Get Up, Stand Up
by Robert Jensen
Last week at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, I talked
with dozens of people from around the world. I learned a lot about the
struggles for justice in their countries, but the most important lesson
I brought home was about my own country.
The question I thought people at the Forum would ask me is, "Why does
the U.S. government follow such brutal policies of economic and military
domination around the world?" I thought they would want me to explain
the United States to them. But they didn't -- because, I came to
realize, they already knew the answer to the question.
In one session I listened to a man who works with the MST, the landless
movement in Brazil that is widely considered to be the biggest and most
important social movement in the world today. He told us that the people
he works with often are lucky if they get a fourth-grade education; many
are illiterate. "But I don't have to tell them about imperialism," he
said. That they understand. They live with it.
The question that people in Porto Alegre did ask me was simple: What are
people of conscience in the United States -- what am I -- doing to stop
the U.S. government, especially in its mad drive to war in Iraq?
Those of us organizing in the United States are in a strange situation.
Our task is to work to educate the people of our own privileged and
affluent culture about what the rest of the world already knows: The
United States is an empire, and -- as has been the case throughout
history -- empires are a threat to peace and life and justice in the
world. There is no such thing as a benevolent empire.
It is crucial that we in the United States who have so much unearned
privilege that comes with living in the empire face their question: What
are we willing to do to stop our government? What are those of us in the
heart of the beast doing to tame that beast?
The United States is preparing for a war in Iraq that virtually the
entire world opposes. No matter how brutal the regime of Saddam Hussein,
the world understands that even more threatening is the empire unleashed
The cynical among us say that it is clear that Bush and his boys want
this war, and that the war will come. That may be true; there's no way
to see the future. But I know that no matter what will come, our task is
We are the first citizens of the empire. In the past, empires had
subjects. But we are truly citizens, with freedom of expression and
rights of political participation that aren't perfect but are real. With
those freedoms comes a responsibility, to use them to stop our
government from pursuing a war that will kill and destroy innocents
while further entrenching U.S. power in the Middle East and U.S. control
over the strategically crucial oil resources there.
We have a choice. We can hide from our responsibility. Or we can stand
up, speak up, organize, and join the people of the world in movements to
challenge the powerful, to resist the empire.
It may seem safer to avoid that choice, to hide from that
responsibility. But I learned one other thing in Porto Alegre: The
people of the world do not accept the American empire. All over the
world there are movements for social justice that are strengthening,
gathering support and challenging power. They are the future. History is
not on the side of the empire.
To take the side of the empire is to give into our fear, to cast our lot
with the past. To resist the empire is to grab onto hope, to cast our
lot with the future. It is literally a choice of empire and death, or
resistance and life. This is not about liberals v. conservatives or
Republicans and Democrats; both parties are on the wrong side of this
struggle right now. This is about a far more fundamental choice.
There is much work to be done on many fronts. One thing we can all do is
come out on Saturday, Feb. 15, when people in New York City, Austin and
around the world will rally to oppose the U.S. drive to war. Information
is available at http://www.unitedforpeace.org/
If you doubt the importance of this, think back to September 11, 2001.
On that day, we got a glimpse of what it will look like if the empire is
dismantled from the outside, if the empire continues to ignore the
world. But we have a choice. We, the first citizens of the empire, can
commit to dismantling the empire from within, peacefully and
non-violently, in solidarity with those around the world struggling for
Let me leave you with one image from Porto Alegre, from the floor of the
arena in which the closing ceremonies took place. As the conveners of
the World Social Forum delivered a final declaration and stood on stage,
the sounds of John Lennon's "Imagine" came over the loudspeakers, and
the 15,000 people in the arena stood, held hands, moved with the music
and sang of a world with no countries, a world living life in peace, a
world without possessions and greed.
When the song was over, I turned to an older man sitting next to me. I
had told him I was from the United States and we had exchanged nods and
smiles throughout the event, but he spoke little English and I spoke
even less Portuguese. At that moment, language mattered little. I
extended my hand to him. But he rejected it.
Instead, he reached out, grabbed me and enveloped me in a hug as big as
that song, as big as Brazil, as big as the world.
"Peace," he said. "Paz," I replied.
We are Americans, but if we choose to resist we are not the American
empire. And if we do resist, there is a world we can join, a world that
is waiting for us.
Perhaps I am investing too much symbolism in one simple hug. But that
moment with that man, that hug in Porto Alegre, was for me the promise
of life outside the empire. It was the feel of a future that we can all
imagine. It is easy, if we try.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at
Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective www.nowarcollective.com and
author of "Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the
Mainstream." He can be reached at email@example.com
Target Iraq: What the
News Media Don't Tell Us
1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book is about? What is it
trying to communicate?
The book is primarily an assessment of key lies and omissions in the
U.S. government's push toward war on Iraq. The subtitle -- "What the
news media didn't tell you" -- may be overly ambitious, since it would
take many books to cover all such relevant ground. But this book, which
I co-wrote with foreign correspondent Reese Erlich, focuses on central
aspects of the propaganda campaign that gradually made it possible for
the Bush II administration to be able to unleash a huge murderous
assault on people in Iraq. The book is trying to communicate that the
Bush team's media blitz in the United States was fueled by selective
(mis)information, and that the mainstream U.S. media generally
participated in the manipulation. Along the way, "Target Iraq" focuses
on the pivotal role of Colin Powell, who was praised in the fall of 2002
by many people who should have known better. Overall, the war on Iraq
has been made possible by pervasive mendacity from Washington and by
go-along-to-get-along reflexes in major media. To put the consequences
in human context, the book includes descriptions of what Reese and I saw
and heard during our visits to Iraq in late 2002.
2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the
content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
Reese Erlich and I traveled to Iraq together in September 2002. There
were official meetings with Tariq Aziz and other high-ranking Iraqi
functionaries, visits to a children's hospital and more informal
gatherings. Reese traveled elsewhere in Iraq -- he's a very thorough
journalist and keeps asking questions everywhere he goes -- and in the
book he does a lot of original reporting on the effects of sanctions,
the grim aftermath of the Pentagon's use of depleted uranium during the
Gulf War in 1991, and attitudes among "ordinary" Iraqi people out of
earshot of Saddam Hussein's regime. I returned to Baghdad in December
2002, traveling with Sean Penn, and incorporated information and
experiences from that visit into the book just before it went to
press.The book includes a lot of content analysis of the U.S. media spin
during the crucial pre-war months -- in counterpoint to other available
information and the firsthand knowledge that we gained while visiting
3) What are your hopes for "Target Iraq"? What do you hope it will
contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you
have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave
you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if
it was worth all the time and effort?
I hope the book provides intellectual and emotional support for stopping
the U.S. war on Iraq. We need to build an extremely strong antiwar
movement in a very short time. I think the "Target Iraq" book can
combine with other work, being done by many people, to help create
massive nonviolent resistance to Washington's war machine. Nothing would
please me more than seeing the book used as a tool to impede and stop
the Pentagon's activities of mass murder ordered by President George W.
Bush. The book was written in the spirit of a quote that appears in the
first chapter, from Albert Camus: "And henceforth, the only honorable
course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words
are more powerful than munitions."
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