Bob Jensen on The Living Room

Kris Welch: Good afternoon. Welcome back to Living Room.
 I’m Kris Welch.  As we approach the elections of 2004, U.S. progressives are faced with the challenge of how to confront our unresponsive and apparently untouchable power structures. With millions of anti-war demonstrators glibly dismissed as a “focus group,” and the collapse of political and intellectual dialogue into slogans and imperatives used to stifle protests such as “Support the Troops,” “We Are the Greatest Nation On Earth,” etc.  A state of hopelessness and cynicism can become overwhelming.
 
Well,  today we speak with the gentleman who takes a solid and unflinching look at the awful truth of what’s going on in the world and our country’s tax dollars. He feels responsibility for the pain that is being caused. He has a prescription for hope and progressive change. His name is Robert Jensen. He is an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches Media Law,  Ethics and Politics. He is also the author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.  He is also the co-author of a book entitled Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality, and co-editor of a book entitled Freeing the First Amendment: Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression.  In addition, he is a founding member of the Nowar Collective and member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. It is only because he already had tenure that was he able to withstand an attack on his job; he risked being fired from his university for a piece that he published the day after 9/11.
 
Robert Jensen joins us now on the telephone. 
 
Good afternoon to you Robert.
 
Jensen: Hi Kris.
 
Welch: Very glad you could join us. You mention a new book out called Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim our Humanity. You say that the task right now for progressives is to learn how to become a citizen of this empire.  What do you mean by that?  What’s the empire?  And what’s the citizen?  And what are we supposed to do?
 
Jensen: Well the first step of course is to coming to terms with the fact that we are an empire.  We don’t go in and directly colonize the way that maybe the British or the French empires did. But we control territories in a different way other than through direct colonization. It doesn’t make us any less an empire!  The United States at any given moment has a military presence in something like 135- 140 of the 195 countries in the world.  We have a global reach;  we have the largest economy; we are doing our best to force the world to run by our rule.  This is an empire in the modern world that we live in.
 
Welch: You are not just the only one saying it,  either.
 
Jensen: If we were having this conversation three years ago, many people would just brand it as loony. But now even right-wing people are saying it:  of course,  we are an empire.  There was a piece in the Atlantic Monthly, a very important piece about a year ago,  by Robert Kaplan. He is  a rather conservative fellow who agreed that we are an empire;  let’s just stop asking that question and get down to the business of figuring out how to run the world better.  Now everyone more or less acknowledges it,  except of course George Bush and Dick Cheney. They can’t say it because empires are so obviously inconsistent with the democratic republic.
 
 Now the thing to remember is that empires never act in the interest of other. They are methods of concentrating wealth and power and they are incredibly destructive.  All you have to do is go to the countries that suffered under empires:  go to India, go to Algeria, go anywhere where a European country ravaged a local society to concentrate wealth and power and you see it.
 
The other thing to remember, as we learn from history, is that all empires eventually fall.  And I think that is the question for Citizens of the Empire.  We are the first empire in which citizens have had  broad rights of political participation, at least those of us who are citizens and in the more privileged classes.  Obviously if one is  an  Arab, South Asian, Muslim, or an immigrant,  you don’t have the capacity to exercise those freedoms quite as expansively. But someone like myself --- white, middle class, professional, educated has broad and fairly guaranteed rights of political participation.  I think this means  U.S. citizens have a unique position in history in this regard.  We are the first citizens of an empire who can use that political freedom to dismantle it from within, and that I think this is the challenge to Americans.   Can we be the people with enough vision, energy, and commitment to dismantle an empire from within before forces from outside take it down?  And in 9-11 we saw, we got kind of a preview of what is going to look like if this empire comes down from the outside. I think that alone should motivate people to become politically active.
 
Welch: Well, what many progressives hold on to as a basis of hope is that in fact there’s no empire that doesn’t crumble.  But that is sort of a desperate kind of basis for hope.
 
Jensen: Well, yes the problem with that is given the enormous destructive power because of advanced technology. Given the American military, given the way in which we saw airplanes being used as weapons. If the empire is brought down from without, -- if that is the only way to bring it about --  it’s not crazy to think about that being the end of the planet.
 
Welch: Yeah.
 
Jensen: So I think the hope isn’t just in the fact that empires always fall, the hope is in the fact that historically popular movements have been able to make progressive political change, even when the elites in a society have tried to block it.   Now, I don’t want to be naïve. In the book I make a distinction between hope and optimism.
 
Welch: Yes, you do.
 
