Interview of Robert Jensen― Resistance Radio

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DJ: The purpose of Resistance Radio is to help ignite a resistance movement to prevent the murder of the planet by capitalism and industrial civilization. To that end, every week I will interview some great writer or activist who is working toward the revolution of values we so desperately need if we are to stop this culture from killing the planet.

I’d like to start by asking you about an essay you wrote called Pornography Is What The End Of The World Looks Like. What do you mean by that?

RJ: Let’s start with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that pornography is going to bring about the end of the world. It’s not a hysterical kind of claim. But for about the past 24 years now I’ve done some work on pornography, both research writing and activism. I’ve seen not only pornography but what pornography does in the world. And the longer I worked on that issue the more that I realized pornography was important not simply because of what we might call the material harms that result from it – what happens to people who are used in the production of pornography; what happens to people in relationships with men who habitually use pornography; not just questions about what’s the relationship of pornography to rape culture; all of those are very important – but, I think the other reason pornography is such an important issue is it gives us a kind of window into the culture, it hold up a mirror to us, and what it tells us about ourselves as a culture is not very pretty. Pornography is really about, in some ways, the end of empathy. It’s a media genre that sexualizes the domination/ subordination dynamic that defines heterosexuality- men dominating women, women submitting to men. When men are socialized to find sexual pleasure in that, what you see, among other things, is the death of empathy. I think pornography contributes to a pattern in men of being unable to empathize primarily with women; men being unable to recognized how their sexual behavior affects women, but I think it generalizes beyond that. That domination/subordination dynamic in pornography is, of course, not the only domination/subordination dynamic in the world today. I think that anywhere we lose our capacity to empathize, gives us a glimpse into, essentially, into what the end of world looks like, that is, when we cannot only fail to empathize with other people but, in a sense, fail to empathize with the larger living world. And I realize that the claim that pornography is what the end of the world is like sounds hyperbolic but, in a very real sense, for me, after nearly a quarter century of thinking about this, it seems all too accurate.

DJ: You said that this is just one of the domination/subordination relationships. Let’s try to be really clear about this. What are some of the other domination/subordination relationships that you’re talking about, and what is the relationship of this to capitalism?

RJ: Basically, we live surrounded in, bathed in, immersed in hierarchies of varying kinds. The hierarchy we’ve been talking about is male over female which happens in a system we call patriarchy. A lot of people think that an old-fashioned word. I happen to think it’s still a very accurate word. We look around the world and we see patriarchal cultures. Those cultures can vary in dramatic ways. The contemporary United States is very different from the contemporary Afghanistan, for instance. But although the forms by which men dominate women can change over time, and within societies, we’re still talking about that hierarchy – that assumption of the inherent nature of male domination – and that’s what patriarchy claims, that this is not something that men just do, it’s something that’s sort of inherent to human nature. Well, what we know from the history of human beings, of course, is that patriarchy is not a permanent part of the human condition. There were pre-patriarchal societies, and there can be by definition then post-patriarchal societies. But that naturalizing of hierarchy is very common whenever there is hierarchy. So, you mentioned white supremacy, the claim that was made overtly for many hundreds of years that white people were naturally superior to, and therefore appropriately dominant over non-white people. In the United States that takes particular intensity around white/Indian relationships, white/indigenous relationships, and white/black relationships, and that’s what we call white supremacy – again, a term some people feel is old-fashioned, but I think is very accurate. And again, the way white supremacy plays out changes over time and among societies, the United States is not a white supremacist society today in the same way that it was in the year I was born, 1958, for instance, but the underlying assertion of the naturalness of hierarchy remains.

You mention capitalism. Of course, economic relations in this society are based on hierarchy on the right that some claim to a grotesquely disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, and use it to their own advantage, ignoring the basic human needs and human rights of other people. Well, that’s a kind of hierarchy. It’s a domination/ subordination dynamic and, again, there’s an attempt to naturalize it. Rich people will tell you that they’re just naturally smarter, harder working, whatever it may be and, therefore, this is kind of the order of things. So, claims of hierarchy that result in this domination/ subordination dynamic are often, in fact, are almost always accompanied with claims that there’s something about human nature that makes this inevitable, that this is immutable, it really can’t be changed. As I said earlier, there are lots of times in human history when human societies were not structured on hierarchy. It doesn’t mean that we can find some golden age in human history where everything was wonderful and people were loving and nice to each other and no one was ever violent. That’s not the claim. The claim is that human societies need not be based on hierarchy, and not be based on domination.

