Fighting alienation in the USA
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · April, 2003
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.