Jensen: Optimism,  I think,  hangs on questions of fact.  If you were to ask me if  am I optimistic that within the next year the American empire and it’s brutal militaristic imposition on the world is going to reverse magically,  I would say no.  I’m not optimistic about that, because I don’t think the movement is in place to create that change yet.  But I am hopeful that with in the foreseeable future, at least with in my lifetime, that popular movements can begin to put pressure on this society in a way that can avoid the worst possible conclusion to this particular empire and it’s trajectory.  Now, that’s hope, and hope is in itself not of great consequence if one does not act on it. I have never felt more compelled to engage in political activity.  I have never felt so much on the line.  People often tend to think that the moment they live in is the most important moment in history.   But I think there are a lot of reasons to think we are really at a crucial time, a crossroads. The conclusion that I reach from that is not to be depressed, not be hopeless or to give up but in fact to commit more time and energy to the project of changing this country.
 
Welch: Ok, Robert Jensen, our guest on the telephone, Associate Professor of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. He is originally from Fargo, North Dakota.
 
Jensen: Yes that is right.  I didn’t know you knew that I was from North Dakota.
 
Welch: How could I tell? From your accent.  No, that is not true!  I heard, it was in some of the accompanying literature from City Lights Books here,  the publisher of your new book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim our Humanity. 
 
You start out in your book by demanding that people look at just how bad things are, and you don’t avoid dealing with that. You talk about U.S. political and foreign policy history and how many people have died because of it. You also remind us that we have an incredibly degraded political culture. We are stuck – and this includes the progressives – with a  deeply ingrained mythology. Let me read this paragraph from your book:
 
 “Other nations throughout history have acted out of greed and self-interest,  seeking territorial wealth and power.  They often did bad things in the world.  Then came the United States:  touched by God,  a shining city on a hill,  whose leaders created the first real democracy and went on to be the beacon of freedom for people around the world.  Unlike the rest of the world,  we act out of a cause nobler than greed.  We are both the model of and the vehicle for peace, freedom and democracy in the world.” 
 
I presume that’s what you mean by this passage an example of a deeply ingrained mythology?
 
Jensen: I think that’s a good summary of what some people would call the notion of American exceptionalism: that the United States is an exception to the flow of history,  that somehow we are taking the world in a different direction.  Before we began to talk, I just got off a right-wing radio show with a host who,  every time he opened his mouth,  invoked that exceptionalism,  that sense of American benevolence.  And what’s wrong with that, one might say? It’s not just that it’s inconsistent with history, which it is, but it allows people to presume that the motives of the United States are always just, if not benevolent.  If there are  mistakes in American policy,  well,  they’re mistakes made out of good intentions. So all we have to do is correct these little minor problems.   I think we are seeing this play out with the reaction of a good chunk of the American population to the situation in Iraq.  What it means is that you can excuse any American brutality. So that if the United States sweeps into Fallujah ---  as it did  a couple of weeks ago with horrific acts of collective punishment,  killing hundreds of people,  mostly civilians --- well, people justify it by saying that it had to be done because we are bringing freedom to the Iraqis.   A significant portion of the American population seems to be completely impenetrable to facts and even to logical arguments.  You can hardly even engage in these kinds of discussions.  That’s the effect of the mythology and why it is so important. 
 
Some people say that every country has a mythology, every country tells stories about itself. This is true.  But it’s a matter of life and death now in the United States. As long as people hold on to that mythology it becomes too easy to ignore history and contemporary crimes, the things that are happening today.  And that’s why I think that in addition to arguing about policies, we need to go back and constantly challenge that mythology. Because it is the basis for many beliefs about what’s happening today.
 
Welch: Robert Jensen on the telephone with us about his new book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim our Humanity, published by City Lights Books.  Bob will be at City Lights next Tuesday at 7 pm.  if you’d like to catch his act in person,  that’s Columbus at Broadway in San Francisco, City Lights Books.
 
In this book you say that there are three basic elements of political rhetoric.  The first one we’ve just touched upon here:  “This is the Greatest Country on Earth.”  The other two are “Support the Troops” and “Patriotism”.  Now these get very sticky for all kinds of folks.  These are elements of political rhetoric that have been used to dumb us down and stifle dissent.  What’s wrong with “Support the Troops”?
 
Jensen:  When you object to the war, when you criticise the war, and the leadership that took us into it, many people say “Ok you may disagree, but now that we are in the war you have to support the troops.”
 
Welch: Right.
 
