Empire, Its Consequences,
and the Search for Peace
Dr. Joseph Gerson
The below speech was delivered at a conference, “How to Prevent War on Iran AND on the U.S. Constitution.” After the conference, several people asked Dr. Gerson for a copy of his speech. He has graciously made it available to conference participants.
Berkshire Community College
October 18, 2008
I want to thank Don Lathrop for his invitation to think with you this afternoon. I believe in truth in advertising. The picture of me on the conference flyer shows me reading my speech, so you have been given fair warning. In truth, this is not my usual style, but there is a lot that I want to cover in my limited time.
When Don first contacted me, he asked me to join Scott in doing what we could to prevent an imminent war against Iran and to engage with Scott’s criticisms of and prescriptions for the peace movement. Later, when Don asked for my speech title, it had become apparent that a war against Iran was unlikely. The Guardian has since reported that last spring Bush informed Israeli Prime Minister Olmert there could be no attack against Iran because the consequences of Tehran’s retaliation would be more than the U.S. was willing to tolerate. I think Don was taken aback when I came up with: “Empire, its Consequences, and the Search for Peace”, but I think you’ll agree that it speaks to our current crisis.
One of my mentors used to give a speech titled “The Final Importance of our First Assumptions.” Let me begin there, which will frame much of my talk today.
Years ago, when I interviewed Howard Zinn for a film, he stressed that we can’t have freedom without knowing our history. If we don’t know what came before us, whenever the president comes on the television and tells us that we are in danger from here or there, we’re not in a position to exercise independent judgment about whether he is right or wrong. So we follow our presidential piper. The of course applies to other authority figures as well.
But, if we know our history, we can understand that an invasion of Iraq or threats against Iran are but the latest editions of wars and subversion for oil, or that the denial of habeas corpus to people that some fear undermines our most essential democratic and constitutional rights.
I am Jewish and was born in the wake of the Holocaust. My parents taught me that the lessons of the Judeocide were “Never again to anyone,” not never again to the Jews; that we are not to participate in the crimes of silence or obey illegitimate orders; and that there is a clear relationship between truth seeking and intellectual integrity on the one hand, and the question of who lives, who dies, and how, on the other.
With the contradictions of youth, I wanted to be both a Civil Rights Freedom Rider and a U.S. diplomat. I did find my way into the Civil Rights movement. And, along with Bill Clinton, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and others I also found my way to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. With the Vietnam War, it became clear that my values would not permit me to serve the U.S. government, so I joined the peace movement, and that has determined the course of my life.
My Georgetown education served me well. We were taught about the rise and fall of civilizations and empires by Carroll Quickly, the professor that Bill Clinton praised when he accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1992. We learned U.S. diplomatic history from the primary ghost writer of President Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, Jules Davids. And my sociology professor encouraged me to move into the Black ghetto at the height of the Block Power movement to explore what the university could best do to challenge racism.
I’ve worked as a community organizer in the coal fields of West Virginia and the wasteland of Arizona. I was privileged to live and work in Europe in the mid-1970s where I worked with a woman who could remember taking Prince Kropotkin back to the rail station in a carriage and who had been jailed for leafleting in opposition to World War I. I was privileged to work and learn from people who had resisted Nazi rule and occupations nonviolently and violently. I have met and/or interviewed Middle Eastern heads of state, most recently Ahmadeinejad. I have worked with the PLO representative who first called for coexistence with Israel and some of Israel’s more insightful and courageous founding fathers who responded to that call and began the Israeli-PLO dialog. For the past twenty-five years, much of my work has been in Asia. That’s more than enough about me.
Growing out of all of this is my understanding that the U.S. has long sought to build, and for the past century to maintain, a global empire. During the Vietnam War rally speakers would sometimes say that the war was not an aberration, but they didn’t explain why. The truth is that Bush’s Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Colombia, and the Bush-McCain-Obama-Clinton “all options are on the table” military threats against Iran are expressions of imperial continuity rather than fundamental change.
Another assumption is that we don’t win fundamental, long-term policy changes by focusing primarily on people’s fears or out of a sense of panic. It may work in the short term, but when the ostensibly inevitable wars or nuclear weapons are not launched we find that we’ve lost people’s trust and reduced our ability to address very real threats.
Reality is complex, and as I indicated there is
a greater probability that the U.S. will be sending diplomats rather than cruise
missiles to Teheran. Elite figures from Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft
to five former Secretaries of State have all called for direct and unconditional
U.S. negotiations with Iran. A complex U.S.-Iranian dialog is taking place
behind the scenes. In the future, we could even see a grand bargain that would
include Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and others that would include U.S.-Iranian
cooperation in Afghanistan.
