Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism" - by Brian Corr

Brian Corr is on the National Peacebuilding Committee of the American Friends Service Committee, and a founder of the Civil Liberties Task Force, and Northeast People of Color Network. A key organizer in Jobs with Justice, Technology for Social Change, and the Obama campaigns, he heads the National Peace Action board, national Fair Economy Action Fund and the (Massachusetts) Commonwealth Education Project. The "giant triplets" quotation is from the 1967 Beyond Vietnam speech by Rev Martin Luther King Jr.
Last week in Cambridge, Mass. I took part in a forum, Uniting the Green and Peace Movements Via Neighborhood Organizing along with Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar and of GoLoco.org.

We were asked to talk about "how networks of neighbors can strengthen the Green and Peace movements and help grow a powerful, united movement." Robin Chase, Polly Allen, and I were asked to offer visions for building links between Peace and Green initiatives, followed by a group conversation.

Robin reflected thoughtfully about how she founded Zipcar (a U.S.-based car-sharing program similar to Communauto: you can learn more about it at www.Zipcar.com) and has now founded GoLoco as a web-based ride-sharing program. Both of these came from the incredible waste of capacity, fuel, and resources that goes into producing, acquiring, using, and maintaining millions of cars that remain idle most of the time -- and that when they are used often have 3, 4, or 5 empty seats.

I went on to discuss how fear and scarcity keep our North American society focused on acquiring more, being afraid of losing what we already have, and believing that we don't have enough to go around -- so that we consume and hoard with reckless abandon.

I want to share some of that here as a basis for looking at how we might think about these issues, and discuss a moral and spiritual vision for a new economy, while remembering the underlying goal of connecting and uniting these movements.

...What is the underlying worldview that is the foundation of how power – and privilege – function in our society? I understand power in our society as being exercised in systemic and systematic ways – and I see it manifested in the same framework that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. used when he spoke of the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism."

We are – by far – the most militarized society on the planet. We spend more than the rest of the world combined on war. We drive military vehicles – the Hummer – down our highways, guzzling $150 worth of gasoline at every fill-up. We have a national fetish about guns – and violence in general – and we consume endless TV shows and movies about the police, hospitals, criminals and the courts, the military, and war. We watch football and think of it in completely military metaphors. Coverage of the Olympics is basically profiles of our warrior-athletes followed by listings and highlights of how many Americans "won gold."

Meanwhile, our minds are numbed by so-called reality shows, "infotainment" instead of news, and the latest escapades – or even just the mundane details of their lives – of actors and pop "musicians."

Here, in the United States of America, we are – by far – the most militarized society on the planet. We spend more than the rest of the world combined on guns, tanks, bombs, and war. We drive military vehicles – the Hummer – down our highways, guzzling $150 worth of gasoline at every fill-up. We have a national fetish for guns – and for violence in general – and so we consume countless TV shows and movies about the police, about hospitals, about murder and criminals and lawyers and the courts, and about the military and war.

We compulsively watch football and describe it in completely military metaphors. Coverage of the Olympics, self-described as "representing the best of humanity, where nations put aside their differences to celebrate athletic grace and achievement " in the U.S. consists profiles of our proud warrior-athletes followed by listings of victories over lesser nations and people, accompanied by sound-bite-size highlights of how many "Americans won gold."

In "These United States," although we live in the wealthiest nation on the planet – with the largest and most powerful military by far – our political discourse is dominated by the politics of scarcity and fear. Politicians and governments so often speak of cutting budgets and reducing services for "those less fortunate" – i.e., those who live at the margins of our vast wealth – that politically it's "common sense" that we can't afford to provide healthcare for the 50 million people in our nation who don't have it – while spending $700 billion each year on the military.

The fact that the U.S. dominates the world's wealth and receives a huge share of its benefits mitigates the desire – or even the ability to see the need to change our society – and this also plays itself out in sexism, racism, classism, and all the other "isms" – collectively "oppression" – all play out here.

We are a nation that lives in self-imposed poverty and in fear: fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of our neighbors, and fear even of ourselves. Moreover, most "Americans" feel that they are (currently, today, right now) victims of the one "ism" that matters – terrorism, or at least that they are very likely to become victims of terrorism at any moment.