Jensen: All of that rhetoric is designed to derail an actual dialogue that should be at the heart of a democracy. The question is not “Do I support the troops?” but rather,  “Do I support the policy that the troops are there to execute?”  But telling people to “Support the Troops” rhetoric is meant to derail that whole discussion.  This leads us to some pretty difficult conclusions in a culture that is so thoroughly militarized as the United States.  Virtually everyone I know either has a family member, a friend, or a loved one of some sort who’s related in some way to the military enterprise.  Either they’re in the military, they work for a military contractor, or they’re retired military.  The United States military ---  and this is a distinct change from the pre World War II era ---  has insinuated itself into all aspects of  American culture.  Which means that if you criticize the war and if you criticize what the troops are been sent to do, that has a real connection to peoples’ lives.
 
 I just came back from visiting family in North Dakota. The son of a family friend was just killed in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. Of course I mourned for him and I’m sad for the family, but the fact is I didn’t support what my family friend’s son was there for.  I don’t support the troops. And I think if we are going to be honest we have to acknowledge we don’t support the troops.  That what the troops are doing is engaging in illegal and immoral conflict.  I think comparisons to totalitarian and fascist  states are often dangerous.  But imagine if somebody in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia – if someone said during the invasion of Czechoslovakia you can’t contest Soviet policy because you have to support the troops.  No one would accept that as a basis for political dialogue because it is obviously a fraud, it is an attempt to get people not to look at what leaders are doing. 
 
And the fact is, I do not support the troops.  I do support creating a more just world in which young people who are from economically deprived backgrounds aren’t forced to join the military so that they can get a college education.  I support the troops in that sense, Remember Jessica Lynch, who was lionized as a great hero.  Jessica Lynch went into the military because she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher and couldn’t afford to go to college.  That’s how I support the troops --- by not forcing them to make that choice.
 
Welch: Indeed.  Robert Jensen our guest on the telephone.  What do you think of what a lot of folks here are doing? -- in progressive anti-war rallies. They put on signs “We support the troops, we want to bring them home”?
 
Jensen: Well I think certainly the sentiment is understandable and I agree with it. 
 
Welch: But the main target main target is the country’s leaders, not the foot soldiers.
 
Jensen: Right, I don’t spend a lot of time critiquing the people that joined the military, obviously that’s counterproductive and misses the point. They are not the decision- makers.
 
Welch: And some of them are even your students.
 
Jensen: Yes. In fact a couple of my students,  as far as I know,  are still in Iraq.  The fact is, that when confronted by people who are in the military -- and this has happened to me in public presentations --- they tell me “I knowingly and willingly want to go and fight for my country. Do you support me?” At that moment I have to be honest. What I’m trying to argue to the anti-war movement is that there is no sense telling that person “Well I do support you because I don’t want you to go.”  That person is going to say “No, no I’m doing this because I believe I’m fighting for your freedom, will you support me?” and at that point I have to say no.  Because those people are not fighting for my freedom.  I want to make a political argument, that in fact what they are fighting for is the extension of the American Empire, and that has nothing to do with my freedom.  If we accept that “Support the Troops” rhetoric there inevitably will be times when we are drawn into conversations where we have to make that point.  And I’m not saying, that we should go around and bash the troops or condemn the troops.  But we should understand that the troops are being deployed for an illegal and immoral purpose and that we have to resist that. If that means when confronted with some of those troops who want our support you have to say no we cannot support you because we believe what you are doing is wrong.
 
Welch: Robert Jensen, our guest on the telephone.  He is Associate Professor of Journalism in the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a new book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim our Humanity, published by City Lights Press right here in San Francisco.
And let me ask you to address this one which, which may sound like a conflict to folks.  One of the issues you address in your book is the “More freedom less democracy.”  How do we have more freedom and less democracy in the United States?
 
Jensen:  I think in some ways that paradox is  one of the most important stories of U.S. politics in the 20th century.  On the one hand the story of the 20th century is the phenomenal expansion of freedom.  All adults are by the 1960’s enfranchised, that is, everyone can vote.  You see my own academic specialty is free speech law.  In the 20th century you see an amazing expansion of legal guaranties of freedom of expression.  But as freedom is expanding there is also a contraction of democracy.  That is,  if you look at the beginning of the 20th century,  you see that ordinary working people were much more involved in the day-to-day political dialogue than they are today.  I travel a lot and the consistent thing I hear is people feel like their voice doesn’t matter. They feel like there is no place for them to speak.  People today, to a large degree, feel politically disempowered.  Now, the freedom exists, the freedom is there, it’s both on the books and for many of us it’s very real.  At the same time, democracy is more than just the right to vote. Democracy is about the health of the political culture.
 
