‘A simple boy from the prairie’: An interview with Robert Jensen
By Robert Jensen
Published in Feminist Current · February, 2021
When a European graduate student emailed to ask if I would participate in an assignment to “do an interview with one of my favourite authors,” I said yes. My books have not exactly been best-sellers, and so I was an easy target for anyone describing me as a “favourite author.”
But beyond my gratitude for someone noticing my writing, I was intrigued by the questions. And when I suggested we might publish the interview, I was even more intrigued by the student’s request to stay anonymous. She wrote that she was “extremely unsure of having my name on anything online. I know I am very strange (probably the strangest person I’ve ever met), but I’m not on Facebook or social media. I actually like the fact that googling my name gets no results about me. I don’t know if I’m ready yet to give up my blissful online non-existence. Is that crazy?”
It didn’t seem crazy to me, but I asked if she might want to describe herself for readers. Here is her self-description:
“I am a classically trained musician (more comfortable playing an instrument than talking in front of people), specializing in linguistics and interested in the meaning and the realities behind words and actions. Born and raised in a communist country, clandestinely listening to Radio Free Europe while growing up, having all civil liberties seriously infringed, yet being raised free by amazing parents (with the help of books and music) who knew how to help us find our identity independently of society’s impositions. I have always been profoundly enraged by any form of injustice or lie, and from a very young age I would routinely get in trouble for standing up for and defending my beliefs and people who were being abused in some way or another (something that has always been puzzling to adults and authority figures, since I am extremely shy and well behaved). I got myself almost expelled in high school for refusing to participate in an event which contradicted who I am. And I do not work on Sundays.
Seeing how the world keeps collapsing and becoming more insane, I began to think that maybe I am insane for wanting a better world than the one that’s become so normalized. Stumbling upon Robert Jensen’s books made me realize I am not the only ‘insane’ person in the world. It takes courage to pursue a path that others ignore or deny, to talk about things that others so politically correctly sweep under the rug, to want to face your fears and the pain that comes with admitting the truth, and to give a voice to the pain, fear, and humiliation of those dehumanized by our lack of humanity.”
Here is the interview, conducted over email, last month:
Who is Robert Jensen? How would you describe yourself?
Robert Jensen: I’m a simple boy from the prairie. That’s how I started describing myself when I found myself in so many places that I would have never imagined when I was growing up. I was born and raised in North Dakota with modest aspirations. I was a good student, in that well-behaved, diligent, and just slightly above average way that made teachers happy. I did what I was told and never caused trouble. I didn’t come from an intellectual or political background, and I wasn’t gifted. So, when I found myself with a Ph.D., teaching at a big university, publishing books, and politically active in feminism and the left — which involved a lot of traveling, including internationally for the first time in my life — it was all a bit hard to comprehend. I used to call a friend when I was on the road and ask, “How did a boy from Fargo, ND, end up here?” I continue to think that “I’m a simple boy from the prairie” is a pretty accurate description of me.
What was your childhood like? Were you a happy child? What are your best and worst memories from that time?
RJ: I am still searching for the words to use in public to describe my childhood. My family life was defined by the trauma of abuse and alcoholism. I spent my early years perpetually terrified and was pretty much alone in dealing with that terror. So, no, I was not a happy child. I don’t have a lot of clear memories of that time, which is one way the human mind deals with trauma, to repress conscious memories of it. I think one reason that a radical feminist critique of men’s violence and sexual exploitation resonated with me was that it provided a coherent framework to understand not only society but also my own experience. I came to see that what happened in my family was not an aberration from an otherwise healthy society but one predictable outcome of a very unhealthy society.
Which authors have been important in helping you understand that?
RJ: I gave a lecture once in which I identified the most important writers in my intellectual and political development: Andrea Dworkin (feminism), James Baldwin (critiques of white supremacy), Noam Chomsky (critiques of capitalism and imperialism), and Wes Jackson (ecological analysis). There are countless other writers who have been crucial in my development, but those are my anchors, the people who first opened up new ways of thinking about the world for me. They helped me understand not only specific issues they wrote about but how it all fits together, a coherent critique of domination.
Radical feminism is central in your writing. What is radical feminism?