DJ: You sort of talked a little bit about some of the ways the hierarchies are reinforced when you mentioned pornography. One of the favorite lines that I ever wrote was In Culture Of Make Believe, “Any hatred felt long enough no longer feels like hatred.” It feels like economics, or religion, or it’s just the way things are. Basically, it seems to me that if you have to state outright that males are superior, or whites are superior, or humans are superior, whatever it is that you’re going to make as the superior vs. the inferior other, that if you actually have to say that out loud then that means that the rest of the propaganda isn’t working well enough because the supremacism works best when everybody just takes it at face value, this is the way things are.

For whichever supremacism that you want to talk about, what are some of the ways that the supremacism or domination can be naturalized?

RJ: That’s an interesting point. The thing that came to mind was the history of white supremacy in the United States. Take our so-called founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson is the best example of this. Thomas Jefferson, like many of the founding fathers, owned slaves, that slave system was based on an ideology of white supremacy which, very conveniently, made economic domination easy. And there was a vigorous debate about slavery going back to, in some sense, probably as long as there’s been slavery, but especially in the colonial period in America. There were early abolitionists; Tom Paine, for instance, one of the other founding fathers, although far less celebrated in the United States (as a footnote, Tom Paine is not celebrated in the United States as much, despite his many contributions to the American Revolution; in part, because he was a radical democrat. He believed in equality.) was an early abolitionst. In fact, the first article Tom Paine wrote in the United States was an argument for the abolition of slavery. And so Thomas Jefferson had to argue for slavery, and wrote tracts that justified slavery, incredibly racist, and actually even kinda bizarre tracts sometimes. And so you have an overt discussion there of the need to reinforce the ideaology of white supremacy. We look back at slave times and think “Wow, that was really awful” and, of course, it was. But, your pointing to something perhaps more incidious about contemporary white supremacy: because we have abandoned chattel slavery and we have renounced the legal apartheid system that structured the U.S. long after slavery, now we believe that we have somehow transcended white supremacy, and the fact that the material reality, the economic realities of life indicate we still live in a white supremacist society, no one feels the need to justify it. I think you are right. It’s become part of the accepted background and, therefore if black people are unemployed at twice the rate over time, and that disparity has not lessened significantly over the last 50 years, that’s not taken as a reason to discuss white supremacy because we’ve eliminated the worst of white supremacy, well that must just be something we have to live with. And that gets
reinforced year after year. In some ways, that’s a more distressing state, and I don’t want to be glib about it because, of course, no one wants to go back to chattel slavery or Jim Crow segregation, but we have a much different struggle with racism and white supremacy today, and one that may be intractable, it may be impossible for this culture to overcome it, I don’t know. It’s partly become, as you say, woven into the fabric of the world in a way and therefore the disparaties are no longer even visible to most people.

DJ: I don’t know for sure if this is true, but I heard the other day that public schools in Chicago are more segregated now than they were pre-Brown v. Board of Education.

RJ: I don’t know of that specific example but I do know that that’s true in other places, and it’s also true of housing segregation. There are places in the United States that are as segregated, perhaps even more segregated, in terms of housing, than in the old Jim Crow era. That’s the enduring reality of white supremacy in the United States. And the fact that it’s easily known to anyone who wants to know it, and yet we still can talk about ourselves as being post-racial or talk in very celebratory ways that we have transcended racism because of the election of an African-American president, the data on the ground doesn’t lie, nor do the studies and there’ve been a number of very good studies that indicate the depth of unconscious racism in which the white majority, soon not to be the majority any more, but for now the white majority in the United States that holds unconscious racist beliefs which are easily demonstrated through a variety of different social science methods, all of that again, anybody who wants to know it can know it, it’s right there at the surface, it’s not some deep- lurking complex reality. And yet we don’t know how to come to terms with it. It seems to me that the fact that we don’t know how to come to terms with it is evidence of the power of white supremacy. If we really had transcended racism, and were no longer a white supremacist society, it seems to me we wouldn’t have any trouble talking about this because we’d be trying to figure out how to change it. If racial segregation and the economic disparaties that come along with racial segregation, if the inadequate schooling that comes along with those economic disparaties were so obvious we would talk about the racialized nature of them, but we’re terrified as a culture to talk about that precisely because we know we have not transcended that deep white supremacy that has defined us for so long.