Now, how did this contraction of democracy with an expansion of freedom happen?  Well it happened the way most things happen – money.  Money was applied to make it happen.  A book by Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy,  does a good job of explaining how the business community, the corporations, and the powerful put money into the project of de-politicizing this country. Advertising, public relations, and the media have been part of that story.  It’s something that we as citizens have to resist. We have to take back the political culture and make the claim that we have the right to be engaged in it. 
 
Welch: Hmm. You also say that you want people to look at what’s really going on,  to feel the pain, be afraid of and recognize the guilt of living in a place where we are the beneficiaries of the  military domination of the world. It provides for the citizens of this country and enables them to go on doing what they are doing.
 
Jensen: Exactly. This is tough for all of us to deal with. The fact is, that the empire provides benefits to us all, at least in short-term material ways.   We get a lot of toys, a lot of cheap goods.  The people of the United States live at a level that is virtually unheard of in the developing world. Are we willing to tell the truth about how the empire operates?  And secondly,  if we are willing to face the fact, how can we face our conscience, knowing that we are living a lifestyle supported by the brutality and war crimes caused by the systematic expansion of the empire?  Some people say that I just want people to feel guilty.  I don’t think that is the way to describe it.  I think guilt is an appropriate emotion when some one has done something wrong.  If you have a child who does bad things, and never feels guilty,  it’s unlikely that child will make much progress towards becoming a more moral person. So guilt is appropriate when we have done wrong or failed to do right.  I can certainly make these statements about myself; I am not just pointing at other people.   When I look at my own life and realize that for many years I simply was tone- deaf to these questions, and did nothing to try and become part of a political movement to change my own society and create a more just world, well,  I feel guilty about that. 
 
Now the question is, knowing that, what does one do about it? Then guilt can be a very paralyzing emotion.  A lot of people feel guilty and then think themselves into a kind of political paralysis. But that’s not the way that decent people should go forward.  If we could recognize that in fact there is some collective responsibility for the way this world works. We didn’t wake up one morning and call the White House to set policy.  But we do have a collective responsibility in a democracy for our own society.  To me this is the motivation to get involved.  To realize that things can change. Look at history. There have been powerful systems doing nasty things, but the way they change is when people come together. 
 
But how do your move from that platitude and actually create a movement to bring change?  That’s the tough question.  
 
Welch: There is more everyday on the TV of  horrors that are just happening. Look at the forced resignation of the London Daily Mirror editor for publishing pictures that reported to show British troops torturing people, for instance. When I heard that I just burst into tears! When I got to this part of your book when you say, “We know how terrible it is” – and the people who listen to this radio station do say,  “We know, we feel, then we confront the question, how shall we act?  Will we act?”  So, let’s get to that part.
 
Jensen: Ok
 
Welch: What are you talking about? You talk about how public hope might be part of acting. 
 
Jensen: Yeah, I love that phrase!  I stole it from a book by a political scientist. I almost never steal anything from political scientists; they usually don’t do much worthwhile. It’s a guy named Doug Loomis who wrote a book Radical Democracy. He talks about public hope as very distinct from private hope.  I may have in my own life privately hoped that I’ll continue to have and enjoy my job and that my child will grow up and be healthy.  But public hope is something different.  It’s about hope for our entire society.  And he talks in that book about how the Philippines under Marcos dictatorship, -- about how people came together and created a sense of hope.  And he points out that at some point the creation of public hope may seem illogical, in other words people may look around and say, “Oh God it’s never going to change”.  But he says that public hope has a sort of a self-generating capacity.  And once people start to believe it, then that belief becomes the basis for more hope.  He talks about how the Philippines changed very quickly when Marcos was finally swept out of power--- not through a violent revolution but by largely peaceful means.  Now, we shouldn’t be naive, the Philippines still struggle. It is not possible to create Utopia overnight.  
 
Welch: But Utopia isn’t what you call for. You call for a struggle. 
 
