September 11 and the failures of American intellectuals

By Robert Jensen

Published in Canadian Association of University Teachers · November, 2002

[The text below was presented to the Canadian Association of University Teachers “Disciplining Dissent” conference, Ottawa, November 1, 2002. A revised version was published in the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 1:1 (March 2004): 80-88; and in the book Disciplining Dissent: The Curbing of Free Expression in Academia and the Media, William Bruneau and James L. Turk, eds., (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2004), pp. 38-50.]

I have been told that the Buddha spoke of enlightenment as emerging from the eggshell of ignorance, and that image has stuck with me since 9/11. For too long Americans have lived within an eggshell of ignorance about the world, a willed ignorance about the consequences of U.S. economic, foreign, and military policy that to many felt like protection from the world — on the absurd assumption that what we don’t know can’t hurt us — but in reality was always eggshell-thin.

On 9/11, we saw how easily eggshells can crack.

This ignorance was perhaps most clearly expressed by the president of the United States. At an October 11, 2001, news conference, Bush told reporters he was amazed “when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?” He explained:

“I’m amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am, I am — like most Americans, I just can’t believe it. Because I know how good we are, and we’ve go to do a better job of making our case. We’ve got to do a better job of explaining to the people in the Middle East, for example, that we don’t fight a war against Islam or Muslims. We don’t hold any religion accountable. We’re fighting evil. And these murderers have hijacked a great religion in order to justify their evil deeds. And we cannot let it stand.”

I give the American public the benefit of the doubt and assume that most were not quite as amazed as our president. But my experience is that Bush was not the only American who was inside the eggshell on September 10, 2001.

On September 11, we had a choice to emerge from that eggshell, newly engaged in honest attempts to understand the world and our place in it. But many Americans retreated back into that space, desperately trying to paste back together the old eggshell. On this front, Bush also took the lead.

On September 27, 2001, Bush appeared at O’Hare airport in Chicago and encouraged people to “get on board,” but not with a serious plan for educating ourselves. His advice:

“When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

So, a president who claims not to understand what is obvious to virtually everyone outside the United States — that no matter what the twisted theology and ideology of Al-Qaeda, lots of folks in the Arab and Muslim world object to U.S. foreign policy for perfectly rational reasons — suggests the appropriate responses are to:

#1: Explain to people in the Middle East why they don’t understand their own lives, in part by cranking up a PR campaign and filling the job of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs with an advertising executive.


#2: Explain to people in the United States that they should go to Disney World, a fantasy park where one can ignore reality.

Of course the issue isn’t what Bush does or doesn’t know about the world; there are people who tell him the things they think he should know, and Bush no doubt remembers some portion of that. My point is that the United States is a society in which people not only can get by without knowing much about the wider world but are systematically encouraged not to think independently or critically and to instead accept the mythology of the United States as a benevolent, misunderstood giant as it lumbers around the world trying to do good.

Much to my sadness, U.S. faculty members — conservative and liberal alike — have for the most part either actively encouraged such avoidance or failed to fulfill their obligation to guide people toward deeper knowledge. I would like to talk about those failures.

I think there were five main responses to 9/11 in the intellectual world (which I take to include professional academics, journalists, free-floating pundits, and the think-tank crowd).

1. The Ultra-Hawks: These people started with the assumption that we had to respond with massive military force, arguing that the United States is the benevolent empire and the empire should do its work. If you disagree with that, you are either a fool or a dupe or a subversive.

2. The Hawks: This group conceded that there should be a debate about war, so long as that debate distorts, trivializes, and marginalizes arguments against war. There need be no attempt to analyze the situation beyond clichés about “Islamic fascism” and the assertion that the power to bomb= the right to bomb=the inevitability of bombing. After this pseudo-debate is over (quickly), we will go to war.

3. The Cultural Doves: The focus of this group was the need to understand other cultures, while avoiding the crucial political issues and voicing little or no criticism of war.

4. The Political Doves-with-Wings-Pinned: These folks said that bombing is bad policy but largely avoided doing anything to confront directly the mythology of the culture, lest we offend, because offending people is bad.