DJ: Whenever I think about issues like this, I always think about Artie Lange’s “3 Rules For A Dysfunctional Family” which are: Rule A is “Don’t”; Rule A-1 is “Rule A does not exist”; and Rule A-2 is “Never discuss the existence or non-existence of Rule A, A-1 or A-2. In a way, this works in a domestic violence situation. You can talk about anything you want except for the violence you have to pretend isn’t happening, or the incest, or whatever. And you can’t talk about the fact that you can’t talk about them. It’s the same on a larger scale, that we can talk about all sorts of things except that we can’t talk about the fact that the schools are still segregated, or we can’t talk about the fact of the economic disparity, we can’t talk about the fact that corporations are killing the planet.

RJ: Here’s an example of how bizarre it can be. In the state of Texas, The University of Texas at Austin where I teach is the flagship school of the public university system. It’s a competitive admissions and therefore a lot of kids in Texas want to come to the UT and not all can. So, for some time, we had an affirmative action program to try to deal with the deep legacy and ongoing reality of white supremacy in the state of Texas. Many people, myself included, supported that. If we had problems with affirmative action it was that affirmative action wasn’t vigorous and robust enough. I, for instance, have argued we need quotas, that you actually need to impose numberical quotas if you want to actually achieve something like a just educational system. Well, the affirmative action program was gutted in the 1990s, it came back in attenuated form in the early 2000s, and the Supreme Court, yesterday, just ruled on another challenge to it and sent it back to the lower court in a complex technical decision. The argument here is that Texas may not need an race-based affirmative action program any more because we found a non-race-based way to address it; in Texas, that’s what in Texas we call the 10% rule which is that if you graduate from the top 10% of any high school in the state of Texas, you have automatic admission to the University of Texas at Austin. The way that that helped racial diversity was precisely because the school systems are still so segregated that there are school districts where high schools are predominantly black and brown and therefore the top 10% of those high schools will be able to go to UT. In other words, our solution to the enduring legacy of white supremacy is rooted in the enduring legacy of white supremacy in the public school system. That’s ironic, it’s a paradox, it’s insance, call it what you want. We are so mute in the way that you were saying, so unable to talk about these problems that even when we try to address them, we address them at a superficial level without recognizing that our so-called solution is based on the depth of the problem. I think your point is well taken, and right on, that denial – the inability to face these problems – works very similarly at the cultural level as it does at the level of the family where everybody’s had experience, if not within their own family, certainly within families that we know, where that kind of denial was literally deadly. People die because of that kind of denial. It’s no different at the cultural level. People die because this culture cannot come to terms with racial injustice, economic injustice, and gender injustice. That’s not at all an extreme statement, it’s almost obvious.

DJ: Back to my book, Culture of Make Believe, I’m thinking about how that book was supposed to be a 5-page introduction to an encyclopedia of hate groups. I started by asking about the hate group, and I visited the KKK website, and that website said that they’re not a hate group, they’re actually a love group. I thought, well, A. KKK is not a hate group or B. We can’t trust rhetoric. And if you can’t trust rhetoric, what do you trust. I started thinking about it, and if you go just by the numbers, then the biggest racist segregationist organization in the country is the whole judicial and penal system because it’s a cheap segregation of African-American males on a scale the KKK can only dream of. And so, just thinking again about how these various supremacisms, I always felt, you mentioned earlier this level of the unconscious, if you fundamentally feel supremacist, white supremacist, male supremacist, human supremacist, it’s going to come out unless you address the deeper issues, unless you address why that’s there in the first place, if you stop one form of supremacism from manifesting, it’s going to come out in another way. One more thing, and I think we see this all the time in relationships, too, where if someone’s unhappy in a relationship and they raise some issue which is not really the issue, but instead they raise an issue just because they’re upset, and you solve that issue, they’re just going to raise another issue. I’m sure we’ve all encountered that. Can you talk about that on the larger social scale, too, or do you think you’ve pretty much covered that?