Three things I want to do today:
I want to do three things today: Following on a model in Scott’s book Waging Peace; I’ll frame my remarks by giving a speech that I gave at an anti-war rally last week in Boston. Rally speeches have to be sharp, unrelenting, and concise. It will serve as an introduction to some of the costs and consequences of empire. I’ll go on to say a few things about empire, and I’ll conclude with observations what is needed to build social movements that can prevail.
Switching then to rally mode:
At a time of ever expanding wars and when we are either in what will at the very least be a major recession if not another Great Depression simple truths are more important than complex analysis.
First and foremost, things that look like they can’t last, don’t. Our nation’s economic and international decline has been accelerated by Bush and Cheney’s wars and as a result of Reagan, Clinton and Bush pimping for the super-rich, wasting the nation’s wealth and resources, and shattering regulations designed to ensure a minimum of financial integrity. We pay the price in lost homes, lost jobs, and lost pensions, and lost reputation. Our crisis also has roots in our consumer culture. Shopping malls have become more important than city halls, and worse, most U.S. Americans think of themselves as consumers not as citizens. It was more than twenty years ago that we read about “Bowling Alone” and the loss of civil participation. It has only gotten worse. We are losing our way, and on many levels our democracy is in serious jeopardy.
And the world is changing: Iceland may become a Russian economic protectorate. Washington fears creation of a Chinese-led Asian economic zone that would marginalize U.S. business interests and jeopardize social peace at home. Latin America is declaring independence. And, governments are planning to trade oil in currencies other than dollars.
The structures and privileges of the 20th century Empire are creaking and collapsing around us, and we are not prepared. Most U.S. people haven’t wanted to consider the implications that U.S. Middle East hegemony meant not only cheap oil that we’ve used to poison the earth, but petrodollars flowing back to U.S. banks to play casino capitalism or to finance college, home and business loans. China and Japan provide the loans that pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those loans are coming due. Think about the “adjustments” the IMF traditionally imposes on second and third world nations when they can’ repay their debts. That could be our future.
Today, with the refusal to truly integrate Sunnis and the Awakening Councils into Iraqi political life, the surge has failed. Iraq is again approaching the precipice of civil war. We are defeating ourselves in Afghanistan, even as Karzai and Britain explore negotiations with the Taliban, We are at war in Pakistan, Colombia, and the Philippines. Pressure for war against Iran has been built on still more lies and distortions. As our “war president” kills and tortures to impose what Dick Cheney once called “the arrangement for the 21st century,” – the colonization of time as well as of countries - like Germany, Japan and South Africa before us, we have become a pariah nation. We, our children, and our children’s children will pay the price for many hard years to come.
Insanity is when someone self-destructively insists on persisting in actions that have repeatedly failed: This would include actions like starting a new Cold War by expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and deploying first strike missile defenses in Europe; actions like bombing Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani villages in order to save them; building genocidal nuclear weapons to ensure peace, and sending the Pentagon as much money each year as the rest of the world spends for their militaries – combined!
Years ago, during the Reagan years, we asked a former Chilean political prisoner, when do you have a military government? His answer was concise: “Look at your national budget!” Obama and McCain have failed the test about what’s needed to address the economic crisis. If we are going to have the money to pay for what we really need, the place to begin slashing the Federal budget is the Pentagon. The Old Testament teaches that a people without a vision will perish. If we are to lessen the hardships ahead and stop Washington’s endless wars, envisioning and credibly describing a non-imperial United States that serves us, our children, and our neighbors better than what is collapsing around us will be more important than organizing the next demonstration.
As we insist that our government rely on diplomacy, international law and intelligence rather than war, and that all U.S. military forces return from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines and from our foreign military bases and installations, we must explain that there IS money for Medicare and social security, for rebuilding, post-modernizing and greening the U.S. infrastructure – all of which create more jobs than military spending. Remember the New Deal? This is as American as apple pie.
The vision is Common Security, the understanding that no one is secure if their neighbors – even their rivals – are insecure. The truth is that we won’t have international or domestic peace without equity, justice, mutual understanding and respect. It means rejecting suicidal fantasy that we’re Number 1 and not one of the rich human diversity.
