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Robert Jensen joined the University of Texas faculty in 1992 after completing his Ph.D. on media law and ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in media law, ethics, and politics. Prior to his academic career, he worked as a professional journalist for a decade.
In his research, Jensen draws on a variety of critical approaches. Much of his work has focused on pornography and the radical feminist critique of sexuality. In more recent work, he has addressed questions of race through a critique of white privilege and institutionalized racism.
In addition to teaching and research, Jensen writes for popular media, both alternative and mainstream. His opinion and analytic pieces on such subjects as foreign policy, politics, and race have appeared in papers around the country. He also is involved in a number of activist groups working against U.S. military and economic domination of the rest of the world.
Jensen is the author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2001); co-author with Gail Dines and Ann Russo of Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (Routledge, 1998); and co-editor with David S. Allen of Freeing the First Amendment: Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression (New York University Press, 1995). His pamphlet, "Citizens of the Empire: Thoughts on Patriotism, Dissent, and Hope," can be downloaded at http://www.nowarcollective.com/citizensoftheempire.pdf the Writing Dissent publisher Web site.
You can also find his books on the Barnes and Noble Web site.
G21: Being an outspoken journalist or commentator during times of war has never been a really "safe" place to be. I can think of many instances where journalists have paid the ultimate price for their words that speak against the status quo. Can you describe how the current political climate in the US has affected or changed the freedom of the press and the ability of its citizens to dissent?
JENSEN: While it is true that antiwar activists have been the victims of repression in the past in the United States, at this moment we have expansive formal guarantees for speech and political activity. With the exception of people in certain targeted classes (mostly, at the moment, Arab, South Asian and Muslim men who were picked up after 9/11 and held for varying lengths of time in secret detention, mostly on minor visa violations), American dissidents have few reasons to worry about direct state repression. To speak personally, I have written and voiced sharp, radical criticisms of the U.S. government without the hint of interference from government officials or law enforcement.
On the other hand, the social climate has been very restrictive; people often report that the social space for serious discussion in the culture is small, and shrinking, in the wake of the "patriotic" fervor. So, people have expansive legal freedoms, but are under social pressure not to exercise those freedoms. That's not good, but it's much better than being targeted by death squads, which is still the fate of dissidents in some other societies, or being thrown in prison, which has been the fate of U.S. dissidents in the past.
Shortly after 9/11, I was publicly condemned by the president of the University of Texas in an ad hominem attack. That was unfortunate -- not because it silenced me (I continued my activities without change) but because it led others to silence themselves. But I still have my job and have no reason to expect there will be direct retribution.
I think the understanding of the value of free speech in the culture is deeper than ever before. But history reminds us, of course, that freedoms won are not necessarily permanent. If the war hysteria increases, it's easy to imagine the government cracking down more sharply on dissent and the public accepting it.
G21: What are the main sources and functions of propaganda in the United States and how can the average citizen learn to differentiate fact from fiction?
JENSEN: The function of propaganda is, most simply stated, to control people through the shaping of ideas and manipulation of information so that repressive measures and overt violence are rarely needed.
The government (through direct lies and distortions of various kinds) obviously is one source of propaganda. Citizens who in peacetime might be highly skeptical of government propaganda are more likely in times of crisis to accept such information -- unfortunate since this is the time when skepticism is most needed. The history of government mis- and disinformation in wartime is well documented, not only in the United States but in every society.
Much more important is the so-called objective news that appears in the commercial media. Because it comes from an institution formally independent from the government, its credibility can be higher. The way in which news media perform a propaganda function in a free society has been outlined in clear and convincing fashion in the propaganda model developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (see Herman's The Myth of the Liberal Media or Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, revised edition).
The only way I know to find accurate information and sensible analysis is to read widely and talk about what you read with others. I try to read/listen to the mainstream U.S. press (which has lots of good information in it, especially when read critically), the alternative/progressive/left media, and the foreign press (increasingly available online), triangulating the information from those sources. It's also crucial, to share information and analysis with others, gaining from their insights.
G21: In your article "What are we celebrating on the Fourth of July" you remind Americans of the importance of self-determination both as an ideal and for all people throughout the world. But if what some say is true, that the US has indeed become an Imperial nation with all the behaviors and characteristics inherent to one, what might our future look like?
