Understanding Political and Intellectual
excerpted from the book
Citizens of the Empire
The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity
by Robert Jensen
City Lights Books, 2004, paper
During World War I .. about 1000 people [were] prosecuted under
the Espionage Act of 1917, which was amended with even harsher
provisions in 1918 by what came to be known as the Sedition Act.
Hundreds went to prison. The war-related suppression of expression
also was merely one component of a wave of repression-which included
not only prison terms but also harassment, deportation, and both
state and private violence-that smashed the American labor movement
and crushed radical politics. At that point in U.S. history it
is fair to say that freedom of speech literally did not exist.
There was no guarantee of public use of public space (such as
streets or parks) for expression, and criticism of the government
was routinely punished. In one of the most famous, and outrageous,
case of Nearing's time,) labor leader and Socialist Party candidate
Eugene Debs was forced to run his fifth and final campaign for
president from a federal prison cell after he was sentenced to
ten years under the Espionage Act. His crime was giving a speech
which pointed out, among other things, that rich men start wars
and poor men fight them.
The struggle to expand the scope of freedom
of expression progressed through the century, although not without
setbacks. Similar harshly repressive reactions surfaced again
after World War II in the twentieth century's second major Red
Scare. The Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of political
discourse in what became known as the Communist conspiracy cases
prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940. The law made it a crime
to discuss the "duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety
of overthrowing or destroying the government' an odd statute in
a country created by a revolution against the legal government
of that day. It was not until 1957 that the Supreme Court reversed
the trend in those cases, overturning convictions under the act.
The 1960s and 1970s brought cases that continued to make more
tangible the promise of the First Amendment, including landmark
decisions that made it virtually impossible for public officials
to use civil libel law to punish sedition and established that
government could not punish incendiary speech unless it rose to
the level of "incitement to imminent lawless action."
The freedom of speech we enjoy today was won by people who were
despised and denigrated in their time. History has vindicated
them, but in their own time they suffered greatly.
Perhaps we shouldn't call a nation a democracy when it refuses
to allow the majority of adults to vote and the ultimate guardians
of freedom (the Supreme Court justices) see nothing wrong with
jailing a leading intellectual and presidential candidate for
daring to question the judgment of his opponent.
The degree to which a society is democratic ... can be judged
by how extensive and active are citizens' attempts to participate
in the formation of public policy.
The individual man does not have opinions
on all public affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs.
He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what
ought to happen. I cannot imagine how he could know, and there
is not the least reason for thinking, as mystical democrats have
thought, that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses
of people can produce a continuous directing force in public affairs.
The public must be put in its place, so
that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even
more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the
roar of the bewildered herd.
In the real world, it usually turns out that restraint is expected
from the "special interests" (defined as organized labor,
students, women, minority groups, farmers-in other words, the
vast majority of the population) to make sure there are no restraints
on the "national interest" (corporate shareholders,
the managerial class, defense contractors, the generals).
... social change in the history of this country has been largely
the result of popular movements putting pressure on elites to
enact progressive policies ...
As the late socialist Alex Carey puts it, "The twentieth
century has been characterized by three developments of great
political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate
power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting
corporate power against democracy?" I would add to that
the development of propaganda to protect state power, which is
tightly interwoven with corporate power. Carey's point is that
people with power have been engaged in pacifying the population
through propaganda to make sure the expansion of formal democracy-
through greater expression and organizing rights, and an expanded
franchise -does not result in a real democratization of the society,
especially the economy.
Edward Bernays, often described as the
father of the public relations industry, explained-from a celebratory
point of view-how propaganda is "the executive arm of the
invisible government' " Who are those "invisible governors"?
Those with "qualities of natural leadership" who "supply
needed ideas" and hold "a key position in the social
structure." The opening lines of his 1928 book Propaganda
make clear how the system works:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation
of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important
element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen
mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which
is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our
minds our molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely
by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the
way in which our democratic society is organized.
Bernays acknowledged that some aspects
of the propaganda process-"the manipulation of news, the
inflation of personality, the general ballyhoo by which politicians
and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness
of the masses"- are often criticized and can be misused.
"But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly
From a more critical view, Carey described
this same propaganda project as "a 75-year-long multi-billion
dollar project in social engineering on a national scale?' Carey's
study of the propaganda campaign suggests that starting in the
1930s American business leaders realized that they could not keep
labor subjugated indefinitely through brute force. So, they turned
to "a competition for public opinion via the mass media?'
Carey's account of the operations of such groups as the National
Association of Manufacturers shows how corporate leaders used
advertising, public relations, media relations, and their influence
on the educational system to deal with threats to their power.