Vision comes first. Hannah Arendt, the émigré political philosopher, wrote that prevail in extremely dangerous times, people need to pull together, wisely, closely, and courageously. This is how the Civil Rights movement and those who resisted the Nazis in Europe prevailed. What they had in common was the vision and will to insist on human dignity, and they had the courage to live lives of common decency. This must be our agenda.
Turning then to Empire:
As our text books tell us, the U.S. imperial age began in 1890s. The U.S. has since built, profited from, and enforced – militarily and otherwise - a global empire which reached its zenith immediately following the cold war. One manifestation of the empire’s crisis is the collapse in recent weeks of the Bretton Woods international financial system which was established to augment U.S. economic privilege and global power. The European Union is now pressing to create a new financial system, one that will augment European economic power and shore up U.S. economic privilege at the expense of rising economic powers like Brazil, China and India. But some tides cannot be held back.
Although its relative power is declining, the U.S. will remain an imperial power for years to come. U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Middle East, which Eqbal Ahmad termed “the geopolitical center of the struggle for world power”, has been so seriously undermined by the Bush wars that Zbigniew Brzezinski, warns that China could ultimately have more influence with the oil monarchies than Washington. The combination of profligate military spending, the trillion dollars of tax cuts for the rich, and now the Wall Street bail out have left the United States the world’s most indebted nation. When our unprecedented trade imbalances are added to the mix, we are confronted by the “twin towers of debt” which threaten our national and individual security far more than Al Qaeda and certainly more than Iran.
The national debt means that our government has been stealing from future generations, reducing the nation’s abilities to create 21st century infrastructures and technologies, its ability to protect us from global warming, or to assure the U.S. people health care, housing, and education. As James Fallows explained in The Atlantic, at some point oil monarchies will conclude that their interests lie in trading oil in Euros, RMBs or yen not dollars. Or Chinese, Japanese or European officials will decide to dump billions of their dollar reserves. Such actions will remove artificial subsidies to our economy, causing still more serious economic, social and political dislocations – if not chaos – here in the U.S. And the reality is that with the rise of the rest – especially China, India, and Brazil, with every U.S. recession over the past three decades the U.S. share of the global economy, and with it our economic security, has declined.
If handled wisely, imperial decline is something to be welcomed and embraced. Imperialism wasn’t supposed to be as American as apple pie. That was the role of democracy. We need our political, media and intellectual leaders to courageously address the decline of empire, its likely consequences, and how we can use this period to transform out society so that it serves our real security needs.
So, some historical background: In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Western Europe, the Pacific and East Asia were not our country’s only prizes of war. As the State Department advised that in the Middle East we had “won one of the greatest prizes in world history” –dominance of its oil – the “jugular vein of Western capitalism” and of what we call conventional military power. In 1948, when he was head of Policy Planning at the State Department, George Kennan, the author of the “Containment Doctrine” wrote that:
"We have about 50
percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this
situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task
in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit
us to maintain this position of disparity…We need not deceive ourselves that we
can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease
to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of
the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are
going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered
by idealistic slogans the better."9
Remember that this was a time of “newly independent nations.” The peoples of Africa, Asia, and to a lesser degree Latin American were enjoying the first freedoms of the post-colonial era. It was not a time for U.S. leaders to be speaking of their imperial project or “empire.” So, the Council on Foreign Relations coined the euphemistic phrase “United States’ Grand Area.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, such caution no longer seemed necessary. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Walter Russell Mead described the structures of the liberal U.S., empire in his book Mortal Splendor. Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted the U.S. “imperial project,” and in The Grand Chessboard, described the essential geopolitical foundations of the U.S. global empire and what must be done to maintain it.
Liberal Cold War scholars like John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy came out of the closet, conceding they had always seen the U.S. as an imperial power. With the rise of the neo-conservatives, an unnamed senior White House adviser boasted that the U.S. had become an empire that imposes realities to which others must respond. Robert Kagan celebrated the U.S. use of power, while Europeans pursued Paradise. And Naill Fergson did his best to teach us the lessons of British colonial administration. Even the New York Times joined the game with headlines like “American Empire, Not ‘If” but ‘What Kind.’”
What are the origins of this empire? The Puritans and Pilgrims who first settled here came with the belief that they were God’s Chosen Ones and White European racism. When the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia, our founding fathers did more than create the system of checks and balances that the Bush Administration has been ravaging. Understandably, with the Greek, Roman, British, French and Spanish empires as their models, they debated and agreed how best to create a new American Empire.
