Robert Jensen is no Dale Carnegie. He's not trying to be. So it wasn't really surprising when the president of the University of Texas (where Jensen teaches journalism) felt it necessary to condemn Jensen publicly, calling him "a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy" following the publication of Jensen's post 9-11 essay in the Chronicle.
Jensen was in Durham last month to speak at a benefit to raise funds to publicize alternative media in the Triangle. The talk was co-sponsored by Balance & Accuracy in Journalism, Committee for Media in the Public Interest and Southern Exposure. The $25 registration fee also included a copy of Jensen's new book: Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity.
Jensen, whose talk followed a comic presentation by political satirist Dave Lippman (aka CIA agent George Shrub), was pretty funny himself. However, those hoping to hear Jensen rip apart the corporate media left disappointed as the 45-year-old professor never seemed to get on the advertised topic: "Our right to know the truth."
Jensen spent a lot of time talking about how 9-11 changed him and the world, but his observations were for the most part nothing new. Jensen also took a pot shot at the oft-promoted term "Peace is Patriotic." Just a few feet away, Chapel Hill activist Wes Hare sat behind the familiar banner and table full of T-shirts that featured a local "Peace is Patriotic" design that has sold in the thousands around the country.
"I hated that phrase," Jensen said, not knowing that sales of Hare's T-shirts and bumper stickers raised thousands of dollars that have been used to fund the Triangle's post-9-11 anti-war efforts.
He also ripped third party politics while the local Greens were sitting under his gaze.
Still, minor slights aside, Jensen held listeners' attention for well over an hour as he made the case that the United States is an imperial power that must repent.
In his op-ed piece, Jensen mentioned Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, East Timor, Chile, Central America, Iraq and Palestine to bolster his case of U.S.-backed terrorism.
A self-avowed secularist, Jensen's talk ironically focused on sin. While Christians claim sin is original and individual, Jensen made a strong case for expanding the notion of sin.
"I think one of the things we have to do is reclaim the concept of sin from folks who see it as individual and original," he said. "I don't think it's either of those. I think it is created and collective. We sin. We have to deal with the question of sin."
Jensen said sins have also been committed against language and logic. Three things Americans are taught--and most believe--is that the U.S. is the greatest nation on earth, that U.S. citizens should support the troops, and that they should be patriotic.
Instead of accepting such claims, Jensen said his book tries to logically work through an argument against such claims. "I think those claims are at the heart of the mythology of this country," he said. Jensen said activists should not "get trapped by those claims," but rather resist them.
Jensen said the U.S. also collectively sins against the non-human world--the natural world--which is being destroyed by over-consumption and other consequences related to empire. Although not created by progressives, the sins of the U.S. are collective "because of our place of privilege," Jensen said.
"It's not about guilt. It's about recognizing the situation we face and understand that there is a way out."
In his comments about hope, Jensen quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." Progressive reforms that can lead to structural change will not happen quickly, Jensen said, but if you look at the arc of the moral universe, "over the long haul" it bends toward justice, he said.
Jensen also lamented the alienation he feels as a progressive in post-9-11 America.
"I can't think of a time in my life when I have felt more alienated from contemporary society," he said. "I feel like more of a freak than I've ever felt in my life. The last few years especially I've felt more detached from, distant from, unable to connect to people who look just like me."
Still, Jensen said it's important for progressives to not alienate themselves from the people they're trying to organize.
"If you alienate the people you need to bring into a wider movement, you're going to fail," he said.