Remarks prepared for Progressive Central in Charlotte NC, Sept. 4, 2012
Last week in Tampa, Clint Eastwood proposed immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Republican crowd applauded. This week here in Charlotte, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any speaker at the convention to dare to suggest such a thing. But they would be applauded if they did. President Obama will pretend to be ending the war, albeit through a process that will take much longer than the entire length of most wars the world has seen, and he’ll be applauded for that. And if the convention resembles the Obama campaign event I attended last week in Charlottesville (a completely different town from this one, by the way, but like this one named for the wife of a king whom these colonies fought a war against because he abused powers in no way approaching the powers now bestowed on our presidents) — if, I say, the convention resembles that event, then at least one speaker will glorify the murder of Osama bin Laden and win applause for that, while at least one speaker will praise the continuation of the war on Afghanistan and encourage military recruitment for that purpose and win applause for that. To get people at a convention of their party to reject something, to boo something, or even to stop and consider something would be the rarest of phenomena.
Some nice police officers asked me and my friends to leave the Obama rally in Charlottesville, because we were asking the president to get out of Afghanistan and to end the sanctions on Iran. We would have asked him several other things if we had thought anyone in the crowd would have the slightest notion what we were talking about. Why did the United States triple weapons sales to foreign dictatorships last year? What’s the State Department’s commission on those sales? How do they spread freedom, hope, and change? Why does the president keep a list of people to be murdered? Why are there children on the list? Why do opponents of the electric chair and the poison needle not oppose this? Why did the president triple the occupation of Afghanistan in the first place? Why has he enlarged the military? Who authorized him to bomb Libya and supply Syrian terrorists? Why has he given war making powers to the CIA? Why is he blowing people up in numerous nations our country was not at war with? Why does he compound the domestic damage with an unprecedented assault on whistleblowers, the establishment of warrentless spying and trial-less imprisonment, the continuation of tax cuts for billionaires, corporate trade pacts that make NAFTA look like a student exchange program, threats to Social Security, and endless support for fossil fuel extraction and consumption? We couldn’t ask Obama about these things, because his followers tend not to know about them. That ignorance is not a step up from supporting such policies. Rather it is a conscious choice to avoid hearing, to flip past those stories, to stay off the sites and lists that might mention them, and to forget quickly any such news that has the indecency to be seen.
Imagine if the record of the past four years were the record of a Republican president. We’d know a lot more about it. We’d be a lot more outraged by it. And we’d be opposing it without a hint of self-censorship. Imagine if the record and platform of the Democratic nominee were noticeably less warlike. Our own positions might be better still, but that Democratic platform would be the measure by which we condemned the Republican record of assassinations, privatization, secrecy, unconstitutional wars, drone wars, immunity for torturers, and so on, the record of the past four years — if it were a Republican record.
Now imagine if the record of the past four years were the record of a Democratic president, but imagine it a far better record, a record of legitimate work for peace. Imagine that bases had been closed rather than opened, wars ended rather than escalated (and not ended by a predecessor’s treaty against which the president fought tooth and nail, but ended by choice), the military shrunken instead of enlarged, etc. Not only would we applaud that record, but we might go so far as to identify ourselves with that president’s political party.
Now imagine if the record of the past four years were that of a Democratic president but a record far worse than what it’s actually been, involving more wars and more war preparation, more assassinations, more criminality, perhaps the dropping of a nuclear bomb or two. Surely there would be some point prior to complete immediate genocide of our species at which we would begin to question the notion of working against war within a war party. Surely at some point we would decide that we couldn’t vote for such a party at all, much less name ourselves for it. And surely at some earlier point we would decide that we could vote for members of that party (since another party was even worse), but we couldn’t identify with them, collaborate with them, censor our views for them, apologize for them, or otherwise treat them fundamentally differently from how we treat the more catastrophic of the two catastrophe generating clubs. The question is how we know when we’ve reached that point.
Maybe we can spot it coming from the other direction. Imagine we’ve been acting as nonpartisan activists pressuring both halves of a rotten corrupt plutocracy, but one half is so dramatically reformed that we now want to associate ourselves with it and treat it differently. For example, we don’t want to ask for the impeachment of its members just because they do the same things as the other team. A full 10% of the party perhaps has begun to uphold decent public policies, to the point where we deem it strategic to dismiss 90% of the party as not being the Real members of it. How do we know when we’ve reached that point?
My contention is that there is no such point, whichever way you come at it. If we improve our culture and activate our population, all the politicians will improve — one party perhaps ahead of another, but all of them. If, instead, we continue to suffer under the widespread delusion that independent activism can’t work, then making excuses for the less evil half of a government will guarantee that both halves are more evil the next time we’re asked for our input. When peace movements, justice movements, the civil rights movement, the suffragette movement succeeded, they did so with independent activism. The task of organizing, educating, and mobilizing nonviolent action needs everything we have.
When we pushed for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, people said “Oh, you just don’t like Republicans,” and we said: No, no, no, we wish them no ill. We need their successors deterred. If Bush gets away with these things, the next president of either party and of either sex will assume the same powers and expand upon them. And it will be too late to wait for the third post-habeas-corpus presidency to begin our resistance. When Nancy Pelosi gave John Conyers permission to hold an impeachment hearing as long as he didn’t try to impeach anyone no matter what he heard at the hearing, we said: you are dooming us to more of these crimes. And when Congressman Conyers said if the president attacks Iran then he’ll finally pursue impeachment, Conyers meant if a Republican president attacks Iran.
And that seems utterly inevitable in its naturalness to us. Who could question that? I’m afraid we’ve turned the responsibility to vote into the pretense that voting changes things. I’m afraid we’ve changed the rational casting of a lesser evil vote into a mindset to guide our actions throughout the year. The threat to Iran is a more dangerous, more immoral threat than what put us in the streets in February 2003. Murdering people with flying robots is a more dangerous, more immoral abuse than torturing them. The inequality of wealth is advancing more rapidly. The collapse of the natural environment is progressing more rapidly. The proliferation of weapons is advancing more rapidly. Our activism doesn’t seem to be keeping pace. One reason is that we don’t maintain a steady campaign to pressure the government toward sustainability and peace. That may be asking too much right now. But come the middle of November, we’ll have a choice between obsessing over which schmuck we want voted on or off our national island in 2016, or building a campaign to rid our culture of its addiction to violence and exploitation. I hope we make the right choice.