Making the World Great for the First Time

By David Swanson

Remarks at Fellowship Hall at Berkeley, Calif., October 13, 2018.

Video here.

Slogans and headlines and haikus and other short combinations of words are tricky things. I wrote a book looking at many of the themes in how people commonly talk about war, and I found them all without exception — and the marketing campaigns before, during, and after every past war without exception — to be dishonest. So I called the book War Is A Lie. And then people who misunderstood my meaning started insisting to me that I was wrong, that war really does exist.

We have t-shirts at World BEYOND War that read “I’m already against the next war.” But some protest that we shouldn’t assume there must be a next war. And I myself protest that in fact we’re eliding the little known reality that there are numerous wars underway already when we focus on “the next war,” especially in a society that rather grotesquely imagines itself at peace while bombing numerous parts of the globe.

One solution to this is to restrain ourselves in the placing of grand significance on slogans. If the proper slogan would save us, the contents of my email inbox, flooded with world-saving slogan ideas, would have established paradise long ago. If those who argue for peace and justice are really outmatched on television principally because they are not pithy and witty enough, as opposed to their general failure to own the television networks, we should immediately shut down everything except bumper sticker designing sessions.

On the other hand, if I write an article and post a link to it on social media, typically a discussion of the headline ensues among participants who have clearly not clicked and read the article and who in some cases, when asked, are quite put out by the idea that they should do so. I myself have lately begun clicking only on articles with boring headlines, because the ones with exciting headlines so often fail to live up to their billing. All of which is to say that headlines matter. But so do lengthy speeches. So I’m going to tell you the headline I came up with for this talk, even though it got scratched as being offensive, because I’m hoping you’ll allow me some additional sentences beyond just the headline. Here’s the headline: “Make the World Great for the First Time.”

Here are some things I don’t mean by that, and which I’ll come back to shortly:

–I myself or those of us in this room have super powers that will allow us to fix the whole world which will thank us for this godlike favor.


–No societies of the past or now existing, including non-Western and indigenous societies, have ever been great in any way, and the way to become great is a new creation that has no need for any ancient wisdom.


–Trumpism should engulf the whole globe.

Here’s a bit on what I do mean:

You may have heard somewhere the slogan “Make America Great Again” and the snappy comeback “America Already Is Great.” The latter has even evolved into “America Was Great Before You, Mr. Trump” which ends up almost equating to the original “Make America Great Again.” I object to the nationalism. This little planet is in crisis, and talk of making great the place where 4% of humanity lives, particularly without questioning a culture that exploits and destroys its own and others, seems misguided in the extreme. I also object to the vagueness of the slogan, which was not published with an article or a book, but rather a hat. While some may have in mind a past American greatness that I would support, whether factual or fictional, others clearly have in mind making the United States more evil again by undoing actual improvements. I object to the use of “America” to mean exclusively the United States, even if it does allow such rebuttals as “Make America Hate Again” and “Make America Mexico Again.” But it’s the “great again” part of the slogan that lends itself to fascistic thinking and politics.

In a way, worrying about the vagueness of a fascist slogan can lead us away from another way of opposing it, namely with facts. Taking “America” to mean the United States of recent decades, the simple truth is that it’s not now and has not been great, no matter how one defines greatness. While the U.S. public ranks at the top in believing that its nation is great, and in fact the greatest, and in fact so superior as to merit special privileges, this view has no basis in fact. U.S. exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America is superior to other nations, is no more fact-based and no less harmful than racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry — although much of U.S. culture treats this particular type of bigotry as more acceptable.

In my latest book, Curing Exceptionalism, I look at how the United States compares with other countries, how it thinks about that, what harm this thinking does, and how to think differently. In the first of those four sections, I try to find some measure by which the United States actually is the greatest, and I fail.

I tried freedom, but every ranking by every institute or academy, abroad, within the United States, privately funded, funded by the CIA, etc., failed to rank the United States at the top, whether for rightwing capitalist freedom to exploit, leftwing freedom to lead a fulfilling life, freedom in civil liberties, freedom to change one’s economic position, freedom by any definition under the sun. The United States where “at least I know I’m free” in the words of a country song contrasts with other countries where at least I know I’m freer.