The fact that the U.S. dominates the world's wealth and receives a huge share of its benefits mitigates the desire – or even the ability to see the need to change our society – and this also plays itself out in sexism, racism, classism, and all the other "isms" – collectively "oppression" – all play out here.

We are a nation that lives in self-imposed poverty and in fear: fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of our neighbors, and fear even of ourselves. Moreover, most "Americans" feel that they are (currently, today, right now) victims of the one "ism" that matters – terrorism, or at least that they are very likely to become victims of terrorism at any moment.

The claims that our government makes about terrorism (and before that communism) say much more about our own society and history than it does about our so-called enemies. Our government has a reactionary anti-revolutionary stance when it comes to popular, democratic movements for national liberation and self-determination – and has for more than 200 years: Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Greece, Indonesia, Vietnam, Chile, Venezuela… perhaps to be followed by Colombia….

— ‧ —

However, let us first turn our attention to racism.

Over one hundred years ago, in 1903, W.E.B Dubois stated, "the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color-line." A century later, Dubois' comment remains accurate, though it is also true that the world racial system has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Yet the roots of that go back much farther.

Let me be clear – racism has never just about white people and people of African descent. In North America, racism cast Native Americans as a people without rights or respect, 500 years ago. In the Southwest, Mexican Americans were subordinated in a racial caste system. In California 100 years ago, Chinese immigrants were "the other." In a time of legal segregation and Jim Crow laws – and of colonial control and apartheid – it seemed clear what racism meant.

Before the civil rights movement, more or less everyone in the United States agreed that there was an institutionalized system of racial inequality, though it focused only on African Americans.

People debated whether this system was just, not whether it existed. Since the mid-1960s, when sweeping federal laws were passed that largely institutionalized formal racial equality—equality under the law—there has been steadily increasing denial of the existence of racism, or at least of structural and institutionalized racism. Many people want to believe that while individual acts of meanness based on racial prejudice persist, racism as a system that oppresses all people of color is a problem of the past.

If we look at the real roots of the war in Iraq – at the ideology of the right wing in this country – it's really a "clash of civilizations" (a code for a clash of the races – Arab and Muslim against Western and Judeo-Christian) far more than weapons of mass destruction. Wherever we look around the world, and in the United States, we see racial inequality, racial hierarchy, and racial subordination. In the United States, the structures of racism affect African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, dark-skinned immigrants, and other groups of people our society categorizes and treats as subordinate, racially determined groups. We need to recognize that racism remains a deep, persistent, disfiguring fact in the United States and around the world.

However, let me be explicit – the history our nation's wars is the history of an interwoven racism and militarism – what one can refer to as the racialization of war. From the beginnings of colonization of what became the United States through the Civil War through WWII through Vietnam into Iraq and perhaps Iran, there is parallel history.

First, there was more than two centuries of what are often called "Indian Wars" – including some very brutal ones such as the Second Seminole War in Florida from 1835 to 1842: in this war, soldiers used bloodhounds to track down Seminoles, despite public outrage at the thought of what those dogs might do to "women and children." These wars occurred almost without a break until 1890 when the complete subjugation of the indigenous people of the United States was accomplished: commonly referred to as the "Closing of the American Frontier." I will note that "Indian massacres" were just as effective as "undeclared war" and "terrorist attacks" for justifying decades of warfare.

Then in the middle of that period was the Mexican-American War in 1848 (our first war of out-and-out conquest – and it is important to remember that 25 years previous to that In 1824, the United States and Mexico were similar in size and population: Mexico had 6 million inhabitants on 1.7 million square miles of land. The United States had 9.6 million inhabitants on 1.8 million square miles.

In 1898, just eight years after the "Closing of the American Frontier," the Spanish-American War took place. In that war, the U.S. conquest of the Philippines was justified by the need to "Christianize our little brown brothers," according to the President William McKinley: Somehow, our nation seemed to forget that Spanish missionaries had been converting the islands people since the 1570's. The U.S. then began the lesser-know Philippine-American War in 1899 to overthrow the newly declared Philippine Republic. In that three-year war, more than one million Filipinos were killed out of a population of nine million.