In addition to campaigns for specific
policies, there have been two key underlying messages to this
propaganda in the past half-century. First, not only is capitalism
the natural economic system and the only one compatible with democracy,
but unions and other vehicles for popular organizing somehow disrupt
what would be an otherwise harmonious system in which benevolent
owners and hardworking managers labor selflessly to provide for
customers and workers. Second, the United States is unique among
world governments, past and present, in its pursuit of democracy
and freedom in the world. While other nations act out of self-interest,
the United States goes forward with a benevolent mission.
The system that propagates these fictions
is happy to concede that sometimes corporations do unpleasant
things and sometimes the government makes mistakes-usually the
result of the bad behavior of individuals. If the problems seem
to go beyond individuals, we are assured that the miraculous workings
of the market and democracy have corrected the problems and produced
a "change of course" for the institutions involved.
Unlike more totalitarian systems, this arrangement is flexible
and better able to adapt to public pressure: absorbing and co-opting
dissent when possible, coercing through relatively subtle methods
when necessary, resorting to force and violence only when other
methods have failed.
The effects of this relentless propaganda
are clear. Many people accept the mythology, even when it is directly
contradicted by their own experience.
In a society in which free speech is in some sense irrelevant,
public political life is little more than a sideshow. And if public
political life is a sideshow, what do we say about the state of
legal scholar David Kairys in this summary of U.S. political life:
[D]espite all the rhetoric about free
speech and our democratic political process, a very large proportion
of us-perhaps most-feel silenced and disenfranchised. There is
a widespread recognition across the political spectrum that the
American people lack the effective means to be heard or to translate
their wishes into reality through the political process. There
is, and has been for some time, a crisis of democracy and freedom
that has been ignored by public officials and the media.
... in a meaningful democratic system, citizens should not be
limited only to selecting leaders (an incredibly thin conception
of democracy) or to selecting policies from a set of limited choices
presented to them by leaders (still a thin conception). In a democratic
system with a rich sense of participation, citizens would play
an active, meaningful role in determining which issues are most
important at any moment and L forming policy options to address
We live in an era in which policy proposals are treated not as
topics for discussion by the people but products to be sold to
them. Forget democracy-as-participation. Even democracy-as-ratification
is unrealistic. Today, we have democracy-as-stupefaction. The
goal of politicians and their consultants seems to be to stupefy,
to dull the faculties of people, just as product advertising leaves
people stupefied. To borrow from the dictionary definition, politics
seems to be designed to leave people in "a state of suspended
or deadened sensibility?'
How else to describe a situation in which
the Bush administration can appoint an advertising executive to
be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,
charged with the task of "selling" U.S. policy to the
Muslim world? Charlotte Beers's fitness for the job could be seen
in her previous successes-Uncle Ben's rice ("Perfect every
time"), Head and Shoulders shampoo ("Helps bring you
closer"), and American Express ("Don't leave home without
it"). Secretary of State Cohn Powell - Beers's boss until
her resignation in March 2003-explained that the new focus of
public diplomacy would be "really branding foreign policy,
branding the department, marketing the department, marketing American
values to the world and not just putting out pamphlets."
When asked why the Bush administration
waited until after Labor Day to launch its campaign to convince
the American public that military action against Iraq was necessary,
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said, "From a marketing
point of view, you don't introduce new products in August?'
The Buddha is said to have spoken of enlightenment as /merging
from the eggshell of ignorance. The events of 9/11 ... presented
Americans with a stark choice. For too long we had lived with
a willed ignorance about the consequences of U.S. economic, foreign,
and military policy that to many felt like protection from the
world- on the absurd assumption that what we don't know can't
hurt us- but in reality was always eggshell-thin. r
This ignorance was perhaps most clearly
expressed by the president of the United States. At an October
11, 2001, news conference, Bush told reporters he was amazed by
what he called the "vitriolic hatred for America" in
some Islamic countries. He explained:
I'm amazed that there is such misunderstanding
of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am,
I am like most Americans, I just can't believe it. Because I know
how good we are, and we've go to do a better job of making our
case. We've got to do a better job of explaining to the people
in the Middle East, for example, that we don't fight a war against
Islam or Muslims. We don't hold any religion accountable. We're
fighting evil. And these murderers have hijacked a great religion
in order to justify their evil deeds. And we cannot let it stand.
We should give the American public the
benefit of the doubt and assume that most were not quite as amazed
as the president. But Bush was not the only American who was inside
the eggshell on September 10, 2001. On September 11, we had the
opportunity to emerge, newly engaged in honest attempts to understand
the world and our place in it. But many Americans desperately
tried to paste the old eggshell back together. On this front,
Bush also took the lead. On September 27, 2001, Bush appeared
at O'Hare Airport in Chicago and encouraged people to "get
on board," but not with a serious plan for educating ourselves.
