The first part entitled Jerusalem: nonviolent protests is here.
Having corresponded with me helpfully about many pieces on Democratic Individuality, Bruce Fetter, an historian of Africa at the University of Wisconsin, rightly argues that there are a legion of straightforward moral objections to unjust war. One doesn’t like blowing up 50 women and children at a wedding party in Yemen, one doesn’t like being taxed heavily and getting no social services (and having social security which has always been solvent redirected under a bipartisan cover of silence to the military budget, given the Reagan and subsequent tax cuts for the rich), one doesn’t like our soldiers being required to kill and be killed or maimed for no purpose as in Iraq; one doesn’t like the culture of war in which making 5 aggressions and occupations is considered normal – in fact, not “tough” enough on national security - for an anti-"dumb" Iraq War President whose administration is even slowly, changing the bizarre US relationship with Israel. We abhor secret torture prisons - the worst forms of torture held up but not clearly ended - and repeated violations of law and cover-ups in our name, etc. Since I don’t know Hebrew and have only some Yiddish which enlivened my family’s English, I find Bruce’s phrase for Netanyahu, a cheeky beggar, particularly amusing. Note that many of these crimes are against ordinary Americans (death, maiming, homelessness, impoverishment) or against ordinary Israelis (they experience dramatic insecurity while supporting the aggression and ethnic cleansing involved in "greater" Israel.
There are thus plenty of harms mandating that the US get out of Iraq (it should never have gone in and its occupation is a source only of tension, revolt and ethnic cleansing) or that Israeli government crimes against Palestinians must cease, against which many of us can unite, enough to become a strong political force, regardless of larger explanations. That politics is what John Rawls calls “overlapping consensus” or radicals once upon a time named “a united front.” Bruce and I agree about Iraq and about Israel settling decently with Palestine.
But of course explanations matter. It is silly to say there is oil in the Gulf of Tonkin – never heard that in Students for a Democratic Society myself, many of us puzzled about the lack of economic interest in Vietnam or the interplay between economic interests and political-military interests in American involvement in the region – but it is not silly to have the slogan of the first Gulf War movement: “what if they grew broccoli in Iraq?” In the case of Iraq (I leave Vietnam aside here), it is mistaken to not see the removal of the American bases from the holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia (these turned Osama Bin Laden, the US agent in bringing down the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, against the US) to Iraq by Rumsfeld – as part of a sustained effort to control the Middle East by force. Today we have 19 bases in Iraq to cordon our 50,000 occupying troops after the US has supposedly “withdrawn,” open fighting ceased. The campaigner Obama mocked McCain’s 100,000 troops in Iraq for a century; President Obama, eye on the war complex, has “reduced” the troops by half – but left the colony/occupation intact indefinitely. And how many mercenaries from Blackwater/ Xe will Obama retain (the ratio is one to one among US troops in Iraq)? So perhaps McCain had the right number. Did the British empire ever garrison 100.000 troops in Iraq?.
In Blowback and Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson cites the some 800 military bases abroad, a huge empire, during a period when only France has 5 bases in its former colonies and no other power has bases abroad (others participate jointly in UN activities). Obama talks about withdrawal of 40,000 troops by August from Iraq – supposing that the US can get Al-Maliki to leave power to allow in the nearer American puppet Allawi (Bush’s failed choice in the manipulated election the last time, a former Saddam spy whom Saddam tried to kill, a man who, when briefly Prime Minister under the Americans, according to the Australian papers, shot a prisoner in the head to demonstrate to guards the need for "toughness") to assume power. The New York Times call Allawi “secular” compared to “al-Maliki” – it means only that the Bush aggression created an Iraq client who was Shiia and allied with Iran, whereas Allawi might front for or at least not rebel against a US/Israel attack on Iran (Obama is still trying to head this off, but not yet definitively).
The so-called withdrawal of troops means tht some 100,000 soldiers and mercenaries will retire to our military bases in Iraq in case they are “needed.” It is good that Americans will cease active fighting and being killed there. Why the lie about withdrawal to the American public?
