June 10, 2008

Why Most People Won't Fight: Take Back Your Power

I need to mention a preliminary housekeeping matter. The second part of my new ongoing series, and this essay as well, do not focus on the topics I had originally planned to discuss as the followup to this article. I'll get to those in time, hopefully later this week. But as I work through these issues, certain developments in the news as well as some new articles have caused me to decide that it might be a good idea to deal with related problems and misunderstandings. I had first thought to include this essay in the new series, but I think it's better as a standalone piece. About the new series: as I now envision it, although this is obviously still subject to change, that series may well extend through five or six installments altogether. I'm going to try to get through all of it within a week, before I'm overcome with disgust at the grotesquely sickening and sadistically cruel phantasmagoria that is our politics today. Aside from my continuing health problems, that is the greatest danger to my writing: I am not infrequently so thoroughly disgusted by what our politicians do and say, and by what most commentators and bloggers say about it all, that I simply cannot bring myself to focus on it for the length of time required for a considered analysis. I retreat to music and books, usually fiction. That's the only way I can refuel myself, so that I am able to further discuss this seemingly inevitable descent into madness and death. "Seemingly" is the operative word: as I regularly have to remind many readers, who project their own feelings of certain doom onto my writing where it emphatically does not belong, it does not have to be this way. We could choose to act otherwise.

I had planned to write about Obama's speech to AIPAC last week, and about what that speech bodes for our future, all of which is extraordinarily grim, but I hadn't yet decided whether to include that discussion in the new series or in a separate article. But when I read Chris Hedges' article, I realized that it belonged in that series. Obama's latest criminally irresponsible and lethally dishonest warmongering about Iran -- warmongering which adopts each and every major piece of propaganda advanced by the loathsome Bush administration -- is a very powerful piece of evidence in support of one of my major ongoing themes: that the United States government's foreign policy of ongoing, ceaseless, non-defensive intervention overseas is a fully bipartisan criminal enterprise, one extending well over a century. If you know only the basics of history going back to the end of the nineteenth century, and if you are honest about what that history reveals, the truth of this proposition is not even a question. Where most people falter is on the requirement of intellectual honesty.

I said that we could choose to act otherwise -- for example, if even two or three leading bloggers had taken on the cause of focusing sustained protest against the coming attack on Iran (using my suggestions, or coming up with their own better ones), thousands of people could have been enlisted in the effort. Yet not one person with an audience of 20,00, 50,000 or more individual readers per day did anything like that, and they won't. (My readership is so small that it's impossible for me to gather a sufficient number of people for any such effort on my own.) But the overwhelming majority of people, including almost all bloggers, will not choose to act otherwise, not even with regard to an issue of the ungraspably huge significance of an Iran attack. In other words: they will not fight, not in the manner and on the scale required.

Over the last couple of years, I have repeatedly asked myself: Why? Why won't most people fight? The answer is not readily apparent, not to me at any rate. I won't recite yet again all the horrifying consequences of an attack on Iran. I've been through that many times, and you almost certainly can recite them along with me. (See "Morality, Humanity and Civilization: 'Nothing remains...but memories'" if those consequences have momentarily escaped you.) The consequences 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.

For many people -- certainly for most of the leading liberal and progressive bloggers -- the danger is of a very different kind. These people dare not challenge the shared "wisdom" of their political family of bloggers. They dare not say: "We aren't doing enough. We are failing in the most critical ways. If we actually give a damn about what we say we care about, we must do more, much more." Why, that might sound like criticism of The Mighty Atrios, or The Dark God Kos, or The Incomparable Digby. Those precious links might dry up. Why, a blogger could lose access -- not only to The Beatific Beltway Dems, but to the leading bloggers! 'Tis truly a fearsome fate that lies in that direction. Surely, we must all be content with electing Democrats. More and better ones, if only we can; in a pinch, any Democrats will do. In the meantime, let's read and write some more piercingly non-original blog posts. In how many different ways and how many times can we say that Matthews, Broder, Klein, et al. are wankers? An infinite number, clearly. Now there's some heavy duty political action for you, baby!

Such are the limits of today's political warriors. And the progressives dare to mock the conservative internet fighters. Jesus Fucking Christ. Honest to God, people. Words fail. I mean, words fail, sweetie, honey, babykins.

