“Liberalism itself has failed, and for a pretty good reason. It has been too often compromised by the people who represented it.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
Every election season, veterans and their families are used as political pawns. During the Democratic National Convention in Philly, the Khans, the mother and father of a Marine Captain who was killed in Iraq, conveniently filled the role for Hillary Clinton and the Neoliberals. At the Republican National Convention, Patricia Smith gladly took the stage for the Neofascists and talked about the death of her son and the non-scandal that is, Benghazi.
In the meantime, anyone who opposes U.S. Empire is shit-out-of-luck when it comes to presidential elections and the two major parties. Here, we should commend Gary Johnson and Jill Stein for remaining principled in their views surrounding foreign policy, militarism, torture and surveillance. They’re the last of a dying breed.
My transition from obedient Marine to antiwar veteran was swift. In 2004, while deployed to Iraq, I enthusiastically cast an absentee ballot for John Kerry. Four years later, I was protesting Obama and the Democrats at the DNC in Denver. It didn’t take long to figure out that the Democratic Party was a party of Empire and Capitalism.
Unfortunately, 2008 was the last time a significant number of antiwar activists protested Obama’s foreign policy. Yes, a small number of Americans made a fuss when Obama first threatened to bomb Syria, but those protests were driven by partisan and sectarian interests (the first and only time I saw Republicans and Communists working together). Furthermore, those protests weren’t sustained in any meaningful fashion, so the energy quickly dissipated. As everyone now knows, Obama eventually launched military strikes in Syria and the U.S. continues to bomb the country today.
The millions of liberals who enthusiastically marched against the Bush/Cheney regime have remained utterly silent during Obama’s reign in the White House. And they should be ashamed.
Why are liberals and progressives so unprincipled when it comes to U.S. Empire? In my thinking, a large part of the problem is ideological: the majority of liberals and progressives, including many who supported Bernie Sanders, fully identify as Americans. They’ve bought into the notion that the U.S. is a special nation that enjoys a special place in our geopolitical reality. Liberals perpetuate the myth of American Exceptionalism and fully endorse the concept of American Nationalism. As a result, these ideologies are employed in their rhetoric and reflected in their bankrupt policies.
In the future, any antiwar movement that hopes to be successful, must undoubtedly challenge these myths and ideologies and remind Americans of our brutal history. When I think of American Exceptionalism, I don’t think about the moon landing or the U.S. Constitution, I think of exceptional madness: the genocide of North America’s indigenous population, slavery and 200 years of Empire.
When I see an American flag, my blood boils. Technically, I’m an American. But I don’t self-identify as an American. I’d rather identify as a global citizen or simply a human being. Maybe some of this sounds petty, as the flag is simply the symbolic representation of U.S. Empire, but to me, and many millions around the globe, it represents murder, plunder and extreme hubris. Again, nothing to be proud of, and surely nothing to defend.
Another fundamental problem in the antiwar movement was individual careerist interests. Let’s be honest, many people failed to protest Obama’s militarism because it wasn’t economically prudent to do so. In short, it was bad for peoples’ potential careers in the world of non-profits. Many of the veterans and antiwar activists I met during the Bush-era now work for any number of liberal NGOs. The revolving door of professional activists and paid consultants dampened any potential radicalism that could have sprouted from any number of organizations we worked with. We were told, “Don’t offend the donors!”
Eventually, I sat on the board of directors of an internationally known antiwar organization. I remember having a conversation with my fellow board members about fundraising. At the time, we were having financial difficulties and donations were sparse. Consequently, the board decided that we should conduct a fluff, top-down campaign to attract funding. Instead, I proposed that we should call our donors and explain that the antiwar movement has disappeared and that we’re having difficulties keeping members active and engaged. You know, the truth. I was told that’s not how NGOs work and that I was immature and uneducated about the topic. You know, just another working-class buffoon.
Today, that organization is a shell of its former self. Hell, I’m not sure if the organization even exists outside of a few art projects and street theater performances. Conventions are held, but they’re no more substantive than a high school reunion. It’s sad and unfortunate.
I don’t recall these memories or provide these reflections with any pleasure. To be honest, it breaks my heart that this is the state of the antiwar movement. Peoples’ lives around the world depend on those of us in the U.S. to create movements capable of stopping Uncle Sam’s imperial madness. So far, we’re losing. And in many ways, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
I live in a Rust Belt town in Northwest Indiana, hence most of the people I interact with on a daily basis are not radical activists or political organizers. These folks might attend a local political or cultural event, or even vote in the primaries, but they’re not full-time activists. They don’t spend their days reading Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy (though they should). These are people who wake up (early), go to work (usually for shit pay), come home (if they have one), eat some dinner (usually fast food or frozen meals) and watch Netflix or ESPN. Their realities and interests are dramatically different than the people I met in the antiwar movement, particularly those working for NGOs.
