Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Change We Need (Part Two)

For the United States to make the transition from a war society to a peace society, many old ways of thinking will need to be abandoned, ways that have determined public policy for a long time. It may seem as if completely new ways of thinking will have to replace them, but in fact the change we need would in many ways constitute a return to humanist values that have been part of our heritage as a republic, but ignored and shoved aside in favor of empire.

In politics there are assumptions that tend to lead to certain kinds of policies. Assumptions reflect interests. The powerful interests in our society have of course been those of big business, and it is usually assumed that it is in the self-interests of big business to take the directions it has taken, towards greater expansion worldwide, greater hegemony for corporations, and ever-greater profits for the same. But what kind of self-interest is this, really? When a system only considers short-term advantages, and those only within the narrow scope of personal profit, imperial policies seem to make sense. But if we look realistically at the long term, given a finite planet, what advantage is there in wasting and polluting our natural resources to the point where the future of the human race is in peril? In the long view, does the hoarding of wealth by a small minority, with the gradual increasing impoverishment of the majority world-wide, lead to a stable situation or to a dangerous one, even for the wealthy? The same considerations are valid regarding the escalation of weapons production, especially of nuclear weapons. How long can we expect human imperfection to get away with this kind of behavior without eventually producing disastrous consequences? And at the risk of sounding facetious, wouldn’t a wise businessperson seek to preserve future real estate, future business, the economic inheritance of the next generations, against its destruction, either from environmental or nuclear destruction?

Those who persist in thinking short-term about such matters can only resort, in the end, to denial. Thus we witness, for instance, the absurd spectacle of so-called conservatives saying that global warming is a plot by liberals to undermine the economy. We would hope that saner heads prevail, but it’s unsure how many saner heads there actually are.

So the first change in thinking is this: The good of society must be recognized as legitimate self-interest. Most CEOs will be the first to admit that financial profit is the overriding purpose of business. So it won’t do to turn around and say we need to privatize hospitals, schools, or other social services because it’s more efficient. It won’t be, because there are other important values besides profit. These values have to have a place in public policy, with no apologies. And that includes rigorous regulation of business practices that affect the public good.

The next change in thinking is an important corollary to this: War is not good for society. Or in the short form coined by General Sherman, “War is hell.” Now this may seem obvious to many readers. But this simple fact is covered with a shroud of denial, both in the corridors of power and in the culture. Stating the seemingly obvious, over and over, is necessary in order to break through the denial.

War kills, wounds, and maims human beings. It also damages minds and spirits, families and homes. Anyone who has been in combat or has witnessed the effects of war will tell you that it is a ghastly, horrifying experience. Do you think it was fun being at Anzio? Or Okinawa? Or Khe Sahn? Do you think seeing somebody’s guts fall out of his body, or his head blown off, is a fulfilling experience?

Yes, this all seems obvious, but we are inundated with the myth of glory. Politicians get all idealistic when they talk about war—it’s always about honor and freedom and bravery. They mention sacrifice too, but in that moist reverential way that people who don’t know about sacrifice talk about. In movies and TV, war is often made to look exciting. We have ads for the Marine Corps that show Arthurian knights fighting nobly in some phony Dungeons n’ Dragons conflict, morphing finally into that proud figure, the Marine. On Memorial Day we supposedly honor and mourn the dead, but there’s an air of celebration about it all as well.

It’s a lie. We must refute the glory myth. And no, this doesn’t mean pacifism. War may be necessary if the country is truly in peril, under attack by enemies, which means that we fight in self-defense. But this necessity isn’t glorious or fun or even right. If it’s necessary in certain cases, it’s still a rotten dirty business that should be gotten through as soon as possible so that we can enjoy peace again. Peace is the value that society aims for, not war. Warmongers, most of whom never fight themselves but pay or force others to fight, have turned this upside down and made war into a value, which it is not. Conversely, they have denigrated peace and ridiculed those who work for it as if they were somehow weak or bad citizens. But in the end, would anyone except the most rabid ideologue refuse to value peace, or to teach their kids the value of peace? Our most natural impulses have been undermined by a false upholding of war as a positive value. Peace must be reinstated as a primary goal and value of society.

To make the transition to a peace society, we must ultimately change basic assumptions about who we are as a nation. For a long time, and especially for the last sixty years, we’ve been poisoned by the notion of being the most powerful nation on earth, an empire responsible for the maintenance of world stability. America has assumed the right to determine what leaders other nations should elect, what policies they should have, and what their economies should look like. It has assumed the right to force its political will on the world, overtly and covertly. We have a world-wide military presence. In short-term thinking, this benefits the corporations, who thereby gain control of markets and resources. The official line is that it also provides us with security, but this has proven to be false, time and again. A lot of mental contortions are necessary in order for it to seem as if the Israeli-Arab conflict makes us safer, or escalating missile systems in Europe. The diversion of our resources, human and material, into foreign adventures leaves our own country, our own children and schools and neighborhoods, neglected.