The notion that the US is an empire and that economic interest is one central part of it – including controlling Middle Eastern oil, not that the US is very good at it (the first contract went to China, perhaps one reason why the new administration, not being quite as incompetent at it as Bush, prefers Allawi) – is a central part of the picture. One cannot decide everything about the subtleties of the war complex without lots of argument, but the hypothesis that the war complex makes even Obama, who is cautious about all this, not only a war president but a president who expands wars (the four others), is surely better than the hypothesis that the US has no structure of elite interests that generates war (the point, I take it, of Bruce’s disparaging remark about the “left and right”).
In contrast, Johnson, long a leading political scientist at the University of California who has always disliked Marxism and viscerally detests the Chinese Revolution even though he has become a radical, suggests that the US empire is military and not economic. That is a much subtler disagreement with “Marxists.” I should note: saying the US is an empire, in rivalry with the Soviet empire which has collapsed because of its war economy and suggesting the US will go the same way – all leading points of Johnson’s – sounds quite a lot like Lenin on inter-imperialist rivalry, and I am afraid the family resemblance of the views will not be put aside by Johnson’s distaste for Marxism or for his innovative insistence that modern empires are both importantly and novelly military.
But following his argument, an internal critic might note, the military part of the empire, which is enormously destructive to soldiers and those on whom they are quartered, not to mention the whole world economy, has to be sustained by some other factor than just military need. It does extend from the Cold War, but what were the motivations in the Cold War? Perhaps one might say, there are obvious economic beneficiaries on the industrial side of this complex. And GE, formerly an electrical company but now centrally a weapon’s-maker, owns NBC and MSNBC. A modestly dialectical view will suggest that there is a war complex (of the sort I emphasize).
But a Marxian might say, surely civilian economic interests play a role. XE/Blackwater is pure military, diplomatic “protection” but Halliburton/Kellogg Brown and Root for example is oil production, mixed in with a variety of military activities and services. And surely Bush, Cheney and Rice are all oil executives before entering “public” service. And some sectors of the American economy like computers or derivatives from the housing market- in fact, the whole financial casino in which ordinary people and some billionaires lose - are not driven by the war in the Middle East.
To which one might respond: there is obviously a larger interplay of economics, military activity, and politics in which there are different, sometimes clashing interests. And one must hope that the prospects for a green economy, dealing with global warming and permitting use of American dollars to help the unemployed, those who need medical care (instead of its denial by “insurance” companies) the students who are our future, and the like rather than the military-industrial economy becomes the American way forward. Even the military is realizing that green security is part of what will save the planet and prevent increasing and increasingly bitter wars. There is, one might say, more than one force in the American economy, and different paths of development possible even securing important elite interests. And one is surely much more hopeful than the other. There is thus a path of arguments, many of which are subtle or complicated. Probably that path will not be foreclosed by remarks, like the one Bruce makes, about silly leftist and rightist formulations.
Just a note on protests and explanations. My friend Dick Miller (philosophy, Cornell) has written a lot on the role of being anti-racist in intuition and action, as resulting in eventual social science insights. He invokes for example, Franz Boas who as a young man sympathized with the German democratic revolution of 1848, then came to America and moved anthropology in an anti-imperial, anti-racist direction (see Fact and Explanation). Vietnam and American racism were easy to protest (moral clarity about the matter was never an issue), hard to explain. The difficulties center on contrasts of social theory and empirical argument, not underlying moral standards. I have come to write a lot about the clarity or objectivity of certain moral judgments and unravel confusions in Marx and mainstream philosophy and social science about these matters out of that original impulse (see my Democratic Individuality). But I am equally interested in how to characterize the possibilities of where we are (many radicals decry too easily Obama, even though as ought to be plain, I share their concerns) and where we might be going.
One last thought. I have a lot of sympathy for those who speak up on behalf of unpopular arguments and take heat for it. When I was a senior at Harvard, I became interested in a kind of Marxism, and offered some radical arguments. In general, I worked harder on my papers than I had before. But my grades went down briefly from As to A-s, including on my thesis on why there was a peasant Communist revolution in China and not a socialist revolution in industrial Germany with Barrington Moore. It was not subtle; one grader commented specifically on a Marxist aspect of my arguments as a “weakness,” As a young professor just having published a contextualist interpretation of Marx’s politics, I had a wonderful political theorist who had been at Harvard at the time and moved on, exclaim to me one evening over drinks at a conference “I can’t believe we produced a Marxist.”