Jefferson, as we know, acquired the Louisiana Purchase – a huge chunk of the French imperium – opening the way for the conquest and colonization of the U.S. continental Empire – including the half of Mexico that was conquered and annexed in 1848. In the 1850s, William Seward – best known for his “Folly,” the purchase of Alaska, envisioned the possibility that the U.S. could ultimately replace Britain as the world’s dominant power. To do so, he advised, the U.S. would first have to control Asia. There were two routes to Asia. The southern route went through Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines – which were already occupied by more powerful European colonial powers. There was also the northern route, via Alaska, which “we” bought from Russia.
In the 1870s, desperate farmers facing the loss of their lands because of gluts in production of wheat and corn demanded that the U.S. conquer Latin American and Asian markets to bolster the price of their crops. And, by the time of the 1890s Great Depression, China’s markets were seen as the source of economic salvation. They could keep U.S. factories running, U.S. workers employed, and factory owners increasing their profits. The China market thus became the holy grail of capitalism.
By the late 1890s, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Admiral Mahan had finally built the imperial Navy needed to challenge Britain’s mastery of the seas and dominance in Asia, and they put it to use. The still mysterious sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, like the nonexistent WMDs in Iraq, provided the pretext to conquer Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and to annex Hawaii. With these geostrategic jewels, the U.S. had the beginnings of its global empire which within half a century would exceed anything envisioned by Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar.
Not unlike those storied conquerors in 1962, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk came before Congress to testify about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he responded to questions by saying that the U.S.-sponsored invasion was hardly anything new, and he presented the Congressional committee with a list of nearly 200 U.S. military interventions beginning shortly after the U.S. constitution was adopted.
Today the U.S. network of more than 700 foreign military bases are designed to reinforce the status quo; to encircle those who would challenge U.S. regional or global hegemony; to support our interventionist navy; to make first-strike nuclear war fighting possible; to provide jumping off points for U.S. invasions and foreign military interventions; to facilitate C4I: command, control, communications, computers and intelligence -including the ability to tune into every telephone conversation in the world; to control the world’s oil and gas supplies; to control or influence the governments and political dynamics of host nations; to show the U.S. flag; and to host prisons where the provisions of the Geneva Conventions – including the abolition of torture - can be flouted.
The U.S. has also long been the world’s most powerful nuclear weapons state. It has a first-strike nuclear war doctrine and has prepared or threatened to initiate nuclear war at least 40 times since Nagasaki. And, at the so-called “conventional” level, Pentagon policy is “Full Spectrum Dominance” – the ability to dominate any nation, anywhere in the world, at any time, at any level of power. U.S. doctrine says that the destiny of other nations and peoples – be they cultured foreign ministers, poets, or farmers-- is to be full spectrum dominated. No wonder that people in other countries are inclined to resent us.
Then there is decline. Let me call your attention to an important, if occasionally overdrawn book, Dark Ages America by Morris Berman. It explores the late 20th century corruptions of the cultural, economic, technological, and political foundations of the U.S. Empire. Others, like former Nixon advisors Kevin Phillips and Chalmers Johnson warn that we have moved from Republic to imperial oligarchy (think in terms of the Bushes, Clintons, Kennedys, Gores, McCains, Dodds and Romneys,)
The limits and self-defeating dynamics of U.S. military power and the dangers of asymmetrical warfare, as we see in Iraq, Afghanistan and non-state terrorist attacks, have become all too apparent. The U.S. military may be able to destroy anything in the world, but it can no longer hold, govern, and transform the nations it defeats. Our leaders have yet to learn that the colonial era ended with Vietnam.
The biggest threat to U.S. Empire is not military but economic. Let me tell you a story. During the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I participated in a conference in Spain, which brought together leading European peace advocates and political personalities from the Middle East and North Africa. Among them was the former head of the Dutch Foreign Ministry. He confided to me that he was considering calling on European nations to dump at least a portion of their U.S. Treasury bonds and other investments as a warning signal to the U.S. elite not to attack Iraq. Had he actually done this, and if Europeans had followed his advice, it would have severely weakened the dollar and our economy. It might have also saved us from a catastrophic war.
More recently, about a year ago, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sent shock waves through the global economic system when he advised that it was time for China to begin dumping its Treasury bonds.
What then be done?
As we know from the history of European fascism and from Joe the Plumber, simple answers are for simple situations and simple people. We live within an Empire, and change happens within imperial time. Some victories can be won, others will be lost, but they can be struggled on their on terms in ways that build for the future. The Empire is in crisis, and in crisis there is both danger and opportunity. Economic crisis can lead to openings like the New Deal and greater economic and environmental security or to fascism and worse, as in Europe in the 1930s. Sweden was once the seat of a great northern empire, and now it is probably the most advanced society in the world.