So I looked harder. I looked at education at every level, and found the United States ranked first only in student debt. I looked at wealth and found the United States ranked first only in inequality of wealth distribution among wealthy nations. In fact, the United States ranks at the bottom of wealthy nations in a very long list of measures of quality of life. You live longer, healthier, and happier elsewhere. The United States ranks first among all nations in various measures one shouldn’t be proud of: incarceration, various sorts of environmental destruction, and most measures of militarism, as well as some dubious categories, such as — don’t sue me — lawyers per capita. And it ranks first in a number of items that I imagine those who shout “We’re Number 1!” to quiet down anybody working to improve things do not have in mind: most television viewing, most paved asphalt, at or near the top in most obesity, most wasted food, cosmetic surgery, pornography, consumption of cheese, etc.

In a rational world, nations that had found the best policies on healthcare, gun violence, education, environmental protection, peace, prosperity, and happiness would be most promoted as models worthy of consideration. In this world, the prevalence of the English language, the dominance of Hollywood, and other factors do in fact put the United States in the lead in one thing: in the promotion of all of its mediocre to disastrous policies.

My notion is not that people should leave the United States or swear their allegiance to some other place, or replace pride with shame. Nor does any general description or statistic cover any actual individual. There have always been subcultures including indigenous cultures within the United States that had and have much to teach. My point is that we have debates in the U.S. on whether single-payer healthcare could actually work in the real world that steadfastly ignore the fact that it is working in numerous countries. We even wear the same sort of blinders when it comes to peace, imagining that peace has never yet been figured out, and that we must look to the ponderings of Einstein, Freud, Russell, and Tolstoy to construct the means of finally evolving into the new world where peace will be first established.

The reality is that, while the brilliant thoughts of Western thinkers can be of great assistance, we go wrong if we don’t recognize some embarrassing secrets. It now seems likely that many hunter-gatherer groups of humans engaged in nothing resembling low-tech war at all, meaning that most of our species’ existence did not involve war. Even in recent millennia, much of Australia, the Arctic, Northeast Mexico, the Great Basin of North America, and even Europe before the rise of patriarchic warrior cultures did largely or entirely without war. Recent examples abound. In 1614 Japan cut itself off from the West and from major warfare until 1853 when the U.S. Navy forced its way in. During such periods of peace, culture flourishes. The colony of Pennsylvania for a time chose to respect the native peoples, at least in comparison with other colonies, and it knew peace and prospered. The notion held by celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson that because 17th century Europe invested in science by investing in warfare therefore only through militarism can any culture advance, and therefore — conveniently enough — astrophysicists are 100% justified in working for the Pentagon, is a view based on an absurd level of blinkered prejudice that few liberals would accept if duplicated in explicitly racist or sexist terms.

Nothing technologically resembling current war existed a split second ago in evolutionary terms. Calling the bombing of people’s houses in Yemen the same name as fighting with swords or muskets in an open field is dubious at best.

The nation most engaged in bombing people’s houses around the world, namely the United States, does not involve 99 percent of its people directly in the enterprise of war at all. If war is some sort of inevitable human behavior, why do most humans want somebody else to do it? While over 40 percent of the U.S. public tells pollsters that it would take part in a war, and NRA videos promote more wars apparently as a means to sell guns to fans of wars, virtually none of those people, including the staff of the NRA, have proven capable of actually finding a recruiting station.

Western militaries long excluded women and now work hard to include them without any worries about so-called human nature, without anyone wondering why, if women can start waging war, men can’t stop waging war.

Right now 96% of humanity lives under governments that invest radically less in war, and in most cases radically less per capita and per area of territory, than does the 4% of humanity in the United States. Yet people in the United States will tell you that slashing military spending and reining in U.S. imperialism would violate that mythical substance known as human nature. Presumably 17 years ago when the U.S. spent significantly less on militarism we weren’t then human.

