Monday, January 4, 2010

IF Stone, Chalmers Johnson and the Original Position

        “There is only one nation of earth which has military bases on every inhabited continent and a fleet in every open sea.  Its nuclear armed submarines and surface warships patrol the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.  It is the only nation which keeps nuclear armed bombers flying on alert thousands of miles from its own skies, as the bombs accidentally dropped on Spain revealed.  Such a nation, its guns cocked to visit instant death on any other country of which it disapproves, presents a world problem.  Were its destructive power to fall into irresponsible hands, it could render much of the earth uninhabitable.  We can imagine no nation to which the doctrine of containment more aptly applies.  The No. 1 problem of humanity is to contain the United States.  But we are against its isolation.  America’s vast power makes it difficult for the United Nations to operate as it should, but we would strongly oppose its exclusion for the UN.  The only hope of mellowing its ethnocentric views and strong-arm habits is to bring it more fully into the council of nations.  Containment but not isolation – that seems to be the perfect formula.” – I.F. Stone in  A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War, a pamphlet ed. Robert Bly and David Wray for The American Writers against the Vietnam War, the Sixties Press, Madison, Minnesota, 1967.

         Izzy’s words during Vietnam ring as true today – perhaps more true after the “unipolar moment” and American unilateralism - as they did 43 years ago.  They have the continuing aptness of King’s April 4, 1967 "Breaking the Silence," his speech against the Vietnam War a year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis.  For Martin Luther King’s birthday in 2003, I helped make signs with these words but Iraq substituted for Vietnam which thousands of people took up at the King march in Denver (there were 30,000 at the march).  The march organizers, led by Michael Hancock, now a city councilman, and the Urban League, tried to silence opposition to the Iraq War – they revoked an invitation for Cleo Parker Robinson to speak for 3 minutes against the war.  But on his own, Marques Houston, a halfback from the University of Colorado and Colorado State, was moved to speak against the coming war.  Mayor Wellington Webb in his last speech as mayor, denounced the war briefly and spoke for affirmative action.  The crowd was fierce with anti-war signs and chants; mostly black folks, they knew about Martin King.   That march profoundly honored King via democracy from below; it was not as the organizers had corruptly renamed it a “State Farm Martin Luther King Day.”  The Denver Post ran a decent story on the march and speeches with photographs. In the pro-Iraq aggression panic of the American commercial press, The Rocky Mountain News, since collapsed, whited out the signs and did not report the anti-war sentiment.  For such reasons, some middle class people don’t even believe that blacks and certainly not workers (most blacks are workers, after all) oppose war.  They are and were during Vietnam, opponents, often the fiercest, of the war(s).  But they are harder to bring out, particularly for mainly white, middle class organizations (where the lack of connection to black people, fear of reaching out, and perhaps some racist intimations around the edges prevent sufficient insight; of course, those who have little connection with blacks are not trusted).  Even so, the huge anti-War marches (for instance, the march of 500,000 on January 15, 2003 in Washington which I and my wife attended) included many black speakers and participants.  

         In 2004, April Guy, a student of mine who majored in Social Work, did a  wonderful slide show on the war in Iraq using King’s words, today’s photos, and substituting the name Iraq for Vietnam, and organized a anti-war forum in the School of Social Work, starting with that slide show, at which Vincent Harding and I spoke.

         Stone’s words illustrate a clever and striking form of American moral judgment.  It is to imagine oneself in what John Rawls rightly names the original position.*  It describes the characteristics of an unnamed America which outdoes the Soviet enemy - bringing up America only at the last - and calls for moderating it through negotiation.  After Bush-Cheney unilateralism, a movement toward negotiation and sanity is what the world greeted with a soul-deep sigh of relief in Obama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for such reasons.  But there is the corruption of the many wars Obama is escalating or, as in Yemen and Pakistan, initiating.

        Most American academics and even radicals do not see the war complex (the military-industrial-think tank "expert"-political-media complex) for what it is.  Chalmers Johnson, who had worked with the CIA and supported the Vietnam war to the end (he now regrets it) has written a beautiful and sad trilogy of books on American decline, the prescient Blowback (1999), The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis.  In chapter 6 of the Sorrows of Empire named “the Empire of Bases,” he lists the some 800 military bases the US has abroad.  When we read the book, I often ask students if any other power has military bases in its own name on foreign territory.  In one class, Chris Tranchetti, a wonderful student and a naval officer, reported  that the French have 5 in their former colonies in Africa.  

          In Blowback, Johnson gives a formidable picture of the harms in other societies caused by these American installations – the rebellions occasioned by the rape and murder of a 12 year old in Okinawa, by the killing of two teenage girls in South Korea – and of course, there are enormous harms to the Americans stationed there.  Yet as he says, no one in the Pentagon has a full list of all the American operations abroad (some sub-Wolfowitz assistant  would have had to scurry and dig around to report to Rumsfeld), and Congresspeople aren’t even briefed on Joint Command Exchange Training where the US military trains every repressive army in the world (just as with extraordinary rendition, think of a really bad dictator, not one focused on by the US government as an enemy, and it is overwhelmingly likely that the US trains the military and fosters the sale of large weapons to the regime; one suspects that such joint operations, as for Morocco/America/Britain in the Binyam Mohammed case also include torture).    As I indicated, invoking Johnson,  in an article in 2003 in the collection True Seeds of Peace published for the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize, the US produces 2/3 of the weapons in the world, does 2/3 of the new weapons research (France is a far distant second), spends as much on weaponry as the next 22 countries combined (all of its potential enemies wrapped up in a group),  and so forth. When I speak of the war complex at the center of the Empire, Johnson and Stone illustrate some of what I mean.  America and its 4 wars and counting (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and covert actions against/prospective bombing of Iran) are a sign of how strong this complex is, how we need to find the right description and name for it and make it common knowledge.  Its effects work through both parties and it needs the reactionary two-step of mainstream American politics, the criticism of any potentially decent policy from the right amplified by the commercial media.  But it has even bent the once anti-Iraq war Obama to its will.**


*It was the fiercest judgment of the early abolitionist movement before and during the Revolution as I have written in Emancipation and Independence (Chicago, 2010, forthcoming).  How would you feel, many Christians and others wrote, if your son or daughter went down to the stream to fetch a pitcher of water, were kidnapped and sold into bondage?  As Lincoln would put it, “Although volume upon volume has been written to prove the good of slavery, I have yet to meet the man who wants to take the good of it by becoming a slave himself.”  Rawls’s original position models what is both particular and universal (Kant) in this distinctive American moral idiom.  It is also captures perhaps what is most notable in Christian and other religion’s moral judgments.

**Obama has charted such a course in trying to open a possibility of mutually respectful negotiation with Iran and in supporting while not instigating the democratic protests there (the theocratic reactionaries already use “outside agitators,” British influence, to attempt to justify the torture and murder of protestors.  That Obama can less easily be conjured for this purpose is a sign of political wisdom.


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