Speaking Truth to the Powerless

The peace movement cannot stop this invasion from happening (wait - keep reading!).

This is not defeatist. The US military is larger than the next several countries combined, and no amount of people can simply grind that to a halt. Realistically, no amount of civil disobedience is going to stop this war. What we can do, however, and what we have been doing actively, is to withhold our approval from this invasion. Due extensively to the efforts of tens of millions of citizens around the world, America and Britain are effectively isolated, 'Coalition of the Bribed' notwithstanding.

Kofi Annan has indicated he feels the war is illegal, the weapons inspectors have expressed disappointment that their efforts have been stymied just when they were making real progress, the majority of countries have been skeptical or critical, and about three quarters of the world's population are clearly opposed. The Security Council as a whole has been emboldened not to allow itself to become a lapdog of American policy. The war's proponents have had to make their case through a system of lies and disinformation that has been widely exposed to the ridicule it deserves, even to some extent through the normally compliant US media.

We must continue to turn up the scrutiny, challenge received wisdom, confront propaganda, and reject the logic of violence. Already this is having an effect. America has toned down their offensive under the glare of a critical world, taking extra care not to leave a lot of bodies to be photographed and denounced. The peace movement may only save a few hundred lives, or a few thousand, possibly more. We will never know exactly how things might have been, but we do know that America is treading very carefully now, taking their own "just war" rhetoric to heart.

Is that a success? No, and yes. No, because innocent lives are still being squandered in America's imperial play. Yes, because for the first time in history, we have held a government to task for its crimes in time for the effort to make a real difference. Consider Vietnam. It was years before anyone even noticed there was a war going on. Then, the early anti-war movement was concerned mainly with the thousands of Americans in body bags. It was even longer before anyone gave a thought to the *millions* of Vietnamese who didn't have the luxury of body bags, lying broken in ditches, under the rubble of strafed villages, bulldozed into mass graves.

The result of our efforts is that this war is going to be much more closely scrutinized than other wars in the past. America is under enormous pressure to minimize civilian casualties and make a good show as "liberators" instead of the bullies they really are. That will mean less civilians are killed. Already we see this happening. Yesterday, military analysts were "surprised" by America's strategy, which appeared to abandon the overwhelming "shock and awe" saturation bombing for more closely targeted attacks. The anti-war movement must consider this a partial victory.

I don't believe there's value in trying to destroy the machinery of war. You'll never stop the American juggernaut by pouring sugar into the fuel line of a transport, or stopping traffic on the M1. Sabotage does not work, and only serves to alienate and frustrate the quiet majority of people with no real power. I do greatly admire the dock workers who refuse to load military supplies - that kind of principled resistance has great value, and demonstrates the personal responsibility that is at the heart of civic engagement. But destructive resistance is counterintuitive.

Western tradition holds that evil cannot create, but can only destroy. This is the principle behind the concept of Swords into Ploughshares, which comes from the Bible. ("They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." - Isaiah 2:4)

Remember that picture from the sixties, where a hippy stuffs a flower into the barrel of a soldier's gun? That may singlehandedly have done more to turn people onto the peace movement than a hundred demonstrations. Instead of destroying the war machinery, people were trying to transform it. Swords into Ploughshares becomes Carbines into Bouquets. It was effective because it was peaceful on an interpersonal scale as well as a global scale.

This is a powerful lesson for today's peace movement. We need to be peaceful in our own lives and our engagements, and to pursue peaceful means at street level as well as policy level. Our methods must reflect our values. Our demonstrations must be creative - we must continue to transform public opinion by persuading people that we stand for justice, fairness, and compassion. The strength of liberal democracy is persuasion, not coercion. Coercion is for bullies, for emperors and closet Maoists like the Bush hawks. If we adopt the coercive ideology of our opponents, then it doesn't matter who wins. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Don't give the authorities the excuse to smash you. When they smash you anyway, they reveal themselves as bullies, and lose legitimacy. As America continues to lose cultural appeal, it will need to lean more and more heavily on its military. This looks like a show of strength, but it is actually a profound sign of weakness. Throughout history, empires have fallen soon after they lost the consent of the governed. You can't keep the vassals in check forever with the threat of force - eventually the empire is bankrupted when too much capital is diverted to the military. In an ironic twist, America itself was created through such a revolt of the governed, when Britain lost legitimacy.

As a Canadian, I recognize that Canada is essentially an American vassal, and has been for most of the past century. An elite culture of colonial subservience, first to Britain and then to America, has meant that Canada has never been very good at saying 'no' or charting its own path. That the Canadian Prime Minister felt comfortable refusing to join the American "coalition" says a lot about how American legitimacy has withered even among its own vassals. We need to keep building on that, keep exposing the hypocrisy and belligerence, keep transforming violence into peace, and answering aggression with compassion.

I don't mean speaking truth to power. That's a hollow conceit; the people in power already know the truth. We need to speak truth to the powerless, and in so doing drain legitimacy from the people in power.

Ryan McGreal
March 21, 2003

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