Robert Jensen

Here's why we shouldn't celebrate Thanksgiving

After years of being constantly annoyed and often angry about the historical denial built into Thanksgiving Day, I published an essay in November 2005 suggesting we replace the feasting with fasting and create a National Day of Atonement to acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people that is central to the creation of the United States.

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The (burning) case for a Green New Deal

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous.

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Thanksgiving? No, thanks.

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin -- the genocide of indigenous people -- is of special importance today. It's now routine -- even among conservative commentators -- to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."

Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them."

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."

Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who "settled" the country -- and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation" and "undermine young people's faith in our country."

Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day's mythology on our minds.

No Thanks to Thanksgiving

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

Keep reading... Show less

Will the United States Ever Transcend White Supremacy?

Now that the violence in Charlottesville has forced “white supremacy” into our political vocabulary, let's ask an uncomfortable question: “When will the United States transcend white supremacy?”

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Naomi Klein Pushes Us to Dream Big to Get Beyond Trump’s Shock Politics

Naomi Klein understands that President Donald J. Trump is a problem, but he is not the problem.

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How Israel's Media Propaganda Dominates the American Mind

In the conflict over the land of Palestine, Israel’s overpowering military superiority has produced decisive battlefield victories. But just as crucial to Israeli dominance in that region is its supremacy in the U.S. news media, which is captured in the title of an important new film from the Media Education Foundation, The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States.

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Humanity's Best Future Plan? Leaving the Planet Gracefully

The following is an excerpt from the new book, Plain Radical: Living, Loving and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully, by Robert Jensen (Soft Skull Press, 2015).

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I'm the Guy Who People Think Hates Thanksgiving

“Are you the guy who hates Thanksgiving?”

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No Thanks to Thanksgiving

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin -- the genocide of indigenous people -- is of special importance today. It's now routine -- even among conservative commentators -- to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."

Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them."

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."

Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who "settled" the country -- and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation" and "undermine young people's faith in our country."

Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day's mythology on our minds.

We Have to Embrace Apocalypse If We're Going to Get Serious About Sticking Around on This Planet

