Saturday, November 8, 2008

Robert Jensen's Citizens of the Empire

Cover of Citizens of the EmpireLast spring, I picked up a copy of Citizens of the Empire at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. It's written by Robert Jensen, a professor of media law and ethics at the University of Texas-Austin. I confess I was interested partly because I knew Jensen around 1990 when we were both in graduate school, and I was aware that he has increasingly taken on the role of a public critic of American foreign and domestic policy.

The book is provocative (which I expected) and personal (which I didn't). Some of my favorite parts:

Jensen takes apart the idea -- common place in American popular culture and particularly in our political campaigns -- that the U.S. is the "greatest nation on Earth." If your 10-year-old, Joe, claimed to be the greatest 10-year-old on Earth, you would explain to him "that people are a wonderfully complex mix of many characteristics that are valued differently by different people, and that it would be impossible to make any sensible assessment of what makes one person the greatest." If Joe grew to adulthood and still insisted he was the greatest, you would have to conclude that "Either he is mentally unstable or he's an asshole." Jensen goes on to say, "It's painfully obvious that the best evidence that Joe is not the greatest is his claim to be that, for we can observe that throughout history people who have something in them that we might call 'greatness' tend not to proclaim their own superiority" (pages 4-5).

A chapter called "Seeking Pain and Reducing Pleasure" addresses a topic that I obsess about. American culture has made an art of the opposite tendency -- we use material goods to increase pleasure and reduce pain, no matter what the cost to other people in the world or the planet itself. And we can only continue to do that by keeping others (such as the people of China or India) from trying to achieve that same level of consumption. Jensen quotes George Kennan, the famous Mr. X, in his 1948 memorandum:

...we have 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of the population.... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.... We should cease to talk about vague and -- for the Far East -- unreal objectives, such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. (pages 104-105)
Kennan's words are so similar to the words of George Orwell, cited by Wendell Berry in his essay "Word and Flesh": "We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free, but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment' demands that the robbery shall continue." Orwell, despite his use of the pejorative term "coolie," meant his words to be damning -- while Kennan meant his to be prescriptive of U.S. policy.

In a separate part of this chapter, Jensen tells a story about talking to a student who said she wondered if, given overpopulation, it was a good idea to develop drugs to fight diseases endemic in the third world. I'd be willing to bet this is a common question heard at the Gates Foundation, for instance, as it works to end malaria. Something along these lines has run through my mind at some points, I have to admit.

Jensen's response to the student is revelatory in its clarity, and I'll remember it for a long time:
I...told the student that when she was ready to sacrifice members of her own family to help solve the global population problem, then I would listen to her argument. In fact, given the outrageous levels of consumption of the middle and upper classes of the United States, I said, one could argue that large-scale death in the American suburbs would be far more beneficial in solving the population problem.... "If you would be willing to let an epidemic sweep through your hometown and kill large numbers of people without trying to stop it, for the good of the planet, then I'll listen to your argument," I said. (page 97)
Pretty harsh stuff, but I find myself agreeing with Jensen that's what it takes to shift the point of view of people (myself included) whose comfort depends upon dehumanizing whole groups of the human race.

The last part of the book is about how anyone can keep challenging our current situation against what seem to be overwhelming odds. Jensen differentiates between being cynical and being critical -- and makes the important point that being cynical doesn't allow for hope, while being critical does. "Cynicism might be an appropriate reaction to injustice that can't be changed. Hope is an appropriate response to a task that, while difficult, is imaginable" (page 115).

It was interesting to read these words, published in 2004, during the same week as Obama's election to the presidency. A few pages later, Jensen says:
The way out of [our] alienation is faith that a country protected by its power can relinquish some of that power; that a society insulated by its privilege from many of the consequences of the unjust use of power can renounce that privilege; that a people comfortable in their affluence can collectively work to change the system that makes them comfortable. It is a tall order... it eventually will require not just individual hope but the creation of public hope [emphasis added] where now there is little. (page 133)
I think public hope is what many people have been feeling in recent weeks, and my hope is that we all stay involved in governing as much as we were involved in electing, even as we take personal actions to cut our consumption and live closer to a sustainable level.


elena said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts on this book: I'm eager to check it out!

BobV said...

Thank you for this post.