Stepping out of my role as an AFSC staff member, and speaking personally, it seems clear that if McCain wins the election, and this is still possible, it seems all too apparent that our decline and resulting suffering will be accelerated. He may forbid torture, but we’ve seen him pander to the racist and neo-fascist right-wing, people he once condemned. His economic program is little more than income redistribution from most of us to the super rich. There are his 100 years in Iraq, “Bomb Bomb Iran”, his declaration that victory in the self-defeating war in Afghanistan is a litmus test for NATO, and his openness to developing new nuclear weapons
Obama, who contrary to Scott Ritter’s talk is were he is in significant measure due to the changes in U.S. political culture wrought by peace activists over these past seven years, may ameliorate some of the worst excesses of the Bush years unfortunately, like McCain, Obama has pledged to increase the size of the U.S. military; he has called for escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and there is no way that he can pay for our badly needed infrastructure modernization and social services unless he finds the courage to cut the Pentagon’s budget.
I am not a scholar of social movements. My scholarship has been in other realms, but I can draw on four decades of being involved injustice and peace campaigns – what Scott and others would call nonviolent struggle, that began with organizing coal miners and their families. One lesson that I learned early on from Rev. Dick Fernandez, then Director of Clergy and Laity against the Vietnam War, is that we have thirty-eight (a number he drew from the air) arrows in our quiver, which is to say strategies and tactics The challenge is to figure out which one will work at any given time and to be willing to change strategies and tactics when necessary.
One thing we know is that ends determine the means. If we chose a militarist approach to the challenges we face, any new order we create will be militarist. If we choose a Leninist path of ruthless and manipulative centralism, the result will be something like Stalin’s failed legacy. Alinsky-like models, in which an enemy or oppressor is objectified, and manipulation and ruthlessness are fair game, can only win narrow and very limited victories. Alinsky himself was clear that a few years after you throw the bums out, you need to do the same thing again to the guys gals who were once riding their bean fed white horses.
Similarly, corporatist models like those being adopted by a growing number of NGOs, moves power and influence to those with money. The victories they can achieve are limited, and they cannot bend the arc of the universe toward justice because they are not based on popular movements.
When I was a student I was privileged to have Wilfred Desan, a French immigrant, as a philosophy professor. He was an early post-existentialist, and among his compelling books was one titled The Marxism of Jean Paul Sartre, which opened with a question: what sparked the storming of the Bastille – the quintessential moment of the French Revolution which in turn, created the modern state system that has served as the foundation modern capitalism.
Much like someone who meditates on a Zen Koan, I have come up with my own answer: the mass protest became a revolution in response to profound social changes that had come over decades. A social movement had been building to respond to those changing realities during the same decades. Much like a row of dominoes being set in place, the situation was ripe for the force of one strong breath – one impassioned cry – to topple the old order. The challenge, of course, is to build the new one.
Let me remain abstract for a few more minutes.
I believe that the answers to what must be done are found within the matrix of two complementary poles: the dynamic and interactive structures of our society and a spectrum of ultimately political actions. I think it goes without saying that organizing – ourselves and others – is the first, second and third priority for people who want political and social change.
Earlier I referred to Carroll Quigley. Competing in his own way with Toynbee, Quigley insisted that every civilization, and in our case society, is an expression of six inter-active dimensions: intellectual, economic, political, military, spiritual, and social, and that in different periods, as reality changes, one of these dimensions is likely to have greater influence than others. For example, in our era, the intellectual realm has been of determinative importance as society is transformed by computer and bio-technologies, closely followed or even succeeded by economics, as China surges and neo-liberalism crashes and burns. As you organize in Berkshire County and elsewhere, you may want to use these six categories when developing your strategies.
All successful movements engage these six structures and dynamics of power. The deeper the structures of oppression, the longer it takes to overcome them. We are an ahistorical people who have come to expect immediate gratification. Fundamental change doesn’t happen that way. How many times have we seen people come out for a few demonstration, go to a few meetings, write a few letters and then drop out, frustrated that they didn’t stop a war or right other wrongs.
Cultures and struggle are stubborn things. Look at Russia. Eighty years after the Soviet revolution, the society is reverting back to a post-modern Tsarist order. The Vietnamese revolution was 70 years in the making. The African National Congress was almost 100 years old when South African apartheid was finally overcome. And the Civil Rights movement in this country won its victories a century after Reconstruction, and we are still grappling with racism.
