Amandla Magazine: Interview with Robert Jensen

By Robert Jensen

Published in Amandla Magazine · January, 2009

Interview with Amandla magazine, (Cape Town, South Africa), Issue #5, 2009.

Amandla: Prof. Jensen, can you start off by telling us about your career trajectory, i.e. how did you end up teaching media and journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, USA?

Jensen: My career is most accidental, the product of dumb luck. When I grew restless as a journalist working in newspapers, I wandered back to school to complete a Ph.D. in media ethics and law, which led to my job at the university. Along the way, I met some wonderful activists and academics who helped me understand the connection between thinking about the world and acting in the world, and who also modeled how to do that responsibly. As I learned, my analysis of power grew more radical, and my dissatisfaction with the scholarly world intensified. When I was granted tenure and job security, I gave up writing for small academic audiences and turned my attention to community organizing and writing for popular audiences. Looking back, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I get paid to do things I love (thinking, reading, writing, talking to people) and I have considerable freedom to direct my energy toward issues that I think really matter. Because of those incredible privileges, I feel an obligation to search for ways to contribute to making a better world.

What have been some of the main areas of your activism, and how did you develop your understanding and thinking on such issues?

When I started my graduate work, I began to study feminism as a way to understand men’s sexual exploitation of women in pornography and prostitution. For me, that was the first door to critical thinking that opened. From there, it was clear I had to study race. As a white man who had never really thought about privilege, I had a lot of work to do to catch up. From there, I became focused on systematically educating myself about how systems of power really work — not the mythology I had been taught in school, but the real history and contemporary reality. With gender and race, I began to see how unjust systems of domination and subordination operate, trying to naturalize and rationalize the injustice at the core of the system. That led me to more serious study of the U.S. empire and capitalism, and to activism resisting U.S. foreign policy (not just the wars, but the wide-ranging U.S. attempts to dominate the world) and the corporate system (through labor organizing and the creation of cooperative institutions). And through it all, I have continued to stay rooted in a feminist movement against men’s violence and exploitation of women.

Recently, you have been writing extensively about the ‘multiple crises’ facing humanity. Could you briefly identify and explain those?

The issues mentioned above are at the core of the crises that cluster around the issue of justice. We live in a profoundly unjust world, both within a First World society such as the United States and among nations. There are also multiple crises on the ecological front; we live in a fundamentally unsustainable world. The more we learn about the declining health of the ecosystem that makes our lives possible, the more those issues move to the center. I think those two groups of problems, the social and the ecological, are connected. In both, we see that hierarchies simply don’t work for the vast majority of people and the living world. Any system structured on one group’s domination of another is inconsistent with human flourishing, and humans’ attempts to dominate the rest of the ecosystem is inconsistent with sustainability. Either we dramatically rethink how we live on this planet or we face a grim future that none of us really want to imagine.

A lot of enthusiasm has been generated, both in the US and throughout the world, around the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Are you optimistic about the prospects of Obama bringing meaningful ‘change?’

It’s difficult to be optimistic that a new leader or administration will bring meaningful change when no meaningful change is being proposed. Of course it is exciting for a nation that only decades ago abolished a formal apartheid system to elect a black president. And of course it is a relief to have his administration turn from the most reactionary projects of the Bush administration. But meaningful change at this point in history would start with renouncing the U.S. empire and being honest about the destructive nature of global capitalism. At best, Obama is promising to run the empire in a kindler-and-gentler fashion and to smooth the roughest edges off a predatory corporate capitalist system. Those are changes in strategy and tactics, not meaningful changes aimed at the real problems. I’m not suggesting that a president could get elected on that platform today, and I’m not angry at Obama for being who he is. He’s a politician focused on gaining access to power in order to shore up a failing system. I’m just suggesting that hope, to the degree hope is warranted, will come from real social movements that want to change these systems, not from an electoral campaign that poses as a social movement.

Over the past couple of years, you have traveled abroad for lectures, teaching courses, etc. in countries such as Pakistan and India. How have those experiences shaped your worldview? Did these experiences make you reflect more on your important concept of being a “citizen of the empire,” and the related privileges that go with that status?

My experiences in South Asia have deepened my understanding not only of the fundamental injustice of these systems, but also of their complexity. In India and Pakistan the damage done by global capitalism is aided and abetted by elites there, of course. To condemn the U.S. empire does not require that we make a simplistic argument that all evil in the world is the result of the actions of Americans. Instead, we need to recognize how the system dictated by First World elites does in fact structure the world economic and political system and deepen the unjust and unsustainable features of other societies. Along with those problems, one also sees that resistance is global; everywhere one goes, there are people refusing to capitulate. Often those movements are fractured and weak, but they exist. It’s a banal observation, perhaps, but a crucial one: Even under onerous conditions, some people will always struggle to resist injustice.

Finally, we in South Africa are looking forward to welcoming you here mid-May of this year. Is this your first visit to South Africa? What would you be doing here? What are some of the personally fulfilling objectives you would want to achieve from this visit?

It will be my first trip to South Africa, and my first trip to Africa. The stated reason for the trip is to give some lectures, but my real motivation is to learn. I’m particularly interested in talking with people about the reality of living in a post-apartheid society still crippled by wealth inequality. I want to learn more about what organizing strategies are successful. The United States and South Africa are very different countries, of course, but as I get older I get hungrier to learn about what creative people in other places are doing. I think that reflects my assessment that left/critical movements in the United States don’t really have a viable strategy at the moment. I certainly feel as if I’m floundering as an activist. So, I’m eager to learn.