The following is an excerpt from We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out , in print at Amazon.com and on Kindle (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013):
Here’s my experience in speaking apocalyptically about the serious challenges humans face: No matter how carefully I craft a statement of concern about the future of humans, no matter how often I deny a claim to special gifts of prognostication, no matter now clearly I reject supernatural explanations or solutions, I can be certain that a significant component of any audience will refuse to take me seriously. Some of those people will make a joke about “Mr. Doom and Gloom.” Others will suggest that such talk is no different than conspiracy theorists’ ramblings about how international bankers, secret cells of communists, or crypto-fascists are using the United Nations to create a one-world government. Even the most measured and careful talk of the coming dramatic change in the place of humans on Earth leads to accusations that one is unnecessarily alarmist, probably paranoid, certainly irrelevant to serious discussion about social and ecological issues. In the United States, talk of the future is expected to be upbeat, predicting expansion and progress, or at least maintenance of our “way of life.” 
Apocalyptic thinking allows us to let go of those fanciful visions of the future. As singer/songwriter John Gorka puts it: “The old future’s gone/We can’t get to there from here.” The comfortable futures that we are comfortable imagining are no longer available to us because of the reckless way we’ve been rolling the dice; there is nothing to save us from ourselves. Our task is to deal with our future without delusions of deliverance, either divine or technological. This planet is not a way station in a journey to some better place; it is our home, the only home we will know. We will make our peace with ourselves, each other, and the larger living world here.
The first step in thinking sensibly about the future, of course, is reviewing the past. The uncertainty of our future will be easier to accept and the strength to persevere will be easier to summon if we recognize:
--We are animals. For all our considerable rational capacities, we are driven by non-rational forces that cannot be fully understood or completely controlled. Even the most careful scientist is largely an emotional creature, just like everyone else.
--We are band/tribal animals. Whatever kind of political unit we live in today, our evolutionary history is in small groups; that’s how we are designed to live.
--We are band/tribal animals living in a global world. The consequences of the past 10,000 years of human history have left us dealing with human problems on a global scale, and with 7 billion people on the planet, there’s no point in fantasizing about a retreat to Eden.
With that history in mind, we should go easy on ourselves. As Wes Jackson said, we are a species out of context, facing the unique task of being the first animals who will have to self-consciously impose limits on ourselves if we are to survive, reckoning not just with what we do in our specific place on the planet but with what other people are doing around the world. This is no small task, and we are bound to fail often. We may never stop failing, and that is possibly the most daunting challenge we must face: Can we persevere in the quest for justice and sustainability even if we had good reasons to believe that both projects ultimately will fail? Can we live with that possibility? Can we ponder that and yet still commit ourselves to loving action toward others and the non-human world?
Said differently: What if our species is an evolutionary dead end? What if those adaptations that produced our incredible evolutionary success -- our ability to understand certain aspects of how the world works and manipulate that world to our short-term advantage -- are the very qualities that guarantee our human systems will degrade the life-sustaining systems of the world? What if that which has allowed us to dominate will be that which destroys us? What if humanity’s story is a dramatic tragedy in the classical sense, a tale in which the seeds of the hero’s destruction are to be found within, and history is the unfolding of the inevitable fall? 
We love stories of individual heroes, and collectively we tend to think of ourselves as the heroic species. The question we might ask, uncomfortably, about those tales of heroism: Is Homo sapiens an epic hero or a tragic one? Literature scholars argue over the specific definitions of the terms “epic” and “tragedy,” but in common usage an epic celebrates the deeds of a hero who is favored by, and perhaps descended from, the gods. These heroes overcome adversity to do great things in the service of great causes. Epic heroes win.  
A tragic hero loses, but typically not because of an external force. The essence of tragedy is what Aristotle called “hamartia,” an error in judgment made because of some character flaw, such as hubris. That excessive pride of protagonists becomes their downfall. Although some traditions talk about the sin of pride, most of us understand that taking some pride in ourselves is psychologically healthy. The problem is excessive pride, when we elevate ourselves and lose a sense of the equal value of others. When we fall into hubris individually, the consequences can be disastrous for us and those around us. When we fall into that hubris as a species -- when we ignore the consequences of the exploitation on which our “lifestyle” is based -- the consequences are more dramatic. 
What if our task is to give up the dream of the human species as special? And what if the global forces set in motion during the high-energy/high-technology era are beyond the point of no return? Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee we can control the destruction we have unleashed. It may be that there is no way to rewrite this larger epic, that too much of the tragedy has already been played out. 
But here’s the good news: While tragic heroes meet an unhappy fate, a community can learn from the protagonist’s fall. Even tragic heroes can, at the end, celebrate the dignity of the human spirit in their failure. That may be our task, to recognize that we can’t reverse course in time to prevent our ultimate failure, but that in the time remaining we can recognize our hamartia, name our hubris, and do what we can to undo the damage. 
That may be the one chance for us to be truly heroic, by learning to leave center stage gracefully, to stop trying to run the world and to accept a place in the world. We have to take our lives seriously but take Life more seriously. 
We certainly live in a dangerous time, if we take seriously the data that our vast intellectual enterprises have produced. Ironically, the majority of intellectuals who are part of those enterprises prefer to ignore the implications of that data. The reasons for that will of course vary, and there is no reason to pretend these issues are simple or that we can line up intellectuals in simple categories of good/bad, brave/cowardly, honest/dishonest. Reasonable people can agree on the data and disagree on interpretation and analysis. Again, my argument is not that anyone who does not share my interpretation and analysis is obviously wrong or corrupt; many of the assertions I have made require more lengthy argument than available in this space. 
But I hold to one point without equivocation: When the privileged intellectuals subsidized by the institutions of the dominant culture look away from the difficult issues that we face today, they are failing to meet their moral obligations. The more privileged the intellectual, the greater the responsibility to use our resources, status, and autonomy to face these issues. There is a lot riding on whether we have the courage and the strength to accept that danger, joyfully. This harsh assessment, and the grief that must accompany it, is not a rejection of joy. The two, grief and joy, are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, rely on each other, and define the human condition. As Wendell Berry puts it, we live on “the human estate of grief and joy.”
This inevitably leads to the question: where can we find hope? My short answer: Don’t ask someone else where to find it. Create it through your actions. Hope is not something we find, but is something we earn. No one has the right to be hopeful until they expend energy to make hope possible. Gorka’s song expresses this: “The old future’s dead and gone/Never to return/There’s a new way through the hills ahead/This one we’ll have to earn/This one we’ll have to earn.”
Berry speaks repeatedly of the importance of daily practice, of building a better world in a practical ways that nurture real bonds in real communities that know their place in the world. He applies this same idea to a discussion of hope:
[Y]ou’re not under any obligation to construct a hope for the whole human race. What you are required to do is to be intelligent. And that means you’ve got to have an array of examples you want more or less to understand. Some are not perfect, and others are awful, and to be intelligent you’ve got to know why some are better than the others.
If people demand that intellectuals provide hope -- or, worse, if intellectuals believe it is their job to give people hope -- then offering platitudes about hope is just another way of avoiding the difficult questions. Clamoring for hope can be a dangerous diversion. But if the discussion of hope leads to action, even in the face of situations that may be hopeless, then we can hold onto what Albert Camus called a “stubborn hope”:
Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope.
I would call this a hope beyond hope, the willingness not only to embrace that danger but to find joy in it. The systems that structure our world have done more damage than we can understand, but no matter how dark the world grows, there is a light within. That is the message of the best of our theological and secular philosophical traditions, a recurring theme of the best of our art. Wendell Berry has been returning to this theme for decades in essays, fiction, and poetry, and it is the subject of one of his Sabbath poems: 
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
This is what I say to myself: Whatever our chances of surviving, we define ourselves in the present moment by what we do. There are two basic tasks in front of us. First, we should commit some of our energy to movements that focus on the question of justice in this world, especially those of us with the privilege that is rooted in that injustice. As a middle-class American white man, I can see plenty of places to continue working, in movements dedicated to ending white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and U.S. wars of domination. 
I also think there is important work to be done in experiments to prepare for what will come in this new future that we can’t yet describe in detail. Whatever the limits of our predictive capacity, we can be pretty sure we will need ways of organizing ourselves to help us live in a world with less energy and fewer material goods. We all have to develop the skills needed for that world (such as farming and gardening with fewer inputs, food preparation and storage, and basic tinkering), and we will need to recover a deep sense of community that has disappeared from many of our lives. This means abandoning a sense of ourselves as consumption machines, which the contemporary culture promotes, and deepening our notions of what it means to be humans in search of meaning. We have to learn to tell different stories about our sense of self, our connection to others, and our place in nature. The stories we tell will matter, as will the skills we learn.
Berry’s basis for hope begins with a recognition of where we are and who we are, at our best:
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
In my own life, I continue to work on those questions of justice in existing movements, but I have shifted a considerable amount of time to helping build local networks that can create a place for those experiments. Different people will move toward different efforts depending on talents and temperaments; we should all follow our hearts and minds to apply ourselves where it makes sense, given who we are and where we live. After offering several warnings about arrogance, I’m not about to suggest I know best what work other people should do. If there is any reason for hope, it will be in direct proportion to our capacity for humility and seeing ourselves as part of, not on top of, the larger living world. Berry ends that Sabbath poem not with false optimism but a blunt reminder of how easy it is for us to fall out of right relation with ourselves, others, and the larger living world:
No place at last is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
The argument I have made rests on an unsentimental assessment of the physical world and the life-threatening consequences of human activity over the past 10,000 years. We would be wise not to plan on supernatural forces or human inventions to save us from ourselves. It is unlikely that we will be delivered to a promised land by divine or technological intervention. Wishing the world were less harsh will not magically make it less harsh. We should not give into the temptation to believe in magic. As James Howard Kunstler puts it, we should stop “clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts.”
But we should keep telling stories. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us. In that sense, the poet Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Whatever particular work intellectuals do, they are also storytellers. Artists tell stories, but so do scientists and engineers, teachers and preachers. Our work is always both embedded in a story and advancing a story. Intellectual work matters not just for what it discovers about how the world works, but for what story it tells about those discoveries.  
To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. Our hope for a decent future -- indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future -- depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world but how we can live in the world. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic. The central story of power -- that the domination/subordination dynamic is natural and inevitable -- must give way to stories of dignity, solidarity, equality. We must resist not only the cruelty of repression but the seduction of comfort.
The songs we sing matter at least as much as the machines we build. Power always assumes it can control. Our task is to resist that control. Gorka offers that reminder, of the latent power of our stories, in the fancifully titled song “Flying Red Horse”:
They think they can tame you, name you and frame you,
Aim you where you don’t belong.
They know where you’ve been but not where you’re going,
And that is the source of the songs.