RJ: Feminism is both an intellectual and a political enterprise — that is, it is an analysis and critique of patriarchy, and a movement to challenge the illegitimate authority that flows from patriarchy. Most feminist work focuses on men’s domination and exploitation of women, but feminism also should be a consistent rejection of the domination/subordination dynamic that exists in many other realms of life, most notably in white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. I think radical feminism accomplishes that most fully. Radical feminism identifies the centrality of men’s claim to own or control women’s reproductive power and women’s sexuality, whether through violence or cultural coercion. Radical feminism helped me understand how deeply patriarchy is woven into the fabric of everyday life and how central it is to the domination/subordination that defines the world. Here’s how I put it in a recent article:
“For thousands of years — longer than other systems of oppression have existed—men have claimed the right to own or control women. That does not mean patriarchy creates more suffering today than those other systems — indeed, there is so much suffering that trying to quantify it is impossible — but only that patriarchy has been part of human experience longer. Here is another way to say this: White supremacy has never existed without patriarchy. Capitalism has never existed without patriarchy. Imperialism has never existed without patriarchy.”
What is it like being a male radical feminist in a world dominated by the idea that “men rule,” standing up in front of men and telling them that they should stop being men?
RJ: My message isn’t that men should stop being men. A male human can’t stop being a male human, of course. But we can reject the concept of masculinity in patriarchy, which trains us to seek dominance. When people critique “toxic masculinity,” a popular phrase in the United States these days, I suggest that “masculinity in patriarchy” is more accurate. The most overtly abusive and toxic forms of masculinity should be eliminated, obviously, but so should the “benevolent sexism” that also is prevalent in patriarchy. My argument to men is simple: If we struggle to transcend masculinity in patriarchy, we can shift the obsessive focus on “how to be a man” to the more useful question of how we can be decent human beings.
What is your definition for “human being”? What about “woman,” and “man” (not as constructed by patriarchy)?
RJ: I would say that we all have to struggle to become fully human in societies that so often reward inhumanity. I don’t have a definition so much as a list of things that most of us want — a deep sense of connection to others that doesn’t undermine the exploration of our individuality; outlets for the creativity that is part of being human, which takes many different forms depending on the individual; a secure community that doesn’t demand that we suppress what makes each of us different. In other words, being human is balancing the need for commitment to a community in which we can feel safe and loved, and the equally important need for individual expression. I think that’s pretty much the same for women and men. But in patriarchy, all of that hardens into the categories of masculine (dominant) and feminine (subordinate). In that system, it’s hard for anyone to become fully human.
You speak of the advantages of being a “white man in a heterosexual relationship, holding a job that pays more than a living wage for work I enjoy, living in the United States.” What are the disadvantages of all that?
RJ: I don’t know that I would call it a disadvantage, but I think most of us who have unearned privilege and power — whether we acknowledge it or not — know we don’t deserve it, which generates in many of us a fear that whatever success we’ve had is a sham. And when we fail, the sense of entitlement leads us too often to blame that failure on others. But on the scale of troubles in this world, that doesn’t rate very high. There’s a reactionary argument in the United States that in an age of multiculturalism, somehow it is white men who are the real oppressed minority, which is just silly. My whole life I have had subtle advantages that came because the people who ran the world I lived and worked in typically looked like me and cut me breaks, often in ways I wasn’t even aware of. I have listened to a lot of mediocre white guys whine about how tough it is for them. My response is, “As a mediocre white guy myself, I can testify to how easy we have it.” When I say that I’m mediocre, I’m not being glib. Like anyone, I have various skills, but I am not exceptional in anything. I think by accepting that fact about myself, that I’m pretty average, I have been able to develop the skills I have to the fullest rather than constantly trying to prove that I’m exceptional. I used to tell students that the secret to my success was that I was mediocre, and I knew it, and so I could make the best of it. That makes it easy to be grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had.