RJ: Let’s just take gender and socialization men and boys in this culture receive. We talked about pornography and the increasingly cruel and degrading nature of pornography, the way that sexual gratification for the primarily male viewers of pornography is increasingly and more intensely tied to overt cruelty toward women and the degradation of women. Well, that’s a problem, it’s a big problem. As I said, and you’re well aware, there’s been thirty, forty years of feminist research and organizing to try and highlight that promblem which the culture has been in deep denial about, for the most part. But let’s say you solve the pornopgraphy problem, let’s say magically pornography of that type could be eliminated tomorrow. It doesn’t get at deeper questions about how men across the board are socialized to find pleasure in domination. And here, if you just go around the room in a setting where there are any men, and ask them to talk about how they grew up, and were trained to think about women, how they were trained to think about themselves, how they were trained to think about gay men, it’s all deeply patriarchal, deeply mysogynist, it’s all rooted in that need for men to feel dominant over women, and it plays out across the board. It’s woven into the fabric of the military, and the training in the military. It’s woven into the fabric of men’s sports and the training in sports. Because, as you’re pointing out, it’s not simply a problem of a generally good system where one thing got out of whack. It’s a problem of a bad system, and until we can say that openly, we will always be missing the point, in the same way you’re suggesting, whether it’s a family or an interpersonal relationship. If people don’t deal with underlying problems in the system, the best you can do is patch things up for a while. Sometimes patching things up for a while is better than the alternative, but it’s not a solution. And that’s where I think it’s important to continue to make clear that we can make certain things better in the world. We can, for instance, reduce the number of coal-fired power plants that produce electricity in the world, and that would be a good thing. But that’s not a solution if by solution we mean actually coming to terms with the underlying problems of a high- energy high-technology world with 7 billion people, which is not sustainable. Going to these systemic and structural levels is really important, but the problem, of course, when you raise these questions is people say “Well, you have to be realistic”. And I always found that amusing that if you try to deal with the fundamental systemic and structural problems, you’re told you’re unrealistic. But if you try and deal with superficial manifestations of that system, patching them up, hoping that will somehow solve the problems, somehow that’s being realistic. In other words, the strategy that is doomed to fail is magically transformed into the most realistic strategy. And that’s pretty crazy, I think.

DJ: I think that’s one of the reasons that we stay…that’s one of the ways that the supremacism, that the oppression is naturalized is because they’re inherent in what you just said, that that’s realistic, is that realism is staying in a system. And part of the problem, of course, is that captitalism has to declare itself as the only way to be. Part of the problem of all of this is sort of a monotheism, or a monopoly, really, that patriarchy is the only way that has ever been, that capitalism is the only way that’s ever been, and you can’t really deviate, so all solutions have to come from within that.

RJ: The place where that is the most bizarre claim, and you’re right, it gets made all the time, is capitalism. Patriarchy, depending on how you char it, has been around 8-10,000 years maybe, and that’s a small part of human history. The modern human has been on the planet for about 200,000 years so, at best, patriarchy comes to maybe 5% of our evolutionary history. White supremacy as we understand it today is, at most, 500 years old, an even smaller chunk of human history. But capitalism is a system that only developed in the last, depending again on how you chart it, 200-250 years – the rise of the human exploitation of coal, first, and then oil and natural gas; the industrial revolution; the shift from basically feudal relation to mercantile relations and eventually to capitalist relations. That’s all part of very contemporary history. Yet, when I critique capitalism, and I’m sure this happens to you, as well, people will say “Well that’s just the way we’ve always done…There’s always been buying and selling and trading.” So people take any economic activity where people buy and sell or trade, and assume that modern corporate capitalism is the same thing. Well, that’s crazy. People have been exchanging goods, and producing goods, and distributing goods, but it hasn’t been a human history defined by capitalism. For most of human history, even the basic notion of buying and selling didn’t exist. In gathering and hunting societies nobody was setting market prices for anything. You’re talking about the need to naturalize which is so, I think you’re right, so much at the heart of claims of the legitimacy of hierarchies. And there’s two versions of it, it seems to me, in at least the contemporary United States. One is theological. For instance, patriarchy is defended by many conservative Christians as God’s will. It’s right there in the text. Of course it’s patriarchy. Now, men should be patriarchal. They should take their natural place at the top of a family unit, for instance, but they should be benevolent patriarchs; they shouldn’t beat their wives; they should treat their wives kindly. So, it’s not an argument against patriarchy when contemporary Christians start critiquing some of the modern era. It’s an argument for patriarchy. Now there’s a secular version that used to be called sociobiology, now often is called evolutionary psychology, which tries to make the argument that basically this is just the way we’re wired as animals which, again, is refuted by most of human history. So, this claim to naturalness comes in various forms that, you’re absolutely correct from my point of view, that all of it is about avoiding what is essentially a moral evaluation, taking seriously our capacity to evalute human practice morally, and recognize those practices when they’re inconsistent with what we claim to be our moral principles have to be discarded; yet, when we’re talking about these systems, we’re not just talking about changing the way markets work or eliminating pornography, we’re really talking about a fundamental shift in how we understand ourselves, how we understand our relationship to each other, and then of course, as you’ve written about so often, how we need to change our understanding of our place in that larger living world.