Get Apocalyptic - The Case for the New Radical

Feeling anxious about life in a broken-down society on a stressed-out planet? That’s hardly surprising: Life as we know it is almost over. While the dominant culture encourages dysfunctional denial—pop a pill, go shopping, find your bliss—there’s a more sensible approach: Accept the anxiety, embrace the deeper anguish—and then get apocalyptic.

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"Apocalyptic Journalism" and Why We Need Reporters to Face the Reality of Our Crumbling Society

For those who care about a robust human presence on the planet, the 21st century has been characterized by really bad news that keeps getting really, really worse.

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Texas Right-Wingers Want Their History Taught 'Politics Free'

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“Good teaching is living your life honestly in front of students.”

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No Thanks for Thanksgiving

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin -- the genocide of indigenous people -- is of special importance today. It's now routine -- even among conservative commentators -- to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."

Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them."

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."

Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who "settled" the country -- and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation" and "undermine young people's faith in our country."

Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day's mythology on our minds.

A Decade of Delusion

Ten years ago, critics of the United States' mad rush to war were right, but it didn't matter.

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No Thanks to Thanksgiving

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

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What White People Fear

In the struggle for racial justice, it’s time to pay more attention to the fears of white people. 

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Can Engaging with a Radical Religion Help Save Progressives from Self-Indulgence?

The following is an excerpt from the new book All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice by Robert Jensen from Soft Skull Press.

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Is America on the Brink of a Food Crisis?

As everyone scrambles for a solution to the crises in the nation's economy, Wes Jackson suggests we look to nature's economy for some of the answers. With everyone focused on a stimulus package in the short term, he counsels that we pay more attention to the soil over the long haul.  

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No Thanks to Thanksgiving

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian Media Giant Attacks Free Speech

When the bottom line is threatened, corporations typically show little concern for holding the line on political principles such as freedom of expression. In capitalism, freedom is too often just another word for maximizing profits.