But I might say the reverse: the many teachers at Harvard whom I admire and have grown more deeply to admire over time, were precisely those who challenged me like Stanley Hoffmann or Michael Walzer or Judith Shklar, taught me new things or new ways of looking things, encouraged me to go my own way.
I have amusingly come to defend decency in modern liberalism and conservatism fiercely (in Democratic Individuality, for example, which is, in one aspect, an attempt to highlight what decency is from the point of view of modern political theories. I defended the core of modern liberalism (rejecting slavery, toleration) more clearly than most liberals who, in an era of purportedly value free political science, often entertain views which are doubtfully liberal (and contradict much of what they otherwise believe). During the Bush period, I identified with Scott Horton and Andrew Sullivan, conservatives who stood up against torture and for habeas corpus and the rule of law. Hanging on to what is decent in the United States – by no means a sure thing even under Obama – is an important fight.
I have also come to think that King and Gandhi have a better approach to mass militant protest than revolutionary violence in this era. I am, again, amused to be guided by experience and argument, not by partisanship.
With Leo Strauss for example, I take Socrates and Plato and Nietzsche and Heidegger seriously (there is lots of room not to come to Strauss’s conclusions about any of them) precisely because it takes some courage and thought, around here, to get into them.
In addition, that explanations for protests in the occupied territories are not taken seriously, for example, that Palestinians existed on the land given to Israel by the UN and that Palestinians are humans until just this moment in the United States, does not mean that they are untrue. Israelis need a safe place to live; such safety is only possible with a state of Palestine for, and some justice and toleration towards Palestinians.
In any society, it is good, with Socrates and Rilke, to stand up for questions, to live with them, to try to unravel the twists and turns of argument or insight (poetry is not philosophy), and not to be put off by what is alleged to be just “around here.”
The characteristic of a good teacher is that she is not put off by disagreement and thinking among students, but rather delights in it, raises questions, furthers the argument, helps each student mark out his or her own eccentric path…
Bruce writes:“I think, Alan, that we get to the same conclusion through different arguments. I got on to the Portside website, because I opposed the Iraq invasion in February, 2003. I saw similarities to our Vietnam involvement, which I opposed after 1967 because I understood not only what it was doing to the Vietnamese, but to us as well. Beyond the interests of Eisenhower's military industrial complex and the fantasies of oil in the Gulf of Tonkin and in Iraq (hoaxes that were held by both the left and the right), I opposed both wars because I felt that they were not in the US interest--undermining our economy and putting our military in harm's way. I don't think that we need evil capitalists to explain totally erroneous arguments about our strategic interests. As far as the Israeli government is concerned, I have concluded that they have been off track since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (when I began supporting Peace Now). I believe in the survival of a Zionist state within the 1967 borders, but am appalled by the venal political culture which has flourished in the country since maybe 1948. I remember one short-tail relative who said that she could live in Israel because she just felt she was back in Poland. I do not doubt that the Israelis have real enemies including the Iranians and Saudis and, for that matter, the late Saddam Hussein. I think I'll join J Street. What irks me most about Netanyahu almost as much as his colonialist politics is that he is a chutzpadike shnorrer, an aggressive beggar, who insults US leaders despite $3 billion a year. Finally, as to your reference to the Jewish tradition of prophetic politics, I think that line of thinking can be traced to Abraham Geiger in C19 Germany and to the C20 US Reform movement as enunciated by Louis Hartz and Neal Riemer. I am more often in agreement in secular politics with Reform Jews than I am with members of my own Modern Orthodox congregation, but these latter are guided by an older Jewish tradition based on the Pentateuch rather than the Prophets: 613 commandments which can be extrapolated from the Torah as elucidated by rabbinical (originally oral) law. Maybe my training as a historian of Africa has influenced me. All best Bruce"