DJ: I just finished writing a book on some of the problems in anarchism and one of them, that’s very masculinist, is I was seeing a lot of defenses of pornography written by men, and then I was thinking about this again when you said that Thomas Jefferson was writing in defense of slavery. It strikes me as extraordinary that any members, and it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, whether it’s human supremacism, white supremacism, male supremacism, it doesn’t matter, I don’t understand why they don’t feel ridiculous, because they are members of an oppressor class arguing for the use of something that is, at the very least, potentially harmful to members of an oppressed class. And it seems to me that as members of an oppressor class, you don’t get to do that…it seems ridiculous, a human being arguing for human supremacism over non-humans because it’s obviously self-serving, that’s my point…and the same, a white person arguing in favor of things that promote white supremacy.

RJ: I think you’re right, of course, in some sort of principled way, but we don’t always reflect and reason from a position of principle. Human beings are messy creatures. And so I was immediately taking your comment and thinking about my own development as a human being. In my younger years, really until my late 20s, I had no feminist analysis, I hadn’t been taught to think that way, hadn’t interacted with people who thought that way. I grew up in a pretty traditional mainstream American world. My predominantly male friends certainly weren’t thinking about feminism, and the women who were in my circle, if they had feminist leanings, weren’t articulating them clearly and asking men to be accountable. This was the late 70s/early 80s is the era I’m talking about when already the incredible energy and passion of the second wave of feminism was starting to dissipate in the United States. So I grew up surrounded by people who told me that everything that looked normal was, in fact, normal; that guys using pornography was normal, that guys talking about how to make sure they could have sex with as many women as possible, with as little commitment as possible, was normal. So when I would have made defenses of pornography, or defenses of male sexual behavior, in my 20s, I wouldn’t have even been aware of the point you’re making because I wasn’t aware of the deep patriarchal nature of the culture. I wasn’t aware of the facts of sexual violence. I wasn’t aware of any of that so I couldn’t really see the contradiction in my own arguments because I simply didn’t know anything.

Now, I was extremely fortunate. I went back to graduate school, which is not always the way one comes alive politically. Often graduate school snubs out the political passion of people, but in my case I got lucky and was confronted with feminist work, was confronted by feminist women and a few feminist men, and was forced to answer the question you just posed. I think in a kind of curious way, the fact that I was such an unsophisticated person – I came from a very plain background without a lot of intellectual pretension – the power of the feminist argument seemed so obvious to me once I was exposed to it that I didn’t spend a lot of time fighting it. It just seemed kind of obvious to me in the way that you’re saying. I’m very serious when I say part of the reason I think that works that way for me is because I wasn’t intellectually sophisticated enough to put up a lot of complex defenses. So in the best case scenario, when men, in this case or white people, in that case, can engage honestly and openly with people with a critical point of view it’s possible to transcend that. Now I’m not saying it was simple or easy or it’s a finished project, but that’s why, the way you’re talking for instance and the way you often write, it’s called radical. Well, what’s the point of bringing up these big systems, they haven’t changed in hundreds of years, and they’re not going to change. Well, that may be true. I’m sure patriarchy will still be going strong on the day of my funeral, I’m sure white supremacy will not have been transcended in my lifetime, but the possibility to create conditions to challenge those systems more effectively depends on people. And you cannot help people see the inherent immoral nature (and I use that term even though people often don’t like to talk about political issues and moral terms, but I think we mean here morally, that it’s inconsistent with our own moral principles that have to deal with equality and the dignity of all people, that these systems are immoral. And the only way you can help people to understand that is by naming it honestly. So, again, what many people reject as an unrealistic strategy is, I think is in fact, the only hope we have because precisely as you say that the skills of denial are really well developed in this culture, and in human beings, in general, I think.