When they struck, they wanted to create
an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation's
war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It's
to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around
the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots.
Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy
life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.
So, a president who claims not to understand
what is obvious to virtually everyone outside the United States
-that no matter what the twisted theology and ideology of A1-Qaeda,
lots of people in the Arab and Muslim world object to U.S. foreign
policy for perfectly rational reasons-suggests the appropriate
responses are to: Explain to people in the Middle East why they
don't understand American benevolence, and explain to people in
the United States that they should go to Disney World, a fantasy
park where one can ignore reality.
The United States is a society in which
people not only can get by without knowing much about the wider
world but are systematically encouraged not to think independently
or critically and instead to accept the mythology of the United
States as a benevolent, misunderstood giant as it lumbers around
the world trying to do good.
I live in a country that drops ciuster bombs in civilian areas.
I have never lived anywhere that was the target of a cluster bomb,
but I suspect that when a cluster bomb detonates above a person
and its couple of hundred individual bomblets are dispersed to
do their flesh-shredding work, the world looks pretty black and
white... I suspect that when one sees a child pick up an unexploded
bomblet from a cluster bomb, which then explodes and rips off
the child's head, the world looks pretty black and white. Should
the world look any less black and white when one lives in the
country that drops those bombs? When the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff explains, in response to a question of why such
a weapon is used, that "We only use cluster munitions when
they are the most effective weapon for the intended target,"
how long can we allow ourselves to paint pictures with the many
shades of gray?
... the fundamental failure of U.S. universities after 9/11 was
the unwillingness to take seriously their role as centers of knowledge
and their refusal to create space for debate and discussion. If
American campuses were healthy intellectual communities, after
9/11 they would have been hotbeds of discussion.
People often ask me, what would you have
done if you had been president of your university? The answer
is simple: After 9/11 I would have reserved the largest hall on
campus for a weekly series of programs on terrorism and American
foreign policy, drawing on the expertise of the campus from as
many perspectives as possible. I would have committed resources
from my office to publicize the forums as widely as possible.
I would have made it clear that the university saw the enhancement
of public discussion as central to its mission. I would have explained
that although the university as an institution would take no specific
position on policy choices, it would facilitate the broadest and
deepest discussion possible. I would have asked my staff to work
with the local television and radio stations, especially cable-access
TV and community radio, to broadcast these forums. And I would
have encouraged faculty members to take up these issues in the
classroom when relevant.
In short, I would have taken seriously
the notion that the university is a place where citizens could
expect to find information, analysis, and engagement. I would
have realized that at such a pivotal moment in the nation's history,
the university had a unique role to play. But the University of
Texas did none of that, nor did most universities in the United
States. At some universities, small groups of faculty who were
concerned about the direction the country was heading did their
best to create such space. But on most campuses, a tiny minority
of faculty was involved in such efforts, and an even smaller minority
of administrators aided them. Many of the events on campuses were
student-organized, efforts that were important and admirable.
But it's a shame that, in most cases, university officials and
faculty members chose to duck and cover.
Why would the largest university in the country, with such tremendous
human and material resources, be so politically flat at such a
crucial time? No doubt part of the explanation for the timid performance
of the University of Texas, and institutions of higher education
more generally, is specific to that moment. The United States
had never experienced an attack on its civilian population of
that magnitude, and it's easy to understand why many people lost
their voices in the highly emotional, hyper-patriotic fervor that
followed. But college campuses have not been centers of critical
inquiry in some time (and even when they were, such as in the
1960s, much of the most vibrant intellectual and political activity
was student-led). While not pretending there was ever in the United
States a golden age in which universities were completely free
spaces, no doubt part of the explanation for this consistent failure
is intensifying economic pressures, as public universities are
forced to find more and more funding from private sources and
an ethic of public service continues to wither. Faculty feel this
pressure, which subtly encourages professors to act not as members
of a community of scholars with obligations to the public but
as independent agents with the goal of maximizing grant funding
and personal status. The market model dominates not only the organization
of the institution but the mission as well, as students increasingly
look at a university education not as an opportunity for intellectual
enrichment but a ticket to upward mobility and career advancement.
... the real rule in the contemporary United States: One may talk
politics or religion, as long as it doesn't upset anyone. In my
limited travels abroad and extensive discussions with people from
other countries, this appears to be peculiar to Americans (and
especially to white middle-class Americans).
At the heart of this play-nice/avoid-conflict/make-sure-no-one-feels-uncomfortable
style is an implicit abandonment both of intellectual standards
and political life. If we can't engage each other, and take the
chance that tempers might flare, then we will be less likely to
subject each other's arguments to critical scrutiny.
of the Empire