SSF Interview Series with Mark Frezzo

Robert Jenson

Interviewed by: Tugrul Keskin

On behalf of Sociologists without Borders (SSF), Tugrul Keskin interviewed Robert Jensen . He is a tenure Professor at University of Texas. He finished his Ph.D. in media law and ethics at the University of Minnesota. Prior to his academic career, he worked as a professional journalist for a decade. In addition to teaching and research, Jensen writes for popular media, both alternative and mainstream. His opinion and analytic pieces on such subjects as foreign policy, politics, and race have appeared in papers around the country. He also is involved in a number of activist groups working against U.S. military and economic domination of the rest of the world.  Jensen is the author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, Freeing the First Amendment: Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression, and many other books and articles.

The interview

Tugrul Keskin: Do you think US foreign policy toward the Islamic World or the Third World has changed especially after Bush administration came to the White House. Or has US foreign policy never changed and basically has always been like this toward the Third World countries-that reminds me the British colonialist policies in the 18 and 19th century.

Robert Jensen: The broad outlines of U.S. foreign policy since WWII have remained unchanged: A desire to deepen and extend U.S. power around the world, especially in the most strategically crucial regions such as the energy-rich Middle East; always with an eye on derailing the attempts of any Third World society to pursue a course of independent development outside the U.S. sphere; and containing the possibility of challenges to U.S. hegemony from other powerful states. The Bush administration policy is a departure from recent policy in terms of strategy and tactics, and perhaps also in the intensity of ideological fanaticism. The Bush National Security Strategy outlined in 2002 is breathtaking in its assertion of U.S. dominance and rejection of any possible challenge. The post 9/11 attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq show the willingness of the administration to use large-scale violence to achieve that. None of this is unprecedented; all of it is dangerous and disturbing.

Keskin: If the policy has not been different from the past, then who is actually responsible for forming US foreign policy; the past and current administrations, the Pentagon, corporate America, neo-cons, or others?

Jensen:  U.S. foreign policy is shaped by a variety of interests: Politicians with certain ideological commitments, military leadership with certain interests in preserving their power, and corporations with the always-central goal of maximizing profit. Those groups are not monolithic. Sometimes they will have conflicts, internally and among the groups. Sometimes ideologically fanatical civilian leadership will want to pursue wars that military leaders don't want (such as a possible U.S. attack on Iran). Sometimes the interests of one sector of the corporate world might clash with another sector. But in general, U.S. foreign policy serves the goal of allowing corporations, primarily U.S.-based corporations, to make the most profit through domination of the Third World and containment of challenges from other power centers (Europe, Japan, China). That means securing markets with the most favorable terms, allowing corporations to exploit labor abroad, and shoring up the dollar.

Keskin: Since the November 2000 election there have been negative changes in the American Universities. Free speech and freedom of thought are ignored; and academicians are frightened to speak out against the anti-democratic political structure. If I remember correctly, you are the first academician to face some difficulties of this kind, and more recently Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado is facing the same type of freedom of speech issues.  Could you please tell us about your experience regarding academic ‘freedom’, and do you think that American academia is loosing its values of free speech?    

Jensen: After 9/11 I was sharply criticized by administrators at my university. It had no effect on my conduct; I continued to speak out. But it no doubt did scare some people into silence. That's the tactic these days: We have extensive legal guarantees of free speech in the United States, but the people in power try to create a climate of fear to keep people quiet. There are some current threats to the system of tenure in the universities and academic freedom, but most of the threat to free speech is more subtle, in terms of the social pressures.

Keskin: Dr. Jensen, a foremost conservative Pat Buchanan wrote an article, entitled "Whose War," and in the article he criticizes the Bush administration. What are the main differences between the neoconservatives such as Wolfowitz and Perle; and conservatives such as Pat Buchanan? What is happening in the conservative ideology?

Jensen: Pat Buchanan is often referred to as a "paleo-conservative," someone harking back to an earlier view of the world that is isolationist and reactionary. Buchanan opposed the Iraq war, but on very different grounds than leftists. His disagreements with the neoconservatives are mostly about tactics and strategy. Both groups agree that the U.S. should dominate the world, though they disagree about how to go about it.

Keskin: What do you think about how the US media has handled or covered the Iraq War?
Jensen: In a word, it is horrible, this is a failure of US journalism. Before, during and after the war, mainstream commercial journalists have failed to provide the critical analysis, independent reporting, and the diverse range of opinions necessary for the American public to evaluate the Bush administration’s claims about the war. After the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction came up empty, Bush was forced to appoint a commission to study the "intelligence failures" in the run-up to war. As journalists pursued that story, some argued that the press had finally stepped into its role as the proverbial watchdog on power. But journalists continue to allow officials to define and shape the news in ways that keep US readers and viewers in the dark, just as they were before and during the war. The paradox of US journalism is that a press which operates free of direct governmental control produces news that routinely reproduces the conventional wisdom of a narrow power elite. Coverage of the Iraq war highlights two of the key reasons. First, the majority of US journalists are unable to transcend the limiting effects of the ideology of American exceptionalism - the notion that the United States is the ultimate embodiment of democracy and goes forward in the world as a benevolent champion of freedom, not as another great power looking to expand its influence around the world. Uncritical acceptance of this ideology permeates mainstream US coverage; even 'critical' reporting usually tends to take it as a given. Second, journalists are trapped by the routines of "objective journalism", the most central of which is the slavish reliance on "official sources". Unfortunately, most US journalists continue to read from the Bush administration’s script.


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