Several years ago, at a strategic workshop in Chicago, we spent the first two hours of each day talking about pronouns. That’s right, pronouns. Now, is there anything inherently wrong with discussing gender identities? Of course not. But we were attending a strategic workshop for an antiwar organization, not a lecture on gender and civility.
It became clear to me that Identity Politics had infected the organization. But where did this ideology come from? San Francisco, of course.
Many of our members attended anti-oppression workshops, where they talked about privilege and collective liberation. Of course, 95% of the people conducting and attending these workshops were white, upper-class, highly educated and firmly isolated from reality. Yet, here they were,back in Chicago, telling me about privilege and questioning whether or not I was truly a good person because I didn’t understand what cis-gender meant.
If anyone reading this essay ever wondered why more working-class and poor people don’t join antiwar organizations or attend leftist political events, well, now you know. Because the Left is a fucking weird place.
Instead of educating people about the connections between militarism and austerity, Empire and Capitalism, workshop facilitators had people talking about pronouns and doing breathing exercises. I guess that sort of shit might fly in Portland or San Francisco, but not in the Rust Belt.
Speaking of the privileged and highly educated, isn’t it interesting that the people who argue for interventionist policies are often people who have the proper educational and cultural pedigree? Here, I’m thinking of the Rachel Maddows and Charlie Roses of the world.
The Humanitarian Interventionist isn’t a steelworker or a bartender at the local pub. Why? Because that bartender or steelworker’s son or daughter could very well end up fighting those interventionist wars abroad. They have some skin in the game, unlike the many professional-class liberals and societal managers who make absurd arguments about the merits of American Exceptionalism and hegemony.
One of the more interesting dynamics of the 2016 race has been Trump’s double-speak on foreign policy. On the one hand, Trump makes absolutely insane statements about nuclear weapons and so forth. On the other hand, Trump occasionally sounds like an isolationist and/or anti-interventionist.
Now, do I believe a word Trump utters? No. But what’s interesting is the fact that large portions of the GOP base, primarily white, working-class and poor people, are no longer buying what Uncle Sam is selling. Their sons and daughters have been ravaged from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more veterans committing suicide than died overseas. The people who live in Small Town America are the Americans who’ve sacrificed the most since 9/11. And for all the wrong reasons: namely, nationalism, revenge, greed and power.
To me, this antiwar sentiment, however jumbled, unprincipled and unsophisticated it may be, is something to tap into. Without question, large swaths of the American public, especially Sanders and Trump’s supporters, are fatigued from almost fifteen years of non-stop war.
The next step is to use this sentiment to organize and mobilize a new antiwar movement. The only way this will happen is if the Left drops its pretentious bullshit and learns how to talk to regular Americans without getting offended. And that includes some of Trump’s supporters.
While the most Americans were focused on the Khan family and Donald Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut, Obama launched his latest attack in Libya. The White House claims the U.S. will regularly drop bombs for the next month. Unsurprisingly, there was no debate, no congressional approval. The U.S. is bombing Libya and there’s nothing anyone can say or do about it. That’s the sad reality we endure.
Meanwhile, groups such as Vets vs. Hate, and opportunistic liberals, protest Trump’s bigotry but remain utterly silent when it comes to Obama and Clinton’s many war crimes and atrocities. Liberal groups have little to say about the links between U.S. Empire and Climate Change. Refugees aren’t even mentioned. Afghanistan is an afterthought. Libya and Syria might as well not exist. And not a word about civilian casualties.
Moreover, Vets vs. Hate reinforces the false notion that veterans are heroes. Yes, plenty of veterans sacrificed, but not for “democracy” or “freedom.” We killed and died for oil companies, geopolitical interests and banks. And the Democrats share as much responsibility as the Republicans.
The U.S. is the richest and most powerful Empire in history. And for the last 50 years we’ve been killing peasants around the globe. That’s honorable?
In the end, people who want to dismantle the U.S. Empire – Libertarians, Greens, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists – had better get our shit together, drop the sectarian nonsense, find our courage and form organizations that aren’t beholden to wealthy donors or the NGO complex because we’re running out of time. And neither the planet, nor humanity can endure another decade of liberal antiwar activism.