Robert Jensen’s Citizens of the Empire is a warning. It is a message to the citizens of the world’s “greatest” nation and a remedy, as he describes, “to despair over the future of democracy. ” In the manifesto, Jensen focuses on the political actions following the terror attacks of 9/11 and questions why it is hard for the American public to challenge the acts done in the name of freedom, the corrupt political culture, and the failure of universities to promote citizens who are politically active and critical. He also proposes that ideas of national superiority and binding respect for military servitude are dangerous political frameworks.
To make his point, Jensen uses devices including personal experiences, quotes from political commentators and leaders, and accounts of past events. Jensen extends his arguments further by addressing his progressive readers to turn hopeless change into collective action: “Although it’s true that we live within systems we didn’t choose and are struggling to change, we still face choices in our daily lives about how we will confront those systems. ” That is, just because a system is “the way it is,” citizens are not any less responsible for bringing the change they want to see in the world.
Towards the end, Jensen asserts that it is important to not buy into the politicallymotivated idea of citizenship and instead look for personally and politically engaging (alternative) opportunities. Jensen divides his argument for the “struggle to claim our humanity” into three divisions. In the first section, he identifies and critically examines important “rhetorical frameworks” that have been artificialized in the public: America as the greatest nation on earth, supporting the troops, and patriotism. The first framework that he discusses is something that has been brought up in our class as well, which is American exceptionalism.
When approaching this topic, Jensen looks at what defines a nation’s “greatness. ” He proposes that if it were history or the ability to correct mistakes that made a nation great, then America fails both. First, its history shows bloodshed throughout centuries like the almost complete elimination of the Natives in the nineteenth century, and second, it lacks the ability to acknowledge the wrongful ways that wealth has been acquired within its systems including the cheating of the reservation land to create casino revenue. The second framework Jensen introduces is the “support the troops,” more implicitly, “support the war. The demonstrate this point, Jensen describes a personal anecdote about a past student of his who had to give up education to serve in the army. She could not express her reservations about her situation, according to Jensen, and had to perform her legal obligation. Jensen then asks the reader whether he too should have kept his objections to himself and shown support for her even if his beliefs told him otherwise. This story drives the argument that there is an unspoken rule that requires citizens to show support of troops.
I believe this system is dismantling a democratic society like Jensen said because it discourages free expression of dissent. Lastly, the third framework Jensen introduces is “patriotism,” especially the kind that arose after 9/11 in forms of publicservice television ads. Jensen also gives examples of the different forms of patriotism that he has seen in the public during the U. S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. He explains that there have been several efforts to use patriotism in a way that rings with the mainstream America.
However, when it comes to him, Jensen completely rejects patriotism and nationality and believes in an alternative that is “kinder” than any kind of its redefinition ever could be. I agree with Jensen’s stance on this because I too believe that feelings of patriotism to one’s country can create misguided feelings. Any form of patriotism promotes belief that a nation is nobler and more intelligent than all other nations. Moreover, nationalists fail to coherently explaining what exactly is the cause of their loyalty to a country and they often latch universally pure intentions and qualities to their country.
In the second section of the book, Jensen looks at the political and intellectual realities of democracy in the U. S. and then shifts his focus to the academia and how it has failed “to provide the intellectual leadership needed to foster a healthy, functioning democracy. ” To start his argument he gives an overview of Scott Nearing’s radical activities throughout his lifetime such as the times that he had been fired for being too radical, his support of anti-child labor movements, and for his antiwar activity.
In the 1920s, despite having been completely rejected by the Penn trustees and tried for his antiwar pamphlet under the Espionage Act, Nearing continued to express his political views until 1983 when he died at the age of 100. The accounts of this political activist demonstrates the point that Jensen drives in this section; compared to past efforts, present increase of free speech is ironically accompanied by the shortening of the “range and importance of debate and discussion that is essential to democracy.
Jensen calls this trend the “degraded political culture” because although the society is much more accepting of dissent compared to Nearing’s time, the ordinary people of our age leave political thought to politicians and intellectuals. According the Jensen, this is the reason why Nearing lived with more democracy. He furthers his argument by describing how the academia contributes to this political inactivity by discouraging discussion of unpleasant realities. I agree with Jensen on this as well because democracy is not simply the flexibility to express dissent.
