Letter from America: Nothing to fear but not being normal

By Robert Jensen

Published in Critical Times · April, 2001

[This article ran in the print publication Critical Times, Adelaide, South Australia, April/May 2001, p. 5.]

In my first “Letter from America,” I talked about the sadness and rage that is part of living in this country for progressives and radicals. This time, I want to add fear to the mix of primal political emotions.

On the heels of a successful “anti-inaugural” celebration to welcome the new president in January, political activists in Austin came together as the Democracy Coalition to hold a teach-in on “resisting the Bush agenda.” Speakers ranged from disaffected left-leaning Democrats to more radical folks, but all were able to rally around the goal of countering the hard-right orientation of the new administration. While many of us see little difference between Republicans and Democrats, the stolen election and the reactionary stance of the Bush crowd has sparked greater political interest in the country and provided an opening for political discussion and action among people who had never worked together.

There was a lot of important talk that night about foreign policy, environmental protection, reproductive rights, and civil rights. But for me, the most interesting moment came when a man stood up and said, “I agree with a lot of what I’ve heard and I want to get involved, but I’m scared.”

I had two very different reactions to his comment. On one level I understood and empathized with him. In a culture this locked-down, it’s easy to be scared when considering even the most benign political activity. Anyone who has done political work has had to deal with that fear of taking the first step.

At the same time, I wanted to say, “You are part of the most privileged group of people in the world. What do you have to be afraid of when people in other parts of the world are risking their lives in political action?” Americans — especially white middle-class Americans — enjoy one of the most expansive sets of political freedoms that has existed in the modern industrialized world. There are barriers to organizing but there is no serious repression to stop Americans (at least those in the more privileged sectors)from becoming politically active today.

As I struggled with those thoughts, I was assuming the man had meant he was afraid of a response from the power structure — getting fired from a job or being harassed by law enforcement. But later, I wondered if the man hadn’t been talking about a different kind of fear that grips many “normal” Americans, especially in the middle class: The fear of being seen as “not normal.”

Although the man left before I could talk with him, it’s crucial for those of us on the left to wrestle with this issue if we are to organize successfully. One of the most obvious rules of political work is that you meet people on their ground and try to persuade them to move, not condemn or ridicule them for where they are.

The fear of repression at the hands of authority is easy enough to comprehend. At various times in U.S. history, dissidents have suffered everything from outright assassination (such as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, killed by Chicago police with help from the FBI in 1969) to imprisonment (such as Eugene Debs, jailed for a 1918 speech opposing World War I) to various levels of harassment (experienced by many activists during the FBI’s post-World War II counterintelligence program).

But for people in the privileged sectors of U.S. society, such recrimination is not the big problem today. Even though the police response to protests in Seattle and at the past summer’s political conventions should remind us of how quickly state violence against internal dissent can reappear, I don’t have a sense most Americans are stopped from being politically active because of such threats.

Instead, I think it is that fear of being perceived by others as abnormal that keeps many people who may have progressive beliefs from engaging in politics. For all the talk about American individualism, we generally area conformist lot, especially politically. The propaganda machine of the business community (advertising, public relations, news, entertainment) has so successfully demonized or co-opted left politics and political resistance that the vast majority of people see a stark choice: Either remain politically inert and safe, or take a chance on resistance and accept marginalization and/or ostracism. People often don’t see a way to hold onto the psychological safety and comfort of American life (having “normal” friends in a “normal” neighborhood with “normal” social activities) if they engage in left-of-center politics.

I certainly have felt this in my own life. Although in many ways I’m a fairly conventional person (I’m a professor, with no tattoos or piercings), my political activity on campus and in the community has alienated me from most of my colleagues. It’s not that they are nasty to me — the vast majority are civil in routine dealings, so long as I don’t press political topics — but I am not part of the department in any meaningful social way. With a couple of exceptions, even those who say they support and respect the political work I do almost never engage me in conversation about it.

That’s the price I have paid for being openly left and engaging in what many see as unnecessarily confrontational politics. For me, it’s not a terribly heavy price because I long ago stopped wanting to be included in these circles, not because I think I am better than my colleagues but because there are so few shared interests and values. I think everyone understands that inviting me to a dinner party with “normal” faculty members and their partners would likely create more tension than it’s worth.

There is an answer to this fear, which I hinted at in the last letter. Engaging in left/radical politics may cast you out of “normal” social groups, but it also creates new opportunities for social connections in newgroups. Politics is not just about issues but also about the creation of communities of resistance in which one can find a home. That home may not look like the standard middle-class neighborhood with all its protections. Even if one continues to live physically in such a “normal” place while engaging in political activity, the social and emotional landscape likely will change. But there are many kinds of homes in the world that can be welcoming and comforting.

Creating these political homes is not easy, especially when we acknowledge how differences such as race affect how welcome some people may feel. But part of our challenge is not simply to have the best analysis and political arguments, but to be able to create such a sense of belonging so that people can sustain themselves in the face of a world that is hostile to the goals of justice and peace.