5. The Anti-Empire Crowd: This was the principled critique of American foreign policy and militarism from an internationalist perspective that rejected intellectually and morally bankrupt claims about American exceptionalism, and engaged in public education and political organizing.

From that construction it is obvious I put myself in the latter category (with the implication, of course, that is where all the right-thinking and decent people should be). But in this talk I am more interested in what we can learn about American intellectuals from the other four categories.

In certain circles, it is easy to criticize the Ultra-Hawks; their demand for a reflexive patriotism is a profoundly anti-intellectual position that inhibits meaningful attempts at critical thinking and democracy, which are inextricably linked.

The Hawks are more sophisticated in their approach, realizing that crude nationalism is not always effective. But in the end, there is little meaningful difference between the Ultra and Regular-Strength Hawks. Both groups ignore evidence and arguments that undermine their positions because the realities of power allow them to ignore.

That is I suspect why, a few weeks after 9/11, a CBC radio producer who wanted to set up a debate called saying she might have to cancel the segment because she couldn’t find a pro-war faculty member in the United States to debate me on the air. I was incredulous, and told her that certainly people weren’t afraid of debating me (I’m not that formidable or well-known). She agreed, and said it had nothing to do with me. These pro-war folks simply said they weren’t interested in a debate, with anyone. I don’t think it was fear, but rather their quite accurate assessment that they had won. So, why get mixed up in a public debate where you would have to defend your views when your views have already prevailed?

But, for all the problems that are, I think, quite obvious in these Hawk positions, it often is the case that one can learn more from looking closely at the positions of what, at first glance, appear to be one’s allies. I do not take this to be a case of petty backbiting, but rather an examination of what I consider to be some fundamental flaws in U.S. intellectual and political culture. My target is not a specific political position, but the way in which U.S. intellectuals have contributed to the depoliticization of the culture more generally.

The Cultural Doves strike me as well-intentioned, which makes them extremely dangerous. For example, after 9/11, people rushed to stores to buy books on Islam. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to know more about Islam, and of course a full understanding of what happened on 9/11 involves knowledge of Islam. But far more important for most Americans is expanding their knowledge about U.S. foreign policy. That is, 9/11 involved theology, but it is primarily a political event, not a religious one. I think this tendency in the United States to want to explain things in cultural, not political, terms is dangerous in an already deeply depoliticized society.

I don’t ever expect much, in terms of analysis or action, from the Cultural Doves. I want to concentrate on the Political Doves-with-Wings-Pinned and try to bring into sharp focus some of the current intellectual and political problems I see. To do this, I’m going to quote extensively from myself, in an exchange I had with Tom Palaima, a colleague on the UT campus, after my brush with infamy post-9/11. Tom has always been thoughtful and engaged in his interactions with me and has tried, in his own way, to be supportive of my political work. He makes his own attempts at sharing his views with the public through op/ed writing, which I support, even though I rarely agree with the approach he takes in his writing. He is clearly a serious scholar in his field, and I have no reason to think he is not a principled person.

But even with all those endorsements, I think his approach to politics exemplifies some of what is wrong with the U.S. academy.

This exchange started after I had been publicly condemned by the president of the University of Texas for writings critical of the mad rush to war after 9/11. Tom was critical of the president’s actions but also critical of me, and I tried to answer his points and explain my decisions.

First, in my response to criticisms about my writing, he thought it untoward of me to “act as if your piece was reasonable and inoffensive.” I found the marriage of the two descriptions interesting, implying that reasonable should be inoffensive. I think my writing has been reasonable — that is, I present accurate factual evidence, rational arguments, and a defensible conclusion — and I also understand that it is offensive to many people. It is hardly surprising that some very reasonable presentations are also very offensive to some. Anyone who has ever taught material that deals with political and social issues knows that students who hear a point of view that contradicts what they have long been taught may well be offended; it’s sometimes a sign that learning is taking place.