If this were the case, then politically misguided and ignorant people could still technically live in a democratic country where they are free to express the dissent they do not have. What makes a democracy is not only social and legal equality, but also active members with critiques on policy who are willing to engage in public education and political organizing. As Walter Lippmann states: “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. ” In the final part of his argument, Jensen concludes with how, as citizens of an empire, we cannot simply discard politics as being the way they are and should start choosing pain over pleasure. When people are able to do this, they demonstrate an ability to have empathy, break down nationalism, and identify the wrong doings of a country.
Jensen, again, tells the story of an encounter with one of his students to demonstrate how realizing the pain of one’s own government’s infliction of cruelty on other peoples can be a way to break free from an inhumane society that routinely ignores human suffering. He tells how one person was deeply affected by a video about the 1991 Gulf War and its brutal effects on the people of Iraq. After watching the documentary, the student had approached him with pain for the people she had seen in the clip.
Jensen then raises the questions, instead of feeling the pain of others, ‘Would you rather be willfully ignorant about what is happening? ” Unfortunately, this is the case for many who live believing that their comfortable life owes its thanks to the superiority of the nation, gender, or race they were born into. I believe this thinking is not only ignorant, but also cruel to the suffering of politically disadvantaged populations. Without empathy towards others, citizens limit themselves to an egocentric way of life and lose their ability to feel outside of their own experiences.
Without empathy, there can’t be change. When citizens of such a system see the suffering of others as tied to their insufficiency or inferiority, how can there every be change in such a system? I particularly enjoyed reading the last section of Jensen’s book because it helped me formulate my thoughts about our International Politics class. Although the other two sections are equally informative, this section is a type of guidebook for people who want to, as Jensen says, start choosing pain over pleasure.
In the parts of the book where Jensen talked about how his students came to him when they tried to understand the shared pain they felt on the suffering of others, I could relate to this. For instance, when watched “The War on Democracy” by John Pilger in class, I truly questioned whether it was really worth it to live in such extravagance given its costs to innocents. It led me to ask questions like, “How come the welloff are unaffected by the devastating poverty that is happening just beyond the wall that separates the city? ” Citizens of the Empire is a book that I would definitely recommend as a reading for younger audiences.
My thought on this is perfectly summed up by the book’s epigraph: I know the whole truth there is horrible It’s better if you take a little at a time Too much and you are not portable Not enough and you’ll be making happy rhymes. from “The Gypsy Life,” by John Gorka That is, while the truth can be pretty terrifying for audiences who have been exposed to ideas that Jensen has introduced such as American exceptionalism and nationalism, it is best to be exposed to the truth little by little because by staying ignorant, they will only be able to make “happy rhymes” and would be without political power in a nation with free political expression.
However, I also believe that the ideas in the book are best introduced to younger audiences “a little at a time. ” This is because the information found in this book may be “too radical” for audiences who have certain core values that they identify with and may feel threatened or even wrong for learning it. Therefore, too much could cause them to be “not portable,” or unable to make sense of the newly found piece of information. I, however, would much prefer if kids are never brought up in environments that promote nationalism in the first place.
This political way of thinking is after all implemented over repeated exposures and does not just happen “naturally. ” For example, one of our classmates shared a song lyric that they had come across to be performed at an elementary school Veteran’s Day show. In the song, there are repeated assertions of troops being “heroes” and the type of person that the kids should aspire to be. This is an example of the many ways that schools teach children how to think a specific way.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that audiences might outright reject any critical political thought regardless of age given the system they were brought up in. Jensen’s book is a manual for the citizens of the world who will be part of the future of democracy. It is a critique on the belief of American nationalism, the “support the troops” framing, and patriotism. Jensen does not stop there; he extends his arguments and urges the reader to envision beyond what is on the surface. He gives personal accounts of the fraudulent political culture that is dominant in our society and argues its corrosive effects on democracy.
Moreover, Jensen explains the importance of empathy among citizens of the empire and how pushing the questions of giving up pleasures and seeking pain can lead to mutual political action. The goal of his book is not to make life’s misery more depressing and shame us for being born into these systems, but instead to allow other people around the world an opportunity to reform their society. I am glad that I chose to buy the book at the beginning of the semester rather than renting. I’m sure that it will serve as a guide for critical thinking in a word where reality is often times warped or avoided.