Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity By Robert Jensen

by Michael Gause on July 1, 2004

Three days after 9/11, Robert Jensen penned an op-ed for The Houston Chronicle directly challenging the overwhelming desire for vengeance sweeping through the United States. In his article, he pleaded for reason and to “stop the insanity here.” The response? The president of the University of Texas, where Jensen teaches, called Jensen “a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy.” There should be no surprise, then, that Jensen pulls no punches in his latest book, “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity,” an insightful book brimming with hope that showcases Jensen’s firm belief in standing one’s moral ground.

Jensen makes no bones about the fact that his book is a handbook of sorts aimed specifically at the progressive crowd who are unequivocally against the Bush administrations’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he’s not just preaching to the converted; he’s summoning up the choir and rallying the crowd for full-out hope. As he rightly points out, there have been demonstrations all around the world, but the wars both still went on, with Bush calling protestors a “focus group.” Jensen’s main question, then, is how do those against the war keep from despairing?

Jensen’s book, unlike others, isn’t full of vague references and blustery rhetoric offering real solutions to getting organized and realizing change. He lays out all of his arguments in brief, succinct sentences, and inverts common modes of attack by those in support of war and the inevitability of American empire. Jensen challenges the rhetorical strategy of several phrases that have become so loaded that they’re almost impossible to attack. He specifically examines slogans such as “support the troops,” “the greatest nation on Earth,” and the concept of patriotism.

Phrases such as these, Jensen argues, are not only used by the right but by the left as well. No matter one’s position on the war or empire, almost no one wishes ill on our troops, but few take the time to wonder what it means to “support the troops.” It is Jensen’s argument that one should not fall into the trap of supporting the troops. If one does not support a war that is unjust and will cause the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians (likely far more than the number killed on 9/11), then how can one support the troops?

It’s a very logical argument, and Jensen is aware that by making such a claim, he is probably alienating a large segment of the population. He avoids that problem by sticking to his target audience, using precise arguments (he’s an admirable stickler for footnotes and quotations), and staking out a moral ground. Though he never directly mentions the idea that right-wing hawks have claimed the word “moral,” he uses the word constantly as a qualifier. After a quarter of the book, it’s hard not to believe that his argument is the moral argument, especially when his view of morality is life and death.

The question arises, however, if Jensen is willing to alienate such a large portion of the population-even if his reasons are noble-is that an effective strategy? Can real change be engendered by a fraction of the population who are, for right or wrong, almost always going to be labeled as radical or out of touch? Jensen rightly states that change takes years, and if we are not willing to make radical sacrifices and admit mistakes, then no real change will occur.

Jensen is at his best in the early portions of the book when he is boldly taking on such slogans as “support the troops” and other patriotic concepts. He obviously does not back down from a fight, and unlike other leftist thinkers, he does not waffle on his core beliefs. In the second section, when Jensen begins to speak of hope and embracing pain rather than pleasure, he’s similarly effective, though the rhythm of his writing loses a little of the zip and zing. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that it’s damn near absurd to imagine that anyone can write about fostering and nurturing hope without sounding a little bit corny.

Still, it’s always tricky for an author to embrace an abstract concept such as hope or humanity. For a book with such lofty goals and grounded reason, there’s a shaky period of a few pages where one grows a little worried that the book is breaking down. Jensen rights the ship when he argues that we should seek out pain, namely, we should not cover our eyes and ignore the death and destruction wrought by American imperialism. Jensen mentions a specific episode of an Afghan boy with his legs blown off by a cluster bomb. This image sticks with the reader, but what really hits home is Jensen’s in-depth description of a cluster bomb and what it does to a person’s body.

Robert Jensen is to be commended for writing a book that does not pull punches. More importantly, Jensen has written a book that, if read in its entirety, will alienate far fewer people than he thinks. It’s getting a moderate reader to that conclusion where the challenge lies. Even if Jensen’s goal is not worrying about alienating the moderate reader, the experience is bittersweet. His ideas are sometimes so good that thinking of the moderate reader a little more might take everyone a lot further.


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