Cutting through the Fog of Political Rhetoric

excerpted from the book

Citizens of the Empire

The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity

by Robert Jensen

City Lights Books, 2004, paper

The worldwide antiwar actions on February 15, 2003, were the single largest public political demonstration in history. Millions of people all over the globe poured into the streets to try to derail the Bush administration's mad rush to war.

That day's events were the product of months of intense organizing, in which longtime peace-and-justice activists were joined by people new to politics. Vibrant discussions were breaking out everywhere, online and in person. People were taking seriously the duties of citizenship and trying to participate in the formation of public policy. It was a time in which it was possible to have high hopes for a revitalized political culture and the future of democracy.

What was President George W. Bush's response? When asked a few days later about the size of the protests, he said: "First of all, you know, size of protest, it's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group. The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security-in this case, the security of the people?"

A focus group? Perhaps the leader of the free world was not aware that a focus group is a small number of people who are brought together (and typically paid) to evaluate a concept or a product. Focus groups are primarily a tool of businesses, which use them to figure out how to sell things more effectively. Politicians also occasionally use them, for the same purpose. That's a bit different from a coordinated gathering of millions of people who took to the streets because they felt passionately about an issue of life and death. As is so often the case, Bush's comment demonstrated his ignorance and condescension, the narrowness of his intellect, and his lack of respect for the people he allegedly serves.

Such is the state of democracy in the United States. The public's servants serve ... those who control the society's resources and wield real power. Public opinion did not stop the war because our leaders don't treat public opinion as something to listen to but instead something that must be manipulated to allow them to achieve their goals. The groups that made up the antiwar movement had channeled the people's voices, but we had not made pursuing the war politically costly enough to elites to stop it. Because of this, many people who had taken to the streets fell into a state of political depression once that war began. Many felt that February 15 proved that nothing could be done to affect policy, that raw power had won.

There is no reason to be naive about the power of the forces that want to maintain and extend the empire, or about the serious obstacles that progressive people face in struggling to dismantle that empire. It is easy to give in to the temptation to see that struggle as futile, but there also is no reason to be politically paralyzed by the task. The story of human history is full of failure, but also of successes beyond what people ever imagined. We cannot know exactly what will happen if we act. But we know what will happen if we don't. These words of Martin Luther King Jr. about the Vietnam War should haunt us today every bit as much as they did when he spoke them in 1967: "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

The United States had been the target of an atrocity [9-11], a crime that would make it easy to lash out with massive violence. It would not be hard to manipulate people's anger and fear to justify a war. The policy planners saw that, and they quickly took off the shelf plans they had for expanding U.S. power in the strategically crucial regions of Central Asia and the Middle East. The public would buy war, and the elites could use it to extend and deepen their power

The men in the White House and the Pentagon have unleashed the dogs of war, but I fear they have unleashed something far worse than any war we have ever seen.

I remember the beginning of the Gulf War I remember the sadness and fear I felt when that war began. I remember how day by day, as the bodies piled up, I would die a little inside. It was a difficult time. In many ways, I have never recovered from that; it was a harsh coming of age for me.

But this feels different. This feels far worse. This doesn't feel like a war. Let us name what has happened: Not just a war, but a new insanity has been unleashed upon the world. An unlimited war that our leaders counsel could go on indefinitely. A war against enemies in the "shadowy networks," which means we will never know when the shadowy enemy is vanquished. This is quite possibly the policymakers' shot at the final, and permanent, militarization of U.S. society. Add to that the possibility of more terrorist attacks from the fringe of the Arab and Muslim population even more convinced of the depravity of Americans, and the possibility of entire countries destabilized. Are you scared? How can you not be?

This insanity was touched off by the fanaticism of men who believe they understand God's will and have the right to kill to bring about that vision. This insanity has now been furthered by the fanaticism of men who believe they have a right to run the planet by force to protect their privilege.

These men have drawn lines and told us we must choose sides. I will choose sides, but not on their terms. I will choose not just to speak for the peace that our leaders have rejected, but also to speak hard truths about the unjust world that our leaders seek to maintain.

... since 9/11, through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been three crucial rhetorical frameworks that have been difficult to challenge in public. All of them are related, but each has to be deconstructed separately. First is the assertion that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. Second is the claim that one must support the troops because they defend our freedom. Third is the assumption that patriotism is a positive value. Anyone who challenges any of these in public in the contemporary United States risks being labeled irrelevant, crazy, or both. But all three claims must be challenged if there is to be f progressive political change.

One of the requirements for being a mainstream American politician, Republican or Democrat, is the willingness to repeat constantly the assertion that the United States is "the greatest nation on earth' maybe even "the greatest nation in history."

Constant claims to being the greatest reveal a pathology in the national character. Crucially, that pathology is most dangerous in nations with great economic or military power (which tend to be the ones that most consistently make such claims). That is, the nations that claim to be great are usually the ones that can enforce their greatness through coercion and violence.

... from the beginning the new American experiment was also bathed in blood. The land base of the new nation was secured by a genocide that was almost successful. Depending on the estimate one uses for the pre-contact population of the continent (the number of people here before Columbus) -12 million is a conservative estimate-the extermination rate was from 95 to 99 percent. That is to say, by the end of the Indian wars at the close of the nineteenth century, the European invaders had successfully eliminated almost the entire indigenous population (or the "merciless Indian Savages" as they are labeled in the Declaration of Independence).6 Let's call that the first American holocaust.

The second American holocaust was African slavery, a crucial factor in the emergence of the textile industry and the industrial revolution in the United States. Historians still debate the number of Africans who worked as slaves in the New World and the number who died during the process of enslavement in Africa, during the Middle Passage, and in the New World. But it is safe to say that tens of millions of people were rounded up and that as many as half of them died in the process.

... the third American holocaust, the building of the American empire in the Third World? What did the nation that finally turned its back on slavery turn to?

* The Spanish-American War and the conquest of the Philippines, at a cost of at least 200,000 Filipino lives.

* The creation of a U.S.-dominated sphere in Central America backed by regular military incursions to make countries safe for U.S. investment, leading to twentieth-century support for local dictatorships that brutalized their populations, at a total cost of hundreds of thousands of dead and whole countries ruined.

* The economic and diplomatic support of French efforts to recolonize Vietnam after World War II and, after the failure of that effort, the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam and devastation of Laos and Cambodia, at a cost of 4 million Southeast Asians dead and a region destabilized.

We could list every immoral and illegal U.S. intervention into other nations, which often had the goal of destroying democratically elected governments, undermining attempts by people to throw off colonial rule, or ensuring that a government would follow orders from Washington.

During the 2000 .presidential campaign, George W. Bush was trying to recover from his association with the painfully public bigotry of Bob Jones University. On matters of racism, it's impossible-even for politicians-to make claims about America's heroic history. But in remarks at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, Bush said, "For all its flaws, I believe our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be the model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division."

This invocation of a direct connection to God and truth - what we might call the "pathology of the anointed"- is a peculiar and particularly dangerous feature of American history and the "greatest nation" claims. The story we tell ourselves goes something like this: Other nations throughout history have acted out of greed and self-interest, seeking territory, wealth, and power. They often did bad things in the world. Then came the United States, touched by God, a shining city on the hill, whose leaders created the first real democracy and went on to be the beacon of freedom for people around the world. Unlike the rest of the world, we act out of a cause nobler than greed; we are both the model of, and the vehicle for, peace, freedom, and democracy in the world.

That is a story that can be believed only in the United States by people sufficiently insulated from the reality of U.S. actions abroad to maintain such illusions. It is tempting to laugh at and dismiss these rhetorical flourishes of pandering politicians, but the commonness of the chosen-by-God assertions-and the lack of outrage or amusement at them-suggests that the claims are taken seriously both by significant segments of the public and the politicians. Just as it has been in the past, the consequences of this pathology of the anointed will be borne not by those chosen by God, but by those against whom God's chosen decide to take aim.

In the second presidential debate on October 11, 2000, Bush himself made this point. When asked how he would try to project the United States around the world, Bush used the word "humble" five times:

It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we've got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.

We're a freedom-loving nation. And if we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us.

I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.

