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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity by Robert Jensen (City Lights Books) A much-needed citizens’ manual that explains the evasion of moral principles that underlie appeals to patriotism, and the difference between a vibrant and an empty, stage-managed democracy. Vital reading for anyone who would seek to forge a viable alternative politics in the contemporary U.S.

As we approach the elections of 2004, U.S. progressives are faced with the challenge of how to confront our unresponsive and apparently untouchable power structures. With millions of anti-war demonstrators glibly dismissed as a "focus group," and with the collapse of political and intellectual dialogue into slogans and imperatives used to stifle protest — "Support the Troops," We Are the Greatest Nation On Earth," etc. — a state of hopelessness and cynicism can become overwhelming.

Citizens of the Empire probes deeply into the sense of disempowerment that has resulted from the Left’s inability to halt the violent and repressive course of post-9/11 U.S. policy. In this passionate and very personal exploration of what it means to be a citizen of the world’s most powerful, affluent and militarized nation in an era of imperial expansion, Jensen offers a potent antidote to leftists’ despair over the future of democracy.

In a plainspoken deconstruction of the dominant political rhetoric —intentionally crafted to depress political discourse and activism —, Jensen reveals the contradictions and falsehoods of the prevailing myths by using common-sense analogies that provide the reader with a clear-thinking rebuttal and a way to move forward with progressive political work and discussions.

With an ethical framework that integrates political, intellectual and emotional responses to the disheartening events of the past two years, Jensen examines the ways in which society has been led to this point and offers renewed hope for constructive engagement.

Robert Jensen is a professor of media law, ethics and politics at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream, among other books. He also writes for popular media, and his opinion and analytic pieces on foreign policy, politics and race have appeared in USA Today, LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Hindu (India), Al-Aluam (Cairo), The Progressive and on web sites Alternet, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, ZNet.

Q: After 9/11 you were publicly condemned by the president of your university, who called you and your views foolish. Did that have an effect on you?

Jensen: I am lucky to have tenure at a major university, which means I have meaningful freedom to speak. So, it was pretty easy for me to ignore the president's condemnation, as well as the hate mail I received from the public for criticizing U.S. policy after 9/11. Self-censorship is a tricky thing -- it can be hard to recognize when one is doing it -- but as far as I can tell I didn't engage in too much of it. I continued to write and speak my mind. My concern about the president's statement was never about the effect on me, but the message to "keep quiet" that it sent to others, especially students and untenured faculty.

Q: Citizens of the Empire is written in a distinctly non-academic style. Did you do that on purpose?

Jensen: Yes, it is conscious decision to write for a wider audience. When I got tenure I abandoned tradi­tional scholarly writing, not because I didn't enjoy or think it isn't sometimes valuable. Instead, it seemed to me that more professors should try to make scholarship and political dialogue accessible to as many people as possible.

Q: In Citizens of the Empire you argue against supporting the troops. Have you no empathy for those who put their lives at risk?

Jensen: I have much empathy for them, but that doesn't change the fact that the "support the troops" rhetoric is antidemocratic. The people who want to focus on that question are simply derailing public discussion of the policy of sending troops. No one has ever explained what it means to "support the troops." No one has ever explained how forcing citizens in a democracy to mute their criticism of war policy translates into supporting the troops.

Q: Isn't an argument against patriotism a de facto argument to support America's enemies?

Jensen: When I argue against patriotism, people often accuse me of being unpatriotic. I prefer the term non-patriotic. In the book I make the case for opposing the very concept of patriotism. Our loyalties should be to people and principles independent of national boundaries. That isn't support for America's enemies. That's an attempt to argue for a different kind of politics than we are currently stuck in.

Q: Hasn't recent history destroyed any argument for a left/progressive politics? Aren't you irrelevant?

Jensen: History shows that all progressive political change has taken time. Movements build over time. They suffer setbacks. One can't easily predict the moments when they will move forward. All one can do is identify principles worth struggling for, articulate policies to put those principles into action, and work to build support for those principles and policies. Nothing in recent history suggests to me that leftlpro­gressive principles and policies have lost their power. Personally, I have much hope. I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he observed that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Q: Do you hate America?