DJ: I want to tell a quick story and then ask a couple more questions. The quick story has to do with this: When I was a teenager, I grew up Christian Fundamentalist [ ], actually, and so I had a lot of the stuff from this culture that way, and in school the use of the derogatory “fag” was really common among everybody at the public school where I went. And I used the term all the time. I didn’t specifically mean anything by it because it was just an insult you said to somebody. And one of the things that really helped me past that was I had a bisexual friend. I was teaching him how to drive and he ran my car into a pole, and I said, “Oh, you fag.” And he responded by saying, “Yeah, I am, but what does that have to do with me running your car into a pole?” A couple points here: one of them is, I suddenly realized this wasn’t some abstract insult that I could sling around to somebody who missed the basketball shot. Instead, it actually was a harmful derogatory term toward a class of people. Up until then, I’d used the term hundreds or thousands of times and it never had occurred to me that it was an actual, tangible offense against a class of men. The reason I bring up that story is because my homophobia was so completely invisible to me that it never occurred to me until he said that. The good news is, as soon as he said it I got the picture. The bad news is, and I think this is how a lot of people change sometimes, that doesn’t mean I stopped using the word. It took me about another year to metabolize that change, even something so simple as not using that overt hate speech. It took me about a year to excise it from my vocabulary. I guess I just bring that up in terms of, for me at least, that’s one of the way that change happens, is that someone makes a really good argument to you when you’re in grad school but that doesn’t mean that everything about you has changed. It takes time to incorporate those changes.

RJ: Absolutely. And if I can connect that story, which certainly resonates with me although my own experience is somewhat different, that’s why the severe reaction that the dominant culture, especially conservative elements of it had to, what was derisively called the PC, the “politically correct” instinct is so important, because as you’re pointing out, one doesn’t become aware of an injustice whether it’s in language or material conditions or in politics or whatever, and then just automatically fix it. This is sort of Aristotle’s point about habit, “Virtue is not simply achieved by knowing the right thing to do, it’s a habit that has to be inculcated.” Now, Aristotle’s notion of what was virtuous might have been a little off in cases, but I think that’s very true. And that’s why attending to language is so important, and why the right wing especially, but the dominant culture more generally, loved to laugh at people who tried to take language seriously. I right now go to a Christian church. I have to explain it’s a Christian church where nobody believes in God and nobody believes in the Resurrection. So it’s a somewhat unorthodox Christian church. But it’s a church where people are trying to use that tradition for progressive, even radical, ends; both theologically and politically. And it’s a church where not only do we not use gender language for the concept of God, so there’s never a hymn sung or a sermon preached where we talk about praising “Him”. But beyond that, our Minister, whom I think is quite innovative, has even banished the word “Lord”. He said, “The idea of a Lord comes out of hierarchy. It comes out of the lord of the manor over the serfs. And he said, “Why do you want a God who is your Lord?” So this tending to language is very very powerful, and it helps us shift the way we think about concepts of the divine and community and spirituality. And people love to make fun of churches like this. I know it’s just PC, but what we’re trying to do is through daily practice, including language, change the way we think. That’s crucial and it’s hard, and anyone listening, especially men who were taught to talk about women in certain ways, or straight people taught to talk about gays in certain ways, we all know that it’s a real struggle, and it takes a community, it takes people committed to it because it’s very hard to do on your own. I still remember that when I left graduate school where I had been part of a very vibrant feminist student community, and came to teach, and I lost that sense of feminist community, I realized my language changed. I was sort of falling back into old habits, not using words like “fag” but just being less aware of certain things, and that was just to me a reminder that it’s always hard to go it alone, and when people get together to try and challenge these kinds of injustices, that’s why the dominant culture comes down so hard on them whether it’s through violence, through the kind of very overt reaction you see in these certain kinds of movements, or whether it tries to undermine those movement just by ridiculing them. It’s all part of the same fear the dominant culture has that, in fact, these movements are correct. They’re pointing out the gap between the stated moral principals of the culture and the actual experience of living in the culture.

DJ: The last two questions One question would be, we all know as ways of life collapse, as economic systems collapse, that men’s violence against women increases, and we also know that racism becomes more overt as economic systems collapse, so I’m wondering what people of good heart can do as the current economic collapse continues – whether through peak oil, ecological collapse, further economic collapse, just what capitalism does, what can we do in a tangible sense as men, women, whites, people of color, any other category, what can we do to soften that violence that comes during that collapse?

