Don't You Know That You Can Count Me Out – In

Ted Rall’s new book “The Anti-American Manifesto” advocates for violent revolution, even if we have to join with rightwingers and racists to do it, and even if we have no control over the outcome which could easily be something worse than what we’ve got. We have a moral duty, Rall argues, to kill some people.

Now, I much prefer a debate over what radical steps to take to a debate over whether it’s really appropriate for President Obama to whine about people’s lack of enthusiasm for voting. Should we try to pep people up for him or gently nudge him to appoint a new chief of staff who’s not a vicious warmongering corporatist? Decisions. Decisions.

Rall’s book is packed with great analysis of our current state and appropriate moral outrage. I highly recommend it for the clear-eyed survey of the tides in this giant pot of slowly boiling water where we float and kick about like frogs. To an Obama proposal to create 17,000 jobs, Rall replies:

“The U.S. economy needs to add one hundred thousand new jobs a month to keep up with population growth and keep the unemployment rate even. At this writing, in March 2010, it would require four hundred thousand new jobs each month for three years to get back to December 2007.

“Seventeen thousand jobs? Was Obama still using drugs?”

I recommend Rall’s manifesto as a call to action. The only question is what action?

There, the book is much weaker. As people come to terms with the need for radical action, we need to provide them with a serious debate of the alternatives. Many will drift inevitably toward violence, unaware of any choice. To not present the alternatives, whether to argue for or against them, is less than helpful.

According to Rall, “no meaningful political change has ever taken place without violence or the credible threat of violence.” And, “without violence, the powerful will never stop exploiting the weak.” From these statements, scattered throughout the manifesto, one would have no idea that anyone else believed there was a third choice beyond violence or doing nothing. There is no indication here of the role of nonviolence in evicting the British from India or overthrowing the ruler of El Salvador in 1944, or even in ending Jim Crow in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa, in the popular removal of the ruler of the Philippines in 1986, in the largely nonviolent Iranian Revolution of 1979, in the dismantling of the Soviet Union in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, in the resistance to a stolen election in the Ukraine in 2004-2005, and in hundreds of other examples from around the world.

Now, Rall could try to argue that many such movements have violent as well as nonviolent components. He could claim that nonviolent activism can constitute a threat of violence. That is, even though the actors themselves may prove their willingness to die rather than use violence, the understanding of those in power as well as of activists like Rall who think only in terms of violence could be that violence is being threatened. But Rall attempts no such arguments, so we don’t really know what he would say.

Rall does make the following claim about U.S. political struggles: “[P]acifism has been the state religion of the official Left since the end of the Vietnam War. Can it be a coincidence that progressives cannot point to a single significant political victory since the early 1970s?” It could be a coincidence, yes, or it could be that what we have lacked since the early 1970s has been serious resistance to power — which does not answer the question of which would have been more effective and which still could be, violent or nonviolent resistance.

The two points I found most persuasive in Rall’s case for violence were points he may not have intended as planks in that argument, an argument that — again — he does not so much make as assume. The first point is that, even as people are refraining from killing CEOs and politicians, they are not refraining from killing. In increasing numbers, they are killing themselves. They are losing their homes, their healthcare, their savings. They are being forced into debt-slavery, humiliating misery, and hopelessness, and — for lack of any other approach — are killing themselves. It’s not clear that assassinating the powerful wouldn’t make things even worse, but it is worth noting that people are killing the innocent and not the guilty.

The second point is that people are not just killing themselves. They are killing random innocents as well, former coworkers, family members, and strangers. We are perfectly capable of ending such violence. Redirecting it is not our only available option. But in contemplating violence, we are not starting from a nonviolent state.

And, of course, the impoverishment of millions of people has resulted in a shortened life expectancy in the wealthiest place on earth, a place where some are able to indulge in the greatest and most wasteful luxury ever seen. But Rall makes no argument for his root assumption that our choices are to kill people or “sit on our asses.” Rall wants jobs created at a rate that approaches the actual need. He wants corporations nationalized and brought under control. He wants an end to eight-figure bonuses on Wall Street. His solution is “a hundred thousand angry New Yorkers armed with bricks (or guns).”

Now, I’m not suggesting you have to know something will go perfectly before you try it, but shouldn’t you try the approach most likely to work the best? And shouldn’t we know what has and has not worked before? Rall claims that the 1999 Battle of Seattle slowed corporate globalization because a few people broke a few windows. Yet, many people who were there and engaged in that struggle point to the nonviolent blocking of the streets that prevented the conference from being held, and the moral force of the broad coalition that took over the city and won allies even within the halls of corporate power. This was done despite, not because of, a few jerks smashing windows.

I share with Rall his concern that people think they have no choices and his conviction that something must be done. If it were impossible to organize committed, independent, uncorrupted nonviolent resistance with the dedication necessary to succeed, if violence were our only option, we’d certainly have to look into it. But I suspect organized violence would be even harder to bring forth than organized nonviolence. Rall attempts no argument to the contrary. He predicts a hellish nightmare with or without his violent revolution. I predict peace, sustainability, and justice if we nonviolently resist. A deeper debate is needed.

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