But even when we have no illusions about the predatory nature of modern corporate capitalism, there's something particularly disheartening when a media corporation abandons free-speech principles. Journalists are supposed to be the good guys on freedom of expression, right? If for no other reason than self-interest, shouldn't media managers support these principles?

Yes, but apparently not when ideology gets in the way, as seems to be the case at Canada's largest media corporation.

CanWest -- owner of newspaper, television, and online properties, including one of the country's national dailies and a TV network -- is trying to use trademark law to punish political activists' free speech in a classic SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

This case is relatively simple: CanWest's founder, Izzy Asper, was a vocal supporter of Israel, (he's been quoted as telling the Jerusalem Post, "In all our newspapers, including the National Post, we have a very pro-Israel position. ... we are the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada.") and CanWest papers have maintained that ideological commitment since Asper's death in 2003.

To highlight this pro-Israeli slant in CanWest papers, the Palestine Media Collective produced a parody of the Vancouver Sun that included such stories as "Study Shows Truth Biased against Israel, By Cyn Sorsheep." As with most parodies, some of the attempts are clever and some fall flat. But there's no way to not recognize it as a parody. (You can see for yourself by reading it here.)

Because the folks who produced the parody were anonymous (they've since stepped up to identify themselves publicly), CanWest sued the printer and another activist who had passed out a few copies, Mordecai Briemberg, claiming a trademark violation. Such a suit is legitimate only when the plaintiff can show there's a reasonable likelihood that people will confuse the fake with the real and that some harm will result. In this case, there clearly is no confusion and no harm, and hence no serious claim. But CanWest presses on.

Calling the Collective's paper "a counterfeit version" that amounts to "identity theft," CanWest seems to want to frame this as a kind of intellectual-property terrorism: "This piece was not satirical. It was not a clever spoof. It was a deliberate act to mislead and misinform thousands of people by using the actual Vancouver Sun masthead, logo and layout," reads a company statement on the case.

According to a 2007 story in the Vancouver Sun, CanWest believes that the defendants were "motivated by hostility to the principal shareholders of the plaintiff and by a desire to undermine, or hurt, the business of the plaintiff and its principal shareholders" and "harbor antagonistic views towards the plaintiff, its principal shareholders and the reporting and editorial opinions expressed in the plaintiff's publications, including in the Vancouver Sun."

This all seems a bit thin-skinned for a media company, given how journalists take pride in their role as tough critics. It's true enough that the activists in question don't seem to like the reporting and editorial opinions of the Sun and its parent company. And it's not unusual for those who believe that an information source is unreliable to encourage people to seek information elsewhere. So, I suppose there's a fair amount of antagonism on all sides. As for motivation, I have interviewed Briemberg, and I didn't pick up on any hostility. He's a longtime activist, driven by the concerns for social and economic justice that motivate most people on the political left. If he's hostile to anything, it's to injustice.

But this can't be about feelings, of course; it's about freedom of speech and press in a democratic society. If CanWest prevails -- if citizens' judgments about the quality of a newspaper's coverage can be the grounds for a lawsuit -- then media criticism in Canada is made more difficult and democracy suffers. In a mass-mediated society, people must be free to critique that powerful institution just as they critique government and other businesses.

That brings us back to journalists and freedom of expression. Given this situation, one might expect a flood of stories by Canadian journalists to defend freedom of expression and criticize CanWest for its bullying tactics. But apart from the story in the Sun, my search revealed one news story in the Toronto Globe and Mail and a mention of the case by one of that paper's columnists. Some web sites have reported the story, and activist groups are weighing in. Professional associations of librarians and teachers are on record opposing the suit. But where are the journalists from the corporate press? It's no surprise that journalists at CanWest papers are keeping their heads down, but why the silence from most others?

CanWest is a big company with an ideological axe to grind. We should critique the company's abuse of power in filing the suit and count this as a reminder of the potential problems that come with media concentration. But the silence of other journalists should trouble us even more. When a profession that provides so much of our information won't hold itself accountable, it's a threat not just to journalism but to democracy.

The Sorrows of Race and Gender in the 2008 Election

[This is an expanded version of a talk given to the University Democrats at the University of Texas at Austin, April 16, 2008.]

It may seem odd to talk of sorrows around race and gender in politics when we are a few months away from being able to vote for a white woman or a black man for president of the United States. When I was born in 1958, any suggestion that such an election was on the horizon would have been laughed off as crazy. In the first presidential campaign I paid attention to as an eighth-grader in 1972, Shirley Chisholm -- who four years earlier had become the first black woman to win a seat in Congress -- was to most Americans a curiosity not a serious contender. Today, things are different.

Today Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s battle for the Democratic Party nomination suggests progress. Though the pace of progress toward gender and racial justice may seem slow, we should take a moment to honor the people whose struggles for the liberation of women and non-white people have brought us to this historic moment. If not for the vision and courage of those in the feminist and civil-rights movements there would be no possibility of a contest between Clinton and Obama, and the debt we owe those activists is enormous.

But instead of getting too caught up in this moment, we should reflect more deeply on that history -- not just on what was won but what has been lost. We have an obligation to those who sacrificed in those struggles for liberation to reflect honestly, and if we do that I believe it will lead to sorrow.

I don’t take this sorrow to be a bad thing. Today one of the most important virtues is the ability to understand sorrow clearly, to confront sorrow openly, to feel sorrow deeply, and in the end to accept the sorrows that come with being human in the modern world. Such sorrow is especially important in a society built on delusional beliefs about manifest destiny and endless expansion, world domination and American exceptionalism. The best of a people is carried not by those who pander to a pathological sense of entitlement, but by those who are not afraid to live with sorrow.

As one of my favorite songwriters has put it, “Those are lost who/try to cross through/the sorrow fields too easily.”[1]

So, let us heed Eliza Gilkyson and not race across those sorrow fields. Let us walk through them deliberately, carefully, and responsibly. Let us learn from that journey.

What are the sorrows to which I’m referring? I don’t mean the disgust and distress that many of us feel when we read the blogs, listen to talk radio, or watch cable TV news -- places where some of our fellow citizens and journalists wallow in the sexism and racism that still infects so much of this society. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Hillary Clinton is scrutinized in ways no man would ever be. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Barack Obama’s blackness is examined for either its inadequacies or excesses.

The attacks on Clinton because she is a woman and Obama because he is black should make us angry and may leave us feeling dejected, but for me they are not the stuff of sorrow. We can organize against those expressions of sexism and racism; we can mobilize to counter those forces; we can respond to those people.

Remembering the radicals

My sorrow comes from the recognition that the radical analyses of the feminist and civil-rights movements -- the core insights of those movements that made it possible when I was young to imagine real liberation -- are no longer recognized as a part of the conversation in the dominant political culture of the United States. It’s not just that such analyses have not been universally adopted -- it would be naïve to think that in a few decades too many dramatic changes could be put into place, after all -- but that they have been pushed even further to the margins, almost completely out of public view.

For example, when I talk about these ideas with students at the University of Texas it is for some the first time they have heard such things. It’s not that they have rejected the analyses or condemned the movements, but they did not know such radical ideas exist or had ever existed. These students often do not know that these movements did not simply condemn the worst overt manifestations of sexism and racism, but went to the heart of the patriarchal and white-supremacist nature of U.S. society while at the same time focusing attention on the imperialist nature of our foreign policy and predatory nature of corporate capitalism. The most compelling arguments emerging from those movements didn’t suggest a kindler-and-gentler imperialist capitalist state, but an end to those unjust and unsustainable systems.

The irony is that Clinton and Obama, who today are viable candidates because of those movements, provide such clear evidence of the death of the best hopes of those movements. Those two candidates have turned away from these compelling ideas so completely that neither speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy. These are not candidates opposing imperialism and capitalism but candidates telling us why we should believe that they can better manage the system.

I recognize that this may seem condescending coming from a white man living in the American middle class -- that is, someone whose material standard of living is enhanced by these very systems of domination and subordination. One might point out that it’s easy for me as a person with privilege (especially one who is not running for office and not appealing for votes in a reactionary country) to talk about liberation and radical movements. What right do I have to demand that Clinton and Obama articulate a radical political vision as they grapple with the reality of a political campaign?

Let me be clear that I am not attacking Clinton and Obama for not sharing my politics; I’m not really attacking them at all, though I disagree with many of their political positions. Instead I’m arguing that these candidates offer a political ideology very different from that which animated the best of the movements that made it possible for them to run. This is not simply a critique of the candidates’ campaign platitudes, not an examination of whether either candidate talks enough about “women’s issues” or “racism.” This is part of a larger examination of the unjust and unsustainable systems -- patriarchy and white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism -- that we must take seriously if we are to talk seriously about the possibility of a decent future, or of a future at all.

Radical feminism, which I think was the crucial core of that movement, offered a critique of patriarchy and the hierarchy created by patriarchal values. Those activists spoke not only of equal rights for women but of an end to all hierarchies. The radical civil-rights forces, which I think were at the core of that movement, offered a critique of white supremacy and the hierarchies reinforced by white-supremacist values. Those activists spoke not only of equal rights for non-white people but of an end to systems of domination more generally. The most powerful articulations of feminism and the civil-rights movement did not simply say, “Let’s leave these fundamentally unjust and unsustainable systems in place but put some women and non-white people in positions of power.” They argued for a transformation of the systems.

For example, as the U.S. pursued its brutal attack on the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1960s and ‘70s, these movements argued for the end not only of that war but of U.S. imperialism. Radical feminist and civil-rights activists weren’t dreaming of the day that Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell could be appointed Secretary of State to help run an imperialist U.S. foreign policy that would continue to engage in crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes -- as all three did during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The goal was not simply to change the players, but to change the nature of the deadly game.

Albright, Rice, and Powell are not the fulfillment of a liberatory dream but are part of our long national nightmare. If Clinton or Obama were elected and continued the same basic policies that allow the United States to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources -- as they both indicate they will -- then they will haunt us as well.

More radical understandings of the source of social problems were common in the civil-rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. made that clear in his April 4, 1967, speech in opposition to the Vietnam War:

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Does Porn Make the Man?

The following is an excerpt from Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, by Robert Jensen.

King of the Hill

The object of the children's game King of the Hill is to be the one who remains on top of the hill (or, if not an actual hill, a large pile of anything or the center of any designated area). To do that, one has to repel those who challenge the king's supremacy. The king has to push away all the other kids who charge the hill. That can be done in a friendly spirit with an understanding that a minimal amount of force will be used by all, or it can be violent and vicious, with both the king and the challengers allowed to use any means necessary. Games that start with such a friendly understanding can often turn violent and vicious. This scenario is also used in some video games, in which a player tries to control a specific area for a predetermined amount of time.

In my experience, both male and female children can, and did, play King of the Hill, but it was overwhelmingly a game of male children. It's one of the games that train male children to be men. No matter who is playing, it is a game of masculinity. King of the Hill reveals one essential characteristic of the dominant conception of masculinity: No one is ever safe, and everyone loses something.

Most obviously, this King-of-the-Hill masculinity is dangerous for women. It leads men to seek to control "their" women and define their own pleasure in that control, which leads to epidemic levels of rape and battery. But this view of masculinity is toxic for men as well.

One thing is immediately obvious about King-of-the-Hill masculinity: Not everyone can win. In fact, by definition in this conception of masculinity, there's only one real man at any given moment. In a system based on hierarchy, by definition there can be only one person at the top of the hierarchy. There's only one King of the Hill.

In this conception of masculinity, men are in constant struggle with each other for dominance. Every other man must in some way be subordinated to the king, but even the king can't feel too comfortable -- he has to be nervous about who is coming up that hill to get him. This isn't just a game, of course. A friend who once worked on Wall Street, one of the preeminent sites of masculine competition in the business world, described coming to work as like "walking into a knife fight when all the good spots along the wall were taken." Every day you faced the possibility of getting killed -- figuratively, in business terms -- and there was no spot you could stand where your back was covered. This is masculinity lived as endless competition and threat. Whatever the benefits of it, whatever power it gives one over others, it's also exhausting and, in the end, unfulfilling.

No one man created this system. Perhaps no man, if given a real choice, would choose it. But we live our lives in that system, and it deforms men, narrowing our emotional range and depth, and limiting our capacity to experience the rich connections with others -- not just with women and children, but with other men -- which require vulnerability but make life meaningful. The Man Who Would Be King is the Man Who Is Broken and Alone.

That toxic masculinity hurts men doesn't mean it's equally dangerous for men and women. As feminists have long pointed out, there's a big difference between women dealing with the constant threat of being raped, beaten, and killed by the men in their lives, and men not being able to cry. But we can see that the short-term material gains that men get in patriarchy -- the name for this system of male dominance -- are not adequate compensation for what we men give up in the long haul, which is to surrender part of our humanity to the project of dominance.

This doesn't mean, of course, that in this world all men have it easy. Other systems of dominance and oppression -- white supremacy, heterosexism, predatory corporate capitalism -- mean that non-white men, gay men, poor and working-class men suffer in various ways. A feminist analysis doesn't preclude us from understanding those problems but in fact helps us see them more clearly.


What feminism is and isn't to me

Each fall in my seminar class for first-year students at the University of Texas, I lead a discussion about gender politics that will sound familiar to many teachers. I ask the students about their opinions about various gender issues, such as equal pay, sexual harassment, men's violence, and gender roles. Most of the women and some of the men express views that would be called feminist. But when I ask how many identify as feminists, out of the 15 students in any semester, no more than three (always women) have ever claimed the label. When I ask why, the typical answers are not about the political positions of feminism but the perception that feminism is weird and that weird people are feminists.

This pattern is no doubt connected to the assault on feminism in the mainstream culture, captured most succinctly in the phrase "femi-nazi" made popular by right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. One response to this by some feminists has been to find a least-common-denominator definition of the term, to reassure both men and women that feminism doesn't really aim to undermine established gender norms and isn't threatening to men. I believe that to be the wrong strategy. If feminism is to make a meaningful difference in the sex/gender crisis we face, and contribute to a broader social change so desperately needed, I believe it must be clear in its challenge to the existing order -- and that inevitably will be threatening to many men, at least at first. Feminism, then, should get more radical than ever.

In general, the term "radical" conjures up images of extremes, of danger, of people eager to tear things down. But radical has another meaning -- from the Latin, for root. Radical solutions are the ones that get to the root of the problem. When the systems in which we live are in crisis, the most honest confrontations with those systems have to be radical. At first glance, that honesty will seem frightening. Looking deeper, it is the radical ideas that offer hope, a way out of the crisis.

Because these ideas are denigrated in the dominant culture, it's important to define them. By feminist, I mean an analysis of the ways in which women are oppressed as a class in this society -- the ways in which men as a class hold more power, and how those differences in power systematically disadvantage women in the public and private spheres. Gender oppression plays out in different ways depending on social location, which makes it crucial to understand men's oppression of women in connection with other systems of oppression -- heterosexism, racism, class privilege, and histories of colonial and postcolonial domination.

By radical feminist, I mean the analysis of the ways that in this patriarchal system in which we live, one of the key sites of this oppression -- one key method of domination -- is sexuality. Two of the most well-known women who articulated a radical feminist view have been central to the feminist critique of pornography -- the writer Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, a lawyer and law professor. The feminist philosophy and politics that have shaped my thinking are most clearly articulated by those two and others with similar views.

What I also learned from this radical feminism is not just a way of critiquing men's domination of women but a broader approach to understanding systems of power and oppression. Feminism is not the only way into a broader critique of the many types of oppression, of course, but it is one important way, and was for me the first route into such a framework. My real political education started on the issue of gender and from there moved to issues of racial and economic injustice, the imperialist wars that flow out of that injustice, and the ecological crisis. Each system of power and oppression is unique in its own way, but there are certain features in common. Here's my summary:

How do we explain the fact that most people's stated philosophical and theological systems are rooted in concepts of justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation, and oppression to flourish? Only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths, engaging in cruel and oppressive behavior openly and with relish. Feminism helped me understand the complex process, which tends to work like this:

  • The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
  • Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits.
  • People are typically hesitant to give up such privileges, pleasures, and benefits.
  • But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of those in the subordinated class.
  • Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
  • One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are "natural."


So, oppressive systems work hard to make it appear that the hierarchy -- and the disparity in power and resources that flow from hierarchy -- is natural and, therefore, beyond modification. If men are naturally smarter and stronger than women, then patriarchy is inevitable and justifiable. If white people are naturally smarter and more virtuous than people of color, then white supremacy is inevitable and justifiable. If rich people are naturally smarter and harder working than poor people, then economic injustice is inevitable and justifiable. And, if human beings have special status in the universe, justified either on theological or biological grounds, then humans' right to extract from the rest of Creation whatever they like is inevitable and justifiable.

For unjust hierarchies, and the illegitimate authority that is exercised in them, maintaining their own naturalness is essential. Not surprisingly, people in the dominant class exercising the power gravitate easily to such a view. And because of their power to control key story-telling institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in the dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in the subordinate class to internalize the ideology.

For me, feminism gave me a way to see through not only male dominance, but all the systems of illegitimate authority. I saw the fundamental strategy they held in common, and saw that if we could more into a space in which we were true to our stated ideals, we would reject those systems as anti-human. All these systems cause suffering beyond the telling. All of them must be resisted. The connections between them must be understood.


Enforcing masculinity

Systems of oppression are interlocked and enmeshed; perhaps the classic example is the way in which white men identify black men as a threat to the sexual purity of white women, requiring white men to maintain control of both black people and white women. While keeping in mind those connections, we can train our attention on how each individual power system operates. This book attempts such a focus on masculinity. The King-of-the-Hill Masculinity I have described is articulated and enforced in a variety of places in contemporary culture, most notably athletics, the military, and business, with underpinnings in the dominant monotheistic religions. We can look at all those arenas and see how masculinity-as-dominance plays out. In all those endeavors, the quality of relationships and human values become secondary to control that leads to victory, conquest, and closing the deal.

We teach our boys that to be a man is to be tough, to be acquisitive, to be competitive, to be aggressive. We congratulate them when they make a tough hit on the football field that takes out an opponent. We honor them in parades when they return from slaughtering the enemy abroad. We put them on magazine covers when they destroy business competitors and make millions by putting people out of work. In short, we train boys to be cruel, to ignore the feelings of others, to be violent.

U.S. culture's most-admired male heroes reflect those characteristics: They most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it, and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals. Victory is sweet. Conquest gives a sense of power. And after closing the deal, the sweet sense of power lingers.

Look around in the contemporary United States, and masculinity is paraded in front of us, sometimes in displays that border on self-parody:
  • George W. Bush dons a flight suit and lands on an aircraft carrier; the self-proclaimed "war president" announces victory (albeit somewhat prematurely). John Kerry, fearing a masculinity gap, serves up a hunting photo-op in the 2004 campaign to show that not only does he have combat experience that Bush lacks but still likes to fire a weapon.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger moves from action-movie hero to governor of California, denigrating opponents he deems insufficiently tough as "girly men."
  • Donald Trump, a businessman famous mostly for being famous and attracting conventionally attractive female partners, boosts a sagging public image with "The Apprentice" television show that pits young wannabe executives against each other in cutthroat competition.


  • And then there is sex, where victory, conquest, and dealing come together, typically out of public view. Masculinity played out in sexual relationships, straight or gay, brings King of the Hill into our most intimate spaces. Again, this doesn't mean that every man in every sexual situation plays out this dominance, but simply that there exists a pattern. When I speak to mixed groups about these subjects, I often describe the sex-as-dominance paradigm, and then I ask the women in the room if they have any experience with men behaving in such fashion. There is considerable rolling of the eyes and many exasperated sighs at that point. I present it in light-hearted fashion because to put it too harshly makes most mixed audiences very nervous.

    And then there is pornography, where brings the private imposition of masculinity into public, putting King-of-the-Hill sex onto the screen.


    Pornography's whisper to men

    We think of the call of pornography as crass, like a carnival barker's. Like the neon lights of Times Square in its pornographic heyday. Men go to buy pornography in the "red-light" district, the "combat zone." Pornography seems to shout out at us, crudely.

    But in reality, pornography speaks to men in a whisper. We pretend to listen to the barker shouting about women, but that is not the draw. What brings us back, over and over, is the voice in our ears, the soft voice that says, "It's OK, you really are a man, you really can be a man, and if you come into my world, it will all be there, and it will all be easy."

    Pornography knows men's weakness. It speaks to that weakness, softly. Pornography ends up being about men's domination of women and about the ugly ways that men will take pleasure. But for most men, it starts with the soft voice that speaks to our deepest fear: That we aren't man enough.

A Call for an Open Discussion of Mass-Marketed Pornography

At a progressive media reform conference dedicated to resisting corporate control of mass media, where many of the participants focus on gender and racial justice, it shouldn't be difficult to interest people in the feminist critique of mass-marketed pornography.

After all, the pornography industry creates a steady stream of relentlessly sexist and racist films and web sites that undermine attempts to build a healthy sexual culture, while filling the pornographers' pockets with substantial profits. A general critique of the effects of misogyny, white supremacy, and predatory corporate capitalism on mass media dovetails perfectly with the feminist critique of sexual-exploitation media.

Yet as I circulated at last month's National Conference on Media Reform and distributed fliers for an upcoming feminist conference on pornography, the responses I got were often skeptical and sometimes hostile. The questions that were commonly asked of me that weekend revealed the need for the left/progressive political community to deepen its understanding of the issue.

The most common of those questions was, "Is your conference an anti-sex project?" reflecting the common distortion that feminist critics of pornography share the right-wing's obsessions about containing sexuality within traditional "family values."

My co-author Gail Dines has developed a clear response to the question, which I borrowed during the weekend in Memphis: When we criticize McDonald's for its unhealthy food, environmentally destructive business practices, and targeting of children through manipulative advertising, does anyone ask whether we are "anti-food"? Of course not, because no one conflates McDonald's with food; we recognize that there are many ways to prepare food, and it's appropriate to critique the more toxic varieties. The same holds for pornography; pursuing a healthy sexuality does not mean we have to support toxic pornography.

Another common response was, "Do you support censorship?" reflecting a distortion of what feminists have proposed as remedies to the problem of pornography. First, the original feminist anti-pornography movement in the 1980s rejected state censorship that works through existing obscenity law and proposed a civil-rights approach that would give people hurt by pornography a chance in court to prove the harm. There are questions to ask about any legal strategy involving expression, and concerns about suppression of free speech are important; there are even disagreements within the feminist anti-pornography movement about this. But that discussion should start from an accurate account of the alternatives.

Second, at this point in the feminist anti-pornography movement the focus is on public education. The goal is to begin an honest conversation about the way in which "mainstream" pornography, the bulk of which is marketed to heterosexual men, is increasingly cruel and degrading to women and more openly racist than ever -- at the same time that it is increasingly accepted as mainstream entertainment. It's ironic to be accused of trying to suppress free speech when trying simply to exercise free speech in critique of profit-driven sexism and racism.

There was much insightful criticism at the conference of the subtle sexism and racism that still pervades mainstream corporate-commercial mass media. Although men and white people -- including in progressive circles -- are sometimes resistant to that analysis, no one argues that it's an inappropriate topic for discussion. Yet for some reason, many of those same progressives -- men and women alike -- don't consider a left/feminist/anti-racist critique of pornography to be part of the media reform/media justice agenda. Why? I think it has to do with fear.

Facing the pornography industry forces us to acknowledge the deep misogyny and white supremacy that still exists in the culture, even with the gains of the feminist and civil-rights movements. Both women and men might understandably be afraid of confronting what pornography tells us about the cruelty of our culture, our own sexual socialization, and the difficult struggles we face to create a world free of sexual violence.

That fear is real, and all the more reason to confront the issue of pornography more openly.

No Thanks to Thanksgiving

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin -- the genocide of indigenous people -- is of special importance today. It's now routine -- even among conservative commentators -- to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hardy Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."

Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them."

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."

Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who "settled" the country -- and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation" and "undermine young people's faith in our country."

Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day's mythology on our minds.

AlterNet orginally ran this article on Thanksgiving 2005.

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