“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” — Henry David Thoreau
To me, this quote from Thoreau expresses the only rational, moral and humane stance that a citizen can take toward the vast and brutal machinery of the American imperial state in our time. The crimes of this state are monstrous, and mounting. But what is worse is that these crimes are not aberrations; they are the very essence of the system — they are its goal, its product, its lifeblood.
And what is this crimeful essence? Matt Taibbi described it well in a recent article:
Our Western society quite openly embraces war as a means of solving problems, and for quite some time now has fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for war.
I believe this is an indisputable fact. Decades of historical evidence give it proof. The last three decades especially have seen the relentless acceleration of this systemic evolution. The quality of life for ordinary Americans, those outside the golden circle of the elite and their retainers, has decayed immeasurably – and measurably. Stagnant wages. Degraded infrastructure. A poisoned food chain. Whole communities — with all their social, political, cultural and family networks — gutted by the heedless flight of capital to cheap labor (and slave labor) markets abroad, and by the dissolution of an embodied economic life into the shadow-play of high finance, the ghostly manipulation of numbers that produces nothing of value except gargantuan profits for a very few. A bonfire of public amenities, making daily life harder, harsher, constricted, diminished. Ever-growing social and economic disparity, shrinking the circle of opportunity. Two million citizens behind bars, in prisons overflowing with non-violent drug cases – nightmarish institutions given over to gangs, neglect, punitive regimens and private profit.
Yet this long, grinding process of diminishment and degradation has been accompanied by a never-ending expansion of the war machine into a dominant position over almost every aspect of American life. Not even the ending of the Cold War slowed this excrescence; defense budgets grew, new enemies were found, there were new missions, new commands, new wars. The ruling elite of American society were – and are – obviously willing to let the welfare, prosperity, opportunities and liberties of the common people sink deeper and deeper into the mire, in order to finance a system structured around war, with all the attendant corruption, brutalization and accrual of authoritarian power that war brings.
This is the system we have. It’s right out in the open. There is a deep-rooted expectation – and not, alas, just among the elite — that the world should jump to America’s tune, by force if necessary. And when, for whatever reason, some part of the world does not jump – or bump and grind – to the Potomac beat, then it becomes a “problem” that must be “solved,” by one means or another, with, of course, “all options on the table,” all the time. And whether these “problems” are approached with blunt, bullying talk or a degree of cajolery and pious rhetoric, the chosen stance is always backed up with the ever-present threat of military action, up to and including the last of those “options” that always decorate the table: utter annihilation.
This is not even questioned, must less debated or challenged. America’s right to intervene in the affairs other nations by violent force (along with a constant series of illegal covert activities) – and to impose an empire of military plantations across the length and breadth of the entire planet – is the basic assumption, the underlying principle, the fervently held faith shared by both national parties, and the entire elite Establishment. And if you want to have the necessary instruments to maintain such a state of hegemony, then you must indeed structure your society and economy around war.
Many nations – all vanished now – have done this. The Roman Empire was one. Nazi Germany was another. At great cost to the economic, social and political life of ordinary Germans, Adolf Hitler geared the state to produce the war machine necessary to assert the dominance in world affairs which he felt was Germany’s natural right. One of his chief aims was to procure enough “living space” and natural resources in Eastern Europe to compete with America’s growing economic might. The Holocaust of European Jews was, for all its horror, just a preliminary to the greater “ethnic cleansing” to come. As historian Adam Tooze reminds us in The Wages of Destruction, the Nazis had drawn up detailed plans for the extermination – by active mass murder and deliberate starvation – of up to 40 million East Europeans.
Today, we all recognize the inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition. We shake our heads and say, “Whatever evils we may be accused of, we have never and would never do such a thing.” Perhaps. But leaving aside for a moment the millions – millions – of African slaves and Native Americans who died in order to procure the living space and natural resources of North and South America for European peoples, it is clear that most Americans – the elite above all – can easily countenance the deaths of, say, more than one million innocent Iraqis, or upwards of three million Southeast Asians, without any disturbance in their sense of national righteousness, their bedrock belief that the United States has the natural right, even the duty, to assert its hegemony over world affairs.
The mass murder in Iraq, the horrible slaughter in Vietnam and Cambodia, the direct involvement in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia, Latin America, and the Iran-Iraq War – to name just a few such operations carried out within the last generation – are regarded as actions which, however “mistaken” some might feel them to have been, were undertaken in good faith, to “preserve our way of life” from this or that imminent, overwhelming threat to our very national existence. [Which was, of course, the same reasoning Hitler used to justify his militarism: the urgent need to protect the German people from maniacal, irrational, bloodsworn enemies bent on their total destruction.]
And let us not forget that American war planners also drew up detailed plans involving the extermination of tens of millions of East Europeans in “first strike” nuclear attacks – plans which they often urged national leaders to put into practice. And even today, the constantly asserted vow to keep the nuclear option “on the table” at all times means that every single action or policy toward a “problem” nation carries with it the explicit threat to kill millions of people – to outdo the Holocaust in a matter of minutes.
Can one really look at such plans and attitudes, and at the towering, Everest-like mountain of corpses produced by American polices – just in the last generation – and say that there is not also a form of inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition as well? Is this really a system that one can be associated with honorably in any way? What should we think about a person who wants to lead such a system, who wants to take hold of the driving wheel of the war machine, to use it, to expand it, to accept all of its premises, to keep all of its horrific “options” forever on the table, to feed it and gorge it and coddle it and appease it at every turn, while millions of their own people sink further into degradation and diminishment?
Shouldn’t someone who knowingly, willingly, eagerly bent all of their energies toward taking power in such a system instantly and irretrievably forfeit our regard and support? Should we really give such a “leader” the benefit of the doubt, cut him some slack, be ready to praise him when he or his government momentarily behaves in a normal, rational or legal manner? Should we grimly insist that he is the only choice we have, that his heart is probably in the right place, and that all we can do is try and cajole him into being “better”?
In the light of these considerations, it is astonishing to see what has been the main reaction of many leading progressive writers to Barack Obama’s murderous escalation of the imperial war in Afghanistan and the dirty war in Pakistan. While voicing their “disappointment” with the decision, they have reserved most of their scorn not for the man who has ordered this new tranche of mass death and inhuman suffering, but for those who have accused Obama of “betrayal.”
No, that’s not a joke. The new progressive line on the escalation seems to be this: “We knew all along he was going to do it, so what’s the big deal?”
That has been the chief response from such high-profile progressives as Digby and Joan Walsh. They seem far more worked up about the fact that some people (such as Tom Hayden, Gary Wills, and others) are accusing Obama of “betrayal” than they are about the thousands of innocent people who will die from Obama’s decision, and the long-reverberating evil, at home and abroad, this escalation will engender.
Both Digby and Walsh are at great pains to establish how savvy they have been about Obama from the very beginning. For example, Digby writes: “I never had any illusions about where he and most of the other Democrats were headed with the “Good War” narrative. It always ends up the same way.” She ridicules Hayden for declaring, during the campaign, that “all American progressives should unite for Barack Obama,” and for now being disappointed that the president is not “the second coming of Gandhi, Houdini and Jesus Christ,” as Digby scornfully describes Hayden’s earlier belief.
Fair enough. It’s true that Obama made no secret of his intent to escalate the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and anyone who didn’t expect him to do so was being wilfully blind, or naive. On the other hand, what these savvy commentators fail to note is that Obama has already escalated the Af-Pak war, earlier in his term — an escalation as large as Bush’s “surge” in Iraq. And obviously, this effort didn’t work; hence the latest “strategic review” that led to Obama’s fateful West Point speech. So although Obama did promise to escalate the Af-Pak conflict during the campaign, he did not promise to keep doing it, over and over, even in the face of obvious failure. Thus it is not inherently “silly” or irrational for an Obama supporter like Hayden or Wills to feel betrayed by this second escalation, and by the transparently specious rationales that Obama offered for it.
But let’s leave that aside. For the main issue regarding the escalation is not whether Tom Hayden is silly or if he was too gushing or naive in his earlier support of Obama; the main issue is the actual reality of this murderous course. And here, we come to the matter of the progressives’ self-proclaimed savviness.
Digby and Walsh and other savvy progressives say they knew all along that Obama was going to embark on a horrific policy which would inevitably result in the needless death of innocent people, the further war-profiteering corruption of our own political system, and the exacerbation of extremism, hatred, strife and destabilization around the world. Yet they still stretched every nerve and sinew exhorting people to vote for him in the presidential election. Indeed, the entire campaign thrust of these savvy, realistic, pragmatic progressives could be summed up in one oddly familiar line: “All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama.”
And even as she denigrates Tom Hayden – who at least put his actual body and liberty on the line to oppose an unjust war in Vietnam, taking to the streets in direct action against the state, which then put him on trial as part of the “Chicago Seven” – Digby herself wrings her hands and says we all had no choice but to vote for Obama. There was only him and Hillary, then only him and McCain; what else could we do? Even if we knew – as Digby and Walsh say they knew – that Obama was going to murder people, destabilize the world and continue the Empire’s monstrous Terror War, we had no other choice but to vote for him.
