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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Friday, March 17, 2006

    Reflections on Activism in Light of the Third Anniversary of the War in Iraq

    I joined the local anti-war movement in the months before that dreadful evening when we saw parts of Baghdad burst into flames. At a point that was a beginning for me, that same point became an end for so many others. How disempowering it was to see that the government could and would ignore millions of people marching in the streets against a particular policy.

    The government ignored people in the streets because it could, because they banked on the fact that very few people ever intended on doing anything more than marching down a few streets waving signs. The system of government that James Madison and others devised is so clever that the process of electoral politics naturally defuses and diffuses almost any social movement that dares to use that process for its own political ends. Electoral majorities are forged from the lowest common denominator, and those denominators often involve implicit contradictions. In this country, those denominators are represented by the Democratic and Republican parties, and both of those parties are heavily funded from most of the same corporate interests. Yet, even if you resist the lure of the lowest common denominator, is it enough simply to have the right ideas if all you intend to do is walk down the street with a sign?

    I was drawn into this phase of my activism by the war in Iraq, but I must admit that that is a little embarrassing for me. A careful study of American history shows a relentless brutality by the privileged classes against the underprivileged, whether we are talking about the American Indian, the African American, the immigrant, the Latin American, the religious and political minorities, the woman, the worker, and the land, plants, and animals who live inside the artificial boundaries of the United States. Most social movements have risen to combat these privileges have been squashed or re-absorbed into the political fabric. For example, we saw an end to slavery in the South only to find wage slavery throughout the country and a new era of repressive racism. We saw laws to protect unions and workers, but we saw the corporatization of those very same unions and new laws to make many of their previous tactics moot. Today, we have a law against torture, and yet it goes on all the same in Guantanamo Bay, and almost anyone can be locked up in the name of national security. We supposedly have free speech, but the World War I era Espionage Act is still on the books, and almost any of us in the anti-war movement are in some sense guilty of it and could face penalties of up to 20 years in prison. Even before the war in Iraq, I was aware that the United States and every other nation state in the world is in a very real sense built illegitimately, and yet I was under the disempowering illusion that I could do nothing about it and should only work to try and make the best of a very bad situation.

    However, that was no way to live.

    In spite of the fact that the anti-war movement has failed miserably to have any noticeable effect on the war in Iraq, on militarism in general, and in the U.S. has done an abysmal job of connecting the issues of war with the other evils of society which share their causes in the oppressive natures of patriarchy and capitalism, I can think of no other place that I would rather be. What the anti-war movement has given me is a community of support that allows the freedom to reject the cynical view of the world I had before the war in Iraq. That sounds remarkable given that in Iraq alone hundreds of thousands of people have died over the last 15 years; how can I be less cynical? What I mean is that being in a community, especially the local community I share in the DC Anti-War Network, has allowed me the freedom to understand the world’s situation to its logical conclusions. Where I once simply understood and acquiesced to the horrors of the world, I now must confront the connections every single day of my life. And, rather than confining me, such knowledge frees me to understand that every action we take has consequences in more directions than we can possibly understand. It helps me understand that there are no pure actions, nothing that we can possibly do that in some way does not touch the rest of the universe. Seeing the ways that our actions tend to make a mess in almost every direction has led me to believe that enough is enough, that until we convince humans to stop trying to make a better world, that we will not have a better world. In other words, a world cannot be “made”, cannot be “constructed,” cannot be the product of our sheer vanity that we know better. We simply do not know better, and all we know is that other human beings who are acting as though they know better do not since they all rest on the same fallacy that we can understand the consequences of all our actions.

    Yet, far from paralyzing me from action, that knowledge has given me a sense of a set of directions we need to go, namely that we must dismantle and resist anyone who purports to know better, whether it is knowing better for the Iraqi people, or for the poor, or for the environment itself. I find myself as suspicious of good government liberals as I am of rightwingers who offer corporate solutions. I am suspicious of solutions except the one that is deconstructive and dissenting, a voice that says loudly, “No!” And, yet, such a “No!” is not a pure negative, as though there is anything we could ever desire that’s pure in the world, as though there was only one worthwhile color in the world, whether that be the color of a person’s skin, or the color of a flag. In that “No!”, we find a different kind of impulse that is very positive. In other words, how we say “No!” contrasts markedly from what we find ourselves resisting against. When we for instance take action against the war in Iraq, what in fact are we doing? We are marching, we are singing, we are blocking traffic, we are giving aid to the wounded on all sides, we are meeting in the open air, we are strategizing, we are disagreeing, we are knocking our heads, we are feeling frustrated or alive or energized or demoralized or at a loss or in mourning. We are doing all these things and more; that is, we are resisting a particular policy by re-creating a diverse culture of resistance, one whose only answer is in the analysis of the tension of between our process and action and that to which we are resisting against. Do we make decisions from the top like the generals do? Do we oppress those we act with in ways similar to war mongers? Do we profit off of our own resources and thus objectify and demean the world?

