Thursday, January 17, 2008

State Power and Social Movements

Standard service-to-power, state-reverential propaganda has it that progressive gains are doled out by benevolent state power rather than forced out of the state by organized and sustained social movements. A particularly repugnant version of this myth was offered by Hillary Clinton in an interview on Fox News recently when she said that “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do; presidents before had not even tried. But it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives, because we had a president who said, “We’re going to do it,” and actually got it accomplished.”

Hillary should be ashamed. I cannot even think of a more vulgar formulation of the bourgeois argument that inverts social history so egregiously. Apparently Hillary would have us all believe that Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel (the Jewish MLK Jr.), A. Philip Randolph (beloved trade unionist), Bayard Rustin (revolutionary civil rights activist), A. J. Muste (socialist civil rights leader) – in fact, Randolph and Rustin were principle architects along with MLK Jr. of the famous march on Washington, and it was they who rallied the unions – all of the freedom riders, all of the thousands of activists “whose sit-ins and other organizing forced the government to do something about Jim Crow segregation” didn’t really matter or paled in comparison to the awe inspiring benevolent justice of Lyndon Johnson. As Elizabeth Schulte points out, “Clinton would rather identify herself with Johnson, a Southern politician who was unrelentingly hostile to the civil rights movement as he came to power,” than the nameless thousands of activists who risked their lives and well being organizing and resisting in the streets.

Hillary Clinton’s formulation of the standard rank defense of state power is a mythology of history. Such social gains as civil rights were not enacted by some benevolent state power, some southern white gentleman, but rather, the state was forced to make concessions and concede such gains in the face of massive social protest and activism.

When citizens today not only forget that the rights they enjoy were not initiated by the state - having instead been forced upon the state by massive social protest and upheaval - but go even further and mistakenly believe that the rights they so enjoy - which are being attacked all over again through state mechanisms such as the NSA and policies and laws such as the PATRIOT ACT and Homeland security - were initiated by the state, repressive state forces are then free to conduct business as usual without criticism, objection or even an awareness by the people.

Such historical mythologies, only being tenable with a complete misunderstanding or ignorance of social and political history, is an actual danger.

The government does not exist to protect the common person; insofar as it does, it does so because of the generations of social protest and activism which force the state to grant ever more rights and freedoms. Ultimately states exist – especially in the United States as formulated in the constitution – so as to protect the existing order of power relations and class structure. The state, in pursuit of a true people's democracy and social freedom, requires dismantling.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Humanism and the Occupation of Iraq

The January/February issue of The Humanist magazine features an article by Jende Huang entitled “Fighting for Iraq: A Case for Liberation.” Huang’s article presents what amounts to a vulgar defense based upon spuriously applied humanist and Enlightenment values[1] of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This defense is a blight, both morally and intellectually, upon an otherwise consistently eloquent and insightful publication.

Huang argues that “the justification for such an endeavor can be drawn from Enlightenment values as well as common human decency,” the endeavor being “the opportunity to free the Iraqi people from decades of oppression;” oppression which manifested itself through “forced deportations, secret arrests without cause or justifications, torture, political suppression, and murder.”[2] Yet Huang fails to recognize that the correct way to liberate a people oppressed so is not by dismissing international norms and laws[3] and it is not through an unjust, illegal and immoral military invasion and occupation which completely devastates a country and its people, but rather, in the case of Iraq, by supporting movements within Iraq consisting of Iraqis liberating themselves; such as the 1991 Shiite uprising which had the potential to overthrow Saddam, but which the United States did not support, thus ensuring its failure.

Furthermore, in Huang’s view, it appears that the will of the Iraqi people is either irrelevant or negligible, which is bizarre considering his defense of the invasion and occupation is allegedly predicated upon the liberation of the Iraqi people and the desire to develop a viable democracy. The will of the Iraqi people is clear. They want a withdrawal of the occupying forces, which they consistently regard in polling as producing more violence than it prevents; which is understandable for sure, the U.S. military occupation has further wreaked havoc on an already devastated country and people who had suffered through not only the brutal and savage Saddam regime, but also the murderous sanctions regime, initiated by the U.S. endorsed and implemented by the U.N.

Huang does mention the extensive polling of Iraqi public opinion by citing the minority in a single poll who expressed “that the U.S. should remain until security is restored.” Looking at the May 2004 poll sponsored by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, one finds that “roughly 80 percent of Iraqis had ‘no confidence’ in US-led forces to improve security and that most ‘would feel safer if Coalition forces left immediately.’” This sentiment has remained strong and consistent throughout the extensive polling of the Iraqi people. As Kevin Young pointed out in a Counterpunch article on the subject, “[w]ith similar consistency, Iraqis have voiced strong opposition to the presence of occupation forces. In August 2005, 82 percent were ‘strongly opposed’ to the occupation; in Junuary 2006, 87 percent favored a timeline for withdrawal; a year later, in September 2006, 71 percent wanted a full withdrawal by mid-2007.” The “March 2007 poll commissioned by US, British, and German news corporations…found that 78 percent of Iraqis ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ opposed the occupation.”

The will of the Iraqi people is as clear as it could ever be. Were Huang to be at all serious about the liberation of the Iraqi people and were he at all concerned for the elementary tenets of democracy, he might concern himself with the overwhelming will of the Iraqi people.

Huang’s absurd claim that “we” have the “obligation to fight alongside the Iraqi people” is made nonsense by the sobering fact that the Iraqi people fighting are fighting against the occupation and thus the United States military machine. The “obligation to fight alongside the Iraqi people” is made impossible when the Iraqi people are fighting against the occupation of their country by U.S.-led Coalitional forces.

Huang is correct to point out that “the march toward some from of democratic governance” will not “flow” from “the barrel of a gun,” which makes nonsense of his general thesis - a defense of the invasion and occupation as forces of liberation which will allegedly initiate the development of democracy – and supports the accurately applied humanist position, articulated in the pages of Free Inquiry, that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an unjust, illegal and immoral war, that, says Paul Kurtz, converted “the presidency into a bully pulpit for God, which simultaneously masks underlying imperialist economic ambitions while it suggests divine sanction for American policy.”

The humanist and Enlightenment values Huang speaks of, let alone “common human decency,” rather strongly opposes the contemptuous dismissal of international norms and laws and the violent invasion and occupation of other countries for strategic political and economic reasons. The way to justly liberate a people and develop democracy is not with “the barrel of a gun,” but rather by supporting the people and movements working towards liberation and democracy through political and economic support and by rallying the international community around the people's movement.

[1] Values which elsewhere were applied virtually unanimously against the invasion of Iraq, such as in, for one example, Free Inquiry, the magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism.

[2] Huang would have us all forget that the Bush administration and its allies have trampled on habeas corpus, the foundation upon which the judicial system is built, kidnapped suspected terrorists, sending them to Abu Ghraib and black site dungeons around the world in order to be tortured.

It is this government, sanctioned in our name, conducting secret kidnappings, revoking basic civil and human rights and torturing those who have been kidnapped without charge or trial that Huang would have “liberate,” in a moral crusade, the people of Iraq who have been subject to for so long just the same sort of treatment only on a much more sinister scale.

[3] “International lawyers and anti-war campaigners reacted with astonishment..after the influential Pentagon hawk Richard Perle conceded that the invasion of Iraq had been illegal. In a startling break with the official White House and Downing Street lines, Mr Perle told an audience in London: ‘I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing.’”