While the top killer of U.S. participants in war is suicide, and the recorded cases of PTSD resulting from war deprivation sits steadily at zero, war is said to be normal. Yet the U.S. Congress would no more pass a bill restricting U.S. military spending to four times the next biggest spender on earth than it would limit Supreme Court Justices to no more than four sexual assaults.

When I say that we should make the world great for the first time, I mean that in this age of global communication, we should conceive of ourselves as world citizens and develop world systems of cooperation, collaboration, and dispute resolution and restoration and reconciliation that draw considerably on wisdom that long predates some of the recent ungreatness of various corners of the earth. And I mean this as a project that will require people from all over the world to work together, sharing widely divergent views, and accepting the need to respect and learn from dramatically different perspectives. While this has not previously existed in the way now needed, the alternative to creating it is that this troubled species and many others will perish — which seems to my mind even more inconvenient that trying something new, which — truth be told — is challenging and exciting and not a troublesome matter at all.

A global movement to abolish war, which is what World BEYOND War is working on, has to be a movement that takes on the greatest weapons dealers, war makers, and war justifiers, the rogue states that arm the most dictators, install the most foreign bases, tear down international laws and treaties and courts, and drop the most bombs. This means, of course, principally the United States government — which stands as worthy of a campaign of boycotts, divestments, sanctions, and moral pressure as would the Israeli government if the Israeli government were multiplied 100 fold.

Professors who tell you that war can be just and that war is quickly vanishing from the globe — and there is an odd overlap between these two groups, Ian Morris of Stanford is in both — are exclusively Western, heavily U.S.ian, and extremely prejudiced. Non-Western wars, provoked and armed by the West, are recategorized as genocides, while Western wars are understood as law-enforcement. But, in fact, war is usually genocidal, and genocide usually involves war. If the two of them, war and genocide, ran against each other in a U.S. election we would certainly be told we needed to vote for the lesser evil one, whichever that is, but the two are in reality inseparable. And neither enforces any law, as they constitute the supreme violation of law.

At World BEYOND War we’ve come up with a book called A Global Security System: An Alternative to War that tries to envision a world culture and structure that allows us to end all wars and armaments. I’ve written a number of books that address this. But today I feel like talking about activism, about what people can do for peace and for related causes — most good causes are related. Because I see a lot of potential and a lot of mistakes.

Here are some questions our culture asks us to respond to:

Does the U.S. government have too much money or too little?

The most important answer is no. The U.S. government spends its money overwhelmingly on the wrong things. Far more than it needs a different quantity of spending, it needs a different type of spending. In the United States, 60% or so of the money that Congress decides on each year (because Social Security and healthcare are treated separately) goes to militarism. That’s according to the National Priorities Project, which also says that, considering the whole budget, and not counting debt for past militarism, and not counting care for veterans, militarism is still 16%. Meanwhile, the War Resisters League says that 47% of U.S. income taxes goes to militarism, including debt for past militarism, veterans’ care, etc. I read books all the time about the U.S. public budget and the U.S. economy that never mention the existence of the military at all. The most recent example is the new book by British columnist George Monbiot. I had him on my radio show and asked him about this, and he said he had no idea how high military spending was. Shocked he was. We should set our own agenda even when it’s based on information generally avoided, as has in fact been done through city resolutions here in Berkeley.

Is Donald Trump good or bad, worthy of praise or condemnation?

The correct answer is yes. When regimes, as one is supposed to call non-U.S. governments, do good, one should praise them, and when they do bad one should condemn them. And when it’s 99 percent one of those two, the remaining 1 percent that’s the other should still be acknowledged. I want Trump impeached and removed and in some cases prosecuted for a long list of abuses. See the articles of impeachment ready to go at I want Nancy Pelosi, who has adamantly opposed impeachment for Bush, Cheney, Trump, Pence, and Kavanaugh, asked what if anything she would ever deem impeachable. But I also want Democrats who have been demanding that Trump become more hostile toward Russia and North Korea to have a seat and quietly consider whether there are any principles they could ever imagine placing above partisanship. We need to work on policies, not personalities. Let’s leave the focus on personalities to fascists.