RJ: Well, that’s a really difficult question because the underlying reality you’re describing, I think, is accurate and it’s hard to be glib because the decay of systems that you’re talking about is not some sort of science fiction future, that’s the reality we’re watching unfold today. All I can say, by way of example, a project here in Austin where I live, where we’ve tried to deal with that in our day-to-day lives, some groups – one predominantly white, one predominantly Latino – came together and bought a community center which serves as office space and event space for a number of groups, and it’s put in one place. People who normally in a highly segregated community like Austin wouldn’t mix – a predominantly immigrant and Latino group and a predominantly white and middle class group – and creating that kind of place where people can come together and get to know each other (and I don’t want to be naive, if we all just got along everything would be perfect, I don’t mean that.), but where we have to practice our best selves is very important. The immigrant worker group which is housed in that building is importantly led by women, and mostly younger women and very progressive women, and they have made an underlying feminist politics the norm of that building, to the point where when the immigrant worker group which received some of its grant funding from a Catholic group was asked to sign a statement which many groups were in that period, denouncing gay/lesbian relationships and making sure that they would toe the line on Catholic theology on that, this immigrant worker group refused to accept a grant if the condition of the grant was signing a heterosexist/homophobic promise like that. And I took that to be a great indication of what is possible when people come together and really listen to each other. Immigrant workers who came from predominantly Catholic backgrounds who may not have come into the organization with pro-gay-lesbian feelings, through this process, had come to the point where they were happy to reject funding to make a principled stand. And I thought “Wow, the world maybe is heading off the cliff but at least in the time we are here we can try to cultivate these kinds of relationships, create spaces for them, and make that part of our political practice. Again, I don’t want to be naive, I don’t suggest that that kind of communal spirit can overcome capitalism tomorrow, but it’s a start. It’s a place where we can kinda hold on. And I think, in that sense, some of the most important political action these days is local. It’s where people are coming together on the ground to deal with specific problems, not just to pass a new ordinance or get a new pollicy enacted, but to change the way we live with each other. That’s, in some ways, the best I can do, but it’s also the most heartening part of my own political activity these days.

DJ: The last question: As you’ve been talking about the denial, I’ve been thinking of this great quote by the American Indian writer Jack Forbes. I’m just wondering if you can respond to that. He wrote, “What I came to realize is this: if a creature comes to learn to completely accept captivity or slavery, if they erase all thoughts of freedom, they can suppress the pain. But if one wants to be free, one has to face the pain, one has to agonize, to suffer through all the terror, one has to face up to what has happened, to face up to one’s complete degradation.” And I’m wondering if that difficult process provides one of our ways through, or out of, or past patriarchy, capitalism, supremacism.

RJ: I think that’s right on target. We have to have faith in freedom, and by freedom I don’t mean some superficial, political, manipulation of that term in contemporary American politics. I mean a deep sense that we are, in fact, free. Free to love and, in a sense, free from the need to condition our own sense of safety on the exploitation of anyone else. That’s what true freedom means. And how we achieve that, how we overcome the incredible impediments that this culture puts in the way of us really feeling free, really being free, and being able to act on it, even in the face of fear and terror, that might be the most succinct summary of the political challenge we face. And the impediments are not just state violence, or the concentration of wealth, but the impediments are the cheap and easy pleasures of the contemporary world; cheap food, cheap drugs, cheap entertainment, mass spectacle entertainment. There’s a lot of things to dull the pain. In that sense, it may sound paradoxical and maybe counter-intuitive but political organizing, to some degree, might be about helping people feel that pain rather than dull it.

DJ: And that’s why community, I think, is so important, because it’s so hard to go through that process alone.

RJ: I would say it’s impossible to go through it alone. You will go mad if you try to work without…you know, just as a way to make this tangible again, when I give talks on the feminist critique of pornography, I often get young men who come up and say, “I agree with that analysis. I’ve had trouble with my own use of pornography. It constrained my imagination. I feel addicted to it. I can’t stop. It’s ruining my relationship with my girlfriend.” I hear all of these kinds of things. And they’ll say, “What can I do?” I’m smart enough not to pretend to have an easy answer, but I always say the same thing, I say, “Whatever you do you’re going to have to do with others. If you try and go it alone, if you try and end your addictive use of pornography by yourself, you’ll never succeed because you’ll always be lured back into it.” It takes a community to keep us individually strong enough. That’s part of the perverse genius of capitalism is its destruction of community because the reward for destroying community is wealth and power and, therefore, in capitalism, community will be and has been destroyed, and it’s our task to rebuild it; and not some superficial notion of community that involves a recreation center where we all get together and play checkers, but real community where people are responsible for each other. And that’s not easy to create in this culture, but it is, I think you’re right, the core of any kind of progressive or radical politics.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on October 6th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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