What's Left

October 21, 2002

The American Majority: Angels, Devils, or Just Powerless?

By Stephen Gowans

The political scientist Ralph Miliband once wrote that any country's population can be roughly divided into three groups. An active minority committed to "exclusion, intolerance and hatred...which performs murderous deeds"; "the great mass of people in all countries" who "may acquiesce in what is done in their name, and may even support it, or turn away with unease or silent reprobation," but would hardly initiate it; and "a minority which actively opposes racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, fundamentalist intolerance and other such evils, often at considerable risk."

"The shape of things to come," predicted Miliband, "largely depends of which of these two minorities will be able to win the battle for the 'hearts and minds' of the larger part of the population."

What Miliband didn't consider was what, if anything, beyond the activism of the committed minority, would rouse the great mass of people to resist, rather than acquiesce, to what is done in their name. He seems to have regarded the majority as largely passive, a tabula rasa on which activitists--one minority reactionary, the other progressive-- would contend to write their view of what is necessary, just, desirable and inevitable.

But if Miliband didn't consider what would stir the majority to resist, Pentagon planners, and the active minority committed to war, imperialism, and exploitation, have.

In an October 19th article titled, "Threat to world peace, or threat to Washington's imperial ambitions?" I wrote:

"It is an ugly, and infrequently admitted truth, that the US public could care less whether numberless foreigners--especially poor, dark-skinned ones--are blotted out by the weapons they produce at the jobs-generating Lockheed-Martin plants down the road, but send home US soldiers in body bags and their indifference to the spilling of blood suddenly evaporates."
This was a reference to Miliband's "great mass of people" who "may acquiesce in what is done in their name," but would hardly initiate "murderous deeds." It was not intended to apply to the minority in the US which actively opposes war and US imperialism, "often at considerable risk," nor meant to imply that acquiescing to the deaths of foreigners, but reacting against the deaths of friends and neighbours and people linked by  culture, language, religion and a common history, is uniquely American. On the contrary, this tendency is found everywhere, in Canada, for example,  just as much as in the US.

Canadians were horrified at the deaths of some 3,000 people on Sept. 11, mostly Americans, and therefore, just like Canadians in most respects. But the bombing deaths of 5,000 Afghans -- worlds away from Canadians, both figuratively and literally -- in the months that followed, were barely noticed or acknowledged. Few grieved, yet most grieved, or at least expressed great shock, over the Sept. 11 deaths of Americans.

Was the media to account for the outpouring of emotion over American deaths, and the callous acceptance of Afghan deaths? To be sure, the Canadian media, as the American,  played up the Sept. 11 deaths while downplaying the deaths of Afghans, but was that a deliberate propaganda choice, or simply the reflection of what the majority (including newspaper editors and journalists) was inclined to do anyway? And despite the media downplaying the slaughter of Afghans, did the slaughter go unnoticed? There may have been heated debate about how many  Afghans were killed, but everyone seemed to sense, at least in some vague way, that Afghans were losing their lives in large numbers. A friend of mine, for example, was expressing her horror at the loss of American lives on Sept. 11. I agreed it was horrific, and added, that the bombing to death of 5,000 Afghans was equally horrific. She didn't deny that Afghans, in large numbers, were killed, but replied, "Well, that's war."
And she was hardly unrepresentative. As thousands of Afghans were being bombed to death, Canadians in the majority went about their business without a peep of protest. And then, one day, two Illinois National Guard pilots inadvertently bombed Canadian troops on a training exercise in Afghanistan. Four Canadian soldiers were killed. And Canadians woke up. "Pull the troops out," they howled. "What are we doing in Afghanistan?" they demanded. "Why isn't George Bush apologizing?" they asked, (though they had never asked, "Why isn't George Bush apologizing for killing 5,000 Afghans who had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or the Taliban?") How is it, then, that the slaughter of thousands of Afghans was unable to move large parts of the Canadian population to protest, but the deaths of four Canadians did?

One could invoke all kinds of psychological theories to explain the inconsistency, but the important point is that it happens. And that it happens has great significance for the planning of militartry strategy: Go for high-altitude saturation bombing, cruise missile strikes, and if ground forces are required, get someone else to do the dirty work; anything that keeps casualities on "our" side to a minimum.

Wars, then, that kill friends and neighbours and people we can readily identify with, are easier to rouse the great mass of people against. The price of losing friends, relatives, and neighbours is infinitely greater than the price of losing 'enemy subjects' with whom we have no connection, personal, cultural, linguistic, or historical. When there's a price to be paid, people ask questions: Are the gains worth the price? The answer is almost always no. But when there's no price to be paid, there are no questions to ask.

It's of some significance then that one strain of opposition to the Bush regime's bellicose fixation on Iraq arises from resentment over how that fixation has drawn attention from domestic issues, which Bush is seen, through negligence, to be allowing to fester.  Seeing themselves personally affected by Bush's playing with his war toys rather than fixing the economy, some are saying, "enough; stop picking on Iraq, and get down to doing something for me."