Moving forward to World War II brings us to events people are more familiar with: the fact that U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps, while immigrants from Italy and Germany were never seriously considered a threat. Moreover, we should remember the war propaganda that certainly demonized the leaders of the Germany, Italy, and Japan as evil and ruthless, but never with the same level of dehumanization and "otherness" that was applies to the Japanese.

Then there was Korea, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and the First Gulf War.

And looking, finally, at the Cold War as compared to the "War on Terror," I want to point out that with all of the similarities – if you take a moment to think about all the things that were said about communists, "they don't value human life," "they don't think the way we do," "they hate Freedom," "they are Godless" – how does that compare to what is said about "terrorists" or even generally about "Muslims."

There is one important difference, however. When the enemy was defined as "communism" there was a central leadership, there were communist states, and the definition of "defeating communism" was clear.

With the focus on Terrorism it is decentralized – or should I just say "diffuse" (despite Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda being cast in that role), there is no clear target and no clear definition of victory – especially if you consider that terrorism is a form of warfare rather than a foe – and this allows indefinite and potentially endless war, unlimited militarization, and is combined with racialized fear and the dehumanization of those considered "the enemy."

Next, let us turn our attention to militarism:

Even before September 11, 2001, the U.S. was spending $304 billion a year on direct military spending – 2.5 times more than all of our "adversaries" combined and 41% of the entire world's military spending. Military spending jumped to more than $380 billion by 2003, according to official U.S. government figures. A 2006 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that the U.S. spent $537 billion on the military in 2005 – fully 48% of global expenditures on the military. This year, in fiscal year 2008, the U.S. is spending more than $700 billion on the military – even as we contemplate cuts to social programs across this nation.

As a result of our government's unilateralist, "pre-emptive" war policy, WE have been paying and continue to pay hundreds of billions of dollars each year for the destruction, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq. Estimates of the cost of rebuilding Iraq vary between $84 billion and $500 billion, with a few analysts giving figures as high as $1.2 trillion.

These costs are all on top of the increases the Pentagon is already getting. And most of this money is going to – you guessed it – well connected companies like Halliburton, which Vice President Cheney ran before he started running the U.S. Government.

In short order, our government has ushered in a time of insecurity – both globally and locally. Our ever-increasing military expenditures do not create a safer international world. All of us know that diverting vast sums to the Pentagon makes our communities much less secure by shredding our public educational system, overwhelming our health care system, and denying people support and assistance – just when they need it the most.

What we have seen is exactly the creeping militarism that both Prof. Bacevich warned us of – and that President Eisenhower warned us of nearly 50 years ago when he spoke of the dangers of the military-industrial complex.

Now, let us turn our attention to extreme materialism – or what is generally referred to as "consumerism."

Consumerism (often referred to as "choice" in marketing and sales) is also a primary aspect of oppression, and is one of the most insidious ways that power is exercised and maintained in our society.

Most observers – wrongly – assumed that the collapse of the Soviet Union would mean reductions in military spending, and perhaps even militarism, as capitalism went forward relatively unchallenged and globalization made wars counterproductive and unnecessary. But those observations failed to account for why industrialized capitalism and consumerist society thrived when the prime modalities of life and thought were militarism, fear, war-driven – and even war-based – consumption, and the regimentation and depersonalization of what is called progress.

The commodification of culture is extreme today: for example, music is industrially produced, marketed, and consumed – with the loss of traditional songs, histories, customs, folkways, ideas and values, pastimes, musical ability, and the patterns of family, friends, and communities making music together regularly as part of a communal, connected way of life. It is, unfortunately, a worldwide phenomenon.

Marketing, the Internet, and a comforting mythology have fostered a generation of people whose worldview incorporates the idea that they can be agents and subjects through creation of "content" and that they can use the neutral tools of technology and a globalized world to build a modern-day community on the Internet to replace those communities that melt away daily. However, this is a specter, and clearly does not include billions and billions of human beings in these "virtual communities."

So-called "independent voters" often describe themselves as not just blindly or ignorantly voting for whomever they are told to vote for, but instead looking thoughtfully at the candidates (despite the uniformly high rates of undecided voters just before most elections) and voting for the best candidate (generally of the two choices).

