death fetishist. Nor, and this would be even worse, do I imply without saying directly and honestly that any of you are Nazis or death fetishists. This latter would be worse because it would be passive aggressive and manipulative. And this is precisely what you and John Sanbonmatsu did: together you did everything but call Lierre (and, for that matter, Sanbonmatsu did it to me and Alice Walker in the Z-net version) a Nazi and a death fetishist. Now, the advantage of a passive aggressive approach is that when the victim, in this case Lierre, rightly responds that the accusations are false and absurd, John Sanbonmatsu or the editors of Upping the Anti can play the standard passive aggressive trick of saying, “I never called you a Nazi or a death fetishist.” In fact, this is precisely what SW, one of the editors at Upping the Anti actually did, writing the following to Lierre: “To be clear, do not think that he [Sanbonmatsu] calls you a Nazi at any point.” And voila, the passive aggressive double bind is sprung. A double bind is a situation where you are presented with two options, and if you choose option A you lose, and if you choose option B you lose, and you can’t withdraw. It’s a dirty fucking manipulative trick. This is why Lierre chose not to publicly respond: she knew that when Sanbonmatsu and Upping the Anti made this passive aggressive attack of insinuating she’s a Nazi, if she didn’t respond the insinuations would stand; and if she did respond, you would respond precisely the way you did, by simply denying the attack was ever made. It’s crazy-making, and it’s unfair rhetoric and discourse. Sanbonmatsu’s and your behavior forms a great example of how to be terrible writers and publishers, and an even better example of how to be terrible human beings: double binds are unacceptable and manipulative behavior. Neither Sanbonmatsu nor the editors of Upping the Anti had the courage to simply make your accusations in a straightforward fashion, and more importantly to support them with real evidence. All of this manipulative behavior on your part is another reason I am responding: the way out of a double bind is to smash it, completely and finally, and that is what I’m doing. In any case, if any of this note seems, once again, at any point too harsh, recall that I am not saying or implying you are Nazis or death fetishists, which is precisely what you did to Lierre (and once again what Sanbonmatsu did to me and to Alice Walker). I’m simply saying you all did a terrible job as editors, and that you also participated in passive aggressive manipulation. Serious stuff, and hard to hear, but frankly trivial compared to calling someone a Nazi and a death fetishist.
Now, back to the absurdities. Let me try talking about this ridiculous conflation of organic gardening and Nazism another way. I did a google search for blood bone soil and found more than 9 million google hits, most of which are what we’d expect: innocent entries about organic gardening and feeding soils. I looked up blood bone soil nazi and found less than 2 million hits, so even if you go just by the words themselves, more than 75 percent of the references have nothing whatsoever to do with Nazism. Further, Lierre said “blood and bone,” which he then associates with “Blut und Boden” which sounds kind of like “blood and bone” but actually means “blood and soil,” which is not of course what she said (and if she had, so what?). This is nothing more than an accident of completely different words from different languages sounding somewhat similar, but having nothing to do with each other. So basically he is making, what, a conflation by sort-of-homonym? A conflation by sort-of-homophone? A philosophical and political conflation because the words kind of sound the same? That’s just crazy. How’s this for an equally stupid argument: since John Sanbonmatsu’s name sounds kind of like John Somnambulist, then “to those with a late-night imagination, this conflation of Sanbonmatsu with Somnambulism cannot but sound sleepy?” Or since there aren’t many groups who are more hated than Nazis, let’s go ahead and raise the stupidity stakes by making a ludicrous connection between John Sanbonmatsu and pedophilia: John Sanbonmatsu gave a blurb to PETA spokesperson Loring Harkness, and PETA has a regular feature called the PETA files, which means, of course, that “to those with a word-search imagination, this praise for someone who supports PETAfilia cannot but sound disgusting and immoral.” Let’s try one final example, no more absurd than Sanbonmatsu’s: since Upping the Anti has an editor named Tom Keefer, and since Kief or Kiefer is a name for a type of concentrated marijuana (kind of like hash, only powder), then “to those with a plant-enhanced imagination, this conflation of Upping the Anti with marijuana cannot but sound. . . . What? I’m feeling pretty comfortable. . . What was I saying? Oh, can you get me some cake and potato chips and some Oreos, please? And pickles. Yeah. What? Hey, that’s pretty funny. . . .” If I follow the same ridiculous logic used by both John Somnambulist and the Upping the Anti crew, we could easily call this open letter, “Notes to People Too Stoned to Edit, About an Essay Written by a PETAfiliac Sleepwalker.” And when Sanbonmatsu complains I can of course deny that I ever accused him of being a supporter of pedophilia. I fully realize that my examples are crazy and false and stupid. That’s the point. But the real point is that they are no more crazy, false, nor stupid than what you actually published.
Sanbonmatsu’s conflation of ordinary organic fertilizer ingredients with fascism is actually even more ridiculous than so far I’ve made it seem, since those with any historical knowledge (as opposed to Sanbonmatsu’s “historical imagination,” whatever that means) know that Blut und Boden, the Nazi phrase, had nothing whatsoever to do with real, physical blood and soil. In the case of the Nazis, Blut referred not to literal blood but to race or ethnicity, as in Aryan; and Boden referred not to literal soil but to nationality, as in German.
All of this Blut und Boden nonsense infuriates me, not only because it’s offensive (not just to Lierre, not just to loco-vores, but also to honest-to-goodness victims of fascism), but also because it is really shitty writing. It is unforgivably shitty writing. It is a toxic combination of intellectual dishonesty, laziness, and sloppiness. I cannot imagine how any magazine with any credibility whatsoever would print something so remarkably stupid.
To conclude, I have no problem with using strong language and strong characterizations of those with whom I disagree. I have called those who run this culture sociopaths and worse. But most especially when using strong language it is absolutely crucial that one make sure to tell the truth, that one does not cheat at discourse, that one does not simply make up facts or create conflations out of thin air (which, when you think about it, is not merely a cliché but precisely what Sanbonmatsu did when he made conflations based on similarly-sounding words, which are literally nothing but thin air); that instead one carefully and precisely and factually supports one’s claims, that one is accurate both explicitly and in implication.
Look, we all make mistakes. Errors find their way into almost every published piece. But a) there is a difference between errors and intellectual dishonesty; b) as editors you should—and need to—know the difference; and c) you should attempt to minimize the errors and have a zero tolerance policy for intellectual dishonesty, not publish, celebrate, and defend both errors and dishonesty.
None of this note is aimed at John Sanbonmatsu. Because he is the one who made up “facts” and conflated things that have no realistic conflation, I do not believe he is reachable. I believe that he will continue to lie, to dissemble, to be a lazy and sloppy writer, and to spew nonsensical conflations. I could be wrong, but I doubt it.
This note is aimed at you, the editors of Upping the Anti (and also to any other young writers and editors who may read this, and want to learn from your mistakes). You messed up. You published something that is full of errors you should have caught. And please don’t tell me you simply didn’t have time to look for them: if you don’t have time to fact check you should not be publishing. It’s that simple. The world would be better off with blank pages, or no pages at all, than it is with pages that steal from readers. Please note that I didn’t have time for this nonsense, but I made time to lay out these errors and to show you what editors are supposed to do because I care about truth.
I don’t know whether you, the editors, are reachable. You may very well not be, in which case I wish you all best in whatever life paths you choose that don’t include writing or publishing. Or you may be reachable, as I was in my twenties when that older writer gave me a stern lecture not unlike the one I am giving you now. I learned from that lecture, and became a much better thinker, writer, and editor. My hope is that you do the same.