The madness of militarism is a collective madness. Nobody catches it from a single exposure. The repetition that makes anything else unthinkable makes the insane acceptable — and not just acceptable but righteous.
The Poor People’s Campaign sent around an email on Saturday with language that could have been churned out by anyone anywhere on the U.S. political spectrum, from the most extreme rightwing warmongers to the warmongers of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It was signed by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and stated, in part:
“Over the past couple of months, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has produced scenes that demand action from people who want to hold onto our humanity. To see the butchery at Bucha or the massacre at Mariupol and do nothing would be to forfeit any claim to moral authority. We know this instinctively. It is why, despite the political gridlock on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have acted swiftly to approve historic military aid to Ukraine. In the face of such a moral imperative, it would be anathema for either party to ask, ‘How are we going to pay for it?'”
I see layers of problems here that seem obvious but must be invisible to most owners of televisions. Where to begin? Weapons are not aid. There are more choices than sending weapons or doing nothing. The propaganda that can persuade advocates of nonviolent action that the only choices in the world are (1) mass killing and (2) nothing, is more frightening than the weapons. The last time there was partisan gridlock on the bulk of what Congress does — namely warmaking — was . . . never; it’s never existed. But the bulk of the endless weapons shipping to Ukraine has simply been at the whim of the U.S. President, and pretending that something more democratic has been involved is not helpful — not when talking about “moral authority.” But why would anyone talk about such a thing? Morality has no overlap with bowing to authorities. Neither does democracy. Morality also has no overlap with pretending to know things instinctively, which is not a way in which things are known. What is known here is known through having been told it thousands of times through tv, radio, the internet, and word of mouth. But of course this is not a reliable method of knowing things.
The worst bit is the support (by an advocate for alleviating poverty) for spending money on military weaponry without asking what it costs — in fact making it a moral duty not to ask — and certainly not allowing the U.S. public to have any say in the matter. Barber’s point is to suggest that just as the U.S. government has a moral duty to mindlessly buy weapons it also has a moral duty to end poverty. But a basic understanding of the magnitude of military spending would make clear how counterproductive this is.
About $70 billion per year would help eliminate poverty in the United States. Christian Sorensen writes in Understanding the War Industry, “The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 5.7 million very poor families with children would need, on average, $11,400 more to live above the poverty line (as of 2016). The total money needed . . . would be roughly $69.4 billion/year.” With U.S. military spending (across numerous agencies) well over $1 trillion, $70 billion is well under 7%.
The email continued:
“But our moral clarity on the question of Ukraine exposes the contradiction at the heart of American politics for the past 40 years. In 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the story of visiting Marks, Mississippi, and meeting a teacher who cut her apple into several pieces at lunch each day so that students who had nothing else to eat could share it for nourishment. In the richest nation in the history of the world, King knew it was a moral contradiction to witness such poverty and do nothing. . . . ”
This noble effort to put ending poverty on the same high plane with prolonging and escalating war, risking nuclear apocalypse, and destroying any chance of global cooperation on climate or homelessness or disease or hunger rings false. It’s followed by this:
“As we all watch the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, Americans are aware that the main difference between us and the Russian people is that we see the truth of the human slaughter that is hidden from them by Putin’s propaganda.”
In fact, there has been thus far since the Russian invasion of Ukraine more antiwar activism in Russia than in the United States, despite far greater risk of punishment in Russia. Barber’s evidence of his or “Americans'” superior understanding is not cited, but simply believed in. The old joke of course has the Russian telling the American that he’s visiting the United States to learn its propaganda techniques. The American asks “What propaganda techniques?” The Russian replies: “exactly.” Russians have tended to be far more aware of the manipulative techniques of propaganda than Americans for a great many years. That doesn’t mean that many don’t fall for them, or that any generalizations can be made about a national people (or any other mythical concoction). People in the United States to whom it has never occurred that U.S. media might be deceptive have also typically never considered that they might have a moral duty to try to end a war rather than prolong it, to oppose weapons shipments, to oppose no-fly zones, to demand a ceasefire and negotiations, to insist on serious negotiations from all sides, to support international law and courts for all, to prioritize nuclear disarmament, or to insist that governments train populations in unarmed civilian resistance.
Someone once said: “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.”
One might add to the hurdles we can face the great desire to support people who want to organize nonviolent direct action by poor people against economic and environmental injustice and racism. But I have to believe that we can go on strongly supporting those efforts without going silent in the face of support for war making. Sometimes silence is betrayal.