Yet this is really a reflection of the binary paradigm of consumerism and "individual choice" – it's less about the lesser of two evils than about Coke and Pepsi, McDonald's or Burger King, etc. – synergistically acting as an overlay on this binary way of thinking and as the underlying worldview that makes a consumerist approach to decision making seem to be valuable, thoughtful, savvy, and – gosh darn it – "American." It also taps into the false individualism that allows people to feel that making a choice in the marketplace about what to obtain is empowering, uniqueness, and self-expression.

Betty Freidan succinctly addressed the appeal of consumerism as a trap and a form of oppression in The Feminine Mystique, where she wrote:

"It meant that I and very other woman I knew had been living a lie, and all the doctors that treated us and the experts who studied us were perpetuating that lie, and our homes and schools and churches and politics and professions were built around that lie. If women were really people--no more, no less--then all the things that kept them from being full people in our society would have to be changed. And women, once they broke through the feminine mystique and took themselves seriously as people, would see their place on a false pedestal, even their glorification as sexual objects, for the putdown it is."

And yet, nearly fifty years later, extreme materialism is destroying the very Earth on which we live – of which we are an integral part – in order for some to more effectively wield power and extract profit from every square inch of the planet.

That we are in a crisis is not in question. As to the question, "When did the crisis start?" there are many possibilities: the end of the Cold War, the beginning of the Cold War, the Depression, or other points in our history that are less examined? The crisis of the 1950s-United States was the dark underbelly of the post-war suburban American Dream; the crisis of 1940s saw the freedoms that women had steadily earned for decades sharply curtailed. That of the 1902s entailed the backlashes against immigrants groups, religious minorities, and African Americans. And so it goes as one looks back through the decades.

— ‧ —

Martin Luther King was already raising the inextricable connections between forms of oppression by 1965: "The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow," King lectured from the Alabama Capitol steps, following the 1965 march on Selma. "And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man."

After the collapse any sort of broader Movement in the 1970 – however loosely connected and broadly defined – reformers and even many radicals retreated into single-issue or constituency-based focuses. But whereas in the 1960s there was a growing consciousness that the different problems in society had common roots, entailing radical analyses and necessitating radical approaches, now there was an acknowledgement of the common roots of oppression (or at the very least the overlapping, interrelated, and mutually reinforcing nature of many issues).

Yet that acknowledgement was primarily the precursor to the explanation or proclamation that one needs to be focused, follow one's passion, and take care of one's own. Simply proclaiming that "it's all connected" often seemed to obviate any need to articulate a coherent worldview to explain the world or to build a framework and infrastructure that could support radical efforts for societal transformation.

Today this continues more pragmatically in calls to be, it is seen as being effective, focused, strategic, and realistic. However, this trend has reduced the potential for any sort of radical movement in Western societies. One exception has been the World Social Forum project in Brazil and India and its smaller incarnations in Europe and the U.S. The potential of this effort in the U.S. has barely been realized through regional social forums and the first U.S Social Forum in 2007 – but the effort has begun. At the same time, the obstacles and barriers to replicating the experiences of Brazilian and Indian movements are huge.

The most significant challenge is the powerful hegemony that dominates our aspirations, our imaginations, and our expectations. The overwhelming sense – even dread – that the U.S government, the corporations, the globalized economy, the military-industrial complex and its weapons of mass destruction are nearly irresistible is crippling. This was true during the Vietnam War, when the anti-war movement was having an incredible impact on society and the U.S. government, while at the same time the Movement was constantly reevaluating and changing its tactics to address its perceived failures and slowly falling into despair.

This is subjugation not just of the will, but of the imagination, of the possibilities, and it can mislead us, "over-radicalize us," or make us simply give up. This is how power operates on the deepest level in our society

— ‧ —

As an organizer by trade and inclination, I always believe I need to leave people with at least a few suggestions for directions that we can take as individuals – and as a society.

As we examine power, privilege, and how to re-ground that in a spiritual way – and in a way that allows us to live and work with integrity, there is much to consider.

In the same way that the two grand traditions of Western European political and social philosophy in the nineteenth century – liberalism and its offshoot Marxist socialism – framed much of the political debate, discourse, and direction in the world during the twentieth; the political and social philosophies of militarism and pacifist liberation as articulated, tested, and developed in the twentieth century are playing that role in the twenty-first century.