Should Syria be bombed for using chemical weapons or spared because it didn’t really do so?

The proper response is no, nobody gets to bomb anybody, not legally, not practically, not morally. No crime of weapons use or weapons possession justifies any other crime, and certainly not the greatest crime there is. Spending months debating whether Iraq has weapons is not relevant to the question of whether to destroy Iraq. The answer to that question is an obvious and legal and moral one that should not await any illumination of irrelevant facts.

Are you beginning to see the pattern? We are generally asked to spend our time on the wrong questions, with heads-they-win and tails-we-lose answers available. Would you vote for cancer or heart disease? Take your pick. I won’t argue with lesser evil voting or with radical voting. Why would I? It’s 20 minutes out of your life. It’s lesser evil thinking year-in and year-out that I have a major complaint with. When people join a team led by half the elected officials in the government, self-censor, and claim to want what that half of a broken government wants, knowing it will be compromised down from there, representative government is inverted and perverted. Labor unions came to my town and told people they were forbidden to say “single-payer” and had to make posters about something called “the public option” because that was what Democrats in Washington wanted. That’s making of yourself a prop, a tool. What you say need not be, and must not be, limited in the way that who you vote for is.

This asking of the wrong questions is how we’re taught history, as well as current civic participation, and therefore how we’re led to understand the world.

Are you in support of the U.S. Civil War or in favor of slavery?

The answer should be no. The dramatic reduction in slavery and serfdom was a global movement, which succeeded in most places without a horrific civil war. If we were to decide to end mass-incarceration or meat consumption or fossil fuel use or reality tv shows, we wouldn’t benefit from the model that says to first find some fields and kill each other in huge numbers and then end incarceration. The proper model would be to simply proceed with ending incarceration, gradually or rapidly, but without the mass murder, the side-effects of which in the case of the U.S. Civil War, as in most cases, are still tragically with us.

Should a corrupt plutocratic racist sexist imperialist perjurer be kept off the U.S. Supreme Court because he likely committed sexual assault? Should we insist on a corrupt plutocratic racist sexist imperialist perjurer clearly innocent of any sexual assault? This was not anyone’s position, but this was the debate presented by the media and the Congress. So, this was largely the debate entered into by the petitions, the emails, the phone calls, the hearing disruptors, the protesters sitting in the Senate offices, and the media guests and callers and letters-to-the-editor writers. Had Kavanaugh been blocked and the woman behind him in line been nominated, it’s hard to see how stopping her would have been possible. Our opposition to him ought to have been based in all of the many reasons available that we found compelling.

Now of course he can be impeached and removed from office. In fact that is the only way, other than disastrously counterproductive violence, to remove him, short of revising the ancient U.S. Constitution. But Nancy Pelosi is against impeachment, and many Democratic loyalists believe that obedience and discipline are the highest virtues. Here’s what I think. Representatives are supposed to represent, not obey party orders. Representatives who do not commit to impeachment before an election are extremely unlikely to back it after one. And the theory that talking about impeachment will turn out voters for Republicans but not Democrats is based on nothing but speculation and ingrained habits of timidity. In 2006 the false belief that Democrats would impeach President Bush turned out Democratic voters, not Republicans. Every popular impeachment in history has boosted its advocates, while one unpopular impeachment — that of Bill Clinton — hurt its advocates very slightly. The conclusion one can draw from that is not that impeachment is always unpopular, but that cowards believe it more important to be wrong than to be victorious.

The same applies to the widespread malady of Pencedread, a fairly new and unstudied disease that consists of believing that a nation that could hold elected officials accountable and in fact toss them out on their ears but which had Mike Pence in the White House would be worse than a nation in which presidents can do virtually anything they like, and in which Congressional committees hold public hearings at which their members unanimously agree that they are simply powerless to prevent a president from launching a nuclear war but which has that model of wise statesmanship Donald Trump on the throne. I don’t buy it. I think it’s way too clever for its own good. And yet it’s hardly clever at all. If there’s one thing that almost everyone knows about U.S. politics, it’s that the vice president is next in line for the crown. Who does not know that? I think the more important question is not who wears the crown but whether we allow it to be a crown.