Lately I have come across the term “ethical porn,” described as “ethical, stylish and elegant sexual adult entertainment” (“female and couple focused online porn”). Is there such a thing as pornography that is ethical? The descriptions on one of those sites state: “beautiful tasteful… very naughty photographic collections” which “show much more focus on the pleasure of passion and hot-blooded sex. The desire for sensual female arousal, with a balanced and more realistic approach to sexual gratification with more equal pleasure… porn for women that provided real meaningful and beautiful relatable sex.” Yet the whole idea, the action, and the actual techniques are exactly the same as “classic porn.” Isn’t pornography just pornography, anti-human, no matter how you do it?
RJ: We can start by recognizing that pornography produced without abusing women is better than pornography in which such abuse is routine. Pornography that doesn’t present women being degraded for men’s pleasure is better than the mainstream pornography that eroticizes men’s domination of women. But lots of questions remain, as you point out. Why does so much of the so-called ethical or feminist pornography look so similar to mainstream pornography? And, even more important, is it healthy to embrace a patriarchal culture’s obsession with getting sexual pleasure through the mediated objectification of others? In other words, one question is, “What is on the screen in pornography?” and the other is, “Why is the sexuality of so many people so focused on screens?” If through sexuality we seek not only pleasure but intimacy and connection to another person, why do we think explicit pictures will help? Do those images provide the kind of pleasure that we really want? For me, the answer is no. I don’t think graphic sexually explicit images would enhance the kind of connection my partner and I value. I realize other people come to other conclusions, but I think everyone would benefit from reflecting on what we lose when so much of life — including intimacy — is mediated, coming to us through a screen.
What are the most important qualities (virtues) of a human being? What are a person’s flaws/failings that can make you run away as far and fast as possible?
RJ: I think that when we see our own flaws in others, we are the most critical of them. So, I can’t stand people who come to judgment quickly without listening to another person long enough. In other words, I am acutely aware of how often I lack patience. The thing I value most in others, which is probably true for almost all of us, is the capacity for empathy. The older I get, the easier it has been to understand my own failings, and I hope that makes me more empathetic toward others.
What advice would you give children, especially boys, not just about masculinity and femininity but about life more generally today?
RJ: I would start by recognizing that what we do is usually more important than what we say. Adults can tell children what we believe, but kids watch us to see if we act in a way consistent with those statements. For example, I would suggest that kids experience the world directly as often as possible and be wary of letting screens — computers, video games, television — define their lives. That advice is meaningful only if I model the same behavior. It’s important to tell children not to be limited by patriarchal gender norms, but it’s even more important to avoid reinforcing those norms in everyday life.
What advice would you give young adults, or for that matter, any adult?
RJ: When I was teaching, I found myself repeating, over and over again, three things: “Both things are true;” “Reasonable people can disagree;” and “We’re all the same, and there’s a lot of individual variation in the human species.” The first is about recognizing complexity. In my media law class, for example, I would point out that an expansive conception of freedom of speech is essential to democracy, and at the same time it’s crucial that we punish some kinds of speech (libel, harassing speech in certain circumstances, threats) because speech can cause tangible harms that we want to prevent. Both things are true. The second recognizes that in assessing the complexity, we are bound to come to different conclusions and should work to understand why and not assume the other person is an idiot. The third is a reminder that we are one species and all pretty much the same, yet no two of us are exactly alike. None of those three observations are particularly deep; they’re really just truisms. But we need to be reminded of them often.
With all that has happened these past months — all those lives and livelihoods wasted to hate, racism, injustice, COVID-19, with the elections and the surrounding events — does it seem that people have learnt something from all this? Is there more empathy, more understanding, more humanity? Because from everything I see around the world, it looks like we are even more numb, asleep, and unaware, less caring, even more selfish and superficial than before.
RJ: Like always, there’s good news and bad news on that front. It’s not hard to find examples of people turning away from our shared humanity and seeking a sense of superiority and dominance, examples of greed intensifying in the face of so much deprivation. It’s also easy to find people doing exactly the opposite, taking risks to try to bring into existence a society in which empathy is the norm and resources are shared equitably. That’s just a reminder that human nature is variable and plastic — there’s a wide range of expressions of our nature, and individuals can change over time. But at this moment in the United States, it’s hard to be upbeat. Politicians routinely say two things that indicate how deeply in denial as a society we are about all this. One is, in response to the latest horror, “this is not who we are as a nation,” when it is of course a part of who we are as a nation, though some want to ignore that. The other is “there’s nothing we can’t accomplish when we work together,” which is just plain stupid. There are biophysical limits that no society can ignore indefinitely, though the modern consumer capitalist economy encourages us to ignore that reality. The ecological crises we face, including but not limited to rapid climate change, are a result of the species ignoring those limits, with the United States leading the way.