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. (Horribly enough, given the nature of the motives and goals that propelled them, the only notable exception to this pattern is the battle waged by conservatives about "illegal immigrants," a detestable -- but very effective -- campaign that I wrote about here.) 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.

I became aware of these issues once again as I read Hedges' article, and this new piece by Uri Avnery. When I excerpted Hedges' piece, I pointed out a few occasions where even Hedges -- who is unusually passionate and correct in the rest of his analysis of the drive to war with Iran -- goes very badly off course. Hedges refers to Obama's "miscalculation," about which I wrote:
NOTE: None of this is a "miscalculation." As a member of the ruling class, all of these policies, in every detail, are ones that Obama is fully convinced are legitimate, right and just.
Hedges also describes Obama as "feckless and weak," and refers to Obama and the Democratic leadership as "morally bankrupt." About this, I said:
NOTE: Neither Obama nor the Democratic leadership are "morally bankrupt" in the sense that they once advocated fundamentally different policies and desired different ends. Global American hegemony, to be achieved by any and all necessary means, is and has always been their goal. This is what they want, all of them, Democrats and Republicans alike.
The identical problem arises in the Avnery article. As with Hedges, Avnery is excellent on certain major points, as in his opening passage:
After months of a tough and bitter race, a merciless struggle, Barack Obama has defeated his formidable opponent, Hillary Clinton. He has wrought a miracle: for the first time in history a black person has become a credible candidate for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world.

And what was the first thing he did after his astounding victory? He ran to the conference of the Israel lobby, AIPAC, and made a speech that broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning.

That is shocking enough. Even more shocking is the fact that nobody was shocked.


The Washington of AIPAC is like the Constantinople of the Byzantine emperors in its heyday.

The world looked on and was filled with wonderment. The Israeli media was ecstatic. In all the world's capitals the events were followed closely and conclusions were drawn. All the Arab media reported on them extensively. Al-Jazeera devoted an hour to a discussion of the phenomenon.

The most extreme conclusions of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were confirmed in their entirety. On the eve of their visit to Israel, this coming Thursday, the Israel lobby stood at the center of political life in the U.S. and the world at large.
I must also mention the concluding section of Avnery's article, where he makes an argument that hadn't occurred to me, but an argument that quite wonderfully confirms certain of my own themes.

Avnery discusses the profound similarities to be found in the national narratives of the United States and of Israel: how "Israel is a small America, the USA is a huge Israel"; how the "Mayflower passengers, much as the Zionists of the first and second aliya (immigration wave), fled from Europe, carrying in their hearts a messianic vision, either religious or utopian"; how "Both suffered a great deal in their new country. Both saw themselves as 'pioneers' who made the wilderness bloom, a 'people without land in a land without people.' Both completely ignored the rights of the indigenous people, whom they considered subhuman savages and murderers. Both saw the natural resistance of the local peoples as evidence of their innately murderous character, which justified even the worst atrocities." And then Avnery writes:
How is it that a man like Obama, the son of an African father, identifies so completely with the actions of former generations of American whites? It shows again the power of a myth to become rooted in the consciousness of a person, so that he identifies 100 percent with the imagined national narrative. To this may be added the unconscious urge to belong to the victors, if possible.

Therefore, I do not accept without reservation the speculation: "Well, he must talk like this in order to get elected. Once in the White House, he will return to himself."

I am not so sure about that. It may well turn out that these things have a surprisingly strong hold on his mental world.
These are very important insights. That Obama "identifies so completely with the actions of former generations of American whites" folds into my current series, "The Triumph of the White, Male Ruling Class" -- a class to which Obama belongs fully and completely in every way that matters, philosophically, politically, and ideologically. Avnery provides yet another aspect of Obama's identification with the white, male rulers of America, the rulers who have held almost all power from the founding of this nation (and before) through and including today -- and into tomorrow. And Avnery's observations about the power of myth track completely with my writings about that power, and about the power of narrative. As but one example, see "Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much."

