Two Minutes and Twenty Years
Thursday 20 March 2008
â€œAll our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.â€
The summer conventions of the Republicans and Democrats will be marked by inspiring rhetoric about their partyâ€™s commitment to democracy, the American people, and the noblest principles of statecraft. Each convention will have scenes of enthused self-congratulation, while allowing ample time for finding fault with the opponent, for his/her insufficient patriotism and moral fiber. Each party will pledge to win â€œthe war on terror,â€ and claim that it has the best plan to ensure our security. Each candidate will proclaim a steadfast and proud commitment to be an unrivaled leader for democracy and freedom in the world. From summer till November, candidates for the Presidency will be disputing with each other, vying for dominance in the polls. Commentators will observe how this is what democracy looks like: two candidates and their parties, battling it out, debating issues that matter, all in the effort to represent and serve the American people.
Tune into the radio, read the front pages of the newspaper, watch television news reports, and the official story in the preceding paragraph will be apparent. I contend, however, that there is an operative story also going on, and this is what demands our attention and understanding. The elections are a spectacle drenched in imagery, superficiality, and propaganda. Little substantive debate on serious domestic and international issues will emerge, for a very good reason: Many subjects are simply off the table of discussion and debate.
Media critics have described the genius of the U.S. propaganda system as guarding the bounds of â€œthinkable thought.â€ That is, to gain admission to respectable, mainstream debate and commentary, you have to accept the fundamental presuppositions of discussion of â€œthe official story,â€ which is American exceptionalismâ€”that we are unique in the history of the world, with our devotion to freedom, democracy, and human rights. If you challenge the allegedly obvious American moral, political, and cultural superiority, if you donâ€™t accept its premises, you are not at all likely to be even admitted to the debate.
The driving force of U.S. foreign policy can be accurately called â€œthe preferential option for the rich.â€ Noam Chomsky once proposed that such policy â€œis designed to create and maintain an international order in which US-based business can prosper, a world of open societies, meaning societies that are open to profitable investment, to expansion of export markets and transfer of capital, and to exploitation of material and human resources on the part of US corporations and their local affiliates.â€ The working assumption among U.S. elites must be that the American people would not stand for a â€œpreferential option for the rich,â€ because it is immoral and it isnâ€™t in the interests of the vast majority of the population. Hence, America exceptionalism is the mask, or ideological cover, essential to this pursuit of power, hegemony, and domination.
There will be seemingly endless discourse, debate, and commentary, in the months aheadâ€”what the candidates say, what they stand for, how they differ. Not being bound by the respectable mainstream doctrinal requirements, I mention a few issues dealing with international policy that will be unthinkable by either Democrats or Republicans.
Iraq: The â€œsurgeâ€ is reputed to be a success, and so we are supposed to breathe more easily. But what wonâ€™t be talked about are the 4 million Iraqis displaced since the U.S. invasion, an unimaginable human tragedy in a population of 27 million. What candidates canâ€™t talk about is the logic of occupation, with permanent U.S. military bases and the determination to control Iraqâ€™s oil. The staggering wealth gained by corporate war-profiteers is unmentionable, as both parties see nothing wrong with this, which is merely â€œbusiness as usual.â€ What cannot be up for discussion is the Bush Administrationâ€™s commission of war crimes, including the supreme crime of aggression with its invasion in 2003 and all the horrors that have since followed in its wake. It is out of the question that the U.S. should be paying the Iraqi people vast reparations for the crimes we have committed against them. Candidates may point to a few anointed Iraqi lackeys, but the voices of the masses of Iraqis are utterly irrelevant to operative U.S. policy (as opposed to the official, â€œwe love democracyâ€ policy.) To get a sense of what Iraqis think and feel, one could turn to American journalist Dahr Jamailâ€™s unembedded reports from Iraq, like the following scene: â€œThe stream of patients slowed to a sporadic influx as night fell. Maki sat with me as she shared cigarettes in a small office in the rear of the clinic. â€˜For all my life, I believed in American democracy,â€™ he told me with an exhausted voice. â€˜For forty-seven years, I had accepted the illusion of Europe and the United States being good for the world, the carriers of democracy and freedom. Now I see that it took me forty-seven years to wake up to the horrible truth. They are not here to bring anything like democracy and freedom. Now I see it has been all lies. The Americans donâ€™t give a damn about democracy or human rights. They are worse even than Saddam.â€™ I asked him if he minded if I quoted him with his name. â€˜What are they going to do to me that they havenâ€™t already done here,â€™ he said.â€