In cultural terms, this translates into idiotic chants of “We’re number one!” and other kinds of jingoism. It translates into a mind-set that reacts to any criticism of U.S. policy as attacks on the prestige of the country. Empire as an idea is inherently autocratic; it encourages the most anti-democratic elements, submission to authority rather than freedom of ideas.

Part and parcel of this is the elevation of the military to a place beyond criticism. Every military dictatorship does this, but it’s relatively new on the American landscape. There is no democracy in the military—it’s a hierarchical organization based on obedience, which is fine in its place, but dangerous if taken as a principle of civil society. The military should always be a servant of the people, supervised by a civilian authority. When it becomes a power unto itself, with its own political motives, it erodes basic values.

The change of thinking here will perhaps be the most difficult of all, yet the most necessary: Abandon the false dream of empire, and return to the ideals of a free republic. The founders of this country did not envision us becoming just another big shot imperial power entangled in games of world domination. Quite the opposite—they wanted the U.S. to avoid that fate, and they were quite explicit about it. To enjoy the liberty of a free people, sustaining institutions that promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that was the American vision, not being the most powerful nation on earth, which is an essentially corrupt idea no different from the delusions of ancient Rome or the decrepit traditions of European powers from which the founders deliberately broke.

In practical terms, this means gradually reducing the American global military presence. It means respecting the sovereignty of other countries, even if we don’t agree with their policies. It means rejecting the idea of policing the world, and turning instead to our own country, focusing on what we can do to improve conditions here.

Inevitably someone will call this isolationist. But we don’t need to be isolated. We can still be engaged in world affairs, in the business of addressing common needs and discussing solutions to common problems. But narrow self-interest can no longer determine our foreign relations. Once again, I believe that true self-interest, one that recognizes the good of society and not just profit, coincides with doing the right thing in the world, even with altruism as part of foreign policy. We need to take responsibility for doing good. With all our talk about how great we are, for instance, we contribute a much smaller percentage of our GNP to disaster relief than Sweden. We blithely accept the degradation of the Third World as if it didn't concern us . Such ignorance cannot last long without bad consequences.

Influence is a much more subtle affair than the militarists imagine. The attempt to bend the world to our will through force has actually weakened American influence. Imagine the immense influence that this country would wield internationally if it led the way in promoting economic equality, human rights, environmentalism, peace, and justice. For people who can only think of themselves and their personal profit, such ideas seem like nonsense. But the time is coming when we will have to see that empire is not only bad for society, but bad for business as well.

By the same token, we must recognize that equality is more beneficial than disparity. If wealth and services are distributed more evenly, prosperity actually increases. Poverty, on the other hand, promotes instability and crime. This applies in foreign affairs as well. To complain about illegal immigration when at the same time we’re sucking the wealth out of the Third World is nothing but mendacity. Self-determination and self-sufficiency in foreign countries improves overall trade. The only thing that suffers is greed. Greed needs to be reimagined as an antisocial and anti-spiritual force.

Promoting peace will also mean affirming human rights. The U.S. has heretofore backed the most repressive regimes in the belief that this kind of authority benefits U.S. businesses. Such strategies have proven ephemeral. When subject peoples finally throw off their yoke, they’re less likely to trust in good American intentions. This process started long before Bush; it’s only been accelerating faster. Now we’re seeing a drastic erosion of respect for human rights at home as well as abroad. As long as we take that stance, war will be in our future. Not only do we need to validate human rights as an American ideal, we also need to stop encouraging violators in other countries. We need to realize that it’s against our interests to do business with countries that employ slavery and torture, because it damages our own credibility.

We need to take the lead in disarmament. The official position at this point is that other countries shouldn’t have nukes, but we should. This is obvious hypocrisy that convinces no one. If the U.S. gradually reduces its nuclear forces, and its top-heavy military might in general, that gives us more authority to work towards the same goals world-wide. There’s no magic solution to this; progress will be incremental, but what’s the alternative? Being endlessly poised on the brink of annihilation is to surrender to a kind of global mental illness. We are the only country so far to use nukes. It makes sense that we would be the country leading the way towards their abolition.

This may all seem overwhelming. But it’s not as if we have much of a choice. We either take charge of events, with peace as the primary idea and goal, or events will surely take charge of us. The first step is changing our own minds. The war society is not just “out there.” We’ve internalized it in our own assumptions about what is valuable, and what is possible. The greatest obstacle is fear. Make no mistake, those who push for a peace society will continue to be demonized and attacked. But our persistence and resolve will improve if we have a clear vision of where we need to go. Saying “no” to war and injustice will continue to be important. But if we’re just an “antiwar movement,” then the movement will fade whenever a particular war ends. We need to be truly a peace movement. Peace is the necessary precondition for all the other changes we need in order to survive as a species, and (as Faulkner said) to prevail. There is no passing event, conflict, or petty political difference that can outweigh that.

We tend to underestimate the power of ideas. To reorient a society towards peace is largely a matter of ideas. Speaking out in whatever way we can, through whatever communication or political action, inside or outside the system, liberates others who want to speak out as well. We can create the change we need by proclaiming peace with energy and tenacity, again and again—and what has always been a human value will be acknowledged openly and gain a decisive power of its own.

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