The world is waiting for an answer: Are we Americans, or human beings?
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · March, 2005
[Speech at the Austin, TX, antiwar rally marking the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, March 19, 2005.]
First, a disclaimer: Given all the fussing about dangerous radical professors these days, I should make it clear that while I teach at the University of Texas at Austin, I don’t speak for the university. (Not that anyone at this rally would ever imagine that I do.) I repeat: What I’m about to say is not official policy of the University of Texas. In case anyone was confused, the University of Texas is not a radical institution and is not committed to anti-empire politics.
It’s more important to make it clear that I don’t claim to speak FOR anyone. Instead, I try to speak with people, to speak as part of a movement for justice and peace. And in nearly 800 cities and towns across the United States today — and all around the world — people are in the streets together saying no to war, no to U.S. aggression, no to empire.
When I looked at the list of cities where there will be events today, I was most excited to see my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. If people are in the streets in Fargo, the revolution must be just around the corner. You betcha. If people are protesting in Fargo, it means something’s happening here, in the United States, in the empire.
What’s happening is hopeful. It means that even when people are deluged daily by the most relentless and sophisticated propaganda system in the world, they can see clearly the issues, see clearly what’s at stake, and take action.
But we can’t be naïve about the struggle. We have to face the serious obstacles to real justice and peace in the world, which can’t be overcome by one day’s protest. Let’s be clear about those obstacles.
The first, and most obvious, problem is: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Republican Party. We have to commit ourselves not just to getting these the ideologically fanatical reactionaries out of office but also to challenging them for control of the public conversation — the heart of democracy — which they have so effectively narrowed and degraded.
The second, and equally obvious, problem is: John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the other corporate toadies who run the Democratic Party. I know there are some in the antiwar movement who believe the Democratic Party can be a vehicle to challenge the U.S. empire. But that wasn’t true in the last half of the 20th century, when Cold-War liberals promoted imperial policies, and it isn’t true in the 21st century, when War-on-Terrorism liberals are doing their part to prop up the empire.
Those are the easy targets, the people in power. But we face other challenges that run deeper.
We have to confront the deeply embedded racism in the United States that makes it so easy to mobilize public support for war, as long as the targets are not white.
We have to confront the barbarism of the United States, which not only has the capacity to destroy an entire society but a proven willingness to do just that to achieve policy goals.
But perhaps most importantly, we have to confront the incredible affluence and the sense of entitlement that is so common in this country. That is not a problem exclusive to reactionary Republicans or cowardly Democrats. It’s a problem in every corner of this country, including in progressive politics. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population yet we consume about 25 percent of the world’s oil and 30 percent of the gross world product. We all enjoy, to varying degrees, the cheap toys of empire. The people at the top benefit most, but we are all living in relative luxury compared with most of the rest of the world. Half the world’s population — more than 3 billion of our brothers and sisters — live on less than $2 a day. Half the world’s people live on what you and I might pay for a cup of fancy coffee. We need to keep central in our minds and in our hearts the fact of our affluence and their poverty, and understand the connection.
That affluence matters politically, because it is easy for people who live comfortably to be morally lazy and politically passive. U.S. military and economic power around the world helps create and perpetuate these conditions of inequality. To challenge that power is to challenge our own affluence. It’s easy even for those who engage in dissident politics to forget that changing the politics of this country also means changing our own lives. The two projects must go forward together.
Let me put it as clearly as I can: The way we live in this country — the way every one of us here at this rally today lives — is morally indefensible and ecologically unsustainable. It is a way of life that can’t be enjoyed by the rest of the world, and it is a way of life that if unchecked literally will destroy the world.
So, our immediate message is clear: U.S. out of Iraq now. The U.S. occupation of Iraq cannot bring security and democracy in Iraq. It is an impediment to security and democracy.
Our choices over the long term are just as clear. On all these fronts, political and personal, we have to ask: What are we willing to give up? What risks are we willing to take?
We have a choice: We can actually live the values that we say guide our country or we can abandon those values. We can work to make democracy — that is, a system in which ordinary people have meaningful input into the formation of public policy — a reality in our own country. If we don’t, the unrestrained and violent use of U.S. power abroad will remain a danger.
We have a choice: We can live on top of the world or we can live in the world. The stakes are high; if we don’t find a way to force the United States to live in the world, before too long there may well be no world left for anyone.
These challenges can be condensed into a simple choice: We can be Americans, or we can be human beings.
The rest of the world is waiting for our answer.