How do we build and struggle on these six levels?
At the intellectual level, of course we need research and popular education. People need to know the histories of war for oil, of the patterns of U.S. military interventions, of nuclear threats, and how imperial over-reach has felled one empire after another. In our successful campaign to prevent the homeporting of nuclear-armed warships in Boston, we knew and explained the Navy’s history of nuclear weapons accidents and that the deployment of these new weapons systems violated the Nuclear Weapons Freeze that had been backed by nearly all Democratic members of Congress. And we debunked the homeporting campaign’s lies about job creation and economic benefits.
But, more important than these details was the central importance of vision, conception and description an alternate and better future – in terms of military security and economic growth. The Old Testament tells us that “A people without a vision will perish.” Without a credible vision of alternatives, there is no exit. In our current situation, I believe that the vision that offers hope based on reality is “Common Security”, the concept which served as the foundation for the end of the Cold War. It is the understanding that no individual or nation can be secure if others – especially their rivals – are insecure. It recognizes that there is conflict, but it understands security not as achieving short-term and fragile dominance, but that it comes through recognizing the commonality of our needs for security and then doing the hard-headed thinking negotiations needed to guarantee security for all concerned. This applies nuclear disarmament, to equitable access to the world’s energy resources, and to achieving economic security within our nation.
At the economic level, we need to be thinking, organizing, and taking action on both the short and long term. Obama hit one of the right notes in naming the obscene inequities of wealth that have grown over the past two decades, even if his proposals to address it are limited. As we work to prevent a 21st century Great Depression, we need to draw on the lessons of the New Deal. Democratic socialism, which puts people rather than the capital of capitalism at the center, means using society’s wealth and our tax dollars to prevent more foreclosures, putting people to work, investing in technologies that will insure an economically and environmental secure future. In many ways, it’s sad to say, we need to catch up with Europe, Japan and even China as we enter what Fareed Zakaria calls the “Post-American world.” While we have lacked the vision and will to rebuild New Orleans, China has been building cities that will set 21st century standards.
Thinking longer-term, we spend $720 million a day to pay for the Iraq War, $720 million, enough to, provide for nearly 35,000 four year scholarships for university students or a million and a quarter homes with renewable electricity. And that is only a small part of our military budget. If we are going to begin paying down our national debt, ensure educations, health care and pensions, and have the money to transform our national infrastructure so that we can compete economically and to protect our coastal civilization from the rising seas of global warming, we are going to have slash our military budget. Helping people understand this is an important nonviolent action for peace, and it prepares the way for whatever our equivalent of storming of our Bastille will be.
Politically – and culturally and environmentally – we need to begin thinking of ourselves as citizens first, and not primarily as consumers.
There is an old saying that political power grows from Bodies, ballots, bucks and bullets. We don’t have the bucks, and even if you are not a pacifist, bullets are not the way that any of us want to make political and social change in the U.S.
We assemble the bodies and gain the ballots when we are not afraid to begin that conversation with our co-worker or neighbor, when we knock on the door down the street, put up a poster, write those letters to the editor, and hold those demonstrations and vigils – even small ones – that are the exclamation marks that awaken our neighbors and others to the reality that something is wrong. Yes demonstrations are a tactic, but a useful one. One upside of the economic crisis is that people will be spending less time at the shopping mall and may increasingly opt to become citizens. And, even in a police state, people can find ways to engage one another and force change.
But it is most important to remember that in a democratic society, our ultimate political power is our right and ability to change our rulers. This requires imagination, will, and the gritty and steadfast work of organizing. One example is the way that we helped to end the Indochina war. After years of education and organizing, we forced the Johnson and then Nixon to negotiate with the NLF and North Vietnam. Even after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, Nixon and Ford continued the war that Congress funded at their behest. Across the country in 1973 and 74, activists pressed Congress to halt funding for the war, and warned that if some members didn’t vote against money for the war, we would find candidates who would. And we did. In the 1974 election, unlike the 2006 election, we elected a Congress with new members who had the courage to halt funding for the war. And the war ended. We need similar imagination and determination today. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s not the “freedom” to buy the newest cell phone or ipod.
I think I have already covered the military dimension pretty thoroughly. As 9-11 should have taught us, nuclear weapons and “Full Spectrum Dominance” don’t ensure security. Dominance understandably breeds rage and resistance. The National Priorities Project recently published a study about what oil really costs when the price of our foreign military bases and wars for oil are factored in. It’s not pretty. Gary Sick, who was the Iran specialist in President Carter’s National Security Council, will soon be publishing an article based on cost-benefit analysis calling for a complete U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East. Militarism is undermining our security, not enhancing it.
