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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/20/09

What does it mean to be a human being? Balancing theological and political insights

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My first venture into political activism was in the feminist movement to end men’s violence against women and men’s use of women in the sexual-exploitation industries (stripping, pornography, prostitution), grounded in a critique of the underlying conception of what it means to be a man that most of us have been socialized to accept: masculinity as a quest for control and domination, routinely leading to aggression and violence. Our understanding of what it means to be male has to change, and to drive home that point, I often offer this challenge to my brothers: “You can be a man, or you can be a human being.”


The point was not that we men should alter our bodies but that we couldn’t retain a loyalty to masculinity and still live fully human lives. I later adapted that question for talks on racism, United States foreign policy, and economics. We can be white people, or we can be human beings. We can be Americans, or we can be human beings. We can be affluent, or we can be human beings.


The common claim is simple: to embrace being a man in the conventional sense is to accept the oppression of women in patriarchy; to embrace being a white person in a racist society is to accept the oppression of non-white people; to embrace being American in a world dominated by our hyper-violent nation-state is to accept profound injustice in the world; and to embrace being affluent in a world structured by a predatory corporate capitalism is to accept the deprivation that billions around the world endure.


Underneath those claims is a structural analysis of the roots of an unjust and unsustainable system, and the recognition that for all its affluence and military power, the United States is in many ways a society in collapse -- politically, economically, culturally and most important, ecologically. We live in an increasingly callous culture that exploits sexuality and glorifies violence, often with racist images and themes; embedded in a house-of-cards economy built on orgiastic consumption, deepening personal and collective debt, and an artificially inflated dollar; at the end of an imperial era that is grinding to a potentially disastrous demise. And looming over all those crises are the consequences of ignoring for too long the unraveling ecological fabric that makes life possible.


This framework no doubt would seem radical, even crazy, to many. It is radical, in the foundational sense of the term: going to the root, trying to understand the nature of things. In this new century, we need radical analyses more than ever. That’s not crazy, but is in fact the only sane response to a world facing such crises. Radical is realistic, and realistic is sane.


When we dare to be radical, we confront the reality that, at both the personal and planetary levels, we are surrounded by systems based on a domination/subordination dynamic, which we have to challenge at all levels. It’s important to be clear about these particular systems -- race, gender and sexuality, capitalism, and empire -- all of which must be examined in the context of the coming ecological collapse.


A focus on the first two, race and gender, is often dismissed as mere “identity politics,” and there certainly is a way in which a shallow “diversity talk” can derail radical politics. But there is no way to talk about progressive social change in this country and the wider world if we don’t confront the pathologies of white supremacy and patriarchy, both of which are woven deeply into the fabric of U.S. society. Such terms may seem old-fashioned, but we live in a world of enduring racialized disparities in wealth and well-being, rooted not in the inadequacy of people of color but in white dominance, and a world in which women still face the social limitations and physical threats that come from male dominance.


These ideologies of white supremacy and patriarchy are linked to the systems of capitalism and empire, rooted in the glorification of a hyper-competitive, violent masculinity and a belief in the inherent superiority of the United States and Europe. Capitalism creates a world defined by greed and attempts to reduce us to crass maximizers of self-interest -- not exactly a recipe for living a decent life consistent with our principles of equality and the dignity of all people. Empire allows the extraction of the wealth of the many to enrich an ever smaller number of people, not exactly a morally defensible model.


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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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