In my first "Letter from America," I talked about the sadness and rage that
is part of living in this country for progressives and radicals. This time,
I want to add fear to the mix of primal political emotions.
On the heels of a successful "anti-inaugural" celebration to welcome the
new president in January, political activists in Austin came together as
the Democracy Coalition to hold a teach-in on "resisting the Bush agenda."
Speakers ranged from disaffected left-leaning Democrats to more radical
folks, but all were able to rally around the goal of countering the
hard-right orientation of the new administration. While many of us see
little difference between Republicans and Democrats, the stolen election
and the reactionary stance of the Bush crowd has sparked greater political
interest in the country and provided an opening for political discussion
and action among people who had never worked together.
There was a lot of important talk that night about foreign policy,
environmental protection, reproductive rights, and civil rights. But for
me, the most interesting moment came when a man stood up and said, "I agree
with a lot of what I've heard and I want to get involved, but I'm scared."
I had two very different reactions to his comment. On one level I
understood and empathized with him. In a culture this locked-down, it's
easy to be scared when considering even the most benign political activity.
Anyone who has done political work has had to deal with that fear of taking
the first step.
At the same time, I wanted to say, "You are part of the most privileged
group of people in the world. What do you have to be afraid of when people
in other parts of the world are risking their lives in political action?"
Americans -- especially white middle-class Americans -- enjoy one of the
most expansive sets of political freedoms that has existed in the modern
industrialized world. There are barriers to organizing but there is no
serious repression to stop Americans (at least those in the more privileged
sectors) from becoming politically active today.
As I struggled with those thoughts, I was assuming the man had meant he was
afraid of a response from the power structure -- getting fired from a job
or being harassed by law enforcement. But later, I wondered if the man
hadn't been talking about a different kind of fear that grips many "normal"
Americans, especially in the middle class: The fear of being seen as "not
Although the man left before I could talk with him, it's crucial for those
of us on the left to wrestle with this issue if we are to organize
successfully. One of the most obvious rules of political work is that you
meet people on their ground and try to persuade them to move, not condemn
or ridicule them for where they are.
The fear of repression at the hands of authority is easy enough to
comprehend. At various times in U.S. history, dissidents have suffered
everything from outright assassination (such as Black Panther leader Fred
Hampton, killed by Chicago police with help from the FBI in 1969) to
imprisonment (such as Eugene Debs, jailed for a 1918 speech opposing World
War I) to various levels of harassment (experienced by many activists
during the FBI's post-World War II counterintelligence program).
But for people in the privileged sectors of U.S. society, such
recrimination is not the big problem today. Even though the police response
to protests in Seattle and at the past summer's political conventions
should remind us of how quickly state violence against internal dissent can
reappear, I don't have a sense most Americans are stopped from being
politically active because of such threats.
Instead, I think it is that fear of being perceived by others as abnormal
that keeps many people who may have progressive beliefs from engaging in
politics. For all the talk about American individualism, we generally are a
conformist lot, especially politically. The propaganda machine of the
business community (advertising, public relations, news, entertainment) has
so successfully demonized or co-opted left politics and political
resistance that the vast majority of people see a stark choice: Either
remain politically inert and safe, or take a chance on resistance and
accept marginalization and/or ostracism. People often don't see a way to
hold onto the psychological safety and comfort of American life (having
"normal" friends in a "normal" neighborhood with "normal" social
activities) if they engage in left-of-center politics.
I certainly have felt this in my own life. Although in many ways I'm a
fairly conventional person (I'm a professor, with no tattoos or piercings),
my political activity on campus and in the community has alienated me from
most of my colleagues. It's not that they are nasty to me -- the vast
majority are civil in routine dealings, so long as I don't press political
topics -- but I am not part of the department in any meaningful social way.
With a couple of exceptions, even those who say they support and respect
the political work I do almost never engage me in conversation about it.
That's the price I have paid for being openly left and engaging in what
many see as unnecessarily confrontational politics. For me, it's not a
terribly heavy price because I long ago stopped wanting to be included in
these circles, not because I think I am better than my colleagues but
because there are so few shared interests and values. I think everyone
understands that inviting me to a dinner party with "normal" faculty
members and their partners would likely create more tension than it's worth.
There is an answer to this fear, which I hinted at in the last letter.
Engaging in left/radical politics may cast you out of "normal" social
groups, but it also creates new opportunities for social connections in new
groups. Politics is not just about issues but also about the creation of
communities of resistance in which one can find a home. That home may not
look like the standard middle-class neighborhood with all its protections.
Even if one continues to live physically in such a "normal" place while
engaging in political activity, the social and emotional landscape likely
will change. But there are many kinds of homes in the world that can be
welcoming and comforting.
Creating these political homes is not easy, especially when we acknowledge
how differences such as race affect how welcome some people may feel. But
part of our challenge is not simply to have the best analysis and political
arguments, but to be able to create such a sense of belonging so that
people can sustain themselves in the face of a world that is hostile to the
goals of justice and peace.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Other writings are available online at