Jensen: I get asked that question often. It is, quite frankly, a stupid question. I object to many policies of the United States. I find many practices in contemporary culture in the United States to be objectionable. I want to be part of a movement that can change many of these policies and practices. That is to say, I want to be a responsible citizen and a decent human being. How that translates, for some people, into "hating America" is beyond me.

Q: You teach in a journalism school, but the book isn't about the news media. It seems to be equal part philosophy, history, political science. What qualifies you to write about these subjects?

Jensen: Well, at one level, being a citizen in a democracy qualifies me. Academics often try to mystify these matters, implying ordinary people can't master them. But beyond that, as an academic I've always considered myself a generalist, drawing on lots of different disciplines. One of the things that has really paralyzed the contemporary academy is overspecialization. People become very knowledgeable about an increasingly narrower range of things, because that's the way to prestige and status. I have consciously gone the other direction.

Q: Does that mean you have given up on an academic career, on prestige and status?

Jensen: It depends on what one means by an academic career. I continue to teach, and I love being in the classroom. I am politically active, inside and outside the university. I write about subjects I think are important. It's true that pursuing this path is not going to help me advance in my university or my field, but those are fairly trivial things to give up. Frankly, much of what goes on within universities and academic disciplines is pretty easy to leave behind.

Q: What replaces that kind of status for you?

Jensen: Through political activism I have been able to travel and talk to a wide range of people. I've done work that is meaningful to me. I've made lifelong friends who share my values. I am involved in spirited intellectual exchanges outside the academy. All of that more than compensates for any loss of status as an academic.

Q: Do people in Fargo really talk like in the movie?

Jensen: I grew up in Fargo, and, yes, people do really talk that way. Most people who saw "Fargo" laughed at the jokes. I laughed at everything. 

What Every American Should Know about the Rest of the World by Melissa Rossi (Plume Book) Europeans think we Americans are clueless because we don’t know squat about, well, you name it. And they’re right. Here’s the book to help you get educated.

What Every American Should Know about the Rest of the World is a concise, user-friendly and entertaining guide to political science, current events, foreign affairs and history. With straightforward explanations, cross-referenced entries, a handy glossary and helpful illustrations and maps, this book is the complete guide to knowing what’s happening internationally.

Author Rossi says “whatever your opinion about this book, I hope it makes you think… care… and become a citizen of the world.”

And, by the way, buy one and send it to our president!

At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy by Henry R. Nau (Cornell University Press) The United States has never felt at home abroad. The reason for this unease, even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is not frequent threats to American security. It is America's identity. The United States, its citizens believe, is a different country, a New World of divided institutions and individualistic markets surviving in an Old World of nationalistic governments and statist economies. In this Old World, the United States finds no comfort and alternately tries to withdraw from it and reform it. America cycles between ambitious internationalist efforts to impose democracy and world order, and more nationalist appeals to trim multilateral commitments and demand that the European and Japanese allies do more.

In At Home Abroad, Nau explains that America is still unique but no longer so very different. All the industrial great powers in western Europe (and, arguably, also Japan) are now strong liberal democracies. A powerful and peaceful new world exists beyond America's borders and anchors America's identity, easing its discomfort and ending the cycle of withdrawal and reform.

Nau draws on constructivist and realist perspectives to show how relative national identities interact with relative national power to define U.S. national interests. He provides fresh insights for U.S. grand strategy toward various countries.

In Europe, the identity and power perspective advocates U.S. support for both NATO expansion to consolidate democratic identities in eastern Europe and concurrent, but separate, great-power cooperation with Russia in the United Nations. In Asia, this perspective recommends a shift of U.S. strategy from bilateralism to concentric multilateralism, starting with an emerging democratic security community among the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Taiwan, and progressively widening this community to include reforming ASEAN states and, if it democratizes, China. In the developing world, Nau's approach calls for balancing U.S. moral (identity) and material (power) commitments, avoiding military intervention for purely moral reasons, as in Somalia, but undertaking such intervention when material threats are immediate, as in Afghanistan, or material and moral stakes coincide, as in Kosovo.


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