Israel/Palestine: Candidates and commentators will gush this May about the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, but there wonâ€™t be an empathetic mention of the Palestinian â€œnakba,â€ the catastrophic result of Israelâ€™s founding for the Palestinians who were dispossessed and turned into refugees. It is impossible that either candidate for the Oval Office would will criticize Israelâ€™s long-standing occupation of Palestinian land, nor will they protest Israelâ€™s tormenting of Palestinians in Gaza (recently, one Israeli minister threatened the Gazans with a â€œShoah,â€ Hebrew for â€œholocaust.â€) What is seen with clarity outside the United States is impossible for a presidential candidate to express: that the U.S. has not been a neutral party in the â€œpeace process,â€ but has aided and abetted Israel in its crimes of occupation and violation of Palestinian human rightsâ€”for decades. Democratically elected Hamas will continue to be demonized by both parties.
Iran: No one of â€œrespectableâ€ status will question the assumed U.S. right to threaten Iran with a military attack. No one will renounce the possibility of preventive war. It is taken for granted that the U.S. (and Israel, by its association with us) can alone issue such threats. Democrats and Republicans alike see no hypocrisy in the worldâ€™s superior nuclear power dictating what Iran should do. The aggressive menacing of Iran will continue beyond January 2009, regardless of who is in the White House.
Afghanistan: Other than making assertions as to how much better off Afghanistan is, candidates and commentators wonâ€™t focus on the control of the war lords, the rise of the Taliban, or the suffering of the masses. As with Iraq, neither Clinton nor Obama nor McCain could dare question the obvious right of the U.S. to be in Afghanistan, for our intervention there has, obviously, been â€œthe good war,â€ in contrast to Iraq, about which some people now admit that some mistakes, unfortunately, were made.
Recently, I have been reading No Salvation outside the Poor, the latest book of essays by Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino, who raises issues and questions that would be inadmissible in our polite political discourse this election year (or any year, for that matter). Drawing on the work of his friend, the murdered university president and philosopher/theologian Ignacio EllacurÃa, Sobrino contends that so many of the worldâ€™s peoples today face a death, â€œwhich takes the form of crucifixion, assassination, the active historical deprivation of life, whether slowly or quickly. That death, caused by injustice, is accompanied by cruelty, contempt and concealment. I usually add that the crucified people are also denied a chance to speak, and even to be called by name, which means they are denied their own existence.â€ There are many among us who can corroborate Sobrinoâ€™s claim, as we have been able to bear witness to the reality of Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq, Palestine, and too many other lands.
The U.S. is supposedly a very religious (that is, Christian) country, with religious leaders asserting the need to have faith play a public role in national life and even to have dialogue with candidates about their faith commitments. Call me cynical, but the truth is, I believe, that elected American leaders do believe in a god, and itâ€™s called â€œthe national interest,â€ in other words, the transcendent U.S. option for the rich, which also goes by the old biblical word of idolatry. Again, here is Sobrino: â€œâ€¦ Juan Luis Segundo used to say that, existentially speaking, the most pressing problem was not that of faith and atheism, but that of faith and idolatry. And with the help of exegetes (von Rad, JosÃ© Luis Sicre), a new definition of idols emerged: historical realities that promise salvation. To that end they require a cult and an orthodoxy, and above all, like Moloch, they require victims in order to subsist. The conclusion is of the greatest importance: there exists a transcendental correlation between idols and victims. Where there are victims, there are also idols.â€ The idolatry of American exceptionalism and superiority blinds us: we care for the fate of our soldiers but the fate of Afghanis and Iraqis and Palestinians are, at best, collateral damage, if noticed at all. We are to consider our security of supreme importance but canâ€™t imagine a comparable yearning for security by others living in the war zones we have made of their countries.