Tom also suggested that I had “initiated an inflammatory argument” with my article, which I think gets the sequence wrong. I would suggest that the hawkish and inflammatory rhetoric of the Bush administration, members of Congress (both Republican and Democrat), TV anchors, pundits and many others within the first hours after the attack “initiated” the argument and made it necessary for people with antiwar politics to respond immediately and decisively. As I explained to Tom, I knew perfectly well that the piece I wrote would anger the majority of Americans. I pointed out that my goal at that moment was not to convince everyone that a war would be wrong; I knew that would be impossible. My goal was to reach out to progressive people who might be struggling for a way to understand the events of the day, to give them an analysis that would be otherwise hard to find in the mass media, to let them know they weren’t alone. My email traffic of the following days, and months, suggests that I — and many others writing and speaking in similar fashion — accomplished that. To do that, however, I knew many people would be angry with me.

Tom’s response to this was to point out that I had admitted I “did not care about how the majority of people would react.” Indeed, I not only knew many would be angry, but I didn’t care, in moral terms. (I cared in strategic terms, but made a judgment that the goal of reaching one segment of the U.S. public outweighed the effect of angering another segment). I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now, because I believed the lives of people outside the United States who would be targeted in a U.S. war were more important than the feelings of people in the United States. My intention was to help build an antiwar movement that could derail the expected U.S. military response, and if a successful movement could help save innocent lives, would that not trump concerns about offending or angering some Americans? In fact, would not one be morally obligated to offend Americans?

I am not succumbing to delusional self-aggrandizement here. I didn’t actually think my op/eds, radio interviews, or public talks would turn the tide and I was not naïve about the chances of stopping the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. But, whatever the chances, the calculation that I, and others like me, made seems to me, in retrospect, to have been right. One could argue that a less confrontational strategy could have been more effective — though I don’t see any evidence for that — but that’s a tactical issue, not a question of principle.

A slight personal digression: Tom also suggested that I “delight in the politics of confrontation,” which I think misunderstands what motivates me, and I suspect a lot of other leftists. In many settings, such as the work I do on sexual violence and pornography, I rarely act confrontationally; other strategies are more appropriate. In certain other political situations in which I think it is effective, I do confront directly. But I never delight in it. It is a strategic decision that I make (though, I must admit, sometimes my anger is a factor). Such confrontations often do leave me feeling momentarily pumped up from an adrenaline rush, but when that has past I usually feel incredibly sad. It takes something out of me, not because I am tired or may have been beaten up rhetorically, but because such exchanges make me realize just how profoundly anti-human the culture in which I live is. It is those moments that I wonder how anyone survives in a world structured on such horrific values. It is in those moments I feel the weakest, the least able to sustain hope.

But here is the single most distressing thing that Tom said to me:

“All I can say, Bob, AGAIN is that I am glad for you that you can view the world in such black and white terms, a world where Bob Jensen carries and promotes truth and virtue, and those who react to the things he does should be judged without considering what he has done to provoke such reactions, or what he might have done to make the outcome different.”

As I think I have made clear, I did consider the reactions my work could be expected to provoke, and I judged the negative reactions to be less important than what I believed, and still believe, to be a compelling political goal that easily outweighs offending some. But the distressing part of that paragraph to me is that Tom seems to be taking refuge in — and implicitly making a virtue out of — what he describes as his inability or unwillingness to form a clear conclusion on which he could act, and denigrating my attempt to do that. In his formulation, I am reduced to a simplistic thinker who can only see black and white, while he sees the many shades of gray.

I have never claimed to be a big thinker or a serious theorist. I think I have a fairly accurate and relatively healthy intellectual self-image: I am a competent, hard-working second-tier intellectual. I have never broken new ground, but I can do reasonably decent work building on the insights of others. I am far from the most sophisticated thinker in the world, but I think I have mastered the basics of informal logic and argumentation. And, I realize the world is a complex place.

I also realize that no matter what the complexity of the world, we have moral obligations that don’t go away simply because we might be less than absolutely certain about causes and consequences of actions in that complex world. One of the tasks of an intellectual, it seems to me, is to look for patterns in that complexity that can guide us in making moral and political decisions. The importance of that task increases dramatically when one lives in the most powerful country in the history of the planet, a country in which leaders have demonstrated repeatedly a willingness to use horrific levels of violence to impose their will on others.

