TUESDAY, JANUARY 25, 2011
by Alan Gilbert
Here is the tape of my keynote speech at the War and Conscience Weekend at the Unitarian Church in Golden on October 23. It can also be downloaded here. In the talk, I explore what I call exemplary activism, the psychology and leadership of radical activists of conscience, like Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, who regardless of what any one in a hierarchy tells them especially that of the Catholic Church, act to save humanity. The challenges of militarism are real; the actions, even if the press does not notice, even if they spend years in jail and even if a New York Times book reviewer regrets the poor, weak wings of a jet on which an 85 year old Daniel Berrigan beat with his ostensibly John Henry like fists…Berrigan could do no other. Seehere and here.
I distinguish these acts from other, more mass forms of political, and often nonviolent resistance, such as the repeated wave of strikes against the war at Columbia, Kent State, Jackson State et al (I took part in the Harvard strike of 1969) and large demonstrations in Washington. These are mass political actions designed to bring the war or war-supporting entities to a halt.
The distinction is not rigid. In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself. This, too, was an exemplary act. But then ordinary people rose up and overthrew the US and French-sustained tyrant Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. In Vietnam, Thich Quang Duc burned himself - there is an eerie photo of his sitting calmly in a meditation position in the flames. This awakened the conscience of the world and inspired many to resist (though Thich Nat Hanh came to the United States, ultimately influencing King’s decision to give his speech on Vietnam on April 4, 1967, because he realized that the way of his friend was not sufficient). Norman Morrison, a Quaker, followed Quang Duc’s example at the White House with less startling though I think still profound results. This is a particularly terrifying form of exemplary activism, one whose sadness there are no words to express.
Often, exemplary activism ends in jail or death, and without sparking the huge movement against injustice for which it is an angry prayer. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, leading a multiracial band of 50 activists, is a paradigm. And yet when the South hanged Brown, the gatherings all over the North and Canada, led by Thoreau and Emerson (Emerson spoke of “the gallows glittering like the cross”), mobilized abolitionist sentiment from below, repelled the slave-owners, and crystallized Civil War. Blue coats marched into battle singing “John Brown’s body lies amouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.” The Battle Hymn of the Republic ingloriously replaces these too honorable and incendiary words. Julia Ward Howe, who wrote it, is a great figure, but the supplanting of one by the other still has this fairly racist significance. What the Battle Hymn says wrongly is that ours is not a republic of freedom upheld by great struggles against the odds to overthrow slavery for which many paid with their lives. Yet at its best as in “John Brown’s body,” America is, “America will be,” as Langston Hughes put it.
I detail the war complex, the “great demonic destructive suction tube at war with the poor” in Martin Luther King’s words. Recently, Deborah Avant spoke at my school of the increasing role of mercenaries, privately manipulated by the Executive in American wars beyond any popular, democratic or Congressional control. Of course, the mercenaries, 7 for every 3 soldiers currently in Afghanistan, have also eaten out the military from within; as I have emphasized elsewhere, the American military is now a privatized shadow. See here and here. But Avant brought up a 2004 Bush escalation which she asked how many people, in an audience of 100, at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, knew about. Not one of us did (not even me, who, a scholar of these matters and anti-War activist, would certainly aspire to know such things). Bush sent 70,000 mercenaries into Iraq without a whisper of public discussion…
I recently spoke with my dean Chris Hill, who had just left the foreign service as ambassador to Iraq in August before coming to the University of Denver. He told me there were 50,000 troops but 72,000 mercenaries still there: a total of 122,000. Outside the corporate press, the figure 75,000 mercenaries has occasionally appeared. But in the New York Times, even last week, the figure of American occupying troops was 55, 000 rather than 127,000. Avant hopes that her research, and perhaps democratic attention will lead to the corporate press responding. She emphasizes the remarkably anti-democratic character of these arrangements; they strengthen what Schmitt and Strauss (see here, here, here, and here) call sovereignty or Fuehrer power – Schmitt on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 – or “commander in chief power.” This is a frightening development in its independence from democratic scrutiny or control. I hope she is right about protest and urge everyone to expose these practices and act against them. But militarism, as King says, is a great weight. It extends, through the war complex even into last week’s dishonest coverage of the somewhat diminished occupation of Iraq under Obama. May this war and conscience weekend be the first of many exemplary and mass acts of resistance…*
*The church did not lend itself to recording. I would like especially to thank Scott Houck and Adrienne Christy for painstakingly creating a good tape.