ZNet Interviews Robert Jensen About

(1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream,” is about? What is it trying to communicate?


Sometimes people tell me it seems strange that I teach a radical critique of the commercial news media and at the same time am a frequent contributor to those media. “Writing Dissent” explains why I think that makes perfect sense.


I work in a number of left political movements, and I spend a lot of my time trying to get a radical message out — not just to leftists, but to the general public. That means reading, writing for, and supporting the alternative media, where our message can get out without interference. But so long as the majority of Americans get the majority of their information from the commercial media, it also is important to use the mainstream channels that are available to us. The book is about how to do that through the op/ed columns that most daily newspapers publish. It’s space that usually is open to the public, and we should be fighting for our fair share of it.


The book begins with a chapter describing how my views on how to think about radical politics, and then goes on to offer a concise description of how journalists operate. The bulk of the book is hands-on instruction in how to write those op/eds, with examples of my own work to illustrate various strategies.



(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?


After several years of writing dozens of op/eds that expressed very radical ideas (everything from describing the United States as a terrorist nation to sharp critiques of corporate capitalism), I realized I had accumulated a lot of experience and tips about how to take, as the book’s subtitle puts it, radical ideas from the margins to the mainstream. Many authors every few years gather up their essays and columns and put them into a book, but I didn’t want to do that. I thought that if the op/eds were to be of value to people, they should include discussions of the strategies that could help folks understand how they could write similar pieces.


Because I spent about a decade as a working journalist, I do a lot of writing without giving the technique much thought; at my age, it’s just the way I do things. So, writing the book was interesting because I had to think through things about writing that had become second nature. That turned out to be extremely helpful to me in improving my own work. And I hope it produced a book that will be useful to others.



(3) What are your hopes for “”Writing Dissent”? 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?


The book was worth writing if people can use it to improve their writing and get published. I find that many people are afraid to write and think that somehow only “writers” can write. But in some sense, we are all writers; we all can tell stories. It takes some time and training to learn to write in a way that newspapers will accept, but it’s not a magical process. It’s a craft, and like any craft it can be learned. That doesn’t mean everyone has to do it, but it means those who want to give it a shot shouldn’t be afraid to try.


In the first few months the book was out, I heard from a number of readers who said the book helped them. That alone was enough to make the project worthwhile for me in political terms. Whether people buy it, check it out from the library, or trade photocopies of chapters doesn’t matter to me — I want the advice in the book to circulate as widely as possible.


I think it’s also important to mention that the process of writing is, in itself, a reward. I know many people find writing to be a painful duty, but writing has always been a pleasure for me. Yes, it can be frustrating when sentences and paragraphs don’t fall together easily, but the overall process has always been a source of great joy for me. I find that it is through writing that I develop and sharpen my ideas. And there’s nothing quite like that feeling when you write a good sentence and you feel it in your gut; it’s great fun. Again, so many people have such bad experiences with writing, especially given the way it is taught in schools, that I think it is important to talk about the pleasures of the craft. In that sense, writing is always worth the time and effort for me.

Leave a comment