What does the future look like for our planet, for humanity? Is there any hope for us?
RJ: Let’s start with what’s fairly clear: There is no hope that a population of eight billion people with the current level of aggregate consumption today can continue indefinitely. It’s important to recognize that this consumption isn’t equally distributed, and that injustice has to be corrected. But we have to face the reality that high-energy/high-technology societies are unsustainable no matter how things are distributed. The end of the current economic and political systems will likely be in this century, maybe a lot sooner than we expect, and no one knows what will come after that. My summary of the future is “fewer and less.” There will be fewer people consuming a lot less energy and resources, and planning should focus on how to make such a future as humane as possible. Most people — even on the left or in the environmental movement — do not want to face that, at least in part because no one has a plan for how to get from where we are today to a sustainable human population with a sustainable level of consumption. But that’s the challenge. As a species, we likely will fail. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying to figure it out. We’re not going to save the world as we know it, but the intensity of human suffering and ecological destruction can be reduced.
Are the arts important for you in this struggle? Do you have a favourite musician(s)? Movies? Novels?
RJ: For a lot of people, the arts are important in coping with these realities. I am not very artistically inclined, either in talent or interests. I like to watch movies and read novels now and then, and I listen to music. But as I got older, I gravitated toward a focus on more straight-forward political and intellectual work. That said, I have two favourite singer/songwriters. One is John Gorka, whom I first heard decades ago, and I immediately fell in love with the stories in his songs. I own everything he has recorded. The second is Eliza Gilkyson. I heard one of her records in the mid-1980s and liked it but didn’t follow her career. In 2005, I met her at a political event in Austin, TX, where we both lived, and we got to be friends. I started listening to her CDs and was especially struck by the quality of her songwriting, as well as her voice. The friendship turned into a romantic relationship and we’re married now. It turned out that she and John were friends, and lately they have been teaching songwriting workshops together. I’m in the enviable position of knowing my two favourite musicians, both of whom have an incredible gift with words, of making the human experience — both the political and personal sides of life — come alive in songs.
Anything you would like to talk about, but people do not usually ask or do not want to hear.
RJ: In interviews, we tend to focus on what makes us look good. We tell a story that sounds coherent, but real life is messy. I like it when people ask me about mistakes I’ve made, stupid things I’ve done, ideas I once believed in that I now reject. There are lots of examples of that in my personal life, of course. But I’m thinking specifically of how long it took me to come to the critical analysis of the domination/subordination dynamic. In my mid-20s, I had a period of several years in which I was a harsh libertarian and a fan of the writing of Ayn Rand. At one point, I think I owned every book she had written. Looking back, I think I understand why. There’s a lot of attention, positive and negative, paid to Rand’s celebration of greed and wealth, but that was never my attraction to her books. I never wanted to be rich or find a justification for being greedy. I think she’s popular with lots of disaffected young people — the kind of person I was in my 20s — because she promises a life without emotional complexity. Rand constructs the perfect individual as a creature who chooses all relationships rationally, which describes no one who has ever lived, herself included. It’s just not the kind of animals we are. We are born into community and cannot make sense of ourselves as individuals outside of community. Her books offer the illusion that we can, by force of individual will, escape all the messiness of living with others. It’s interesting that Rand’s personal life was a train wreck, I suspect because she believed in those illusions and never really accepted the kind of creatures we human beings are. My assumption is that she was so scared of some aspects of the real world — perhaps the pain of loss and rejection — that she took refuge in the fantasy world she created. I think that’s a good reminder of how fear can drive us all to an irrational place if we let it. Anyway, when I started to understand that, I drifted away from Rand’s writing and started constructing a worldview that allowed me to face not only my own fears but also the collective fears of the culture, instead of running from them.