FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Fighting Alienation in the USA

by ROBERT JENSEN

 

I have lived in the United States all my life, and for personal and political reasons I expect to live out my life here. It is my home.

But after the U.S. attack on Iraq, I feel more alienated from my “homeland” than ever before. Judging from my mail and conversations I have had around the country, many antiwar activists feel the same.

This is a serious problem, not just personally for individuals but for the movement. For those of us trying to oppose the U.S. empire, our primary task is organizing people in the United States to resist these imperial policies. That will be difficult if we feel increasingly alienated, and become more isolated, from “ordinary” Americans.

But that is exactly how I feel — alienated and isolated, and I see no reason to pretend otherwise. Since 9/11, the number of people in my daily life with whom I can talk honestly has dwindled to a handful. I have been less interested in attending routine social gatherings outside of my political circle. I have found myself more frequently communicating over email with like-minded people in other cities rather than chatting with colleagues in the hallway. Instead of looking for ways to expand my social circle, I have let it contract.

None of this is because I’m inherently anti-social; it’s a distinct change since 9/11. I have not been doing any of these things consciously, but instead have been drifting away from ways I used to interact with others because it has become more and more difficult to fit into these “normal” situations. I have struggled much of my adult life with the realization that my values were at odds with most of the people around me, but after 9/11 those awkward gaps began to feel like unbridgeable gulfs.

This is not just because of the celebratory reaction to the recent wars by so many Americans. While it can be difficult to be around people who crow about how the United States “kicked butt” in Iraq, in some ways those interactions are simple; I know how to respond. I have a set of questions I ask to try to get people with that view to reconsider some of their assumptions and to consider the effects of this “victory” on people in other places. I can make an argument about the real reasons behind the war. I can point out the lies of the Bush administration. Unless people start screaming, it’s surprisingly easy to have that kind of discussion in many — though certainly not all — cases.

My real difficulty — and the main cause of my increasing sense of isolation — comes in dealing with people who seem detached, who don’t react at all. There are a lot of people around me (I work at a large university) who seem to be doing their best to avoid the questions of war and empire. In a small number of cases, this may stem from some fundamental amorality, truly not caring. But my sense is that many of the people who are trying to avoid the question have some sort of antiwar leanings — they know there’s something wrong with the way the United States has gone forward in the world since 9/11, and, if not against the wars, they are at least skeptical. But they seem to be walking through life with eyes closed, purposefully.

Those are the people I have the most trouble interacting with. When I raise the issue of war they sometimes attempt to divert the conversation toward less contentious subjects. More often people are willing to let me talk but refuse to engage, or sometimes refuse to even acknowledge what I am saying. There have been times I literally wanted to grab people and shout, “You know these wars are wrong. You know these policies are crazy. Why won’t you help do something about it? Why won’t you at least admit to me that you know?”

While I don’t want to generalize too broadly from my life, I have a sense this experience is not idiosyncratic. And it is crucial to come to terms with, especially at this point in the movement.

Like thousands of others around the country, for the past two years I have put more time and energy into political work than ever before in my life. And because I have been spending so much time organizing, writing, and speaking, I have taken it for granted that I was doing all that I could do. Because I have been working more than ever on a variety of political projects, it didn’t occur to me until recently to evaluate how my alienation was affecting the prospects for that political activity.

Sometimes this problem gets reduced to the charge that middle-class activists simply are elitists who don’t know how to interact with “real” people. That may be true in some cases, but it strikes me as a gross oversimplification and a way to avoid difficult questions. The alienation I am talking about is not so much around class or the politics of lifestyle choices (though I think those questions are important) but about whether one is willing to confront the American ideology in public. Some of my most frustrating experiences have been with other middle-class people. The alienation I have felt comes from living in a country in which one segment of the population is drunk on triumphalism and another is hiding from the pressing issues — and there are people from all classes in each of those categories.

In such an environment, antiwar activists need to come together often, not just for political organizing but for support. We need to engage in internal discussions to sharpen our analysis and rethink strategy. But at the same time I think we need to be careful not to withdraw too much from these other spaces in our lives, even if they feel alien or alienating to us. Whether or not we are actively organizing in those spaces at the moment, it’s important to stay rooted in the larger communities in which we live. The struggle against the U.S. empire will be a long one, and we need to be connected to the people we are trying to organize.

I recommend this fully aware that my own instinct is to want to withdraw into spaces that feel safe. In politics it often is most effective to follow our gut, but there also are time when it’s important to overcome some instincts. I think this is one of those times.

ROBERT JENSEN is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.” He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

 

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Radical-Living-Learning-Gracefully/dp/1593766181 Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
Pete Dolack
Killing Ourselves With Technology
David Krieger
The 10 Worst Acts of the Nuclear Age
Lamont Lilly
Movement for Black Lives Yields New Targets of the State
Martha Rosenberg
A Hated Industry Fights Back
Robert Fantina
Hillary, Gloria and Jill: a Brief Look at Alternatives
Chris Doyle
No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals
Michael Doliner
Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate
Colin Todhunter
Modi, Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill: Doing Business or Corporate Imperialism?
Steve Church
Brexit: a Rush for the Exits!
Matthew Koehler
Mega Corporation Gobbles Up Slightly Less-Mega Corporation; Chops Jobs to Increase Profits; Blames Enviros. Film at 11.
David Green
Rape Culture, The Hunting Ground, and Amy Goodman: a Critical Perspective
Ed Kemmick
Truckin’: Pro Driver Dispenses Wisdom, Rules of the Road
Alessandro Bianchi
“China Will React if Provoked Again: You Risk the War”: Interview with Andre Vltchek
Christy Rodgers
Biophilia as Extreme Sport
Missy Comley Beattie
At Liberty
Ron Jacobs
Is Everything Permitted?
Cesar Chelala
The Sad Truth About Messi
Charles R. Larson
A Review of Mary Roach’s “Grunt”
David Yearsley
Stuck in Houston on the Cusp of the Apocalypse
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail