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.

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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'

Here’s an interesting question for historians: Why do ideologues never seem to be aware of their own ideology?

Such is the case with the recent report from the Texas Association of Scholars and the National Association of Scholars’ Center for the Study of the Curriculum, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?

The groups’ answer to the title’s question is “yes,” which is hardly surprising given the NAS’ longstanding critique of scholars who raise questions about the mythology of American greatness.

Based on an examination of the assigned readings for all 85 sections of lower-division American history courses at the University of Texas at Austin (where I’ve been a professor in the School of Journalism for 20 years) and Texas A&M, the report concludes that:

...all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, or gender (RCG) social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history). The result is that these institutions frequently offered students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history.

I share the NAS’ concern that research and teaching have become so specialized that insufficient attention is paid to the big picture. But the key question is, what kind of big picture should be painted? Here I part company with the conservative politics of the group—the mythology of American greatness is, in fact, mythology, and good research and teaching should challenge myths. As is the case with all imperial powers, the United States’ record includes not only examples of greatness but also some of the most barbaric crimes in recorded human history.

Scholars can, and should, argue those points, based on “reasoned scholarship and civil debate,” as the NAS advises. But such debate should begin with the recognition of the obvious: in attempts to understand humans and human societies, everyone has a politics and everyone’s politics matter.

That’s why the final recommendation of the “Recasting History” report—that we “depoliticize history”—is so troubling. Do the report’s authors not recognize their own political position? Apparently they do not get the humor in ideologues decrying the ideology of others.

Political biases are, of course, present throughout any course in the humanities and social sciences, no matter whether a professor acknowledges them or not. From decisions about what topics to cover, to the list of readings, to the framing of lectures and discussions—teaching is always political, if by that one means that judgments about the nature of power in a society affect what, and how, one teaches. To recognize that all research and teaching have a politics is not to claim that the work of professors is nothing but politics, in the sense of proselytizing. Quality research and reasoned argument are important, but the value of our work is heightened, not diminished, when the political nature of that work is understood and acknowledged.

That’s as true of those who accept the status quo as those who challenge it. The issue is not whether teaching reflects political judgments, but whether one can defend those judgments on intellectual grounds. There may be no final consensus among faculty members on how a course should be structured or taught, but we faculty members can collectively sharpen our understanding and improve our practice by discussing these matters.

In that discussion, it is absurd for one side to claim it speaks from a neutral position, outside or above politics. In its final “depoliticize history” recommendation, the NAS report argues:

The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.

And what of the politics of this “depoliticized history”? Apparently, the political goal of the NAS to escape the prison of the narrow interpretation is not political. Or maybe it’s a political judgment in the service of transcending politics. Or maybe it just doesn’t make any sense to take a partisan position and claim that one isn’t partisan.

The report continues:

The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

It would be interesting to find how the report’s authors came to understand the “disciplinary mission” of history (maybe it was revealed to them in a vision), but—sorry to have to repeat myself—any description of the mission of history has an underlying politics.

I don’t know if NAS scholars actually believe there is an “American story” that can be told from a neutral point of view, or whether this is merely a cynical debating tactic. But if we are going to address the very real problems facing the contemporary university, attempts at imposing ideology by claiming to be beyond ideology aren’t likely to help clarify problems or help generate solutions.

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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.

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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.

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