I don’t think recognizing that the whole system is deeply corrupted adds to or takes away from the cleverness of opposing holding those in it accountable. It just adds to the work that’s needed in terms of public education and structural reform. When the Democrats took the majority in 2006, Nancy Pelosi said she would not allow any impeachments, exactly as she had said before the election — though we’d wanted to imagine that either she was lying or that we would change her mind. And Rahm Emanuel said that the Democrats would keep the war on Iraq going — in fact escalate it — in order to run against it (whatever that means) again in 2008. As long as the Democrats are not credibly campaigning on anything more significant than not being Trump or Pence or Kavanaugh, they will want those people around to “run against.” Loyal Democrats will agree, and radical independents will declare impeachment to amount to naive counter-revolutionary surrender to the Democrats, even though the Democrats oppose it. And there we will be: royal powers without limit, temporary despots alternating between the party of the right and the party of the far right, until that last minute clicks off on the Doomsday Clock.

Activism in a corrupt world is an unfair uphill struggle, but we see bursts of possibility nonetheless. We saw popular resistance play the major role in stopping the massive bombing of Syria in 2013, for example. We have seen a certain segment of the U.S. population grow wise about war and militarism during the past 17 years. This year we’ve seen four candidates for Congress, all women and all Democrats, win primaries in districts gerrymandered to their party, none of whom emphasizes opposition to war, none of whom wants to abolish all war, but all of whom, when pressed, talk about war in a way that almost no current or recent Congress member has — including the four these women are replacing, and including Barbara Lee.

Ayanna Pressley wants to slash the military by 25%. Rashida Tlaib calls the military “a cesspool for corporations to make money” and she proposes moving the money to human and environmental needs. Ilhan Omar denounces U.S. wars as counterproductive for endangering the United States, wants to close foreign bases, and names six current U.S. wars she would end. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when asked where she would find the money to pay for things, does not follow Bernie Sanders down the dead-end path of raising taxes, but rather declares that she would cut a bit of the gargantuan military budget — which stops those “where would you get the money” questions cold.

Now, none of these four may actually act on their statements, and some silent surprise like Congressman Ro Khanna may become an advocate for peace without ever having promised to be, but statistically that’s unlikely. The most likely people to be willing to act for peace in public office are the ones who are publicly talking as though they do not want any weapons profits in their campaign bribes, er excuse me campaign contributions.

Should Donald Trump have gone to Congress in accordance with the law before sending missiles into Syria? No. I went to an event where Senator Tim Kaine made this claim. I disagree. Congress should have forbidden, cut off any funding for, and threatened impeachment over that war, the war on Yemen, and every other war. But Trump going to Congress for legal permission to blow up people in Syria is a dangerous delusion. Congress has no power to make crimes legal. I asked Senator Kaine about this. You can watch it on my Youtube page. I asked him how Congress can legalize a violation of the UN Charter and of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. He admitted that it could not, and then immediately and nonsensically went right back to claiming that Trump should come to Congress to get his crimes legalized. If Canada bombed Berkeley raise your hand if you would care whether the parliament or the prime minister did it. There is nothing gained by claiming that Congress can legalize a treaty violation. It’s not necessary in order for Congress to prevent or end a war; in fact it works against that goal.

It matters how we talk. When we oppose a weapon because it doesn’t work well enough, or a war because it leaves a military too unprepared for other wars, we don’t advance the cause of ending all war. And it’s not in any way helpful toward our immediate ends. It’s gratuitously shooting ourselves in the foot.

We also miss out when we censor and maim various activist movements so as to avoid opposing war. The U.S. war machine kills primarily through the diversion of funds. Tiny fractions of U.S. military spending could end starvation or the lack of clean drinking water on earth or invest more in environmental protection than environmental groups dream of. Meanwhile the military is one of the greatest destroyers of the earth, and it’s given a pass by treaties and by activists. Free college would cost no more than the Pentagon regularly “misplaces.” The abuses that civil liberties groups oppose are driven by the militarism they won’t mention. We would have a dramatically stronger multi-issue coalition if most organizations working on good causes were not utterly intimidated by flags and national anthems. That, in addition to opposing racist murders, is why some of us cheer when athletes take a knee. We’d like to see the Sierra Club or the ACLU find the same courage and decency as a football player.