These days we also have a surprising array of tacit allies. War criminals like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and even the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command have concluded that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is counter-productive. Instead of providing us security, it is driving nuclear weapons proliferation. As a result, they advise that it is time to finally fulfill our part of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty by negotiating the complete abolition of the world’s nuclear arsenals. In the wake of the Bush-Cheney disasters, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Joe Nye and many other elite figures are advocating increased reliance on diplomacy and “soft power” rather than the use of military force. Five former secretaries of state have called for unconditional negotiations with Iran. And Britain, Karzai, the European peace movement, and even the pages of “Foreign Affairs” are advocating negotiations with the Taliban, which is quite distinct from Al Qaeda.
How to defang Al Qaeda? War is not the answer. Instead, whoever is elected on November 4 should expend his political capital to lead Israel to end its illegal and brutally oppressive post-1967 military occupation and to negotiate a two-state Israel/Palestine solution. U.S. support for Israeli destruction of the Palestinian people has profoundly alienated us from much of humanity, including Europeans. U.S. foreign military bases need to be withdrawn from across the Middle East and Central Asia, much as was done from Saudi Arabia in the wake of 9-11, And, like Britain, many other European nations, and Japan, we need reconceptualize the struggle against Al Qaeda as one against criminal acts that requires reliance on intelligence, law and international law, not self-defeating war.
The spiritual dimension is many things to many people. For some it is following God’s precepts as they understand them. For others it is the wisdom and moral codes of teachers like the Buddha, Confucius, Thoreau or Gandhi. And for still others it is found in the reverberations of Vivaldi, Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass or John Coltrane. It can be literature, art, or nature. Whatever it is, it is our ultimate source of inspiration, strength and wisdom. It has been used and abused. How many millions of soldiers, including our own, have marched of t murderous war believing the slogan that “God is on our side??
One of the differences between the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras from this one is that when it comes to peace and economic justice struggles, religious leaders are mostly “on the scene missing.” As Dick Fernandez of CALC used to say, 11 a.m. on Sunday is the one time that tens of millions of U.S. Americans are open to listening and considering moral values and actions. For Jews and Moslems it’s another day of the week. It’s past time for people in the religious community to honor and replicate the lives of courageous religious leaders like Dietrich Bonheoffer, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. William Sloan Coffin, and this includes people sitting in the pews.
There is also a relationship between spirit and will. Will power – quiet and patient – or bold and confrontational – is needed to prevail. But it must be tempered and held in proper perspective. Recall that the military clique that seized power in Japan in the 1930s believed that will – almost alone – could prevail. And they left little more than death and suffering for millions in their wake. That said, without a strong sense of will, Boston Harbor would be a naval base today with vulnerable nuclear weapons perched at the end of runways.
Finally there is the cultural dimension. The new opera Dr. Atomic is one manifestation of the way that artists and cultural workers can touch what is most essential within us, raise questions, and inspire us to do what needs to be done. In the 60s’ songs like “We Shall Overcome”, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” “I Ain’t Marchin Anymore” and “The Times They Are A Changing” inspired and gave us the strength to peacefully overcome death threats, billy clubs and prison. In Japan today beautiful art work – from quilts and banners to fine art - and workers and community choruses provide inspiration and build community needed for resistance.
But building a culture of peace requires more, including overcoming our reification of individualism, the cultural assumption of white Christian superiority, and the national chauvinism that leads us to ignore or fear the richness of the world.
Then we come to the second force field of the matrix, the spectrum of strategies, tactics, activities and structures needed to prevail. One size obviously doesn’t fit all. The issues confronting us are too many and too complex; the diversity of our society is too great; and our democratic values require a broad range of means operating simultaneously that allow people to contribute as fully and creatively as possible.
In the darkest days of the Vietnam War, when we had done all we could imagine to stop the daily death toll of more than 300 innocent Indochinese, and the bombs – dropped by people like John McCain – continued their reign of terror, Richard McSorely a Jesuit priest long active in the Civil Rights movement wrote a helpful little book titled Kill for Peace? His big idea was that work to end the war had to proceed across a broad spectrum of activities and could not be centrally organized. Some people are more comfortable and able to talk with their neighbors or to organize delegations to press their members of Congress. Others have gifts for organizing big demonstrations, teach-ins or YIPEE extravaganzas. And some like the Berrigans, Daniel Ellsberg or military resisters have risked years of imprisonment, as they have used their lives to stop the killing.. Militant longshoremen can refuse to load weapons of war. Poets, song writers, playwrights, actors, scholars and many others contribute and inspire with their gifts.
