25 March 2008

The Guilt Trip & the Varieties of Self-Deception

I have just finished reading an essay by Chris Hedges entitled "A Conscientious Objection." You can find it here at Truthdig. I normally admire Hedges and his writing. This essay, however, exemplifies a strain of moralism that is naive about the ways political institutions effect outcomes and, as a result, is incredibly un-selfconscious about the futility of the strategy he recommends. Hedges claims that, for those of us opposed to the war, voting for any major party candidate is irresponsible. In the process, though, he articulates what is itself a dangerously irresponsible position. His mistake is to treat opposition to the war as a moral rather than a political problem. Hedges is hardly alone in this moralism. But since he is smart and articulate, he makes the problems with moralism especially apparent.

Here are the most pertinent bits from the Hedges essay:
“Those of us who oppose the war, who believe that all U.S. troops should be withdrawn and the network of permanent bases in Iraq dismantled, have only two options in the coming presidential elections—Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney. A vote for any of the Republican and Democratic candidates is a vote to perpetuate the occupation of Iraq and a lengthy and futile war of attrition with the Iraqi insurgency. You can sign on for the suicidal hundred-year war with John McCain or for the nebulous open-ended war-lite with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, or back those who reject the war. If you vote Democrat or Republican in the coming election be honest with yourself—you have voted to allow the U.S. government to continue, in some form, the campaign that needlessly kills ever more Americans and Iraqis in a conflict that has become the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history and a crime under international law.

[. . . ]

The war would not end under a Democratic administration. It would drag on until the mission collapsed and the U.S. retreated in humiliation. And when pressed, the Democratic candidates have admitted as much. Tim Russert in the New Hampshire debate asked the Democratic candidates to guarantee that all U.S. troops in Iraq would be home by 2013. No one, including John Edwards, was prepared to make such a commitment. Dennis Kucinich, the only Democratic candidate who opposed a continuation of the war, had been excluded from the debate.

[. . . ]

The Democrats, who took control of the Congress in midterm elections largely because of public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, have continued to fund the war, ignoring anti-war voters. The party, as a result, has sunk even lower in public opinion polls than the president, to a 19 percent approval rating, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Clinton and Obama dutifully lined up with most other Democratic legislators to cast ballots in favor of squandering more than $300 billion in taxpayer money on a war that should never have been fought. And, if either is elected, he or she will spend billions more on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I will skip the rest of the mediocre voting records of Obama and Clinton, which include pandering to corporate interests, failing to back a universal single-payer health care system, refusing to call for the slashing of the bloated military budget, not urging repeal of NAFTA and the Taft-Hartley Act, which cripples the ability of unions to organize, and not seeking an end to nuclear power as an energy resource. Let’s stick with the war. It is depressing enough.

[. . .]

The anti-war movement bears much of the blame. It sold us out to the Democratic Party. . . . If the anti-war movement gutlessly backs pro-war candidates, what credibility does it have? If it fails to support those candidates on the margins of the political spectrum who stand with it against the war, what is the movement worth? Why not be cynical and go home?

[. . .]

The energy and idealism are out there. Nader, in a March 13-14 Zogby poll, took 5 to 6 percent in a race between McCain and either Clinton or Obama. Nader, among voters under 30 and among independents, polled 12 to 15 percent. If the anti-war movement gets behind him and McKinney, if it stands behind its principles, it could begin to shake the foundations of the Democratic Party. It could re-energize itself. It might even force Democrats to offer voters a concrete plan to withdraw from Iraq.

War is not an abstraction to me. I know its evil. It is time, if we care about the state of the nation, to take an unequivocal stand against the war. If Clinton and Obama do not want to join us, so be it. I support those candidates and organizations that fight back. We should, in solidarity, strike with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on May 1 against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should support Code Pink’s refusal to pay the portion of our taxes that go to funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But most of all, we should refuse to be suckered by Democratic candidates who use fuzzy language and will not commit to a total withdrawal from Iraq. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of dead and injured. We owe to those Iraqis and Americans who will die in the coming days, weeks and months. We owe it to ourselves so, at the very least, we can salvage our integrity.”
I share the outrage Hedges articulates. I do not dispute the "facts" he adduces. I do not question his assessment of either Obama or Clinton, the Congressional Democrats, or the bulk of the peace movement. What I find totally incredible is his view that that combination of outrage and fact somehow supports the inference that either Nader (whom I consider an egomaniac wholly uninterested in the work of building a coherent, workable political opposition) or McKinney (about whom I know less so will say less) are in any way viable candidates. (I myself would've voted for Kucinich had he not withdrawn prior to the New York primary.) Hedges asks those who might vote for a Republican or Democratic candidate to "be honest with yourself." (He also lapses into the language of "evil" in describing war, thereby placing himself on precisely the same rhetorical terrain as BushCo. That is a mistake that I set aside here.) I think it is important to turn the charge of self-deception back around on the moralist. Here is why:
Premise 0: The political goal is to end the war. That means we are playing to win, not merely to make a moral or symbolic statement. The latter may make us feel better (by, say, reducing our frustration or allowing us to chastise the less pure) but ending the war is a political not a therapeutic exercise. As such we need to be concerned about the effectiveness of the positions and practices we espouse.