I don’t see the world in black and white. The shades of gray bedevil me as much as the next person. But I do not think they absolve me of my responsibility. We should approach that responsibility with great humility and openness to counter-arguments. We should always keep in mind that we act with imperfect knowledge; history reminds us that no small number of people who acted out of certainty about the accuracy of their analysis and righteousness of their moral stance have brought upon the innocents of the world suffering beyond description.

But it is also true that I live in a country that drops cluster bombs in civilian areas. I have never lived anywhere that was the target of a cluster bomb, but I suspect that when a cluster bomb detonates above you and those couple of hundred individual bomblets are dispersed to do their flesh-shredding work, the world looks pretty black and white. I suspect that when you see a child pick up an unexploded bomblet from a cluster bomb, which then explodes and rips off the child’s head, the world looks pretty black and white.

Should the world look any less black and white when one lives in the country that drops the bombs? When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explains, in response to a question of why such a weapon is used, that “We only use cluster munitions when they are the most effective weapon for the intended target,” how long can we allow ourselves to paint pictures of grays?

Beyond that, I think Tom missed one important thing in his comment about “a world where Bob Jensen carries and promotes truth and virtue.”

That assumes that I operate with a self-centeredness common among academics, in which the game is to show others how important MY ideas are, and how great with MY theory is, and how ground-breaking MY latest article or book is.

Well, I don’t feel terribly special. When I talk about politics, I don’t see it as Bob Jensen’s truth and virtue, because I am acutely aware of how my work is not original. By that I don’t mean I plagiarize, but that I realize how I am both using the work of others and, more importantly, how my analysis of a current situation is not simply mine but a movement’s. In my case, I work closely with two people in Austin. One of them, Rahul Mahajan, and I sometimes write together. But when we do, we both know perfectly well that another colleague in the collective could just as easily put her name on every piece (for political reasons, she chooses not to), even if she wasn’t part of the process or writing or editing that specific article. And when I write alone, both of them are in my brain. We work as a collective, within a larger movement. So, there quite literally is no Bob Jensen truth and virtue. There is Bob-Jensen-as-part-of-the-Nowar-Collective-as-part-of-a-larger-anti-empire-movement truth and virtue. I draw on that collective and that movement, and I am accountable to it. That is what I take into the world as a writer and speaker.

Finally, my title — “September 11 and the Failures of American Intellectuals” — is a rather arrogant statement, implying that I will dissect the failures of other intellectuals, not any of my own. But in a very real way, I think the failures are mine as well. In some ways, Tom was right in his criticism of me, though I don’t think he’s right in his defense of his own approach or in his assessment of my motives.

I have done very little in recent years to build with colleagues a progressive intellectual community at the University of Texas. When I first got to UT, I made some efforts, but in the past couple of years I have let my anger about what I see as a highly privileged class of people hiding in that privilege get in the way of organizing among my colleagues. If I am serious about my claim to be a political person, such self-indulgence is unacceptable. I am often too quick to judge, too harsh, too blunt with faculty colleagues. In part because I have established connections with other intellectuals through a political movement, I haven’t felt a need to attend to faculty relationships on campus. It may be the case that any efforts made to build a critical, progressive intellectual community among faculty at that particular historical moment at UT would have failed, and I could make an argument that it was more important for me to put my energies elsewhere. But it’s also entirely plausible I missed an opportunity, for which I am accountable.

In the end, we all know how to rationalize our choices. Humans are extremely good at that and faculty members are especially good at it; self-righteousness and self-indulgence are perhaps the most crippling occupational hazards for academics. Not only are we privileged in material terms, we also are intellectual workers who get plenty of practice in rationalization. As a class, faculty — and intellectuals more generally — need to reduce significantly the ways in which we rationalize the reasons we so often hide in our privilege.

This matters, not just for the sake of our own dignity, but because we have the resources — material and intellectual — to make a serious contribution to progressive political and social change in the world. If we do not do that, we have to answer not only to ourselves but to the people of the world who have a right to expect more from us.