Ending Your Surrender: Moral Agency and the War Machine

Arthur Silber uncovers and examines one of the fundamental dynamics of political behavior -- relevant in any time and place, but especially so in the overheated atmosphere of the current U.S. presidential campaign. Taking as his theme the strange lack of urgency that afflicts the "progressive" movement in the face of the overwhelming and ever more imminent dangers of an American attack on Iran, Silber ponders "why most people [won't] fight" to stop this impending act of mass murder. This leads him on to that deeper dynamic: the individual's delegation of his or her moral agency to a political faction or leader. As Silber notes, this is dangerous in the best of circumstances; it is absolutely disastrous in a system given over to war, corruption and domination.

As always, you should read the whole thing, and follow the many links in the original, but below are some excerpts of this important piece:

Over the last couple of years, I have repeatedly asked myself: Why? Why won't most people fight? ... The consequences [of an attack on Iran] will rapidly spread throughout the Middle East, and they will probably quickly spill over into other parts of the world (into Asia, almost certainly). They will also be felt here at home -- by you, and by everyone you know. They will affect your life and the lives of all those you love and care about. It's your life, and an attack on Iran could change it forever, in ways we can imagine, which are bad enough, and in ways we probably haven't even thought of, which might be terrible beyond description.

It's your life. Don't you care? Apparently, many of you don't.

As I have discussed, one of the reasons most people won't fight is that they are not willing to take the necessary risks. I should say: they are not willing to take what they believe the risks to be. In fact, raising funds for newspaper and television ads, writing and placing the ads, organizing and taking part in mass demonstrations and the like would hardly appear to be courting any significant kind of personal danger. Almost every political blogger today (even conservative bloggers) heralds the immense courage and bravery of the civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, as we all should. For God's sake: a great many of those people went to jail, often a number of times. A not insignificant number of people got killed. Today, when most Americans are unable to distinguish between what's on the teevee and what transpires in our, you know, actual lives -- in a culture where what's on the teevee often seems to be more real than the life that you spend mindlessly slumped in front of it, or robotically reading your favorite blogs, which confirm everything you already believe and challenge you on absolutely nothing -- to get people off their lazy asses seems to be a test for the ages....

There is a crucially related problem that I want to address here. The issue is this: almost all political bloggers, in every part of the political spectrum, have chosen to delegate their own moral agency and their own power to the elected members of the political party they favor. They will only conduct their battles through the already existing conduits of power: the Republican and Democratic parties.... The problem with this approach is the problem I have addressed in a great many essays: both parties have the identical fundamental aims -- a corporatist-authoritarian state at home, and endless aggressive, frequently militarized interventions overseas. Both parties have brought you the endless horrors of many decades past, as they bring you the unspeakable horrors of today.

And as Obama's remarks to AIPAC confirm for yet another time, out of similar countless times, both parties have brought us to the very edge of the possible ultimate nightmare: a broad regional and even a world war, perhaps fought with nuclear weapons, that begins with an unprovoked, non-defensive attack by the United States on Iran.

And you're still going to leave it to the elected Democrats and Republicans to prevent this catastrophe? Wake the hell up: it's up to us now, as it has been for a long time...

We have the insistence that, if only the Democrats (and Obama) acted in accordance with what are actually their deepest convictions, they would act in ways pleasing to liberal and progressive bloggers… Coupled with this, we have most people's enthusiastic willingness to delegate their own moral agency and their own power to their political representatives. To justify the delegation of our own moral agency and our own power to others, we must convince ourselves that those others share our beliefs, at least to some critical minimal extent. If they do not, such delegation would be entirely unjustified.

I well understand that our very system of government depends upon this kind of delegation in many respects. I will note only that, in "normal" times if you will, that is, when government continues to act within those constraints upon which individual liberty and peace depend, such delegation is understandable, even if it always remains problematic and exceedingly dangerous. But look at the trajectory of the United States in just over 200 years: the Military Commissions Act has set into law the basic blueprint for a full dictatorship, one that uses torture as a "legitimate" means of governance. No one talks of repealing that abomination, which is absolutely required if the United States is to change its direction. In addition, the United States has embarked on a series of criminal wars of aggression -- and it stands poised to launch still another one. And this one may finally be the last.

The civil rights protesters of the 1950s and 1960s did not remain in their homes and write polite letters to their representatives in Washington. They took to the streets and protested in many other ways. They did so repeatedly. Many of them paid a very terrible price, and some of them paid the ultimate price. They continued to protest until the government had no choice but to accede to certain of their fundamental demands. If they had only written letters, their children and grandchildren might still be writing them today. If most Americans continue in their current immovable passivity, you will be writing letters -- and blog posts, of course -- as nuclear clouds drift across much of the world, perhaps even over America.

Under these circumstances, you may not delegate your moral agency and your power any longer. You must take them back and make them yours again. Our national politicians are not on the side of liberty and peace: they want power. That is all they want, and if war, even the ultimate war, is required to obtain, expand and consolidate it, war it will be.