Very interestingly, however, Avnery neglects to mention a further critical reason for Obama's identification with "American whites," although he hints at it. That reason is one I discussed in the first part of my "Triumph" series, and it must never be forgotten. It's a simple and terrible reason: Obama wants power. This is not a secondary or related, tangential issue: we are talking about politics here, so it is the reason. He wants power. In America, if you want power, you must be white -- or you must adopt all the trappings of the white rulers. That's it, that's the whole thing. Power accrues to the white, male ruling class. Period.

But Avnery indicates he is still struggling with this issue: he's "not so sure" about what Obama genuinely believes. Earlier in his article, Avnery writes:
The transparent fawning of Obama on the Israel lobby stands out more than similar efforts by the other candidates.

Why? Because his dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles.

And lo and behold, the very first thing he does after securing the nomination of his party is to compromise his principles. And how!

The outstanding thing that distinguishes him from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain is his uncompromising opposition to the war in Iraq from the very first moment. That was courageous. That was unpopular. That was totally opposed to the Israel lobby, all of whose branches were fervidly pushing George Bush to start the war that freed Israel from a hostile regime.

And here comes Obama to crawl in the dust at the feet of AIPAC and go out of his way to justify a policy that completely negates his own ideas.
This is wrong, and very dangerously wrong. Avnery speaks of Obama's "promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington..." Avnery says that Obama has "compromise[d] his principles," and that Obama "negates his own ideas." You see, Obama actually, in his heart of hearts, wants peace and will confront any and all enemies of peace, even the policies of the U.S. government and of Israel. Obama's genuine convictions are ones that Avnery shares, if only Obama would act on them and stop "crawl[ling] in the dust."

This is what Hedges believes, too. Hedges also believes that Obama really shares certain beliefs that are critical to Hedges himself, but political considerations are forcing Obama to be "feckless and weak." This is precisely the delusion that I wrote about in "Blinded by the Story":
I suggest we take these leading lights of the progressive blogs at their word: they most certainly do not get it, and they absolutely cannot "for the life of [them] figure out why the congress is doing this."

I also note that, following the Senate cave-in, Atrios has dubbed Harry Reid the "Wanker of the Day." Will all this diminish in even the smallest degree Atrios's, or Digby's, or any other leading progressive blogger's efforts to ensure a huge Democratic victory in 2008? Of course not.

The reason for that is very simple, and it goes to the progressives' central articles of religious faith: The Democrats aren't really like this, not in their heart of hearts. The Democrats don't actually favor a repressive, authoritarian state. The Democrats are good, and they want liberty and peace for everyone, everywhere, for eternity, hallelujah and amen.

People who continue to believe this have evicted themselves from serious political debate, and they have willingly made themselves slaves to their enthusiastically embraced self-delusions. They confess a comprehensive ignorance of history, a stunning inability to understand the political developments of the last century, and a desire to place the story they have chosen, primarily because it flatters their own false sense of vanity and self-worth, above every relevant fact. In terms of these dynamics, they are no different from Sam Brownback and his ludicrous defense of his religious beliefs against the evidence of evolution.


It must be noted that Atrios and Digby (and many other liberal and progressive bloggers) are obviously intelligent; on occasion, they are unusually perceptive on narrower questions. But when the story upon which we insist is used to trump history and facts, even when those facts continue to scream in our faces every day, even intelligent people render themselves functionally stupid. As a result, they "don't get it," and they cannot begin to understand why the Democrats act as they do.


Brownback has his story, which he refuses to give up or even to question: "Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order." And most liberals and progressives have their story, which they also refuse to surrender: Democrats are genuinely on the side of liberty and peace. If they act in ways that are inimical to those ends, there must be some explanation of which we are unaware. Some other factor must be making them do it, because they would refuse to behave in that manner if they could act in accord with their deepest convictions.
I must admit, and I do so very happily indeed, that I myself had not fully appreciated the explanatory power of the mechanisms I identified in "Blinded by the Story." I'm beginning to appreciate it now. That sounds terribly immodest; so be it.

But now consider how these elements fit together. 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, or to Hedges and Avnery. 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.

So I repeat what I wrote at the end of an earlier essay:
So what is your choice? Do the world -- and your life, and the lives of those you love -- mean so little to you, that you will risk losing them all? Is that what you want? Do you still choose to do nothing?

Do you?