No other choice. What else could we do? Aside from the third parties offering alternatives to what Digby calls “a moderate [Democrat] and a doddering right wing fool with his ignoramus running mate,” one wonders if our progressives have ever heard of Thoreau — who, like Hayden, put his actual body and liberty on the line to disassociate himself from a system he regarded as deeply immoral?
In any case, according to our progressives, not only was there no choice but voting for Obama, there is no justification now for criticizing him for doing what we savvy people knew he was going to do. Anyone who, like Hayden and Wills, is now breaking ranks with Obama over Afghanistan is just “having a fit,” and being “silly” and “puerile.”
No, it seems that the only thing that responsible, savvy progressives can do now is keep faith with the president – keep up our contacts with the Administration, keep our feet “inside the tent,” keep our savvy listservs going — and “push [Obama] to better solutions,” as Walsh tells us.
I find all of this remarkable. Again, it’s not that Digby, Walsh and others are uncritical of Obama’s decision. Walsh declares herself “deeply disappointed, saddened even” by the escalation, and Digby thunders, or rather, sighs, that she wishes “Obama had changed his mind on Afghanistan, and argued for him to do it.” She will even “continue to do so” – that is, argue for Obama to change his imperial mind. To argue, appeal, petition, and encourage the leader to better solutions. But obviously there will be none of that civil disobedience stuff that silly-billy Tom Hayden and his ilk pulled in their time.
In fact, Digby seems to slam Hayden directly for the “silliness” of his “behavior” in “his heyday” – that is, when he was taking direct action to try to stop an immoral war. She says of his denunciation of Obama’s betrayal: “It’s this kind of behavior that has given liberals a bad name since Hayden was in his heyday.”
Well, we all need to mind our behavior, of course, just as our parents sternly admonished us. So by all means, let us not be indecorous in our opposition to murder and corruption. Let us not be intemperate in our resistance to evil. And for god’s sake, let us not be silly or “have fits” in our dissent against atrocity, deceit and destruction.
I hold no special brief for Tom Hayden, who over the years turned into a standard hack politician, nor do I endorse every point of his new dissent. But if he is using what is left of his notoriety to speak out against this monstrous war and its escalation – for whatever reason, even a baseless sense of “betrayal” – then I say more power to him. What on God’s green earth does it matter if someone says they feel “betrayed” by Obama’s decision or not? In the light of the death and destruction to come, how could that possibly be important? And how could defending Obama against this charge of betrayal be such a major concern – for people who say they oppose the decision and decry its consequences?
But this is the kind of schizophrenic reaction — “the president is a murderer/we must vote for the president” — that is bred by the acceptance of an inhuman system. Thus we see these strange diversions among our leading dissidents (“Silly old Hayden!”), these partisan splittings of infinitesimal hairs (“our guy is 2% less evil than their guy, so we have no choice but to vote for him”).
We also see the strange phenomenon, among almost all leading progressives, of leavening criticism of the system with praise for any “constructive” actions or decisions its leaders might produce. For example, Glenn Greenwald recently set out some recommendations on how rational citizens can avoid “the behaviors that turned the Right into a dissent-stifling cult of personality erected around George W. Bush.”
Greenwald noted several ways in which right-wing activists muted any ideological or philosophical objections they might have had to a specific Bush policy – his vast expansion of the federal government, for example, which should have been anathema to movement conservatives – and instead rallied blindly around the Leader, no matter what. He then detailed – and rightly condemned – some of the many, many instances when progressive activists have done the same with Obama, and makes the unassailable argument that the justice of a particular cause (public health care, gay rights, torture, civil liberties, etc.) should far outweigh any partisan worries about Obama’s political standing.
Most of his recommendations were common sense; their general thrust is somewhat along the lines of an approach examined here on the day after the 2008 election: “WIBDI (What If Bush Did It?): A Prism for the New Paradigm.” Or you can even boil it down further, as Bob Dylan did more than 40 years ago in a single memorable phrase: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.”
But at the head of these suggestions, Greenwald puts this:
If Obama takes action or makes a decision that you think is good and constructive, say so and give him credit.
One looks at this and thinks: Why? Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to make a special effort to commend the leaders of the kind of system described above, one which has “fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for [and ceaseless practice of] war”?
Of course, there is an immediate logic to it. You would do it to establish your credibility, your objectivity, to say, “I’m neither a reflexive Obama-basher nor a swooning cheerleader; I call them as I see them.” This in turn would lend more weight to your criticisms of the Administration; when you “hold Obama’s feet to the fire” or “push him to better solutions” on this or that issue, your principled dissent can’t be dismissed out of hand by the leadership as mere partisan opposition.
And if we were dealing with a different political reality – on a smaller, more human scale, say, with a more equitable distribution of power in society, and a vastly reduced scope (and appetite) for violence, corruption and domination on the part of an unassailable, lawless elite – then perhaps such an approach might do well. But that, alas, is not our reality. We wrestle with a militarized regime whose powers are, as I said in an earlier piece on Thoreau, “so much greater, far more pervasive, more invasive and much more implacable, more inhuman” than the fledgling state our Walden forbear confronted all those years ago. We are dealing with a government that is committing, at every moment – with every breath we take – horrendous crimes against life and liberty, with its murderous wars of aggression and domination, and its ever-spreading authoritarian encroachments.
Again, should we give credit to such a regime, single it out for praise, whenever it happens to behave in a rational manner on one issue or another? After all, functioning governments of every kind do a multitude of worthy things for their people every day. They build roads, lay electric lines and sewer pipes, maintain the food supply, sponsor medical research, facilitate technological developments, adjudicate civil disputes, provide disaster relief, maintain parks and recreation areas, etc., etc. – the list is virtually endless. And this was equally true of, say, Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, and other regimes imbued with a crimeful essence. Would you have told a dissident opposing the depredations of Hitler or Stalin or Franco or Tojo or the apartheid regime in South Africa that he or she must always be sure to point out any constructive thing these governments do, and give them credit for it?
This is not a call to ignore reality. The constructive things that governments do are part of their record. But it’s important to note two points here. First, we’re not talking about making a casual observation when you glance at the paper – “Glad they’re not going to prosecute Grandma for that medical marijuana now” – and factoring that into your general knowledge base. Instead, we’re talking about the specific context of Greenwald’s recommendations, which deal with those who are trying to make active political and moral judgments about government policy, with the ultimate aim of bringing about a reality that is more just, more humane.
Second, and more importantly, we must emphasize again that we are not dealing with an ordinary situation here, with a system whose good and bad elements are roughly equal (or confined to the historical past), allowing one to sit down and weigh this policy against that one, and, then, upon careful reflection, coming to some judicious assessment. No; we are now – and have been for decades – dealing with a situation of the most frantic and dire moral urgency, the “all-day permanent red” of a system whose purpose, structure, meaning and method have become war, with all the hatred, corruption, degeneration and devolution that war brings.
In such an extreme system, all balance is gone; a constructive act here or there cannot offset those mountains of corpses. And its seems a terrible waste of time and energy to divert one’s attention from these horrors – and the urgent need to stop them – just to give a few props for a stray good deed or reasonable move here or there.
The latter approach also involves, consciously or unconsciously, to one degree or another, an association with it, in Thoreau’s sense. You have, in effect, accepted power on its own terms. You engage deeply with the system in order to “hold Obama’s feet to the fire” (while being careful to acknowledge his “constructive” measures) because you believe this will make the system better. But if the system itself is structured to produce the boundless evils of war and domination and injustice, you cannot make it better. You can only, at the very most, mitigate a few of its pernicious effects, for a time, and only at the margins.
This is by no means an unworthy goal; extreme systems force that kind of triage upon us. Raoul Wallenberg could not end the Holocaust; he could only save what was in relative terms a very small number of people at the margins. But who would deny his heroism, and wish that he had not sought such small but deeply meaningful mitigations? Conversely, who among us would have suggested that Wallenberg, in the dire moral urgency of his mission, take time out to give credit to the Nazis for, say, their “Strength Through Joy” recreational programs for ordinary workers, or their remarkable highway system? Or in our time, do we require Shirin Ebadi to praise the Tehran regime for its social housing programs, or Aung San Suu Kyi to give credit to the Burmese generals for building roads or installing storm drains?
Everyone has to make their own accommodations with reality, of course. And to quote the old song-and-dance man once again: “Life is sad, life is a bust;/All you can do is do what you must.” I’m not laying down commandments or prescriptions for anybody. But I will say that Thoreau’s stance seems more and more to be the only honorable course for an American to take, in whatever way and to whatever degree he or she finds possible.
And I will also say that those who profess their adherence to “progressive” values such as peace, justice, liberty, equality and truth would serve their cause better by focusing on the essential nature of a system that eviscerates those values, and on the actual operations of power, the crimes and atrocities being committed by the actual wielders and servants of power, instead of mocking people for “throwing fits” and being “puerile” when they denounce the system’s leaders for leading the nation deeper and deeper into evil.