Jensen: Sure, right.  After 9-11 I have heard from so many people -- good people, people of conscience, people of principle ---  who said:  I just feel like there is no where I can go, there’s nowhere I can open my mouth, I feel so shut down.  Part of the act of recreating a truly democratic politics in this country is to speak, even when it is difficult.  I can’t tell you the number of times when in a public speaking event someone  comes up and says, “I think exactly the same things you think, I just haven’t been able to say them out loud.”  I’m well aware of it.  Much of what I’m talking about right now is not new.  It is simply stating what many of us know. We have to work harder at speaking it in public, in places where other people who are thinking it but might be afraid to speak it.   So part of the political project right now is simply rebuilding a sense of public dialogue, a sense that you can go into public and speak.  And that can happen wherever people live.  It could happen in church groups, jobs,  public meetings of all kinds.  The task right now is  public education.  That is, creating spaces where people can come together to learn, and in the act of learning also speak and expanding those spaces as much as possible.  At the same time as we use all the other strategies that political movements use.  For instance, as in electoral politics, to train to elect the person who’s not quite as bad as the guy in office today.   Sometimes is about public pressure through demonstrations for social causes, to try to cause a change in policy.  But I think the basic thing we need to do to in this country right now is to take risks. We need to do it quickly with a sense of urgency. They are not always very big risks at all. But it is simply to speak when we might be afraid to speak. 
 
Welch: Including with our members of our own family,  for example.
 
Jensen: Well, it depends on your family.  Some families I’m not so sure it’s worth the trouble!  But you know that brings up another question. You can’t reach some people. 
 
Welch:  You said yourself that you often feel alienated. But Austin, Texas,  has a liberal, political base. The Bay Area has a long history of progressive politics.  But even in the Bay Area I’ve seen people with the Bush- Cheney 2004 stickers. You say we cannot separate ourselves. Progressive thinkers cannot cut themselves off from that part of the mainstream that we have to engage with. 
 
Jensen: Exactly. One has to be realistic. Everybody has been in an argument with, say,  a family member where you know perfectly well that you’re not going to change that person’s mind.  One of the things I often tell people is that you can walk away from some discussions that aren’t going to be fruitful.  On the other hand,  I don’t think we should ignore the fact that in states  we might not consider progressive there are people thinking similar thoughts.  I was just in North Dakota last week, and nobody thinks of North Dakota as the hot-bed of radical activism in America,  even though it has a very interesting and progressive political history.
 
Welch: Indeed, indeed.
 
Jensen: Today North Dakota is a pretty conservative kind of place.  But in my discussions with people there I found a lot of like-minded people.   Here I live in a University town,  and within a very small part of that university town,  but I try to get out into as many churches as possible, and community groups.  I’ll be speaking at a church this weekend.  I think we have to go to places that may not be entirely comfortable to voice ideas ---  not because everybody is going to agree with us, and not because everybody is going to like us, but because there will be people in those audiences who are eager to hear it.  In fact they are desperate to hear those things. It’s very important as a political act to speak as honestly as possible. 
 
Welch: Let the ideas be heard. 
 
Jensen:  I think it’s the first step. As I said in the book,  I think there are three stages.  One is active empathy. In the U.S.,  because we are so affluent, so protected, there is a whole chunk of this country that never really empathizes with the people in Iraq, with the people around the world.  Who never get to the point and say oh my God these things are happening to real human beings around the world.  After you begin to empathize -- and that alone is not enough because feelings are important to motivating us -- there has to come knowledge.  And then in the final stage you can know all you want, but if you don’t act on it the knowledge is relatively irrelevant.  And I think that is the real question for most of us who do have some amount of knowledge is,  what are we willing to do? What risks are we willing to take?  That’s the question for most for us today. 
 
Welch: Indeed. Well, Sir,  it’s been a great pleasure speaking to you today and I invite people to join Robert Jensen next Tuesday evening at 7 o’clock in San Francisco at City Lights, the publishers of his new book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim our Humanity. That will be at 7 o’clock at Columbus at Broadway in San Francisco City Lights Books.  “Reclaiming our Humanity” ---  say a little  about that too.
 
Jensen: The subtitle  is more important to me than the title. I think being a citizen of the empire also makes it fairly difficult for one to be fully human.  I think the only way to claim your humanity, that is to really be a fully functioning human being morally, is to resist that empire.  For whatever reasons you become politically active -- whether is for moral or religious reasons,you have a self- interest in it because the way we can all claim our humanity in the empire is by resisting the empire. I think for me it is been what in recent years  has given real depth and meaning to my own life.
 
Welch: I can’t thank you enough for being so eloquent and articulate in sharing that journey with the rest of us.  A lot of your personal stories are in this book.  I’m so grateful that you wrote it, and I hope that everybody will read it.
 
Jensen: Well,  if I can get out of Texas,  I can be with you in California next week.
 
Welch: All right! Well, we’ll look for it.
 
Jensen: Thanks for everything
 
Welch: Thank you Sir.
 
Jensen: Take care
 
Welch: Bob Jensen from University of Texas in Austin.
 
Transcribed by Aldonza Santa Cruz
With light editing by Caryl Johnston
December 20, 2004