The campaign in the United States to end the Vietnam War, no matter how much it was said to have been inspired by the majority recognizing the immorality of US aggression, could rely on the participation, and at the very least, the sympathy, of large parts of the US population, because the war exacted an extraordinary personal cost for many Americans. The issue of millions upon millions of Southeast Asians being destroyed, while a motivating force for the most ardent activists, was of little moment for the majority against the loss of friends and family. To this day, oceans of tears are cried, every now and then, for the 55,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam, but, in the United States and throughout the Western world, not a moment's recognition is given to the vastly greater number of mostly civilian Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians who were killed, for having the misfortune to live upon real estate the United States sought to dominate. In other words, the many can be galvanized to act to the extent their personal interests are directly threatened, but only then, and only where the cost is high. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, slaughtered abroad, while engendering campaigns of protest by a minority of activists, will be ignored by the majority. That the Nazi Holocaust happened, with little protest at the time, is, no matter how much Zionists would like to regard the event as inimitable and uniquely related to anti-Semitism, but a single (though particularly horrific) instance of a larger phenomenon: the majority impotently accepting massive injustice committed elsewhere with a shrug of the shoulders and the question: "What can I do about it?" Or "Well, that's war."

It is worthwhile to recall that what fundamentally distinguishes the vast majority of the population from the tiny elite that makes decisions of consequence, is power. Most people have no power, in any legal, formal sense, to affect decisions of great consequence in all but the tiniest domains of their private lives. They have little or no control over fundamental decisions in the workplace, and no legal, formal means of directly influencing economic, social or foreign policy. In representative democracies, it is true that universal suffrage extends to the population the power to choose among competing elites in elections, but the extent to which this confers any real control over policy is, at best, minimal. The majority, for example, has no formal legal mechanism by which it can exert control over whether the country's armed forces are pressed into service, and indeed, no mechanism either, by which it can specify the conditions and limits under which armed force is used. Governments can order the wholesale slaughter of other people, and draft a nation's sons and daughters into the service of this barbarity, with the majority having no legal means of veto, its only recourse being whatever pressure it can bring to bear on its elected representatives. But even that pressure is outside any prescribed, formal means of political participation. The majority can pressure representatives, but it can't make legislators vote in desired ways, if indeed questions of war and the use of the military are even within the purview of legislatures. Some legislatures, as in the United States recently, have effectively ceded authority to the executive branch, while in other instances, the executive branch has arrogated decisions of war and the use of armed force onto itself. In these instances, the majority must appeal directly to the executive, much as a subject people appeals to a monarch.

But what if the majority had formal, legal mechanisms for exerting control over foreign policy, and in particular, the use of the armed forces? Would the US be as richly militaristic as it is today? There is no way of knowing, unless it is tried, but it is significant that an extraordinary amount of public persuasion, to say nothing of outright deception, must be exercised by the elite to make the majority acquiesce to murderous deeds. Most people don't lust for armed aggression; there's little in it for them, and much to recommend against it. Wars, at their root, are almost always driven by the desire of those who start them to aggrandize their own narrow interests, or those of people like them. The trick for the perpetrators, of course, is to make sure its wars don't inconvenience, and therefore, arouse the majority.

Saying that the majority can only be aroused by infringement of its own interests is, however, going too far. The majority is hardly numb to the suffering, and lost lives, of others, especially those perceived to be "innocent." But it empathizes most strongly with those who--owing to some link, either of language, or culture, or proximity--it can closely identify with, the root cause, ultimately, of the powerful outpouring of emotion in the West for the lives lost on Sept. 11, and widespread callous disregard for the non-Western lives lost in the months that followed in Afghanistan. One of the important tasks of the active minority opposed to war, then, is to facilitate the acquiescent majority's identifying with the victims of its government's foreign policy, by showing that despite differences and geographical distance, we, and those who bear the brunt of our government's wars and depredations, are alike. We are, after all, human beings first, and Americans, or Canadians, or Iraqi, second, and, if we could dream, Americans and Canadians and Iraqis, not at all.

The American majority is neither completely moral and compassionate nor completely self-interested and heartless; but it is distracted, lied to, besotted by patriotism, unable to see its common interest with non-Americans, and encouraged to shut up, fall into line, and accept American democracy as the best political system there is. And above all else, it's almost entirely powerless, except in an extraconstitutional way, held hostage to a political system that smiles on those who own and control the economy, putting the instrument of state in their hands to pursue their own narrow interests, both abroad and at home, just as much at the expense of ordinary Americans as anyone else. Replacing the "Bush gang" with more humane trustees of the same system won't change US foreign policy in any fundamental way, or make the majority any less powerless.  The shape of things to come, to borrow from Miliband, will largely depend on whether the majority can be shown that fundamentally reordering the political and economic life of its society, is as necessary as, and far more basic than, turfing rogues out of office.

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