Wednesday, January 22, 2014

It's time to de-militarize American public policy

It used to be, back in the original days of the Republic, that war (unless you were simply directly attacked) was to be considered the last possible option to be pursued only when all other means had failed.  Even then, a declaration of war and the initiation of force against another nation always carried a sense that we had somehow failed as a nation.

As James Madison wrote (and we have discovered both during the Cold War and the War on Terror):
No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Indeed, the first century and more of American History, for all its other faults, is marked quite clearly by a general reluctance to engage in foreign wars [I will, for the moment set aside ongoing genocidal wars against Native Americans], until during the late 19th Century American industrialists, bankers, and nationalist politicians turned from the Madisonian view of war to that espoused by Prussian theorist Karl von Clausewitz:
War is the continuation of politics by other means.
I would argue that if this is true of real war, it is also true of metaphorical wars--the War on Poverty, the War on Illiteracy, the War on Drugs, the War on Foreign Energy Dependence, the War on Our Political Opponents [sometimes--perhaps often--we have become so used to the idea of metaphorical war that we no longer even need to use the word to evoke the mindset].

The War Metaphor is primarily used to gin up an artificial patriotism or nationalism (both mindsets far more emotional than rational) to support sacrifices in pursuit of "victory" over something (drugs, illiteracy, poverty).

The problem is that both War and the War Metaphor first require the sacrifice of rights, freedoms, and personal initiative to the State, as War Metaphor programs are always inherently authoritarian (top-down).

Thus, in the War on Drugs we have been forced to sacrifice many rights and freedoms, in the War on Poverty we have sacrificed the idea that even poor people are agents and actors instead of merely victims, in the War on Crime we have sacrificed civil liberties for a false sense of security, and in the War on Illiteracy we have sacrificed the traditional local autonomy of schools and teachers in favoring of a burgeoning corporate-governmental bureaucracy.

[And, since war states tend to be self-sustaining, it is arguable that the War on Poverty, for example, didn't really have as its end the elimination of poverty in this country, but the creation of a profitable anti-poverty industry, and the support of the military-industrial complex "by other means."  Otherwise, as per both Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon way back when, we'd simply have used a guaranteed income to eliminate poverty without creating the bureaucracy.  That would still--yes, Libertarians--have been a re-distribution of wealth--but it would have arguably been a far less socially destructive one than the reality became.]

More to the point, the advocates of the opponents of these and other government polices are then forced (at least, so they think) to conceptualize their own activities as revolution or resistance, both of which carry their own implicit violent, militaristic, and even authoritarian connotations.

As I have said before on more than one occasion:  it is time to de-militarize American policy and-especially--grassroots and individualistic efforts to make social change.  It is time to stop using language that implies the possibility of violence against our fellow citizens at the start.

And it is the responsibility of the State to begin doing so before it expects its citizens to do so.  While I am not by any means a fan of armed, forcible resistance, whether it is by "unorganized" militias or Deep Green Resistance, I understand that the War Metaphor was propagated first and foremost by the State, and that the State must disarm its rhetoric before it can expect its citizens to do so.

In Mexico, just across the border, we can see the ultimate tragedy of the War Metaphor playing out:  in Michoacan, the citizens who have been victims for years of the infamous Knights Templar drug cartel (and often their own Federal authorities) organized their own defense forces to take back their villages from the drug gangs.  And when they did so, the Federal government moved in militarily against them.

Conversely, in the storm and poverty-ravaged Philippines, activist Antonio Meloto has started simply organizing new communities through cooperative and essentially non-State action.  His organization, Gawad Kalinga, has focused on creating new rural communities for the formerly urban poor that are self-ruled and focused on economic experimentation and cooperative (but not coerced action).  This PBS interview is worth reading or watching in its entirety.

Meloto's program--ironically and tragically--would probably not even be legal within the confines of the United States, where a combination of bureaucratic anti-poverty agencies, zoning regulations, and licensing requirements would have throttled the experiment before it even got off the ground.

What Meloto's Gawad Kalinga ("Giving Care") can, however, teach us, is the value of different metaphors.

Warlike metaphors--war, operation, revolution, resistance, war room, etc.--give us exactly what they promise:  the power to organize under authoritarian conditions against someone or some thing.

I'm not sure yet what the most effective counter-metaphors are, but I note that giving, volunteering, caring, healing, cooperating, and others along that line have potential.  [It is, ironically, a potential that will have to be pursued with calm, long-term determination, as even our sports and entertainment outlets have become so thoroughly infested with war metaphors and violent language.]

Of course, at the bottom of this whole metaphorical bowl there is a basic difference in values:  War Metaphors work for the Powers That Be because they emphasize top-down models of change, authoritarianism, and coerced obedience.  Cooperative or voluntary metaphors are to be parodied not for their perceived impotence, but because they represent an exactly opposite set of values:  grassroots not top-down, cooperative not authoritarian, and voluntary cooperative rather than coerced obedience.

These are dangerous metaphors, especially in corporate-bureaucratic States like Delaware that pretend to be liberal or progressive, but which are simply propping up a profit-making corporate oligarchy festooned with bright rhetorical posters of good intentions.

No comments: