Cutting through the Fog of Political
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
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
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
* 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"
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
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
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
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
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."
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."
of the Empire