It was important, McSorely wrote, not to denigrate the nonviolent actions of others because they are less militant, less intellectual, more mainstream appear to be less influential, etc. All these roads are needed to stop the murder of war and to transform society.
Yes, sometimes these actions and strategies need and can be harmonized better than others. And there are times when we have to conceive and mobilize focused and somewhat coordinated campaign: teach-ins on campuses across the country, national mass demonstrations, coordinated pressure on Congress, or a general strike to stop the nation’s economy and force political change.
And there must to be room for ideas to bubble up from the bottom: In 1979 Randy Forsberg had an idea that became the Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race, popularly known as the Freeze. Randy Kehler and David McCauley had the idea and ability to take that idea to town meetings and referendums, sparking a movement the played a powerful role in ending the Cold War. And Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 did more to educate people about military recruiters’ lies and deceptions than armies of activists leafleting at high schools. Representative Delahunt has used his power as a member of Congress to do more than anyone to prevent the permanent basing of U.S. troops in Iraq. These people and many more have made inspired and essential contributions that could not be imagined or dictated by leaders of a highly centralized movement in the 1960s. When we had such a movement, led almost universally by men, people rebelled. Where do you think the second generation of the women’s movement came from?
In his book, Scott Ritter rails against multi-issue peace demonstrations, arguing that they undermine the need for single issue focus and that the rhetoric often alienates conservative members of our communities. Fortunately, he has the humility to say that like all of the rest of us, he is a work in progress. There are times when issues can be defined narrowly and that a single issue focus will work. That’s how we led Congress to repeatedly block Bush administration efforts to build a new generation of nuclear weapons and how we won Obama’s endorsement of nuclear weapons abolition. But we have been unable to end the Bush wars or to prevent the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders and other actions that may spark a new Cold War, in part because the peace movement’s base is too narrow: too white, too old, and too comfortable.
In most cases, single issue organizing
precludes the alliance building needed to build necessary political force or a
social movement. In other countries political parties serve as vehicles to
address a multiplicity of issues and to integrate and augment the power of
social movements. Unfortunately, unlike countries with multi-party parliamentary
systems, we don’t have such a vehicle. The two dominant parties are too deeply
integrated into the military-industrial-complex and corporate power to represent
and integrate the demands of peace and anti-war activists, progressive labor,
environmentalists, advocates of single-payer health care, recent immigrants, and
the list goes on. So, we have to build ad hoc coalitions and alliances outside
the system to press concessions from the powers that be. If you want to bring
working class people into an anti-war movement, you have to advocate for jobs
and economic security. If you want people of color in your peace movement, you
must address racism and its consequences. And when young people are rightly
concerned about whether they are going to be able to pay for college or have
their futures drown by global warming, you are going to have to address these
issues if you want to tap their energy and imaginations.
I want to close with three simple ideas. We are confronted by a host of plagues: U.S.-led wars across much of the world; an economic meltdown, unemployment, global warming, genocidal nuclear arsenals, and a new drive to build poisonous nuclear power plants.
1) We may face greater challenges as a peace movement if Obama is elected than if McCain wins, because many who have been active over the past seven years and who have invested their hopes in him will feel a sense of relief and in their fatigue will pull back. We need to renew or organizing, no matter who wins, on November 5 and keep the pressure on.
2) Each of us can do only so much to resist these plagues, but we are a nation of more than 300 million people and a world of almost 7 billion. Individual actions, like Randy Kehler’s resisting the draft, which inspired Daniel Ellsberg to reveal the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam war at the risk life in prison, or Randy Forsberg conceiving the Nuclear Weapons Freeze, can transform our nation and the world. Most of our contributions, however, will be more modest. But in unity there is indeed strength. And the truth is that there are communities like yours doing much the same thing as you are doing across the country. The UFPJ national conference in December will be a time when hundreds of movement leaders and activists will come together to develop strategies and coordination for the post-election period.
3) Finally, Albert Camus, the French philosopher who courageously resisted both Nazi rule and the war in Algeria wrote that to erect a barrier against the Plague we must live lives of common decency, even as that means sacrifice. He also asked that “in the midst of murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.” I hope that you have reflected, made your choice, and will live a decent and engaged life accordingly