Some of the most encouraging activism in recent years has been the people turning out at airports and elsewhere to oppose the Muslim ban and protect refugees. It’s a shame that the same sort of concern has not been generated to protect the victims of bombings — even when we have video of little children on a bus — and to prevent the destruction that turns people into refugees.

We’ve been inspired by high school students denouncing the gun lobby following a mass shooting in Florida. But their absolutely disciplined restraint in never ever mentioning that the killer was trained by the U.S. Army in the school cafeteria and was wearing his ROTC shirt when he committed mass murder is given little thought. Their promotion of videos that suggest that soldiers and police officers ought to have guns while others ought not to results in little criticism that I’m aware of.

It was gratifying three years ago to see an agreement between the United States and other nations with Iran win out over cries for a war on Iran. But one side falsely claimed that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons and should therefore be bombed, while the other side falsely claimed that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons and should therefore not be bombed but inspected. Now that the inspections have demonstrated what was already knowable, namely that Iran has not been pursuing nuclear weapons, there are few people capable of hearing that. And Israel, which has nuclear weapons but no inspections, and its allies in the U.S. government have a U.S. public in a better place for Iran war propaganda than before the agreement was reached. And I say give the military credit for its green policies: it is going to recycle 100% of its Iraq propaganda for Iran.

When Trump was threatening to nuke Korea, many objected vociferously. But when he made any movement in the direction of peace, most of the same people objected just as strongly. Despite the fact that the United States arms and trains most of the world’s dictators, merely speaking with one in North Korea is such a sin that the great resistance will likely pursue charges of treason if Trump allows the Koreans to finally make peace or they go ahead and make it without him.

And please — I know I ask in vain — but don’t get me started on Russiagate. What is it that I’m supposed to imagine Putin has that could embarrass Donald Trump, a man who intentionally embarrasses himself daily in whatever manner he calculates will most boost the ratings on the reality show he imagines he is living in? Which part of a completely bought and paid for, racistly purged, corporately communicated, primary-rigged, voter ID’d, violence openly incited by a candidate, unverifiable black box election system am I supposed to think has been corrupted by Facebook ads that almost nobody saw but the prevention of which is closing down the internet to viewpoints that challenge power? Now see, you went and got me started.

OK, so we’re doing some things wrong. What should we be doing? We should be working locally and globally, with less activism as well as less identification of ourselves at the national level.

World BEYOND War is working on a couple of projects in addition to education. One is closing bases, which allows people around the world to combine our efforts for a single goal. Another is divestment from weapons, which can bring people together for relatively achievable victories — including in Berkeley — and at the same time educate society and stigmatize profiting from murder.

We should be strictly nonviolent and publicly commit to being strictly nonviolent in everything we do. The power that could come from doing that on a large scale may be greater than we imagine.

And we should replace our concern over hope or despair with a concern over whether we are working together wisely enough and hard enough. The work itself, as Camus’ Sisyphus said, is our enjoyment. It is fulfilling when we do it together as well as we are able, aimed as directly at success as we can get it. Whether we predict success or failure is irrelevant, and the worse things get, the more reason we have to work, not the less. Great changes have often come to the world surprisingly swiftly, but always because people had dedicated themselves to working for that change so intensely that they did not have time to be bothered with hope or despair. Those are luxuries we cannot afford right now. If that doesn’t motivate you, maybe reading Joanna Macy will help! But one way or another we need everybody in this room and millions more outside it on deck and active from here on out. Let’s end all war together.

One Reply to “Making the World Great for the First Time”

  1. We should always be on the never-ending process towards greatness. But we need to agree on what kind of greatness we want.

    Traditionally, that label has been given to conquerors. Lots of people still want to use it for dominators. Maybe most people do.

    I want to use it for those who make the whole world better.

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