H. W. Bush, the father. In 1988, after the U.S. Navy warship Vincennes shot down Iranian commercial airliner in a commercial corridor, killing 290 civilians, the then-vice president said, "I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are."

Whether the firing was an understandable reaction to the misidentification of the Iranian aircraft (as apologists claim), a deliberate act to send Iran a message about U.S. intentions in the region (as some suspect), or the responsibility primarily of a hyperaggressive, trigger-happy commander (as others argue), Bush's declaration is an extraordinarily blunt admission that he does not adhere to even minimal moral standards. The grotesqueness of the episode was only compounded by the fact that Bush later awarded the ship's commander a Legion of Merit award for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service?' We could call it the "blame America never" approach.

... the "greatest nation on earth" mantra tends to lead us to get the facts wrong. Take the question of foreign aid. One would assume that the greatest nation on earth, which also happens to be the wealthiest nation on the planet with the largest economy, gives generously to nations less fortunate. And, in fact, many Americans do assume that. Unfortunately, it's wrong. Political journalist William Finnegan summarizes the polling data:

Americans always overestimate the amount of foreign aid we give. In recent national polls, people have guessed, on average, that between 15 and 24 percent of the federal budget goes for foreign aid. In reality, it is less than 1 percent. The U.N. has set a foreign-aid goal for the rich countries of .7 percent of gross national product. A few countries have attained that modest goal, all of them Scandinavian. The U.S. has never come close. Indeed, it comes in dead last, consistently, in the yearly totals of rich-country foreign aid as a percentage of GNP. In 2000, we gave .1 percent. President Bush's dramatic proposal, post-September 11, to increase foreign aid to $15 billion looks rather puny next to the $48 billion increase in this year's $379 billion military budget.

So, on this count, are the Scandinavian nations the greatest on earth? They also seem to have the edge on us in providing health care to their citizens. Here's the assessment of two prominent U.S. medical researchers:

The absence of universal access [health care] in the United States is a global scandal. No other highly industrialized country has so many citizens totally without access to even the most rudimentary health care. Consider these facts: there are almost twice as many people in the U.S. without access to health care than the entire population of Scandinavia where access is a universal right.

One might think that the greatest nation on earth would not leave its most vulnerable citizens without reliable access to health care. There will be, of course, disagreement on how to best achieve that, but it seems not to be a serious goal among the dominant political players in the United States.

So, we score higher on legal guarantees of freedom of speech but lower on guarantees of health care compared with other developed countries. Our history and contemporary foreign policy suggest that self-interest and greed usually trump concern for human rights and democracy. Yet the existence of a democratic process at home -the product of much struggle by the forces interested in progressive change-should leave us with hope that we can change the course of that policy through long-term, dedicated efforts. But to do that, honest reflection on the record is required. And it matters. It really matters. It is one thing for small and powerless nations to have delusions of grandeur; they can't do much damage outside their own borders. It is quite another thing for the nation with the most destructive military capacity in the history of the world -and a demonstrated willingness to use it to achieve self-interested goals-to play the "greatest nation on earth" game. To the degree that the game diminishes people's ability to assess facts, reach honest conclusions, and take moral action based on those conclusions, it increases the risk of people everywhere. It makes it easier for leaders to justify wars of conquest and mask the reasons for those wars. It's easy for a vice president to say, as Dick Cheney did in a speech in 2002:

America is again called by history to use our overwhelming power in defense of our freedom. We've accepted that duty, certain of the justice of our cause and confident of the victory to come. For my part, I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with the president who is making us all proud upholding the cause of freedom and serving the greatest nation on Earth.

The demand during the Iraq War that-whether for or against the war-one must support the troops was the most effective type of rhetorical strategy: Simply by accepting that framing of the question, opponents of the war were guaranteed to lose the debate, and the chance for meaningful political dialogue would evaporate. So, when asked, I tried to refuse to answer the question of whether or not I supported the troops. Instead, I said that I don't support the "support the troops" framework.

The implicit demand in the "support the troops" rhetoric was - and likely will be in future wars - that even if I am against the war, once troops are in the field I should shift my focus from opposition to the war to support for my fellow Americans who are doing the fighting. But to support the troops is, for all practical purposes, to support the war. Asking people who oppose a war to support the troops in that war is simply a way of asking people to drop their opposition. If I had believed this war would be wrong before it began, and if none of the conditions on which I based that assessment had changed, why should I change my view simply because the war had started?

In a democratic society, the question should not be whether one supports the troops. The relevant question is whether one supports the policy. The demand that war opponents must "support the troops" is nothing more than a way of demanding that we drop our opposition to the policy.

If we are to use the words "support" and "oppose" with their common meanings, I did not support the troops in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. I opposed the troops. And I will continue to do so when I believe they are engaged in immoral, illegal, and unwise conflicts because they are defending my freedom, and hence I have an obligation to be loyal to them. Two questions arise from that claim. First, is the conflict in which the troops are fighting actually being fought to defend the freedom of Americans? And, if it were the case that the freedoms of Americans were at risk, is a war the best way to defend them?

In the case of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars - and every other conflict fought in my lifetime (I was born in 1958) -the freedoms of Americans were not at risk. Put bluntly: American troops have never fought for my freedom (and, since the War of 1812, the only conflict about which one can even attempt a reasonable argument about this is World War II). Many Americans, whether they have served in the military or not, not only disagree with that assessment but have trouble even engaging the question.

In the post-World War II world, a primary function of the U.S. military has been to kill mostly nonwhite people in the Third World to extend and deepen American power.

... the Soviet Union was a global military threat to our existence was a political weapon to frighten Americans into endorsing wars to suppress independent development in the Third World and accepting a permanent wartime economy. With the Soviet Union gone, American planners needed a new justification to keep the military machine running. International terrorism and threats from drug traffickers were tested as rationales during the 1980s as the Soviet threat receded. In the 1990s, talk of "humanitarian interventions" also became a justification for a bloated military that was far beyond the level needed for defense. On 9/11, the vague terrorism justification became tangible for everyone. So, even if nonmilitary approaches to terrorism are more viable, the rationale for ever larger defense spending was set.

The United States must drop its posture of the unilateralist, interventionist superpower. In lieu of its current policy of invoking the rule of law and the international community when convenient and ignoring them when it wishes, it must demonstrate a genuine commitment to being bound by that law and the will of the international community in matters of war and peace.

To win the support of Afghans and others for the long term, which will be necessary to substantially reduce the danger of terrorism, the United States must treat other peoples with dignity and respect. We must recognize we are simply one nation among many.

This strategy will not win over bin Laden or other committed terrorists to our side; that's not the objective. Instead, we have to win over the people.

Periodic scandals over neglect of the health and welfare of active-duty military personnel and veterans-the most notorious of which are the government's foot-dragging on Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome - are commonplace. While the Bush administration was riding high on the wave of promilitary patriotism, it submitted a fiscal 2004 budget that aimed to cut $6.2 billion in veterans' funding over ten years.

Beyond those affronts, it's not clear that those commanding the troops are capable of this empathy. At the highest levels, certainly many officers are well aware of the role of the U.S. military in securing and expanding the American empire abroad in the twentieth century, especially the post-World War II era.

No matter how much they have internalized the American mythology and the "defending our freedom" rhetoric, they have enough direct experience with power to know better.

The U.S. attack on Iraq was a contest between the most powerful military in the history of the world that possesses the most sophisticated weapons ever developed, and a Third World nation weakened to the point of collapse by two previous wars and thirteen years of the most brutal economic embargo in modern history.

If those soldiers were to look to the civilian commander-in-chief, what would they hear? As attacks on U.S. soldiers mounted during the summer of 2003, Bush blustered, "We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation?' He defiantly challenged Iraqi militants striking at U.S. forces: "Bring them on." That might strike soldiers as an easy challenge to offer, sitting in Washington, D.C.

... if we lived in a decent world, what they [U.S. soldiers] had been asked to do and what they did in Iraq would be unthinkable ... But, instead of a decent world, we live in a world where the demands of power put them in Iraq, with those weapons in their hands, facing those doomed Iraqis.

... John McCutheon put it so eloquently in song, that "the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame I And on each end of the rifle we're the same."

Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists

"A journalist is never more true to democracy-is never more engaged as a citizen, is never more patriotic-than when aggressively doing the job of independently verifying the news of the day; questioning the actions of those in authority; disclosing information the public needs but others wish secret for self-interested purposes."

I am against nationalism, and I am against patriotism. They are both the dark side. It is time not simply to redefine a kinder-and-gentler patriotism, but to sweep away the notion and acknowledge it as morally, politically, and intellectually bankrupt. It is time to scrap patriotism.

More specifically, it is crucial to scrap patriotism in today's empire, the United States, where patriotism is not only a bad idea but literally a threat to the survival of the planet. We should abandon patriotism and strive to become more fully developed human beings not with shallow allegiances to a nation but rich and deep ties to humanity.

In a democracy ... patriotism cannot be defined as loyalty to existing political leaders. Such patriotism would be the antithesis of democracy; to be a citizen is to retain the right to make judgments about leaders, not simply accept their authority.

In a democracy, one may agree to follow legally binding rules, but that does not mean one supports them. Of course, no one claims that it is unpatriotic to object to existing policy about taxes or roads or education. War tends to be the only issue about which people make demands that everyone support-or at least mute dissent about-a national policy. But why should war be different? When so much human life is at stake, is it not even more important for all opinions to be fully aired?

Claims that the United States is the ultimate fulfillment of the values of justice ... must come to terms with history and the American record of brutality, both at home and abroad. One might want to ask people of indigenous and African descent about the commitment to freedom and justice for all, in the past and today. We also would have some explaining to do to the people from nations that have been the victims of U.S. aggression, direct and indirect. Why is it that our political culture, the highest expression of the ideals of freedom and democracy, has routinely gone around the world overthrowing democratically elected governments, supporting brutal dictators, funding and training proxy terrorist armies, and unleashing brutal attacks on civilians when we go to war? If we want to make the claim that we are the fulfillment of history and the ultimate expression of the principles of freedom and justice, our first stop might be Hiroshima. Then Nagasaki.

... there is no way to rescue patriotism or distinguish it from nationalism, which most everyone rejects as crude and jingoistic. Any use of the concept of patriotism is bound to be chauvinistic at some level. At its worst, patriotism can lead easily to support for barbaric policies, especially in war. At its best, it is self-indulgent and arrogant in its assumptions about the uniqueness of U.S. culture and willfully ignorant about the history and contemporary policy of this country. Emma Goldman was correct when she identified the essentials of patriotism as "conceit, arrogance, and egotism" and went onto assert that:

Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.

We can retain all our affections for land, people, culture, and a sense of place without labeling it as patriotism and artificially attaching it to national boundaries. We can take into account the human need to feel solidarity and connection with others ... without attaching those feelings to a nation-state. We can realize that communication and transportation technologies have made possible a new level of mobility around the world, which leaves us with a clear choice: Either the world can continue to be based on domination by powerful nation-states (in complex relationship with multinational corporations) and the elites who dictate policy in them, or we can seek a new interdependence and connection with people around the world through popular movements based on shared values and a common humanity that can cross national boundaries. To achieve the latter, people's moral reasoning must be able to constrain the destructive capacity of elite power. As Goldman suggested, patriotism retards our moral development. These are not abstract arguments about rhetoric; the stakes are painfully real and the people in subordinated nation-states have, and will continue, to pay the price of patriotism in the dominant states with their bodies.

The question of patriotism is particularly important in the United States. The greater the destructive power of a nation, the greater the potential danger of patriotism. Despite many Americans' belief that we are the first benevolent empire, this applies to the United States as clearly as to any country. On this count we would do well to ponder the observations of one of the top Nazis, Hermann Goering. In G. M. Gilbert's book on his experiences as the Nuremberg prison psychologist, he recounts this conversation with Goering:

"Why of course the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare war."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Emma Goldman:

Thinking men and women the world over are beginning to realize that patriotism is too narrow and limited a conception to meet the necessities of our time. The centralization of power has brought into being an international feeling of solidarity among the oppressed nations of the world; a solidarity which represents a greater harmony of interests ...

labor leader and socialist Eugene Debs in 1915:

"I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world."

Citizens of the Empire

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