    On February 15, 2003, more than 3 years ago, we marched in New York and across the globe, and we felt almost as empowered as people felt disempowered just over a month later. A few days before the war started, we held another mass march in Washington, most of us already deflated by the prospects of an oncoming war. Unlike so many, I could not understand the disempowerment, perhaps because I never believed that what we were after was stopping this war, or because I never believed that what we were doing was hardly enough to stop this war but that we should take heart from the new community of resistance forming all around us. And, yet, in the 3 years, the movement has undergone in many respects a deterioration with only pockets of inspiration. And, yet I have never felt so much opportunity for empowerment as I do today.

    Why is that?

    I believe that we have never fully committed to actions which can successfully turn back the fear and disempowerment that keep so many people suffering, and I sense that people are finally beginning to have a conversation about taking steps that go beyond a commitment to parade with signs in the street. I see that local empowerment is spreading, and that groups are more inclined to see that their fate rests in their own hands. Fighting against the war goes far beyond fighting against the policies of your own government; it goes to fighting oppression everywhere, especially when that oppression exists within your own movement – United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER take note.

    Years of activity and networking and making connections both with issues and with people across the country have helped us in the movement develop not only a class consciousness but a concrete consciousness of each other. Resistance has a face, and by that I don’t mean Cindy Sheehan. There are growing numbers of us who are beginning to understand not simply that we are not just after an end to the war in Iraq but that we are after an end to the corporate patriarchal capitalist system that exists everywhere, and nothing is going to scare us from stopping it. You may throw us in your prisons, but we will organize there as well. And, if you dared to kill us, we believe that we are now strong enough to raise new numbers to fight back.

    I see it in the people power campaigns that are developing to destroy Caterpillar and Halliburton; in the willingness of demonstrators to go to the homes of those who aid war criminals; in the willingness to accept the fact that we are all culpable in this war and that no person, least of all us in the movement, are immune from criticism and ultimately direct action to make things right. If the troops must face a moral culpability for firing shots that they could refuse to take, we face a moral culpability for sitting at home and doing nothing or marching in the streets under the pretense that we are “doing our share.” Our failure to take direct action to fight against human pretentiousness is the worst kind of complicity of all. We have no right to be disempowered.

    Of course, any direct action will create consequences we could not possibly fathom, many of them undoubtedly negative. So, what makes our action different? What is so great about giving up the pretense of making a better world if we will ultimately do things whose effects we cannot possibly understand. Our actions are different and better in at least one crucial respect, in that given the two visions, one with a clear focus and one that is so out of focus (we are the ones who are out of focus and seeking to smash the lenses of humanity), it is we who have the only possibility at all of affirming lively interaction, since we no longer seek to control our resources and our outcomes, but merely to destroy those things that cause us to think we can lord over resources and outcomes (when that’s impossible). That is, we are one step closer to the sheer complexity of reality, and if we are asking why that is so good, we have asked ourselves a question that is self contradictory from the start. But, rather than go into that now, let’s phrase it as a choice. Would we rather act as brothers and sisters, or would we rather have a parental relationship, even knowing that there’s no hope of controlling the children you raise? Isn’t there something fundamentally better about giving up the fiction of control when you can have the reality of myriads of one-on-one relationships?

    I may have seemed to have drifted from the anniversary of the war in Iraq, but I have only resisted the urge to focus exclusively on Iraq. People are still dying. They are dying in as great a numbers now as they have when the war first began, whether we define that war as beginning in 2003, 1991, or before the beginning of human history. The suffering there is real; I cannot fully appreciate it. I cannot understand what it is to have my head blown up, or my legs ripped apart, or my families destroyed, or to lack basic needs, or to be scared that every step I take might be my last. I live with so much privilege that I can describe this war and this movement in the terms that I have. Yet, all of that leads me to one place, that we must destroy this privilege as soon as possible.

    People here in DC will be marching, they will be taking direct action, and they will be trying to make the connections through community service actions. All of that ultimately will lead to questions about how effective we are. I am glad that we are asking those questions. Now is the time to remember, to empathize with the suffering, and to get to know each other better so that we can think hard about the steps we need to take so that the government can no longer ignore us, so that they try to repress us and ultimately fail at that repression.

    We have to see this occasion in those terms if we are to stop the forward progression of our brutal history. In all we do, let’s think about how we can stop war, and what we can do to say, “No!” There is no better world, no peace, and no art until we think hard about how to destroy the pretense of a better world, peace, and beauty. That’s the very positive message I will take to the streets as we take our next steps together this weekend.

    Jim Macdonald

    Washington, DC


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