Another theme of Sobrinoâ€™s that is worthy of note is the necessity of â€œprophetic denunciation.â€ As of this writing, the presidential candidates are insisting that they wonâ€™t sink to the sophomoric level of name-calling and mud-slinging. What Sobrino means by prophetic denunciation is something altogether different: â€œProphetic denunciation is mostly unknown in todayâ€™s Church, having been replaced in the best of cases by ethical judgments on Neoliberalism, the war, and so forth. Ethical judgment is good, but ethics is not the same as prophecy, social doctrine is not the same as prophetic denunciation, and it is not sufficient in any case, because the word that only expresses principles is easily co-optedâ€¦. Denunciation means bringing to light the evils of reality, its victims and its perpetrators. Prophetic denunciation has ultimacy, because it is done â€˜in Godâ€™s nameâ€™; and as denunciation, it is compassionate, because it is done against the perpetrators, but in defense of the poor.â€ Naturally, such prophetic denunciation will have to come from some place and grouping other than the mainstream culture, which cannot allow the illumination of the evils of the American empire. The culture can only name and denounce the evils of our enemies.
Obviously, the driving goal of those running for office is victory in November. Sobrino reminds us of a much more fundamental aspiration that victory for political power. He gives a new twist to a little used word these days, utopia. He refers to â€œeu-topia,â€ meaning not â€œno placeâ€ but a â€œgood place, that is, â€œa dignified and just life for the majoritiesâ€ [of the worldâ€™s people]. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff once spoke of the â€œlittle utopiaâ€ of at least one meal for everyone every day and the â€œgreat utopiaâ€ of a society free from exploitation and organized around the participation of all.
Even though themes realities of crucified peoples, idols, prophetic denunciation, and utopia are barred in the public discourse of the New York Times and NPR, we would do well to make them the subject of our daily meditation and action.
In a recent essay, dissident historian Howard Zinn commented on the â€œsense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutesâ€”the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting boothâ€¦. But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.â€
Americans are well known for seeking and expecting â€œquick fixes.â€ I agree with Zinn that we need to think well beyond those â€œtwo minutes.â€ Indeed, I contend that we at least need to think of the next twenty years during which to devote ourselves to, in Zinnâ€™s political terms, this â€œmovement,â€ and, in the terms of Boff and Sobrino, utopia, first, the little and then, the great utopia. Twenty years will take me into my late sixties and will take my current students into their early forties: twenty years of encountering the faces of Americaâ€™s victims, befriending and supporting them; twenty years of taking the initiative right where we work and live, blooming where we are planted; twenty years of â€œexperiments in truthâ€; twenty years of joyfully â€œbuilding the new society in the shell of the oldâ€; twenty years of resisting the myriad structures, policies, and practices of dehumanization; twenty years of an endless conversation with the choir and those not in the choir as to what makes a human worth living; twenty years of raising the questions unaskable in respectable society; twenty years of learning how not to freak out when we face a bout of the long loneliness; twenty years of countering culturally approved atomization and isolation by building communities that study, struggle, and celebrate together; twenty years of seeking out the truth that can be manifest on the margins of church, state, and culture; twenty years of daringly undermining support for the U.S. military occupation of Iraq; twenty years of pushing democratic grass-roots reforms to the limit; twenty years of critically interrogating the media and creatively disseminating alterative perspectives, reports, and analyses; twenty years of reading, writing, and reciting poetry; and twenty years of refusing in thought, speech, and action the dictates of this filthy, rotten system.
–This article is forthcoming in the Spring issue of Karen House’s Round Table.