Confronting the Empire
By Robert Jensen
Published in The Hindu · February, 2003
[Originally delivered as a speech to the “Get Up, Stand Up” rally, Austin, TX, February 2, 2003.]
Last week at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, I talked with dozens of people from around the world. I learned a lot about the struggles for justice in their countries, but the most important lesson I brought home was about my own country.
The question I thought people at the Forum would ask me is, “Why does the U.S. government follow such brutal policies of economic and military domination around the world?” I thought they would want me to explain the United States to them. But they didn’t — because, I came to realize, they already knew the answer to the question.
In one session I listened to a man who works with the MST, the landless movement in Brazil that is widely considered to be the biggest and most important social movement in the world today. He told us that the people he works with often are lucky if they get a fourth-grade education; many are illiterate. “But I don’t have to tell them about imperialism,” he said. That they understand. They live with it.
The question that people in Porto Alegre did ask me was simple: What are people of conscience in the United States — what am I — doing to stop the U.S. government, especially in its mad drive to war in Iraq?
Those of us organizing in the United States are in a strange situation. Our task is to work to educate the people of our own privileged and affluent culture about what the rest of the world already knows: The United States is an empire, and — as has been the case throughout history — empires are a threat to peace and life and justice in the world. There is no such thing as a benevolent empire.
It is crucial that we in the United States who have so much unearned privilege that comes with living in the empire face their question: What are we willing to do to stop our government? What are those of us in the heart of the beast doing to tame that beast?
The United States is preparing for a war in Iraq that virtually the entire world opposes. No matter how brutal the regime of Saddam Hussein, the world understands that even more threatening is the empire unleashed and unrestrained.
The cynical among us say that it is clear that Bush and his boys want this war, and that the war will come. That may be true; there’s no way to see the future. But I know that no matter what will come, our task is clear:
We are the first citizens of the empire. In the past, empires had subjects. But we are truly citizens, with freedom of expression and rights of political participation that aren’t perfect but are real. With those freedoms comes a responsibility, to use them to stop our government from pursuing a war that will kill and destroy innocents while further entrenching U.S. power in the Middle East and U.S. control over the strategically crucial oil resources there.
We have a choice. We can hide from our responsibility. Or we can stand up, speak up, organize, and join the people of the world in movements to challenge the powerful, to resist the empire.
It may seem safer to avoid that choice, to hide from that responsibility. But I learned one other thing in Porto Alegre: The people of the world do not accept the American empire. All over the world there are movements for social justice that are strengthening, gathering support and challenging power. They are the future. History is not on the side of the empire.
To take the side of the empire is to give into our fear, to cast our lot with the past. To resist the empire is to grab onto hope, to cast our lot with the future. It is literally a choice of empire and death, or resistance and life. This is not about liberals v. conservatives or Republicans and Democrats; both parties are on the wrong side of this struggle right now. This is about a far more fundamental choice.
There is much work to be done on many fronts. One thing we can all do is come out on Saturday, Feb. 15, when people in New York City, Austin and around the world will rally to oppose the U.S. drive to war. Information is available at http://www.unitedforpeace.org/
If you doubt the importance of this, think back to September 11, 2001. On that day, we got a glimpse of what it will look like if the empire is dismantled from the outside, if the empire continues to ignore the world. But we have a choice. We, the first citizens of the empire, can commit to dismantling the empire from within, peacefully and non-violently, in solidarity with those around the world struggling for justice.
Let me leave you with one image from Porto Alegre, from the floor of the arena in which the closing ceremonies took place. As the conveners of the World Social Forum delivered a final declaration and stood on stage, the sounds of John Lennon’s “Imagine” came over the loudspeakers, and the 15,000 people in the arena stood, held hands, moved with the music and sang of a world with no countries, a world living life in peace, a world without possessions and greed.
When the song was over, I turned to an older man sitting next to me. I had told him I was from the United States and we had exchanged nods and smiles throughout the event, but he spoke little English and I spoke even less Portuguese. At that moment, language mattered little. I extended my hand to him. But he rejected it.
Instead, he reached out, grabbed me and enveloped me in a hug as big as that song, as big as Brazil, as big as the world.
“Peace,” he said. “Paz,” I replied.
We are Americans, but if we choose to resist we are not the American empire. And if we do resist, there is a world we can join, a world that is waiting for us.
Perhaps I am investing too much symbolism in one simple hug. But that moment with that man, that hug in Porto Alegre, was for me the promise of life outside the empire. It was the feel of a future that we can all imagine. It is easy, if we try.