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.

 

More articles by:

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.

Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
The Fordist Academic
Frank Scott
Weapons of Mass Distraction Get More Destructive
Missy Comley Beattie
Big Dick Diplomacy
Michael Doliner
Democracy, Real Life Acting and the Movies
Dan Bacher
Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’
Winslow Myers
The Madness of Deterrence
Cesar Chelala
A Kiss is Not a Kiss: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children
Jimmy Centeno
Garcia Meets Guayasamin: A De-Colonial Experience
Stephen Martin
When Boot Becomes Bot: Surplus Population and The Human Face.
Martin Billheimer
Homer’s Iliad, la primera nota roja
Louis Proyect
Once There Were Strong Men
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones
David Yearsley
Academics Take Flight
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail