Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Citizen Strikes Back

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

Citizens of the Empire: the Struggle
to Claim Our Humanity by Robert Jensen.
San Francisco: City Lights Books [site], 2004.
XXVIII + 144 pp. $11.95 paper. ISBN 0-87286-432-4.

There are more protest marches today than at any time since the late 1960s. The war in Iraq has been protested against by millions. The WTO chooses the prospective sites of its meetings first assessing how they will serve to reduce the effect of the protests that are certain to occur in parallel with its deliberations. Grocery store workers of the Union of Food and Commercial Workers struck during the past year, in southern California, and marched in protest for months before coming to an accommodation with storeowners.

The marches themselves are the result of major behind-the-scenes organizing efforts. It might be fair to say that the logistics of organizing have been mastered by a wide range of groups. The Internet has facilitated much of the effort. Every cause of any import at all has a half dozen or more web-sites dedicated to it. Many generate newsletters that show up in the mailboxes of the faithful with regularity. All generate a flow of e-mail that would make a 60s organizer green with communication-envy.

This is the context in which Robert Jensen [home page] 's new book, Citizens of the Empire, has been published. The participants in this burgeoning of dissent will presumably form its core audience. Its target audience is clearly the millions more who might feel a sufficient sense of alienation to join the ranks.

Citizens of the Empire is a courageous book. Not, perhaps, as courageous as Jensen's op. ed. pieces, immediately following the shock of 9/11, warning that the events of that day would be used to advance political agendas. The range of adverse reactions he received, then, feature prominently in the book. But the American public is not necessarily much more receptive to a lecture on the evils of empire. There is considerable work ahead for the citizen of conscience and under difficult conditions.

In the brief preface, Jensen immediately begins with a disconcertingly direct approach. He has no wish to be a stylist or to cajole. He recalls a quote from Martin Luther King about the Viet Nam War:

If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Throughout the book, he calls for his fellow citizens to demand precisely the compassion, morality and insight referred to by King. The evidence that we are in the habit of periodically jettisoning just these qualities, from laziness, fear or greed, is presented with the same directness.

The case is well presented. We are reminded of the dangers of a patriotism that amounts to little more than chauvinism. Our definitions of greatness are tested against our desire to see ourselves as compassionate. An alternative definition is proffered:

Some would say greatness is... the capacity for critical self-reflection, the ability to correct mistakes, the constant quest for progressive change.

Can the way we have historically treated minority populations, women and third world countries allow us to call ourselves great by any other measure? Can we truly be great until we accept that we have made mistakes, that those mistakes have had consequences, and that we must correct them? The argument is persuasive.

Robert Jensen is a tenured associate professor at the School of Journalism of the University of Texas, at Austin. In the wake of his 9/11 op. ed. pieces he was repudiated by the president of the university. For this and other reasons, he finds the nation's campuses as disengaged as any other patch of soil:

My target is not a specific political position, but the way in which U.S. intellectuals have contributed to the depoliticization of the culture more generally.

His evidence is anecdotal but it is not difficult to recognize that the points he makes are more generally valid. Personal political convictions are more circumscribed, on campus (as off), than they were in the 60s. There is an etiquette of not transgressing boundaries.

There is an idealism to Citizens of the Empire that will challenge the reader. Idealism, however, is not in vogue and hasn't been in quite some time. Even those readers who desire to answer the call to participate in the politics of the day may come away from the book feeling ambivalent. As refreshing as it is to discover a book that does not keep a safe distance (safe for author or for reader), the result can also be threatening. There is the sense that those who do not achieve all good achieve no good, that those who do not demand the most idealistic answers are as much the problem as those who wantonly pillage our lands and our cultures.

But this is, in part, because we should feel threatened. As we have grown collectively in power and capability we have continually postponed any parallel growth as moral beings. Suddenly we find ourselves a massively powerful empire with only the most outdated, and poorly maintained, ethical foundation. The conditions for assembling such a foundation seem singularly unpropitious. There is a question as to whether virtually any compromise isn't too little too late.

'Where shall we put our faith?" asks Jensen:

In the reactionary program of the Republican Party and George W. Bush's perverse "with us or with the terrorists" logic? Or in the kinder-and-gentler imperialism of the mainstream Democratic Party and its fake multilateralism?

As for himself, he has answered the question two pages earlier:

The way out of that 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.

But this secular faith is every bit as irrational as a religious one and comes with none of the benefits. The insistence, throughout Citizens of the Empire, upon ideal answers comes to its illogical conclusion -- the only conclusion available to it.

A score of top-flight small presses, such as City Lights, reach only a tiny fraction of the audience guaranteed a president who may choose to use his media presence to burn the image of weapons of mass destruction onto millions of minds. The turnaround time of those presses can not hope to approach the 24 hour news cycle. Legitimate debate is easily hijacked in order to suit the needs of a coterie of major players.

The escalation of what Jensen refers to as "democracy-as-stupefaction" -- of Madison Avenue tactics -- makes the media blitz ever more effective. The methods of advertising are being improved with all the analytical fervor that the prospect of power and wealth can inspire. Earlier in the book, Jensen makes a key point:

The effects of this relentless propaganda are clear. Many people accept the mythology, even when it is directly contradicted by their own experience.

The effect is hypnotic. Experience itself hardly matters. If necessary, huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction are morphed into an intent, at some indeterminate future date, to reestablish a plan for such weapons, after a fashion that makes George Orwell look like the great prophet of our times. Against this, dissenting voices, no matter how sincere and informed, often can only muster an amateur imitation on a local public-access channel.

The Internet -- genuine source of hopefulness, though it may be -- is unable to react quickly not because the stages of electronic publishing require months but because only the major media sites can be said to react at all. The rest is, as of yet, a babble of disparate voices. There is little chance of forging a consensus. Inherently divided, dissent is easily conquered by the simple fact that it amounts to little more than noise. Archimedes said "Give me a single fixed point and I will move the world." He neglected to mention, however, that with the help of ten other people it would prove to be impossible because no two could possibly agree in which direction to move it.

These facts can only enhance the powerful forces striving to consolidate decision making in the hands of a small ruling class served by a well rewarded, professionally amoral technocracy. The shift in political discourse mirrors this regression:

In the real world, it usually turns out that restraint is expected from the "special interests" (defined as organized labor, students, women, minority groups, farmers -- in other words, the vast majority of the population) to make sure there are no restraints on the "national interest" (corporate shareholders, the managerial class, defense contractors, the generals).

Every available excuse is used to classify information thus removing the decision making process behind closed doors. The very fear this helps to engender in the public is the impetus behind the next round of consolidation and classification.

It is important to remember that, for all the millions of marchers, the Iraq War, and its aftermath, went ahead with broad-based public support. The WTO forges ahead regardless of a massive organizing effort against it. The workers of the Union of Food and Commercial Workers had to concede [story] virtually every point to the storeowners. Recruiting still greater numbers of protestors in and of itself does not promise better results. Faith promises still less.

Broader, more functional, coalitions are necessary. Ways must be found to close the media gap. More effective tactics must be developed. This will necessarily require the kinds of funding and expertise that can only be satisfied by coalescing with other under-resourced groups and by coopting individuals of conscience from the ruling and technological classes. More to the point, this will require compromise -- painful compromise of the kind that Citizens of the Empire has no place for.

An all or nothing dissent is a failed dissent. It abandons the process. Disappointing as the Democratic Party can be -- as far as it is from Robert Jensen's heartening ideal -- it makes a difference when the candidates it fields are elected to office. The same may generally be said of our universities and the dozens of smaller, left-of-center groups that have achieved a certain gravitas. It makes a difference -- a very considerable difference -- that these groups can coopt a George Soros [site] or a John Kerry or any of hundreds of more or less nameless technicians. It makes a very sad difference that so many citizens of conscience reject such compromise as hypocrisy and betrayal.

In terms of democracy, as well, no other answer is possible. The step-by-step process of moving consensus toward a goal implies citizens informed at every key juncture of what are the issues. Along the way, books such as Robert Jensen's Citizens of the Empire renew and reassess the underlying ideals necessary in order to discern an overall course of navigation. The stridency of those books is important also, however much it must be tempered by the practical exigencies of sailing the ship to each successive port-of-call none of which is a final destination. If it is too late for this approach to succeed, if the process of democracy has become untenable, or if we have shirked so many of our responsibilities for so long that they can not possibly be met, desperately clinging to ideals that can no longer be satisfied amounts to little more than a withdrawal into aesthetics.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy has published poetry, prose and translation in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine, Poetry International (San Diego State University), The Georgia Review (University of Georgia), Grand Street, SLANT (University of Central Arkansas), Consciousness Literature and the Arts (University of Wales, Aberystwyth), Orbis (UK), Eclectica, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Links to his work online and to a selected bibliography of his work in paper venues appear at his Hyperlinked Online Bibliography.

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