JENSEN: That we are an empire is not even much debated anymore; the only question is whether one supports the empire (either with delusions about a benevolent empire, or from a straight power perspective with no illusions of morality) or resists it. What the future looks like depends on whether or not popular movements in the United States, working with movements elsewhere, can restrain the empire in the short term and eventually help reshape the systems and institutions of the society. As my friend Rahul Mahajan, with whom I wrote that article, says: We must bury the American empire so that American democracy can live.
G21: Many have said that the roots of the September 11th attacks can be traced back to decades of US foreign policy behaviors in the Middle East. It doesn't look like much has changed in terms of US policy in the Israel/Palestine conflict and now we are poised to strike again at Iraq. Why do you believe the US is so reluctant to re-evaluate its policies and pursue alternate solutions here?
JENSEN: The dominant objective of the United States in the Middle East has been to control the flow of oil and oil profits, on the assumption that those resources belong, in some sense, to the United States and to a lesser degree to other industrial nations. From that view, it's right for the United States to dominate the region, and if violence is necessary for that domination, well then so be it.
To the degree that policymakers believe the existing policy will allow them to continue to exercise that control, they will pursue that policy. Changes will be considered as the situation changes, but it's clear that the Bush administration believes that U.S. control can be extended and deepened through intensified support for Israel and military force applied unilaterally with contempt for international law and the welfare of the people. Alternate solutions aren't considered, because by their measures of success, the current policy is working. That the majority of the people of the Middle East are made miserable by these policies is irrelevant to them. They are concerned with control, not peace.
G21: As an American I am concerned about the eroding of civil rights for our citizens. Though many Americans feel it is an "acceptable" consequence of war that will not affect them personally. Do you believe that there is a limit to just how far our civil rights can erode and that we have indeed learned some lessons from the past, or can the situation degrade even further than we've imagined?
JENSEN: How much repression will people accept probably depends on how much fear can be instilled. How much repression will they accept under such conditions? Probably quite a lot. At the same time, U.S. citizens have long enjoyed a high level of political freedom, and it may be that the kinds of repressive actions that the government has engaged in at various times in the past, if reinstituted, would produce a reaction in the citizenry. I think it's difficult to predict.
G21: It seems as though so many Americans live in a bubble when it comes to understanding the effect of our nation upon the rest of the world. So many were totally surprised by the anger directed towards us on September 11th. Why is it that Americans are so unaware in this sense?
JENSEN: Every time I talk with foreign journalists, they mention how stunned they are by the lack of knowledge and interest in international affairs in the United States and the paucity of foreign news in the media. History and geography have allowed Americans to remain disconnected from the world in ways not possible in other nations. Also, affluence tends to breed insularity and a lack of compassion for others. The combination leaves the U.S. public woefully uniformed about the world and largely unconcerned about that fact.
G21: It seems like the United States and Britain are the only countries that feel an offensive against Iraq is justified. What effects do you fear for the United States if we indeed proceed with further military action in Iraq?
JENSEN: The most obvious fear is for the people of Iraq, not the United States. Given the way in which the United States fights wars (lots of bombing that is by its nature indiscriminate, use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs, deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure such as power and water facilities, and a lack of concern by military planners for civilian deaths), we must assume that those casualties will be massive.
If the United States prevails in such a war, it will embolden the administration to continue to use brute force to deepen its control of the Middle East, and much of the rest of the world. That's not only bad news for the world, but for the United States, likely leading to an increasingly militarized society and a continued high level of defense spending that steals funding from social programs. Successful conquests rarely lead nations to step back from seeking further conquests. Such a program may, in the short run, protect American affluence (at least for the more privileged) but at the cost of lives abroad, the ecological health of the planet and our collective soul.
G21: Any final thoughts you'd like to leave our readers with?
JENSEN: Many people emailing me in the past few weeks have said "it's hopeless; the war can't be stopped." I have no idea if that prediction will come true, but it's crucial that we not retreat from public political engagement. Even if we do not stop this war, our actions can lead to the building of movements that will resist the further concentration of power and prevent atrocities in the future. Struggles for peace and justice always have to be seen as long-term efforts. And such struggles, no matter what the outcome, are always worth our attention and energy, for the sake of those who are targets of the empire and the sake of our own humanity.
For copies of Jensen's articles, go to http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/home.htm or http://www.nowarcollective.com
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