Visit by Robert Jensen, thoughts on free speech and democracy

Last week, the CCSU Communication Department hosted a visit by Robert Jensen, a journalism professor from the University of Texas, Austin. His visit was prompted in part by recent controversies regarding the student newspaper. I’m not sure if his lectures and workshop had any impact on the newspaper staff, but my students certainly found his talks informative and provocative.

His first talk gender violence and pornography provided a feminist critique of the pornography industry. His work is inspired by that of the late Andrea Dworkin, who condemned censorship laws supported by religious conservatives but argued that the pornography industry promoted violence against women. By pornography industry, Jensen means mass marketed, industrial, largely misogynist and racist products that are targeted at a male audience and are meant to maximize profits. He specifically excluded erotica and art that depicts and explores human sexuality more broadly. Like Dworkin, he sees the pornography industry as a part of a patriarchal culture that eroticizes the domination and subordination of women. This is particularly true of the “gonzo” genre, which dispenses with any pretense of plot and which is constantly pushing the envelope in regards to sex acts and cruelty. He also noted that videos tagged as “interracial” played into and reinforced historical stereotypes about black male sexuality that perpetuated white supremacy and lynching in the United States. He ended his talk by suggesting that porn not only degrades women, but also degrades men by presenting a toxic view of masculinity associated with violence and domination. During the Q&A session, I asked him about idealized portrals of the porn industry in films like “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Boogie Nights.” He replied that Flynt is simply a despicable human being and the idea that he is a martyr to the First Amendment even more reprehensible. He was more generous towards the ideas behind “Boogie Nights,” mentioning one female performer/filmmaker who reminisced about an earlier day when she saw the genre as in some ways liberating, but now finds the turn in the industry to be really depressing.

Jensen’s second talk, “The State of the Media and the State of our Democracy,” provided some very thoughtful commentaries on media portrayals of the war in Iraq and the current presidential campaign. In other parts of the world, the war is portrayed as an illegal violation of international law. In the U.S., however, the news media is hamstrung by the imperialist notion that the invasion paved the way for democracy. The highpoint of the talk was Jensen’s dissection of the Obama campaign. Although he likes the guy, Jensen also says he really isn’t offering any change from the status quo. This is especially true of his energy policies, which revolve around the “crazy” idea of producing ethanol as an alternative energy source — not only is this a zero sum game (producing ethanol uses as much energy if not more than it produces) — it also relies on carbon fuels (usually coal) to produce it. I asked him about misogyny surrounding the Clinton campaign. He agreed that the media has been complicit in demonizing Clinton, which he called shameful. Yet he also said that Clinton represents the “death of feminism” in that it does not represent a meaningful departure from entrenched social hierarchies.

My students seemed to get a lot out of the talks. They asked lots of good questions in class even though they were bashful during the Q&A at the talks themselves. As it turns out, this all coincides with a “great porn debate” that caps off Sex Week at Yale. I’m sure it will be impossible to get seats so I’ll just have to watch the recap on Nightline.

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