Premise 1: Given the institutional structure of our electoral system a 3rd party candidate has no chance of winning. Even if I prefer Candidate 3, unless I seriously think she can prevail over my least preferred choice (say, Candidate 1), my incentive is to abandon Candidate 3 and vote for my second choice, Candidate 2, in hopes that he can prevail. This is true of every single voter the bulk of whom understand the logic. The result is a two party system in which 3rd party candidates are permanently marginalized.

Premise 2: Even setting premise 1 aside, any viable candidate needs to coordinate supporters, so Hedges and anyone he manages to persuade confront a massive strategic problem - McKinney or Nader? McKinney has at least the rudimentary political structure of the Greens. Nader has only his ego but more name recognition. Given the organizational ambitions of the Greens they would not withdraw McKinney. Given his ego, Nader will not withdraw himself. (Note that this strategic difficulty obviates the predictable moralist challenge - "if only everyone would vote for a 3rd party candidate.')

Premise 3: Either Obama or Clinton is better than McCain. (Let's focus just on the war as Hedges suggests, but even if we looked at other issues this premise holds.) McCain explicitly states that he plans to keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as is necessary to "win" or "succeed" or whatever. Barak and Hilary at least claim that they would like to find a way out.

Premise 4: Even if, contrary to what Premises 1 and 2 lead us to expect, by some miracle McKinney or Nader actually were to win, given the constitutional structure of the U.S. government, it is exceedingly unlikely that they would be able to actually implement any policy, let alone one that required immediate, total withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Conclusion 1: Voting for McKinney or Nader is politically self-defeating. Given Premise 0 and Premise 3, anti-war voters should - however weakly or ambivalently - prefer either Clinton or Obama to McCain. Given Premise 1, any significant (or even insignificant) number of anti-war voters opting for a '3rd party' candidate such as McKinney or Nader diminishes the chances that the democratic nominee will prevail over McCain. Given Premise 2 the anti-war, 3rd party' vote will be split, making the infinitesimal chance (Premise 1 again) of either McKinney or Nader winning the election even smaller. And, even if we ignore all this, there is no way for either of the 'opposition' candidates to avoid the bite of Premise 4.

Conclusion 2: So, while Hedges wants to promote a conscientious electoral strategy - which he contrasts with the irresponsibility of those 'progressives' who might vote democratic - he actually is advocating electoral irresponsibility. We would, by following his advice, be more likely to elect as President a man who has announced that he is intent on staying the course in Iraq.
None of this means we should "be cynical and go home." It simply means that the advice Hedges offers is self-defeating. We need to recognize that the voting booth is a poor instrument of protest. We vote as individuals not as 'the peace movement.' And we vote in a relatively inarticulate way - yes or no on a pre-determined set of options or candidates. We should vote for the best of the viable candidates. And then we should embrace the sorts of direct action Hedges recommends. The war will not be ended by electoral means. Tax resistance, strikes, and other forms of direct action might help end the war. They need to be coordinated, however. They need to be part of a political strategy and not advocated as "moral action" taken for their own sake.* The point, after all, is not establishing our personal moral purity. The point is to end the war.
* Hedges has announced his own strategy of tax resistance in just such moralistic terms here and here.

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Blogger AMEN said...

I must say, I am pleased to read that other thinking individuals are not just espousing the rhetoric of "vote for change". Democracy is not in the booth, it is in the street. That is why the control structure, as it stands, has put so much emphasis on the vote and detracted from the sentiments of protesters and organizers. It scares the hell of them.

Why is that Denver and Minneapolis have both multiplied their police force to an unheard of number, in preparations for the upcoming DNC and RNC? History has shown that, when dealing with peaceful protests, the answer is to militarize and create violence. This allows the media to report the protesters as a fringe element, whose only goal is violent upheaval. Truth is, the police presence, guns in tow, creates an element of violent opposition to the voice of the people, escalating into hysteria.

Last election, when the whole left assembled to vote, not for Kerry, but against Bush, I voted for Leonard Peltier and Jello Biafra, who were on the California ticket for president and vice. Splendid! If the left thinks that voting for Dems is the answer, I ask them to look at the violence created by Clinton's NAFTA and question why he got his "lil' willy" wet the same day he launched the largest bombing campaign against Afghanistan in history.

The bottom line is this, the rich take care of the rich, because it suits their interests. War is a profitable industry and will thus make those who are rich, richer, and will never end if left to the devices of the elite in this country.

I urge anyone who reads this to make the summer vacation this year in Denver and Minneapolis to voice our opposition to the Dem and Rep position of profits over people. It really is our duty.

25 March, 2008 15:04  

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