Letter from America: Rage and sadness, despair and hope

By Robert Jensen

Published in Critical Times · February, 2001

[This article ran in the print publication Critical Times, Adelaide, South Australia, February/March 2001, p. 6.]

When foreign journalists — usually on U.S. State Department tours — come through Austin, Texas, I am often asked by the local coordinator to talkwith them about media and politics.

The journalists, expecting a conventional defense of U.S. politics and the news media from a U.S. journalism professor, are surprised when I criticize mainstream journalism for its servility to power and attack the U.S. government for its many crimes against humanity.

A journalist from the Middle East took me aside after such a discussion this fall and asked me, “You seem to have a conscience. We haven’t seen that much in this country. What is it like living here?”

I thanked him for what I took to be a compliment and told him that I was by no means the only, and certainly not the most conscientious, American. But I understood his question and told him that struggling to hold onto some sense of humanity while living in the empire is to wrestle with sadness and rage, despair and hope.

The rage and sadness come from the simple awareness of the ways in which U.S. government pursues policies all over the world that kill and impoverish. Ever since I came to understand about three years ago that the United States’ insistence on continuing economic sanctions on Iraq was killing 5,000 children under the age of 5 every month, I have felt whiplashed between an intense rage and a deep sadness. (For factsheets on the sanctions, go to http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/iraqfactsheets.htm.)

As I read more every day about the predictable effects of the structural adjustment programs forced on developing countries by the heavily U.S.-influenced International Monetary Fund — reductions in nutrition, health care and education, which mean higher death and illiteracy rates — those same alternating feeling of rage and sadness overwhelm me. (For a summary of those effects, go tohttp://www.citizen.org/pctrade/Africa/rrbobfn2.htm.)

Equally difficult to deal with is the American public’s seeming lack of interest in learning about these matters, let alone doing anything about them. When we protest corporate globalization, passersby shout, “Get a life,” implying that concern for the lives of people abroad is somehow a sign of being a loser. As I pass a garbage can on campus, I see a flier for a talk on Iraq that has been torn down, and over the flier’s headline “How are sanctions killing the children of Iraq” someone has written, “Who cares?”

For me, the sadness I feel in such moments often leads to a kind of despair, a sense of hopelessness. A political organizer once told me never to admit to feeling despair, lest it discourage others from being involved in left/progressive politics. But why should I cover-up what seems to me to be a completely human reaction? If I feel it, surely others must be also. Is it not better to acknowledge it, to admit that we all can fall into such despair at times? It’s not just that there is suffering in the world, but that so many people — people who look just like me and seem to share certain values with me –seem not to care. People have been wrestling with the problem of the banality of evil, the ease with which the privileged stay silent, for a long time. I know of no one who has easy answers. I can’t pretend it doesn’t leave me feeling hopeless at times.

However, I rarely stay stuck in that despair for long periods, and I think the reason is simple: I am politically active. On campus and in the community, through organizing, teaching, public speaking, and writing, I am engaged in political life aimed at making a better world. I am not self-aggrandizing or delusional about my role in it; I am a very small part of what is at the moment a small movement. I am not naïve about our chances; I have no illusion that the illegitimate structures of authority and oppression that I try to oppose — capitalism, militarism, patriarchy, white supremacy — are going to disappear tomorrow, or even in my lifetime.

But I have hope because history teaches that unjust power can be challenged, that illegitimate structures can be changed or eliminated. In a more concrete way, my hope also comes from the people I meet, the friends I make in progressive politics in the United States. None of us is perfect, and often I am annoyed and exasperated with those very same friends, and with myself. But the hope comes from the simple fact that in a country whose entire indoctrination system — schools and universities, news and entertainment media — is geared to pacify and depoliticize, we have broken through that system and come together in struggle.

In this first “letter from America” that I have been asked to write, my message is simple: Some of us living in the United States — in the empire, in the heart of the beast — are perfectly aware of what our government is doing around the world. We do not look away from the terror campaigns, past and present, of the United States and its proxies in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. We know that our small movements won’t stop all of the U.S. terror campaigns likely to come in the future. We do not kid ourselves about what the “triumph of the free market” has meant for the world’s poor, and we know that alone we can’t turn around U.S. economic policy.

But we understand the scope of the problem, and we can see that globalization is possible not just for the elite but also for the resistance. We know that we in the most privileged places have particularly clear moral and political obligations. It is not easy to live in the empire and hold onto your humanity. But one way to try to do it is to always remember that however difficult it is here, it is always far worse for the victims of the empire.

Our job is to not ignore, but also not to give in to, the rage or the sadness. Our task is to face the despair and hold tightly the hope.