New Left Project interview with Robert Jensen
NLP's Alex Doherty talks with activist and professor of journalism Robert Jensen on the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the disturbing reaction in the United States.
New Left Project: The extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden has been greeted with a wave of jingoistic self-congratulation in the United States. Were you surprised by the reaction? What does that reaction tell us about the future trajectory of the United States? What does it tell us about the influence of leftist movements in the USA?
Robert Jensen: The hyperpatriotic outburst over the killing of Bin Laden was disturbing but not surprising. Anytime people revel in death we should be disturbed, especially death that comes when powerful nation-states dispatch military forces -- it should remind us of how much power is concentrated in these institutions. Beyond that basic concern, the United States is an empire in decline, and I think even right-wing people know that at some level. So, any action by the empire-in-decline that rekindles notions of old glory and power is likely to be very popular and lead to that jingoism. The trajectory of the United States is clear -- a failing economy can be masked temporarily by continued violence, but a large military cannot alone sustain an empire.
What does this tell us about the left in the United States? It tells us what we already knew -- that we on the left have failed to offer a compelling story to the majority of the public. I think we should critically self-reflect on that but also recognize that when future historians write this chapter of U.S. history, they might conclude that there was no way to stop the U.S. empire. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t have done more, or done it better, but that in the end we might not have been in a position to change the course of a nation so committed to dominance.
NLP: How do you view the US media's coverage of Bin Laden's death?
RJ: It was the best and worst of U.S. journalism. Most of the television news was indistinguishable from an action-adventure movie. Even the more serious print outlets couldn’t really break out of the good-v.-evil frame that the Bush administration imposed on 9/11 and subsequent events, and which the Obama administration has continued to invoke. What is most important is the degree to which U.S. mainstream journalists accept as fact what government officials say in these matters, even though those official statements could not be corroborated because it was a secret raid with no external witnesses. And virtually no journalists were asking about the implications of a military action in another country conducted without the knowledge of that government, let alone authorization.
NLP: While not approaching the machismo of George W. Bush, Obama's comments keyed into the concept of American exceptionalism and the generalised fetishisation of military force evident throughout American culture. What was your take on his comments?
RJ: My sense is that Obama knows that the hyperpatriotic rhetoric and reliance on the military is intellectually and morally bankrupt, but that it’s the price of entry into contemporary politics. But less important than what he might know is what he does, which is to continue the same basic policies of past administrations in an attempt to maintain the U.S. empire, though perhaps somewhat more cautiously. So, when Obama refers to “our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place,” we should understand it the same way we would understand Bush saying such things: Our “values” are rhetorical cover for empire; the “sacrifices” are typically imposed upon the vulnerable; and a “safer” world is more dangerous than ever.
NLP: Obama also said, “Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” What should we learn from that statement?
RJ: When people with wealth and power say they are not acting to protect their wealth and power, you can be pretty sure that’s exactly what they are doing. The illusion that, unlike all other great powers in history, the United States alone acts from principle is laughable. That U.S. politicians of both major parties continue to assert what is laughable is truly tragic. As for “who we are,” we are a single nation-state that is increasingly divided by wealth, with liberties that are guaranteed by law but often irrelevant in a mass-mediated corporate culture, with justice available to those who can pay for it. I don’t think any God has had much of a hand in any of that.
NLP: Bin Laden was unquestionably a major mass-murderer - what was your personal reaction to news of his death? How ought we to see Bin Laden and Al-qaeda more generally?
RJ: Part of me reacted with relief, knowing that a person with the capacity to direct violence against others was gone. But I hardly felt like rejoicing; I don’t think I’ve ever reacted to the death of anyone with any sense of joy. Mostly I felt the same thing I have felt for many years -- a sense of grief for the senseless destruction that has happened and a sense of dread for what is to come.
NLP: You have described the United States as a 'dead culture' - what do you mean by this statement? Is this description (which many even on the left would view as hyperbole) not likely to have a demoralizing impact on progressive forces within the US?
RJ: I think the resolve to continue to work politically for justice starts with honesty. That’s especially important now for two reasons. First, we have to strategize based on the world as it is, not the world as we wish it were. So, if the culture is “dead,” meaning that the institutions have degraded to a point where it is difficult to imagine turning them toward a more just and sustainable future, then coming to terms with that is crucial; our organizing has to take that reality into account. Second, if people have a gut feeling that U.S. culture is dead and we don’t speak to that, then the radical potential of that moment is lost. I meet more and more people who believe that to be an accurate assessment of the culture and are eager to find places to talk openly about it.
NLP: What do you think Bin Laden’s death will mean for the so-called War on Terror? Can we expect a scaling back of the US military commitment in Afghanistan and elsewhere?
RJ: Terrorism is a method, not a coherent target for war. Even if al Qaeda were to disband, there will be people in the world who will use terrorism against the U.S. empire. So, the War on Terror will continue so long as policymakers believe it’s a useful justification for imperial war that is designed primarily to secure U.S. control over the flow of resources. The moral, and more sensible, path of committing the United States to international law and a more just distribution of resources isn’t likely in the short term, if ever. That said, the United States will have to pull out of Afghanistan eventually, but it won’t have much to do with the state of terrorist threats. It simply is going to be impossible to commit U.S. troops to a failed war indefinitely. These are not wholly rational decisions; policymakers often continue in failed policies for complex reasons, but there are limits.
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