Each of these traditions has secular and spiritual branches, but the spiritual ones have been sublimated by and deprecated within the dominant discourses of society: the hegemony of the secular has tempered the apocalyptic and supremacist strains of liberalism and militarism, and at the same time it has pushed the prophetic and mystical aspects of socialism and pacifist liberation out of sight and out of mind for most.

This can be seen in how leadership is assigned to and inscribed upon an individual such as Martin Luther King, while the prophetic and spiritual nature of his writing and spoken words and his deeply held nonviolence are obscured and hidden. King has been repackaged as non-threatening and safe (e.g., the "I Have a Dream" speech) or even as a reactionary, with his words used to attack affirmative action in the name of a false and empty equality – and rebranded as the seller of Apple computers and iPods and Hallmark cards. Then there is the depoliticization and deracination of radical and activist women from Helen Keller to Ella Baker to Rosa Parks; virtually erasing the black, religious cofounder and leader Pauli Murray – first from the history (and then from the focus) of NOW and the broader feminist movement and elevating Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem as the "great men" of post-war American feminism.

I submit that the prophetic and mystical aspects of socialism and pacifist liberation can and must frame the project of creating a moral, just, sustainable, and viable global society.

To put in a slightly different way, the task for this century is to recapture and articulate the "radical project of the twentieth century," even as it evolves into new forms and aspects through deepened analysis, engagement, and praxis.

The Rev. Martin Luther King called for this as he continued to deepen his analysis – perhaps most famously in his April 4, 1967 speech at the Riverside Church. In this speech, usually called, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence", Dr. King linked the fight for peace to the fight for civil rights and created a movement that aimed to destroy both war and inequality.

"Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America.

"A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both black and white – through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.

"Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

Prof. Dale Bryan of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Tufts University has written of that speech and placed it in its historical and political context.

"This initial sermon was immediately considered by some of his closest friends, and since by many historians, to have been his virtual death warrant. One year later to the day, April 4, 1968, Rev. King was murdered in Memphis while supporting city sanitation workers during their strike for fair wages and better working conditions, for what is now considered environmental justice.

"It is during that last year of his life, when he preached about the immorality of the war and the 'spiritual death' awaiting America from the government's massive investments in militarism rather than in social needs and, that he became inconvenient.

Rev. King saw that his work for racial justice would never succeed without economic justice and without global justice. With remarkable accuracy and prescience, his analysis of the historical context for our war on Vietnam led him to challenge Americans to forgo empire as a way of life, to transform ourselves, and our society."

Starting with the historical reality that Europeans conquered and colonized most of the world, we must connect the history of people of color and racial oppression to the history of "whiteness" and military conquest. We need to examine and articulate how race, militarism, and consumerism – rather than just discrimination and war – shape U.S. history, society, and the dominant militaristic worldview that is used to scare, intimidate, divide, and dominate people. This is not to minimize the importance of confronting and eliminating all forms of discrimination and oppression in our society, including patriarchy, but it is necessary to acknowledge the specific historical nexus of racism and militarism in the formation of the United States, as well as our global society.

Just as importantly, it is unlikely that we can reframe the role of government – and of militarism, the military, and war – unless we challenge racism and the ways in which war, terrorism, religion, and race have been linked. At the same time, the challenge we face is how to enough build political power to truly transform our militaristic society, and move to a society based on deeply democratic and egalitarian structures and practices.

I want to end with a short excerpt from the founding document of SNCC – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – written nearly 50 years ago – in 1960:

"Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality."
Comment by David Millar: see also the King philosophy, previous blog articles about local currencies and relocalization, green jobs, peacework, the environmental costs of war, military-industrial lobbies, meditative poems on my great grandchildren and reconstituting the world, the views of native peoples. A wiki for Building a Culture of Peace has just been set up by Canadian Quakers.

1 comment:

Adam Luebke said...

You bring up excellent points, if not scary ones. What would Betty Friedan say about this? She was one of the greatest voices Americans have heard in a long time.

On a sidenote, your title "Towards a Moral Economy" is grammatically incorrect as "towards" should, in actuality, be spelled "toward."

Anyway, good stuff.